One of Europe’s youngest motorcycle manufacturers is Portuguese, and as James Patterson discovers on a recent visit to the AJP factory, they are driven by passion, where everyone is taken seriously.
In a small industrial compound outside of Lousada, a stone’s throw from Portugal’s winding Rota do Romântico, AJP Motorcycles is working hard to write itself into its next chapter. Perhaps it was the call of that Romanesque route, which wends through the sloping hills into the Sousa Valley and beyond to the great Trans-Portugal Trail, that inspired AJP’s recent turn from racing to touring. Until recently, its entire 33-year history has been focused on racing bikes, machines good enough to have garnered victories in both the Portuguese National Enduro Championships and the Portuguese National Off-Road Championships. For that reason, it is strange upon entering the AJP factory to immediately be met with a tribute to long-distance overland travel.
Fixed on a stand in the factory entrance is a PR4 240, a precursor to the AJP PR7 Adventure model, its fairings and metal luggage cases plastered with stickers from European and African countries. Still dusty, it looks as though it’s only just returned.
“It went all the way to South Africa and back without a single maintenance issue,” says Renato Furmann, AJP’s sales and marketing director. He’s clearly proud of the tribute to the bike that began AJP’s foray into overland travel. “Right now, there are riders in South and North America, Asia, Australia. All over the world. As long as they’re happy, we’re happy..”
Those words, it seems, could be written on the walls of the factory. Certainly, they seem to be taken to heart by the employees. It’s a small team (only 28 people) and a stroll around the facility has the feel of touring a serious passion-project and not one of only five independent motorcycle manufacturers in Europe. To a person, the workers are friendly and approachable, and like any dedicated enthusiasts, they are prepared to explain why their particular fragment of responsibility – be it electrics, fuel, or suspension – is the most important.
Pausing in his work on an exhaust pipe, a welder shows me a chassis he made for the latest PR7 model. I lift a piece of framework and comment on its lightness. He smiles. “It can always be lighter,” he says, hinting at ambitions for a bike that, at 164kg wet is already lighter than most models in the same market. It’s that spirit of improvement that permeates the factory’s atmosphere.
“A model might go through dozens of adjustments before we’re happy with it,” Furmann explains. “When dealing with technical issues, we listen to not only professional riders, but to regular customers too. Nothing is ever more than three people away from a solution.” Impromptu, he admits that sometimes fine-tuning can become an obsession. The latest PR7 650 model, for example, went through fifty-two motor maps over a period of three years, with each map taking over 100 hours to adjust.
“We take the time because we take customer observations to heart,” he says. “If someone has a problem, we do everything to make sure we fix it, and that way fix it for all future models.”
Not that anything feels over-engineered. The newest PR7 Adventure more than fulfills its aim to combine the grit of an enduro machine with the practicalities needed for long-distance trips. A large fuel tank (17 litres) provides distance capabilities, while its innovative position underneath the seat creates a low center of gravity that makes the bike feel like it consciously wants to remain upright. Also new on the upcoming PR7 is a standard-issue tablet screen set behind the over-under fairing. Providing all the navigation, weather, and internet capabilities any rider could need, it is the instigation of something that will no doubt be stock standard for other brands in years to come. These aspects are designed to please both the off-road and overland enthusiasts, although the bike is undoubtedly happiest while chewing through dirt or clawing its way over scree. “There is nothing fancy here,” Furmann says. “These are simple bikes that are user-friendly and ready to hit the trail.”
Despite branching into the world of overland travel, AJP has not forgotten its roots. There has been no compromising the power and torque of their machines – the PR7 650 commands sixty horses, a real thoroughbred. Furmann tells me that the French police force has been using the AJP PR4 240 model before transferring to their heavier Yamahas and BMWs so they can ‘learn how to actually ride’.
There is a Dickensian idea of a factory as a soulless assemblage, a place of secretive and repressive goings-on. Those certainly exist, but there is another type, no less rigorous, where products are manufactured out of respect for the process and a desire to produce good workmanship. I have worked in both, and it was obvious to me that here in Lousada, AJP is one of the latter.
