THE FORGOTTEN MASTERPIECE: THE RISE & FALL OF KTM’S RC8 SPORTSBIKE – PART 1
At the turn of the decade KTM manufactured one of the most striking and surprising superbikes on the market but in a few short years it was gone. What happened to the RC8?
Wolfgang Felber leans back in his seat. The former racer and lead technician has had a hand in many KTM projects and was a leading figure in the company’s emphatic first step back to MotoGPTM with the Moto3 KTM RC 250 GP in 2011. Talk of the RC8 – an initiative that he led and steered – brings a certain air of satisfaction to his demeanor.
KTM’s first superbike was initially (and surprisingly) unveiled as a prototype at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show. “When we fight Japan, we want to fight them in their own office,” claimed current R&D Head Philipp Habsburg upon the bikes eventual launch. “The reaction was very enthusiastic … ”
Prior to the crisis that slapped the global economy towards the end of the decade, KTM were on a firm path to expansion and diversification (something that they would eventually resume, streamline and accentuate after the financial fallout). Part of that process was creation of model that would enter a sportsbike market that was still popular and seeing motorcycles like Yamaha’s YZF-R 1, Suzuki’s GSX-R 1000 and BMW’s S1000RR inspire the fray.
It was a bold move for the brand that had opened eyes with the SUPER DUKE road bike in 2005 and was a significant player outside of the offroad core of the company. “We started work on the RC8 thirteen years ago and KTM was more of a niche supplier then,” explains Felber.
“I remember back in July 2005 when the project was green-lit for development,” he continues. “As with most initial new projects in KTM there was not really the in-house specialists at the company, so we developed the bike while also hiring and training the people to get it done.”
KTM allegedly sunk 10 million euros into a philosophy that a smiling Felber recalls as “a 1200 v-twin ‘moped’!” But, as with most innovations that see the light of day at Mattighofen, experimentation had started before that dramatic unveiling in Tokyo and well before a young designer (now Lead Creative at the Kiska agency and the power behind the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R and latest KTM models) by the name of Craig Dent would be awestruck by the sight of the RC8 on the front of a British weekly motorcycling newspaper.
“When we made the first 950cc V-Twin engine back in 2001-2002 we had already done a very rough Superbike prototype together with a German race bike manufacturer,” Felber recounts. “We used them as our workbench. Then there was another prototype that had even more of an RC8 design about it and was built in 2001. Then there was also the show bike built for Tokyo. During the RC8 development there were constant questions about why it was taking so long! But the bike did not officially begin life until the summer of 2005, so two-and-a-half years before it was confirmed to come into stock production.”
The RC8 was a product of ambition, and the technical architecture was advanced but it was also a victim of misfortune and, crucially, timing. “There were three unlucky things,” says Felber. “One was the sudden death of one of our chief engineers on September 2, 2006. A big shock. It was a big hurt for all of us, and of course the project and engine development. The second thing was the economic crisis in 2008; the bike was being produced at the same time that everything started to crash. The third thing was that – around that time – instead of eight or nine suppliers to the segment there were five and the market shrank dramatically from one day to the next.”
KTM were winning 125cc and 250cc Grands Prix but MotoGPTM was unstable with changes in the capacity limit between 1000cc and 800cc and eventually a CRT sub class. Superbike and the production regulations seemed a better arena for KTM’s first track weapon. Of course, the RC8 was not conceived merely as a pro racer’s tool or a rich person’s toy.
The RC8 offered a preview to the ‘slight of hand’ that the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R would eventually deliver: In other words it looked and promised to be one thing (with the SUPER DUKE it was this image of being ‘The Beast’) but ended up being something a whole lot more. “The RC8 was not designed just to be a WorldSBK base,” says Felber in the confines of a meeting room in the old Race HQ in Munderfing. “We wanted to have a perfect road bike as well. That was the beginning of the philosophy towards it and that’s why the motorcycle is roomy and adjustable. It was more of a racebike by accident finally.”
Despite the step into the unknown and the difficulties that 2007-2009 would bring KTM did not ease-off the gas (Felber: “there was always good support.”). The investment remained steadfast and apparently almost 50 engines bit the dust to get the RC8 just right. 8000 models would make it off the assembly lines, into the packing crates and the hands of curious customers.
The R&D crew funneled a stream of torque into the rider’s right hands. Even into some of the best in the business. “I was surprised how good it was as a road bike when we made a comparison test,” says former Grand Prix winner Jeremy McWilliams. “It was able to hold its own really easily, especially with the chassis. It was one of the easiest bikes you’ll ride on the road or the track.”
There were other redeeming features. “I wanted to set a new benchmark for manufacturing quality for KTM but also in general,” says Felber. “If you look at the welding on the frame and how the wiring harness was made ‘invisible’. There is not a single piece of improvisation on that bike. We spent a lot of time on it. The other thing I’m proud of is the technical layout and how you can work on the bike. It’s not such a big deal for the average customer who will leave it in the dealer or garage for any maintenance or repair but I was a racer and I worked on all my bikes by myself. I recently changed the frame on my own RC8 from black to orange and I did it in one afternoon. I think mechanics like to work on that bike.”
And of course there were those looks. Felber: “I knew we were making something powerful. Kiska’s work is always polarizing with their styling. In fact, it is not just styling; it is a statement. If you see the RC8 nowadays it is like it’s a bike from 2025. I love that approach. It is not a bike for everyone. It was polarizing: Both for the look and the technical layout with that under-slung exhaust system that made it appear totally different, and the small and narrow tail section.”
To be continued…