Chetan Shedjale is senior motorcycle designer at Harley-Davidson. Born in Sholapur, Shedjale had a major role to play in the Street 750. Shedjale has considerable design experience, including working with Massimo Tamburini at Cagiva.
Shumi: Your thesis project was a design centre for a two-wheeler manufacturer and now you worked at a two-wheeler design centre. What did you put in your thesis that you now know was a bad idea? What was in your thesis that was a fantastic idea that Harley-Davidson should still do?
Chetan: In those days, when I did a thesis, it was more like a student project. I didn’t know what a clay area was, but I had heard of it. So you are just drawing a block of space, but actually the way the system is, with lifts and all the stuff for clay, it’s very, very different and I didn’t know that. Nobody would ever allow you to go there, to that last end. Obviously, in those days, Hero, for instance, was a small (player, then), so it was doing it in clay, at a small scale, but it’s all jugaad-panti. And compared to Harley, where you have five lifts and all of them are always full and people are working all the time, so it’s very different.
Shumi: The problem of access to designers is a constant problem. If I was doing project like this, a two-wheeler manufacturer would not give me access to its designers even if it was to understand the structure in which they work.
Chetan: See there are certain zones which are highly confidential. Even in our building, for example, Mohnish [Nagrani, Harley India’s communications whiz] is an India office employee, but he’s only allowed up till a certain limit. If he has to be inside, we will bring him in, otherwise it stops at ‘thank you very much for your input, we will talk with you later’. And it’s a very tight community. Like we are only six designers, Frank [Savage, lead designer on Street; manager Industrial Design at H-D] 750 is one of the managers, there are two other managers, a couple of others in administration – those are the ones who have a look at it every day, but the rest of the world, only once in a while. Even all the engineers – 500 of them working with me and they have to ask for permission from me to come inside. That’s very natural.
Shumi: So we were at the part where you had finished your internship and you had gone back to architecture school, figured out what you wanted to do. . .
Chetan: By the time I had completed my thesis I had figured out that this is the field I would like to work in – that’s transportation design. I didn’t know it would be motorcycles, but I had a feeling about. Ideas kept on projecting in my mind – that I’d like to make a scooter of such and such kind and would start finding small things to start it, like a junkyard scooter thrown away. I would start talking to my dad. He is kind of the backbone of my whole career path and somewhere, he felt he couldn’t do certain things because all of us are from an artistic family. He couldn’t pursue it because of financial reasons. See it’s simple. When you’re from middle class family, you can’t realise those big dreams very easily. . . by the time, we figured out that I was going to do this (transportation design), that was always in discussion. And I took the NID (National Institute of Design) entrance exams. From the first preliminary exam held all over India to the next 25 to 30 levels which take you to Ahmadabad where they have a workshop – everywhere I started excelling. All the other guys were still struggling wondering ‘why are they asking me to do this,’ but I would say ‘I’m happy to do this.’
And then the results came out – I was among the top ten guys. We were admitted to the master’s programme in Product Design. At that point, I felt that if I was standing among these guys at that level, there was a chance that I could figure out a way to pursue transport design. Because it was an industrial design product.
So the hunt started and in those days, Internet was so costly – an hour was Rs 50 and the speed was nothing. So you were struggling to get those addresses, correct email IDs – you had to learn communication style of basic normal things. So it brought me up again.
I got an admission offer letter from Conventry and Scuola Politecnica di Design, Milan. The finances came in again. My dad had to give up his life savings and it was a risk because we are an Indian society. Here it’s very different. People criticise you. Everyone was coming up to my dad and saying ‘ what are you doing?’, ‘your son is crazy,’ etc etc.
But my dad told me, “You want to go? You go. . .”
So Milan was a better option in terms of finances and the master’s programme was for a year and I decided to go ahead and go it.
When I went there, I found out that the whole education programme was in Italian. . . It was a totally new country. It was the first flight of my life – everything was a first. I arrived with 50kg of luggage and a sack on my back with dollars in it. Well, this lady who’s now a good friend of mine, used to be the admin and she said, “Don’t worry, you will settle down. It takes time.”
I think in three months, I had started using Italian words – the easy ones. By the end of the year, I would be presenting myself in Italian to Giugiaro. School was so big, they’d started bringing people – all the big industry guys and it was fun because you’re meeting Lorenzo Ramaciotti and Pininfarina’s son. So you are in this whole design arena. We were like 15 students in one class and each of us was battling for that first job, which was the biggest task.
Fortunately and unfortunately, but I guess it was a good thing, I came in contact with Salvatore Cacciatore. He’s not with Fiat anymore. He and Roberto Giolito, the guy responsible for the Fiat 500 project, they both saw my sketching skills etc and they said, “We will hire you but we can’t pay you.”
And my dad said, “We’ve risked so much this far – we can do the same for a little more time.”
Fiat was good experience. I was with 25 different students from all over the world who had come for an internship. So again, you’re battling for your place and your survival and existence because (even though) I was bringing Indian culture, I was Europeanised already. The competition is hard. And I was in cars, but I wanted to do motorcycles.
Shumi: I agree with you. . . cars are no fun
Chetan: So I met with John Salavini. He used to be a Honda designer and manager, and he used to work in Rome. He had just quit the job and he was at home. Through the Motorcycle Design Association, I got hold of him because he was speaking English and Italian. Because he was born in America, he was able to speak English. He said, “Come down, I’ll check out what you have.” When he saw my work, he said, “You need a little bit of guidance. . . you are going vague. That’s why you are not able to find the right spot. . .
