|Sacha Lakic Design|
The DB3 Mantra is not one of those machines. Nor was it ever intended to be. The Mantra represents one of Bimota's bigger missteps, an attempt to crack into a wider market that failed to win over many fans. It was expensive and saddled with some of the most controversial styling ever put into production. It was also one of the most useable real-world street bikes ever produced by the company, a fact lost in the unending stream of negative commentary that has dogged the Mantra since it was unveiled in 1994.
Bimota in the mid-1990s was apparently on a roll and producing more units annually than anyone would have dreamed they would back in the dark ages of the 1970s and 80s, when they were selling more all-assembly-required chassis kits than complete motorcycles. This growth was product of circumstance as much as good luck and clever management - by the early 1990s the company had stretched their resources to the limit in the development of their flagship Tesi platform, which had been met with a resounding "meh" amongst buyers who were happier to puzzle over the workings of the hub-centre front suspension from afar than to actually put money down on what was a horrifyingly expensive engineer's wet dream. General Manager Walter Martini spearheaded a new strategy that sought to expand the model range with a series of conventional (at least compared to the Tesi) machines that would be easier and cheaper to build, allowing the company to broaden its share of the market and increase production to hitherto unfathomable levels - which, in Bimota's case, meant more than 1000 units annually.
From 1993 onward Bimota appeared to be growing exponentially. New models powered by Ducati, Suzuki and Yamaha engines were proliferating and the company appeared poised to step up from boutique constructor to proper (albeit small-scale) mass production. But all these machines remained hard-core sportbikes with varying levels of superfluous performance on tap tempered with sometimes lackadaisical assembly quality and poor setup. This wasn't out of character, of course, considering that Bimota had founded its reputation on dedicated race machinery and uncompromised, barely-streetable sportsters that often required some significant fettling to perform properly. Bimota management decided that continuing to pursue what Bimota did best, with all the baggage it carried, just wasn't going to cut it and that a new bike with more relaxed dynamics was needed to round out the expanding model range. It would be Bimota's take on a sports roadster, a laid-back machine that would give their patrons a more comfortable ride while ostensibly retaining the traditional qualities that Bimota was known for (superb chassis, top-notch components, third-party engines, quirky designs, and questionable reliability). In other words, they needed to sell more bikes and some compromise was needed to appeal to a new group of buyers.
Styling for the new machine was entrusted to Sacha Lakic, a Yugoslavian-born designer who grew up in France. Lakic was no stranger to motorcycle design and had earned a favourable reputation designing avant-garde concept machines for several firms. He had started his career in the automotive realm, working for Peugot under the legendary Paul Bracq, designing his first two-wheeled project following his move to the Alain Carré design studio in 1986. It was there that he penned the Axis 749, a reworked Yamaha FZ750 that was built in cooperation with Toulouse-based Boxer Bikes, with whom he would collaborate on numerous future projects.
|Sacha Lakic Design|
|Sacha Lakic Design|
Following the success of his work for MBK-Yamaha, Lakic founded his own design studio in Paris and soon began offering his services to other companies. Executives at Bimota had taken note of Lakic's work for MBK and hired him to help with the forthcoming DB3 project. He was essentially given carte blanche by Bimota; he was told by the company's marketing manager to design something "spectacular" to make the DB3, which would be the first naked Bimota, a true head turner. The only constraint was that Lakic would be limited to the bodywork and styling, and was required to use a chassis designed by Pier Luigi Marconi, Bimota's gifted long-term engineer/designer and father of the Tesi.
This was a new move on Bimota's part, who had traditionally relied on in-house designers like Marconi to provide chassis and aesthetic design for their machines. While Marconi would once again provide the bones of the machine, Lakic was entrusted with developing the styling. It would be touted in the press as the first of several machines to be designed by Lakic for the boys in Rimini, but ultimately it would be the first and last machine he would design for Bimota.