The key to that conducive environment, it seems, is a meshing of minds. Workers tell me they are free to experiment and use their specialized knowledge to optimize their particular piece of the machine. In a room crowded with computers and boxes spilling wires and tubing like the guts of an eviscerated automaton, an engineer shows me the process of creating a cowling, from its design on a computer, to 3D-printed models and molds, to the final cuttings using a digital saw. As I snap a few photos, and joke that I may be a spy from another company, Furmann laughs. “You can take all the photos you want because the secrets aren’t there,” he says, tapping the computer before moving his finger to the engineer’s head. “They’re here.”
The nerve at the center of the brain is António Pinto, the founder and spearhead of the company, and the A of AJP (his brother Jorge provided the J). “He’s an artist,” Furmann says of Pinto. “If he can imagine a motorcycle, he can build it. Watching him is like watching a master at work.” There is observable truth there. Watching Pinto, scruffy and red-eyed, as he paces the floor of his office, talking and occasionally throwing his hands into the air in wild movements, it took no stretch to imagine him before an easel, stabbing at a canvas, the faint smears of grease and motor-oil on his work clothes exchanged for oil-paint and gesso. One gleans the process of creation in his glance, and, when he discusses the latest batch of motorcycles, in the brisk dismissals and approvals that accompany deep knowledge. He carries himself with an intense razor focus, one that hones and vivisects details – a quality that no doubt helped him become a seven-time Portuguese National Enduro champion. He still tests all the prototypes himself.
At lunch, Pinto distractedly picked over his tripe while chatting on the phone. “He’s anxious,” Furmann said, explaining that a forthcoming model was in Madrid for testing. The tests for racing bikes are rigorous, and the results of homologation mean the difference between selling and going back to the drawing board. After a year of tests, three models of a new SPR line, a 250, 310 and 510, are due in early 2020.
Talking about these three new models, plus the PR7 Adventure line, steered the conversation towards Euros. As larger motorcycle manufacturers buy up smaller manufacturers across Europe, the market share for smaller producers is squeezed. As with all small businesses, AJP’s bottleneck is cash. “We certainly won’t say no to investors,” Furmann admits. In the past, AJP has partnered with GALP energy and Casal motorcycles (a now-defunct Portuguese producer) and has ventured into producing synthetic motor oils. Those deals are in the past, and now, operating alone with their small team, they still roll out 1,000 bikes every year.
“80% of the bike is made inside the factory,” Furmann said (the engine is built by SWM in Italy). “And 100% is designed here. It’s one of the few completely European bikes on the market. It’s a quality machine, so things take time. Time and money. It takes two to three million Euros to produce a new model.”
It’s hoped that the PR7 650 will break into the adventure and touring market and alleviate some of that pressure. It’s already predicted to be their most important model yet, allowing them a foothold in a market where reliable and quality machines shine. It seems likely – in a market saturated with weighty, costly machines that are more adapted for fast-paced highways than more adventurous outings, there is plenty of space for lightweight, capable bikes like the PR7: Bikes that can jump, ride at 100 mph, and don’t require three people to right. As we spoke, the assembly floor was busy as dozens of bikes were dissembled and crated to be shipped to Israel. “We have bikes going to Turkey, Cyprus, Australia, Brazil, Japan, all over the world.”
Before I leave, I duck into a narrow storeroom, fittingly nicknamed “The Museum”. It is jam-packed with prototypes and retired models. Prominent is an early model PR7 that made the journey from Portugal to Japan and back. In the back, almost invisible behind a line of leaning bikes is the testament to how far the company has come, and its willingness to innovate and recreate itself. It’s AJP’s first motorcycle, a 1987 125cc dirt bike dubbed the Ariana (after Pinto’s daughter). In Portugal, it is considered a classic and is highly sought after as a collector’s item. Riding through the country on a PR7, whenever I was stopped to talk about the bike, the memory of the Ariana had carried over thirty years. “Good bike,” was the consensus.
There is no resting on laurels or romanticizing the past at AJP though. As Renato Furmann says “We’re looking ahead. All we want is for people to have a good riding experience. That is more important than anything.” There could be no better words to a rider’s ears. And with the PR7, what they just might have also done, is build another future classic.