Greg Brew is the Head Director Of Industrial Design at Polaris Industries inc., and as such, is overseeing all designs for all products the company is making. With his talented team he is the man who designs the Victory motorcycles and just created the all-new Indian Chief. He is also a very passionate motorcyclist who, after-hours, enjoy building his own custom motorcycles (watch the video at end of feature). In an exclusive interview, Greg Brew answers my questions and reveals the creative process that led to the conception and production of the first Indian model by Polaris.
Cyril. Polaris acquired Indian from Stellican (Indian Motorcycle of Kings Mountain) in April of 2011. Do you remember when your learned about it, who told you, what were your first reactions?
Greg. I heard about it in-line at the cafeteria from Scott Wine, our CEO, when we were considering buying it. Initially I was skeptical about how it would fit together with Victory and whether we could support such a campaign with 2 brands. That was mostly because I didn’t understand how much effort and money Scott was going to commit to the cause. It quickly became a beautiful thing once I saw we were going “all in”. After that I was just concerned whether I could pull it off.
Cyril. When was your first creative meeting regarding Indian? What was said about what would be your assignment? What was your time frame?
Greg. The first real “Indian meeting” was organized off-site in a hotel between our Medina and Wyoming facilities. We had all parties at the table, marketing, product management, engineering, design. We hammered out the basic outline for what became the Chief. It was there that I gave an engine presentation and brand presentation that set out what we wanted to do for the first design. We also did a drawing of the motor on a big piece of paper that described the V angle, the head proportions, push-rod tubes, exhaust placement, right side drive. Wish I could find it now… We did a bit of work before that, early on, looking at different ways we could get to a bike quickly. There were many ideas about re-use of Victory components and how it would speed the development process and reduce costs. That off-site meeting is where we really decided that it would not be right to do anything other than a stand-alone bike that was purely Indian.
Cyril. Tell us about the process by which Polaris concluded to go first the Indian Chief route, not the Scout, not the Indian Four or other platforms? Did you belong to this decision making process? What are the marketing rationales for such a decision?
Greg. God those were fun discussions. At the beginning there were many different opinions and options, everything was open as far as possibilities. As you know there are lots of really smart guys at Polaris Industries, Inc. that know tons about bikes. I learned a lot. Plus we can build anything you want as far as powertrain, frame material, whatever. It was a time of open possibilities, big discussions, debates, campaigning behind the scenes. We had a huge discussion at our dealer meeting in Las Vegas. The whole team was there. We talked about an Indian 4, about a V-twin, about the American motorcycle. We had a few beers in us so it was pretty animated. It was very Polaris. It felt to most of us that the best path to acceptance was to do a Chief first as a v-twin.
Cyril. Can you summarize the first creative briefing you received to conceive the all-new Indian Chief?
Greg. I’d have to say that it was more a series of confirmations rather than a standard brief. I built a proportion study bike to nail down the overall size. I wanted something I was calling “majestic but manageable”, I felt the King’s Mountain bike at a 68” wheelbase was too long and that the bike felt too tall and top-heavy as well. I wanted a lower, more horizontal feel much like the historic bikes, and something where you wouldn’t feel like you were taking your life in your own hands if you had to get gas in a gravel parking lot. But I still wanted it to be impressive, one thing the size did for the KM bike was to wow people. I still wanted that. We also knew that it needed to be “historically informed.” It needed to recall a Chief. It needed to show we understood what was important to the brand, that we knew what to do with it. I also mentioned above the presentation I did for the engine. It can’t be stressed enough how important it is to get the damn motor right. If that doesn’t work then all bets are off.
Cyril. Please, describe your creative team, number of people, responsibilities and how you managed the creative process.
Greg. There’s a bigger team to do all of Polaris’s products but for bikes it’s a small team. We mixed it up a bit by bringing in one outside consultant to compete as well. All the creative team reports directly to me and since I’m busy and distracted most of the time they’re all very self-sufficient. We do a lot of group critics to refine the 2-D designs, we all vote on which ones are best (you can’t vote on your own work) to down-select to the final design. They’re an amazing team, I fear one day people will see how little I actually do and get rid of me! Once we’re into the clay modeling the process is si
milar but with less people involved. There’s only one full-size model with one designer, plus a team of clay modelers. we still do reviews with the whole group and you’re working a lot with engineering by the time you’re in full-scale. Depending on how far off-base I think the design may be going I spend time with the designers. If I’m not around much, you’re doing good. If I am, you might be missing something. The work we do is never easy, most of the stuff Polaris makes leads the industry so everything gets attention.