While Bimota had made its name producing steel tubular spaceframes, later moving on to twin-spar alloy beams starting with the YB4, the DB3 would use a new frame design that shared its architecture with the BMW (Rotax) powered BB1 Supermono that would ultimately be introduced alongside it. Oval-section aluminum tubing would be welded into a trellis that cradled the engine in a semi-stressed arrangement, with the swingarm pivot supported only by the crankcases of the air-cooled Ducati engine. The resulting frame weighed a mere 11lbs, with enough rigidity to have never elicited any complaints from riders of the DB3 (or the later DB4 which shared the same underpinnings). That swingarm was a mixture of square and round alloy sections, triangulated up to a straight-rate rear monoshock that was offset to the right side to clear the rear cylinder head of the 90-degree twin.
Front suspension was courtesy of the Bimota-signature 43mm Paoli conventional fork, matched to an adjustable-length Paoli shock out back. Chassis geometry was virtually the same as the steel trellis-framed DB2 despite being an entirely new design: 54 inch wheelbase, 24 degrees of rake, and 3.6 inches of trail. 17-inch Marchesini three spoke alloy rims were shared with the Ducati 900SS which contributed its engine to the design. Brakes all around were naturally the mid-1990s Italian staple of Brembo Goldlines, with four-piston axial-mount P4 calipers biting 320mm cast iron full floating Brembo discs up front and a twin-piston caliper with 230mm rotor at the rear.
The engine selected for the DB3 was an unmodified air-cooled 904cc SOHC Ducati twin that would have powered the contemporary 900SS, the same unit that had been put to widely-acclaimed use in the DB2. In Bimota guise the evergreen 92x68mm twin was fed by a pair of 38mm Mikuni carburettors with a proprietary airbox design. This configuration produced a claimed 86 hp and 66 lb/ft of torque at the crankshaft (typically in the 70 hp range measured at the wheel), which was as near as dammit the same numbers that Ducati claimed for the 900SS. Anyone who complained about the powertrain should have directed their ire towards Ducati, not Bimota. Or whoever was in charge of spec'ing the carburettor setup at the factory.
Lakic ultimately provided three sketches to Bimota: the first was a machine based on Tesi architecture, the second was a "radical" design based on Marconi's DB3 chassis, and the third was a DB3 with more conservative styling. Bimota selected the "radical" DB3 sketch as the basis of the Mantra. Lakic began shaping his creation at Bimota, earning the nickname "Michelangelo" at the factory for his use of modeling clay to sculpt the mockup.
Revealed in December 1994 at the Cologne motorcycle salon, the DB3 Mantra (named after the Sanskrit term for "instrument of thought" or some such vague translation that would provide fodder for awkward analogies from moto journalists for years to come) sparked a lot of debate. It was, and still is, one of the most controversial motorcycle designs ever made. While there was nothing unusual about the chassis or engine, Lakic's styling was so far beyond what anyone expected that it tended to inspire either applause for its bold design, or complete revulsion towards the unusual forms - and not much in between. The Mantra became a prototypical "love it or hate it" design that would reveal the inherent conservatism prevalent in the motorcycle industry. Regardless of the reactions it inspired, to Lakic and Bimota's credit the Mantra was not something that would go unnoticed.
The 16 litre fuel tank was split into wings that flanked the frame, ostensibly to lower the centre of gravity and provide more room for the long-runner downdraught intakes lifted from the 900SS while retaining a low silhouette. The electrical system ran off a pair of 12 volt batteries wired in parallel, mounted above the front cylinder behind the oil cooler with the intake runner passing between them, as Bimota felt that a single battery was inadequate for the application and two smaller units would be easier to package into the design. On historical models it was a curious Bimota signature to run two 6 volt batteries in series to power a 12 volt system, so the Mantra seemed to update the odd practice. A tiny glovebox was incorporated into the rear portion of the tank ahead of the seat. Clip-ons were mounted above the top triple on four inch risers to give the requisite upright seating position. Topping off the cockpit was an ostentatious burlwood dash panel set with an analogue speedometer and tachometer shrouded in carbon fibre binnacles. Despite the presence of a mere two cylinders, Lakic saw fit to install four exhaust canisters. A swoopy bellypan and body-coloured rear hugger completed the abbreviated bodywork, which was neither entirely bare nor fully enclosed, offering a glimpse at the mechanical workings of the machine while still maintaining some limited wind protection.
|Note the carbon fibre panel, which replaces the typical faux wood dash.|
"I think that Bimota based their decision of this style on the potential media impact more than for commercial reasons. Bimota never planned to manufacture a large quantity of this machine, their production capacity was quite faint at that time. But as usual, whether a big production or not, there are compromises required in order to optimise the price of the bike. Overall, the Mantra was very well accomplished and gave honour to the brand, however some of the technical choices weighed down the exterior style in my opinion, whilst I perfectly understand this technical approach.