This summer, I’m not going anywhere for vacation and I’m going to ask one of my friends to help us out.”
So these two guy’s – John Salavini and Filippo Corticelli (who used to be the Yamaha scooter division manager for the Milan studio) – they both literally whacked me [into shape]. I was really bad at certain things. So at time’s they’d just take my hand, for instance, and teach me how to draw an ellipse. They taught me and made me ready for the market. My portfolio was ready in 90 days, which was the best work I’d done for me at that moment. I would cry to myself thinking ‘what I used to do and what I am doing is way different.’
They also helped me with addresses and connections to companies in Italy and around the globe. Filippo wrote a couple of emails to many other people whom he knew, saying ‘this guy is good but you guys decide.’ That was my turning point.
I was at Fiat talking to a couple of guys when my phone rang and a lady who spoke a mix of English and Italian said, “I would like to talk with Chetan?”
And I said, “Speaking.” And she said, “Would you like to meet Massimo Tamburini? I’m calling from his office and it’s based in San Marino.” And I said, “Yes, I can.” because I knew who he was. I knew what he is for the industry.
Then, the following Thursday I went to meet him. It was a turning point for my life because he saw my work and he didn’t say anything except for two words in Italian (because he never spoke English and he tried to stay away from journalist who only spoke only in English), “Lavorare con me (Would you like to work with me?)”
Someone like him, a god, was asking me to work with him.
I said, “Yes.”And he asked how much I was getting paid in Fiat. I said, “I am working for free.”
He said, “That’s wrong. You’re skilled. You need to get paid.”
And I said, “Okay!”
And in three months, I signed up with CRC and I started working. For 5 years, I worked with him. He retired and I moved away from CRC. It was cause of a financial crisis. CRC had started shrinking. That’s where the next struggle part came in.
You know a lot of people in the industry, you speak different languages fluently, you have connections and roots in this country which is booming. So I started looking at connections where I could not only be hired as a designer but also receive a little bit of respect, because I already had worked with someone, who is respected.
So Raffaele Zaccagnini, used to be the director of design at Husqvarna, which used to be run by BMW. He said, “We want to hire you but it’s a very small project and we want you to be there as a manager and run the show for this whole thing.” It was a pilot thing which later on was known to as the Husqvarna Terra and Strada 650. So that was my project when I started. I kind of led it through its initial design phase to a clay mock up. And then by the time I was working with them, Harley called me and said they’d sent me an email. The email just said, “Why don’t you call me?” So I called him back and he said, “We want to meet you. Would you like to come to Milwaukee?”
So again it was a turning point. I was on my first flight to USA. I went there and it was a risk again because I already had a job which was going just fine. Again my father comes in the discussion and says, “Go. Let’s see what happens.”
Well, the first thing that happens there is I’m sitting in the studio, presenting myself. Frank and the other guys are sitting there was this one chair that was vacant. And in comes the old man, Willie G Davidson, and he sits beside me, looks at a couple of my sketches and says, “I don’t know what these guys are thinking, but I think you should work with us.” And he walks away.
This was the same thing that happened with me with Tamburini. He is the father of my career. The day he had passed away, I was so shocked that the whole day I couldn’t even talk. That’s how connected I was with him. By the end of his career he took retirement and the same thing happened with Willie.
I still adore him (Willie). He’s incredible. Every time we met, we discussed not only motorcycles, but everything.
So that day, he’d just said that while walking away and Ray [Drea, chief stylist at Harley-Davidson] said, “Well, the big guy has spoken, so what do you think?” Then there were some issues related to contract and logistical things, so we sorted those out and then they showed me the project. That was the Street. So that’s why I call it my child. They said, “This is why we wanted to hire you. You can speak Italian. You can walk around India and you know the suppliers very well. This is a big project for us. The company is banking big on this, so we want your support.”And they hired me as a contract guy so I had to fly every few days – 15 days I was in India, 15 days I was in Italy and 15 days in Milwaukee. And sometimes, the supplier was in South Korea, so I was there. It was fun and challenging and it turned into a whole lot of things so now it has five years (with Harley-Davidson). Four years as an employee, one year as a contract guy.
I think the proud part is being part of a company which is 111 years old. Can you imagine how big that is? Because when you carry that Bar and Shield on you, you are very much responsible for everything . . .
Shumi: So what are you working on right now?
Chetan: I can’t tell you that
Shumi: So the Street 750 turns out to be a really nice motorcycle ride, but the constant criticism of the motorcycle in India has been that it’s not finished as well as you’d expect from all the other Harley-Davidsons. A lot of wiring is visible, the axle nut is a particular sore point cause it looks like an axle nut and somebody forgot to finish it. So how does a design process lead to a point where the engineers get to play with the product so much that the designer’s eye is shut out?
Chetan: There is a very simple formula over there. There are tradeoffs and that’s what happened with the Street. As always, the designer will think out of the box. Then we bring it down to where it can be a production bike. In the mean time, we were dealing with different issues also. We had to keep the customers in mind, those who wants to buy a Harley but also don’t want to spend. They want it to be within their reach, to be inside the brand. So it was one of the important things to keep in mind while taking certain discussions. But we have been progressing in different ways and the customer has been king. So we do take feedback.