Why the sudden interest by German luxury carmakers in premium motorbike brands? Daimler unit Mercedes-AMG may be acquiring a minority stake in Italian motorcycle brand MV Agusta, but don’t confuse this with the purchase of Ducati by Volkswagen’s Audi unit.
The Ducati deal was more about providing VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech with another high-end collector’s item.
Case in point: Planting a souped-up Desmo twin engine in VW’s XL Sport concept car at the Paris auto show was a weak attempt to highlight synergies. Overall, the Ducati deal had only the thinnest semblance of a strategic logic.
AMG’s approach is entirely different.
The tuning unit's aim is to come out from under the shadow of the Mercedes three-pointed star and sharpen its profile as a independent designer of high-performance vehicles symbolized by the AMG GT sports car.
To achieve that it is partnering with MV Agusta in sales and marketing -- a win-win solution as both want to be seen as creators of combustion-driven fine art. And that’s exactly where AMG should stop.
Outside of Asia, motorcycling is a hobby pursued by dedicated enthusiasts, not a mode of transport, and the industry is fundamentally different from carmaking.
It is one of the few bastions left largely untouched by stringent EU carbon emissions rules. In fact, fuel efficiency comes a distant third to horsepower and acceleration when developing the ideal motorcycle engine.
There have been dozens if not hundreds of motorbike brands -- most developed by purists for purists -- that have lasted only until their start-up capital was exhausted.
Very few have transitioned into successful industrial-scale businesses. This includes MV Agusta, which has struggled despite its glory days in the 1960s and ’70s, when motorcycle racing legend Giacomo Agostini put the brand on the map.
After disappearing for many years, MV Agusta was revived in 1992 under Italian motorcycle aficionado and entrepreneur Claudio Castiglioni, who founded the Cagiva brand and at one point owned Ducati as well.
Designed by Ducati 916-creator Massimo Tamburini in his Centro Ricerche Cagiva, the MV Agusta F4 helped ensconce the brand firmly within the exclusive upper echelons of the motorcycle market.
With its distinctive quartet of tailpipes emerging from under the seat, the superbike has been ridden by such onscreen personas as Batman in “The Dark Knight” and Trinity in “The Matrix Reloaded.”
But in the search for a partner with deeper pockets that could finance an expansion of its lineup that was limited to just the F4 and the Brutale naked bike, MV Augusta was sold to Harley-Davidson in 2008.
In the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse, however, a new Harley CEO quickly decided to off load MV Agusta. But even at distressed prices, there were no takers.
Still bristling from the ill-fated purchase of Castiglioni’s Husqvarna brand of off-road motorbikes, a senior executive at BMW's motorcycle unit said at the time that MV Agusta was being passed around like “sour beer.”
Eventually it wound up back in the hands of Castiglioni family in 2010, and is now run by Claudio’s son, Giovanni, after the patriarch passed away a year later.
Since its return, the brand has enjoyed another rebirth, introducing a new family of three-cylinder motorcycles led by the F3 and recently adding the Rivale supermoto and Turismo Veloce sports tourer as it looks to double motorcycle sales to 15,000 by the end of 2017.
Castiglioni even spoke last year of listing it on the stock exchange. Perhaps with the help of AMG as partner, not owner, both can find lasting prosperity.