My first deception came with the installation of a Yamaha FZR600 headlight (for the production version and for certification in the US), two times bigger than the light of the prototype exhibited in Cologne. The light of the prototype allowed for a much more swooping and dynamic upper line. The other disappointment came from Marconi's decision to manufacture the body by rotomoulding, thus allowing for lateral fuel tanks on both sides (there was a small trunk in the middle). It was a great idea in itself because this lowered the centre of gravity considerably (the bike was extraordinary to ride, so agile and dynamic) but the problem is that the body had to be inflated on both sides in order to attain a sufficient volume of petrol. This resulted in a much wider bike than I had envisaged. Some other finishing touches were very disappointing too, such as the handlebar mount, and the dashboard in walnut - quite a bad choice for this machine. I believe I was too young and not experienced enough to assert my authority."
In addition to Marconi's adjustments, a few minor details were altered in the transition to production. The glovebox in the tank was enlarged to make it large enough to contain something bigger than a passport. The racy full-floating cast-iron Brembo discs up front were replaced with more forgiving semi-floating stainless steel items (shared with contemporary Ducati models). The walnut dash was switched out for cheesy burlwood-patterned plastic straight out of a mid-1990s Japanese sedan that would presumably hold up to the elements a bit better than genuine wood. Aside from these modifications Lakic's wild styling was more or less intact and production began in earnest in September 1995.
Reviews were remarkably favourable towards the new machine, aside from the expected jabs at the weird styling - in spite of numerous short-sighted critiques of the styling, no one denied that it wasn't a head turner and that the Mantra often attracted the attention of curious onlookers on every ride. Marconi's chassis offered excellent manners, with good composure from the Paoli components for most testers even if the front forks lacked adjustability and damping was on the firm side (an optional fork kit was available that offered titanium-nitride sliders as well as preload and compression adjustment). While the design of the low-hanging exhausts and footrests precluded supersport lean angles, the impressive 400-ish pound wet weight and DB2-esque geometry allowed the Mantra to be far more capable on a twisty road than its fashionista-baiting looks would have suggested. It was also comfortable, with a sensible seat and high clip-ons that allowed riders to adopt a neutral seating position with a slight forward lean that was neither streetfighter nor roadster, but something in between. An optional windscreen mounted over the instrument binnacles offered enough protection from the elements to satisfy most riders, but disturbed the clean sweep of the front fairing and made the front end appear awkward. Comparisons to the Ducati Monster were inevitable, and most agreed that the DB3 offered superior handling and comfort if you were willing to overlook the massive gulf between their suggested retail prices.
Aside from the usual Bimota quirks (electrical faults, beautiful components let down by occasional lapses in build quality, and a complete indifference to ease of repair or access to the inner workings of the machine) the Mantra appeared to be the best all-rounder had Bimota ever put into metal. In regards to the aim of building a Bimota you could conceivably ride ever day, the mission was accomplished - if you could ignore the exorbitant price tag, anyway. In 1996 you'd part with $19,000 USD to get your mitts on a Mantra, with the price coming down to a mere $17,000 the following year. This was about 15% less than the flagship SB6 and YB11 models that it shared showroom space with, making the DB3 a veritable "entry level" machine for the brand. But it was still nearly double the price of the 900SS it borrowed its engine from. You did get a three year warranty in exchange for your hefty outlay, back in the days when most Japanese brands would give you a year before they'd tell you to pound sand. Not that you'd ever want to deal with Bimota's parts and service network, especially the mid-1990s Bimota's parts and service network.
