Life in the fast lane

By Griff Bristed

Featured in Capital #52
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Sam McCafferty was forever in trouble for drawing on his text books. Now he’s taken “mucking around” to a new level and turned it into a dream job.

“Don’t muck around, Sam McCafferty!” was the refrain from Sam’s teachers as he doodled on his school work. Sam’s obsession with vehicles revealed itself in his drawings from an early age. His mother, Nicola McCafferty, has kept many of the school textbooks Sam defaced as a child. Her/their favourite is a drawing from 101 Dalmations which he faithfully reproduced in maths class: Cruella De Vil’s car. He’s now living in Italy as part of the six-strong team of motorcycle designers who dream up concepts for Ducati, arguably the world’s premier motorcycle company. 

By Kiwi standards Sam’s upbringing was reasonably standard. He grew up riding a pushbike around Eastbourne, jumping off the Day’s Bay wharf and playing with the family dog Enzo (named after the Ferrari founder). He attended Hutt Valley High School, and played rugby for several years before he grew “too skinny”, and surfing and skiing took centre stage. He often watched motorsport on TV with his dad and grandad (a hereditary interest?), and by age six could identify the badge emblems of most major vehicle makers.

At just 17 Sam went to Massey, Auckland and later Wellington, to study industrial design. His career in transport design was kick-started when as a second-year student his passion for motors, and obvious talent, got him into a fourth-year design paper sponsored by Honda. This led to an internship with Honda at their European R&D facility in Rome. Because progression opportunities are few, the transport design industry can be very hard to break into in New Zealand. So Sam has kept in contact with Massey and his lecturers, offering help to any students interested in following in his tracks.

Sam says that social media plays a huge part in his daily life – his Instagram posts helped him secure a three-year contract with Ducati. He uses it to keep up with many designers worldwide. Posting snippets of his life, he’s amassed more than 16,000 followers.

No matter how assured he was on social media, nothing prepared the young man for his first moments at Ducati, which were “intimidating for sure.” Some of his favourite machines to ever hit the road and track were designed by people who still work there. 

Of the 30 or so people working in the Ducati Design Centre, most are Italian. Sam is one of six motorcycle designers coming up with concepts, something he says he’d always wanted to do even before he realised it. The other five are Italian, French and Indian. Workplace meetings are held in Italian, leading to some embarrassing mix-ups, although after several months his comprehension improved. McCafferty says the language of design at Ducati is very specific, and themes such as “sporty, elegance and beauty” are dominant. “Which is something to be expected from an iconic Italian manufacturer, but it doesn’t always make life easy.”

When developing a new motorcycle design the team works in a “very traditional way with a modern setting,” utilising sketches as well as computer and clay modelling. He’s not allowed to say much more about the processes, let alone what he’s currently working on. Ducati’s marketing team had to give the all clear before he was allowed to speak to Capital at all.

The Ducati factory is located in Bologna which is about 200km north of Florence. McCafferty mentions that life there is easier for him because it is one of the calmer Italian cities. Because work has been all consuming, making friends outside of it hasn’t been the easiest. Sam says that it is easier to chat to girls in a bar than to walk up to a group of guys and say “Hey, wanna be friends?” However after nearly 18 months in Bologna he believes he has a good balance of workmates and friends from outside work.

Many New Zealanders move to Europe because they are interested in travelling. For Sam it’s a bit different: he travelled to Europe because he was interested in work. He’s done a fair bit of travel there, but it’s been largely for work. Recently he was in Geneva for the Swiss Auto Show, where he checks out competitors’ latest designs and innovations.

Ducati are great at letting staff try out their products, says Sam. When he arrived in Bologna he was given a Ducati Panigale 959 sports bike straight off the factory floor, with 2km on the clock. He was allowed to keep it for the entire summer and did a lot of riding in Italy, around Turin and up into the Swiss Alps, on roads that motorcyclists dream of riding; he was often alongside other drivers testing Ferraris or Ducatis. This summer he hopes he might be able to test out his dream bike, the Panigale V4 (which retails for about $80,000 NZD).

In August, when the Ducati factory shuts down for the entire month for the Italian summer holiday, Sam’s coming back to a New Zealand winter to see his family. Sam wonders (from Italy) if people realise how easy life is here. “We all take so much for granted,” he says, “while in Italy, even going to the bank is an exercise in patience.” Back here he hopes to get some surfing and skiing in with family and friends – two of the things he misses most, things you can’t just wake up and do on impulse in Italy.

As a designer he says what drives him is wanting to see his creations come to life, be used and loved by real people. He has no plans yet for the future after his three-year contract with Ducati is up, but meanwhile he’d love to be the one behind a really iconic motorcycle to come out of the Ducati factory.

The transition to electric-powered vehicles is something everyone is aware of at the factory and in the industry. Sam says it comes hand in hand with the possibility of driverless cars, something which, as a motorcycle designer, doesn’t worry him too much. He believes that motorcycles will have a place for many years to come, because of their practical nature and the pure joy and freedom of riding. He gives the examples of getting a package delivered cross-town in Shanghai, and of waking up on a Sunday and wheeling your bike out for a ride up into the mountains. You feel the passion through the phone as he describes the motorcycle as a beacon of motorsport and “fun.” 


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