by Charles Upchurch
photographs by Chris Fowler
The Italians will send your heart racing. Even the names are saucy. Bimota. Benelli. Ducati. Moto Guzzi. La bella figura with fuel injection and a lust for speed.
Raleigh’s Bob Steinbugler, 63, an American maestro of the Italian motorcycle, fell in love the day he first saw one in 1975. The relationship flourished, leading to an 11-year racing career, a national championship, and the creation of Moto Italia, his first local fabrication and performance shop. It led to Bimota Spirit, which sells exotic Italian bikes here, and to a world-class personal collection on its way to becoming a museum. It led to an international reputation as a master builder, compatriots around the world, and a life so fully lived that he shakes his head at the wonder of it all.
In the mid-’70s, Steinbugler was a fresh face at IBM in Research Triangle Park, an industrial designer with a master’s from Cornell, loaded with talent and a healthy dose of smoldering rebellion. He says he was always that way – a brash, athletic kid from a conservative home in upstate New York. At 17, he bought his first bike without his parents’ finding out. In 1972, he drove his Honda 750 cross-country to San Francisco with his girlfriend on the back. It was three years later when a chance encounter at a mechanic’s lot in Durham brought him face-to-face with avventura.
It was a Moto Guzzi V7 Sport.
“I was with my buddy who was there to buy an old Norton when we walked around back and it stopped me in my tracks – it was perfect,” Steinbugler said. “If you could imagine exactly what a motorcycle should look like, that was it. I had to have it.” Life was about to take a full-throttle turn.
He soon figured out that for a highly motivated, competitive over-achiever with an intense day job, the best way to unpack it all was to go riding. “And then,” he said, “I discovered it worked even better if you go fast.”
Steinbugler cruised on to a 38-year career with Big Blue as one of its top product designers, a gig he describes as “the best job in the world.” His work landed him on an all-star team devoted to creating futuristic products for trade shows and exhibitions, earning him multiple honors from the Industrial Designers Society of America. His original Moto 1 motorcycle design, an independent project, won a Silver Medal in the 1991 IDSA Industrial Design Excellence Awards and was featured in International Design magazine. His last assignment before retiring from IBM in 2012 was leading the team that developed a colossal multi-media wall at New York’s Lincoln Center for the company’s 100th anniversary celebration.
His wife Gayle – whom he met at Cornell, who also worked at IBM, and whom Steinbugler calls “an absolute trooper” – has been at his side as riding companion, ace team scorekeeper, wife and mom.
“We have been on bike trips together all over the world,” he says. “She was especially brave riding her own dirt bike through the Copper Canyon in Mexico for 10 days with 19 other guys.” Their son Sean, 24, an architect in New York, started riding at 4 and is a formidable talent on the track in his own right. Makes sense, considering Dad trained him on some of the most powerful motorcycles in the world when was still a student at Leesville Road High School.
Around the time Sean was born in 1989, Steinbugler was bringing his own racing days to an end. He had started competing in 1979, when he and fellow Moto Guzzi rider Ed Longmire opened Moto Italia, an Italian motorcycle sales and service shop on West Johnson Street in downtown Raleigh that got them direct access to factory parts and helped subsidize their passion. They started building race bikes and before long were decamped to weekends at Daytona, Pocono, and Road Atlanta.
Those were hardscrabble, happy days, and the team became known as top-shelf bike builders with fast, aggressive drivers. In 1981, their team, Moto Italia Racing, won a Superbike National Championship title. Then the core group disbanded, but Steinbugler and Phillippe continued to race individually, and Moto Italia remained one of the best-known Italian motorcycle shops in the South until it closed to the public in 1989. But by then, another Italian had begun to cast its spell.
Since 1984, Steinbugler has been a North American representative for Bimota, a small, exclusive sportbike maker from Rimini, Italy. Co-founded by legendary designer Massimo Tamburini, who went on to do groundbreaking work at Ducati and MV Agusta, Bimota is known for its rich Grand Prix racing history, performance engineering, and for making some of the most exotic and coveted motorcycles in the world.
Steinbugler’s business became North Raleigh’s Bimota Spirit, handling sales, setup and parts distribution for the boutique factory. He receives motorcycles from Rimini and prepares them to the precise personal specifications of his highly exclusive customer clientele. When he turns a profit, he buys one for himself. His collection, along with his reputation, has steadily grown. In 2009, Discovery Channel came calling for him to narrate the Bimota story.
Steinbugler’s showroom – in a building larger than his home next door (he designed both) – holds more than 100 rare, high performance collectible motorcycles, nearly all Italian. Some are vintage race bikes: One of his most prized possesions is a Bimota YB4-R, the bike famed Italian Grand Prix racer Virginio Ferrari rode to a world championship. Some are street brutes like his modified Ducati Monsters. And then there is the Vyrus.
Arguably the most sophisticated and innovative street bike in the world, it is 100 percent moto Italia, handmade in Italy. There are currently six Vyruses in the United States. Tom Cruise has one. So does Jay Leno. Steinbugler sold one to a friend in Rhode Island. The other three are sitting in his shop in North Raleigh. “The Vyrus is so exquisitely engineered,” says Steinbugler, “working on them, you feel more like a jeweler or a watch-maker than a mechanic.” When he and Sean go to the track, the Vyrus goes along.
Steinbugler is currently converting his showroom into a private museum. In the shop, he continues to build, restore and customize a range of motorcycles that would keep a full-time garage humming. He emails questions to friends at Bimota and Vyrus. While he sleeps, the answers return. Sometimes he’s the one who has the answers. He keeps a classic Bimota in Rimini to have “a proper motorcycle to ride while I’m in Italy.” He smiles as he recalls a recent ride with friends across South Africa.
Amore. There’s nothing logical about it.
“It’s all black science and magic,” Steinbugler shouts as he winds out the two-stroke engine mounted on a dynamometer in the shop. Later, he’ll go for a ride. Maybe he’ll hop on the Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, just to see where it takes him this time.