Cyril. Was the creative process any different from the one you usually use for the elaboration of new Victory models? If yes, why?
Greg. No, our process is pretty well understood. We follow the same steps no matter whether it’s a Snowmobile or a Ranger.
Greg. I no longer sketch on vehicle programs and haven’t for at least the last 15 years of being a director, that’s why there are designers. Personally I think you better have done what you needed to do by the time you’re a manager. If you’re still competing with your own guys, something’s wrong. That said the design staff is free to work as they wish, traditional sketching, Photoshop, etc… Our process is tailored to Polaris’s needs. We try to get into full scale modeling quickly so we can give accurate info to engineering as soon as possible, but we are not very sexy in terms of CAD, animations, virtual models in the creative phase. We don’t want to spend the money or time on that. We look pretty old fashioned except for white light scanning of models and killer CAD surfacing work.
Cyril. Did you work knowing what should be the final retail price or worked first without any financial constraints?
Greg. I suppose someone in the company knows what it should cost. For most of the program I could care less and that’s how it should be. Do you really need to be thinking about that when you’re trying to bring back a brand like this and do the next Chief? I know our engineering director will kick over when he hears that…
Greg. We always have multiple versions, we generally pick the final one from 4-5 concepts. At the end we do just one full-scale model, I’ve often wished to do more than one model but it actually helps drive the decision process when you have to focus on one design.
Cyril. Was one full mock up of the bike made by you for presentation and approval? More than one? Or was the Chief approved on sketches before going to engineers?
Greg. We pick the final direction from drawings then we go to full size clay model. Sometime I would like the luxury of making more than one model for consideration but Polaris is a hard driving company and we go fast, straight to the final design.
Cyril. Did you conceive and design the overall shape of the new Thunder Stroke 111 motor?
Greg. Yes, there are 55 man months of industrial design labor in the engine, we made multiple clay models and thoroughly sorted out the design before we went into CAD. It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever worked on. I’m not a nostalgic guy about stuff we’ve done. I’m always ready for what’s next but God I love that motor.
Cyril. Did you pre-test some designs? If yes, explain the process used. By focus groups? Only with current Harley riders, which age, socio-demographics?
Greg. We do qualitative focus group work, with large scale detailed drawings. Some was with Harley riders, some Indian, some aspirational. Age brackets were driven a bit more by who could afford it so they tended to be older.
Cyril. How many people have a final say on a brand new model? Can you mention their names and official titles?
Greg. Normally not many people are involved in the process at Polaris which is one of the reasons we are so fast to market. This time we had a lot of additional interest due to the high profile of the brand. Managing all the input was challenging.
Cyril. We all know about the usual “conflict” or “struggle” between creative people and engineers. Was that the case? Any design or feature where you had to be extremely convincing, or any concession(s) you were obliged to make? In both cases, which aspects of the design, for what reasons? Design, cost. feasibility?
Greg. I can be a real a-hole when it comes to this, and yes there were fights to get things the way we wanted. However, if everyone just goes along and there’s no friction, no discussion, then there’s no heat and thus no cooking. Passion for the profession means heat and we have a lot of passion… If we aren’t’ pushing and the ideas aren’t crazy then there’s no advancement. That said, if there’s no engineering, support and buy in, then it’s all time-wasting and there’s no bike, no production, no quality, no reality. Engineering totally stepped up and we got their A-game. There were seriously shit-hot motorcycle guys on this program. Amazing.
Cyril. Are you already working on new Indian platforms? Which ones (I know you will not answer this one…). For 2015 model year?
Greg. Oh yeah. You ain’t seen nothing yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do to build a full Indian brand. You can bet we aren’t even close to done yet.
Cyril. We go together for a long day ride. If I ask you to choose in my garage between a 1946 Indian Chief and a 1937 Scout, which one do you pick?
Greg. I’m lucky enough to have spent some time on a 46’ Chief, so I might pick the Scout. But I’d want to know the story behind each one. The first Indian that I really bonded with was a 46’ and the guy that let me ride it bought it in 69’ and it was his daily driver. That bike was so much a reflection of its owner, it was amazing to ride it.