The well-proven Ducati powerplant offered its usual likable character, a smooth and midrange-focussed powerband and pleasant six-speed gearbox marred only by the notoriously grabby, noisy and fragile dry clutch. The DB3 exhibited the same breathless feel at higher revs that would be familiar to anyone who has ridden a carburetted air-cooled Ducati, the result of retaining the extra-long intake runners supplied on the SS and Monster that boosted torque but starved the two-valve heads at higher engine speeds. Regardless of any deficiencies in outright horsepower, the 904cc mill served the Mantra well and offered the sort of relaxed real-world performance that was suitable for a sporting roadster, offering a top speed in the neighbourhood of 125 mph.
Lakic himself has a succinct summary of the Mantra and its dynamic qualities:
"For me the Mantra was a Naked Sport Tourer. And it really was like that - an extreme efficiency both on small mountain roads and through long curves in very high speed. None of my friends that all rode the Monster (same engine) could follow me in either of these two terrains.
Regarding the style, I got my inspiration from the Italian history of motorbikes. I was particularly attracted by a bike called Rumi. This bike influenced my work on the Mantra, but there are very few bikers or journalists who have been able to guess my source of inspiration.
The driving position was very particular. According to the type of road or the type of driving (cruising together or aggressive) it allowed the driver to be very close to the handlebar (almost like a supermotard) and perfect in 'speed' position, the very short wheelbase and light weight allowed for all sorts of acrobatics."
In hindsight many have remembered the Mantra as a flop that was universally reviled, but the reality is that they sold quite well - by Bimota standards, anyway. 454 examples would roll off the line, which sounds insignificant until you realize that the company only built 665 DB2s, which was a far more revered machine in popular conception. Their most prolific model of the 1990s was the SB6, which was churned out to the tune of 1744 machines, which was exceptional - most of their machines could scarcely have been expected to clear 500 units in total. Lakic notes that there was never any intention to build thousands of Mantras given that Bimota's production capacity was miniscule at the time. A radical, attention grabbing design that gave traditionalists aneurisms wasn't such a hindrance when you consider that Bimota never expected to build more than a handful of them. Such is the beauty of small-scale production: you can build whatever the hell you please without worrying about appealing to the lowest common denominator of the focus groups.
By 1996 priorities at Bimota were beginning to shift. The Tesi was viewed as an albatross that sold in too limited numbers to justify continued production, and it was discontinued in 1997 by Walter Martini to focus the company's meagre resources on the forthcoming "BB 500" project, which would ultimately become the disastrous V-Due 500. The Mantra was discontinued in 1998 but its legacy lived on in the well-received DB4, which clothed the DB3 chassis and powertrain in more conventional bodywork as a replacement for the discontinued DB2.
In most respects, the Mantra achieved the aims set out for it, and unlike some of Bimota's more obscure models from the same period, it has been well remembered - if not well respected. Lakic's quirky styling was mostly viewed with curiosity at the time, rather than the revulsion that seems to have become the common reaction since then. Lakic sought to design a machine that was a sort of "naked sport tourer" that would be comfortable and capable of pulling away from most machines on a tight backroad, and given the (mostly) positive tone of period reviews it seemed that he achieved this aim with the aid of Pier Luigi Marconi's excellent chassis. Unfortunately, Bimota and Lakic learned a hard lesson in the unrelenting conservatism of the motorcycle market. The fine qualities of the Mantra and the shift it represented in the company's priorities remain forgotten amid the sneers of smartassed riders and reviewers who preferred to shit on the styling rather than evaluate the qualities of the machine.
|Sacha Lakic Design|
"Many people have criticised the Mantra. It is not a cool experience, obviously, but it made me realise a few things:
A: One has to carefully experiment with the style of the motorcycle.
B: Bikers are generally very conservative.
C: The majority of the bikers have a very short memory in terms of bike culture.
Regardless, it all made me smile when BMW a few years later released the F650 Scarver, on which the front part clearly had been inspired by the Mantra…
It's all a good experience and Bimota remains a brand that deserves a much greater reputation."