FACTORY FINISH - INSIDE THE TM FACTORY

With their electric blue bodywork and the matt finish of cast engine components alongside the shining smoothness of machined aluminium, TMs have always stood out from the crowd. For their 35th anniversary the Italian factory flung open their doors and invited us inside to see how the bikes are built and sample the finished products…

TM’s headquarters is the Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of the dirtbike world. There may not be Oompa Loompas, nor a river of chocolate, and when you learn that there’s no imposing factory dominating the townscape (just a relatively innocuous group of buildings tucked out of sight off a main drag through the Adriatic town of Pesaro)  then you might wonder why I made the analogy. The reason is simple…

Very few people, foreign journalists certainly, are invited into the TM works and it’s rare that we see its inner workings. It’s also run by a man deeply involved with the company, with such passion that he lives above the factory and even goes downstairs to tinker when the workers have gone home. Plus they produce some of the tastiest looking treats in the dirtbike world!

In its 35-year history, TM have never done a European factory launch. Yes, they’ve invited individuals into their HQ to have a nosey round, and individual importers have occasionally laid-on a few bikes for the press to test. But 2012 is the first time that the factory have allowed a group of journalists access to their inner workings, and then supplied a fleet of bikes for them to ride at a local test track. And we had one of the golden tickets…

Factory Floor

The only signs that we’ve arrived at the TM factory are the liveried racetruck wedged between the building and its boundary wall, and, well, the signs - a pair of small, oval, illuminated signs sit perched above the doorways to the offices and the factory. The white-painted building is incredibly low key. We head for the offices, past glass-partitioned rooms where a small number of staff sit behind computer screens, before being ushered down a corridor towards an unmarked door…

As the door swings open the scent of light oil and cutting fluid hits our nostrils, and the whirring buzz of machinery leaks out into the corridor. It sounds busy. Facing us, on a dividing wall, sits two rows of clocking-in cards and a traditional timeclock. All told, TM employ just 42 people, though this number increases slightly during the race season as those workers who are deputised into the race teams - enduro, MX and supermoto - are temporarily replaced on the shop floor.

Ahead of us are rows of benches, each its own little workstation with a selection of tools hanging from the wall, intermingled with personal photos, roadrace posters and mementos from works racebikes (usually numberboards signed by factory riders).  Each bench has its own striplight, many have supplementary lamps for greater illumination, though the factory isn’t intrinsically dark. Whilst modern industrial units often have a soul-less, captive, feel to them, the much older TM factory is blessed with a flood of natural light coming through large arched windows at the ends of the building.

Someone’s assembling gearboxes, behind him a colleague builds up a factory race engine. There’s a real ‘workshop’  feel to it, with oil-stained wooden ‘stands’  lifting the engines above the metal benchtops and small sets of Dexion shelves holding part-finished components - each identified by a cardboard tag bearing its intended destination.

Venturing further into the guts of the factory, we come across pallets of aluminium billets and blooms. Atop one such stack is a cardboard box containing aluminium bar sliced into sections to form the basis of four-stroke pistons - some already machined into the basic shape. Whilst two-stroke pistons are outsourced, thumper parts are now made in the factory. Going to such lengths sounds crazy when there are brands out there who specialise in nothing else - an awful lot of intricate machining goes into a 4T piston. The problem comes when you want to change your design slightly. Then the phrase ‘minimum order’  arises and you wonder whether you shouldn’t utilise the enormous milling machines that already produce many of your components…

Those machines are at the heart of the TM factory. Some are relatively compact CNC ‘lathes’, about the size of a small car. The real beast, the one that we crowd around to watch, is almost the size of the racetruck parked outside! And what goes on behind its bulletproof glass viewing panels and steel mesh cages is quite fantastic…

Peering inside, I can see components starting to emerge from blocks of metal. Yet there seems to be no logical order to what is being produced. As the machine selects a set of cylinder heads to mill I can see a group of rear sprockets sitting patiently awaiting their turn. Alongside them are engine cases and triple clamps. It transpires that TM make almost everything to order. At the end of the year there are no bikes littering the warehouse, waiting to be sold-off at bargain basement prices. Which explains the mix of parts being carefully carved-out in front of us, though not why there are stillages almost overflowing with clutch baskets and certain other components. I guess some stuff isn’t destined to change any time soon…

With permission to ‘access all areas’,  we wander the factory floor, peeking in boxes, picking up parts and just occasionally getting in someone’s way. Paths have been created between the machines and the storage areas, though there’s not much room to manoeuvre once you get amongst the pallets and crates. And when the man who’s hand-finishing two-stroke barrels accidentally catches himself in the stomach with his ‘industrial dremel’  we decide we’ve been distracting him for too long and move down onto the lower level of the building where the bikes are assembled…

On the way to the assembly line we pass a competition go-kart sitting at waist height on a stand. Considering the company only produce 1600-2000 bikes per year AND run world championship race teams, it’s hard to see how they balance the books. When you learn that they also produce 6000-8000 two-stroke kart engines a year, and that some of these can retail at £3000 each, then things start to look somewhat more rosy.

A line of part-finished bikes sit on benches, each in a slightly different state of readiness. Most are awaiting their engines and bodywork, so the only way to identify them is by the order sheet taped to the headlight or the MX numberboard. Each one states what the bike is, the spec it should be built to, and where it’s headed. If you’ve recently ordered an EN144 then you’ll be glad to hear that it’s nearly ready…!

Beyond the production line, tucked away behind yet more metal racking, is a wall of frames. Having seen a boxful of machined headstocks I’d love to witness them grow into a complete frame, though the opportunity doesn’t arise. Seeing the foundry that produces the sand-cast (or wax-cast as many are now)  parts that TM are famous wasn’t possible either, as the molten metal is poured off-site and the parts are delivered as ‘rough casts’  to be finished off in the factory. We move on…

Tucked away in his own little room, a technician builds-up a new rear wheel for a factory racer. We leave him bolting-on a new rear sprocket and walk through the despatch area, where the bikes are boxed for distribution, and on into one of two dyno rooms. The ‘bike’  dyno is empty, whereas the engine dyno is rigged-up and ready to rock. A big four-stroke lump is about to run, with a full cooling system plumbed in, large fans to keep it cool, and extractors poised behind a complete exhaust system, ready to catch the spent gases.

 Outside the soundproofed doors a rather different machine is fired into life. A worker feeds a thin, narrow length of steel into it, and with a whir, a clang, a thud and a bang it presses out a clutch plate. He pushes it in further, presses the foot control and out pops another plate. Once the five-foot strip of metal is expended the off-cut is folded up and put to one side, before the process is repeated with a new section. The pallet-load of strips to the side of the machine suggests that he’s going to be there a while - it’s a labour intensive production method and you can’t imagine many manufacturers churning them out this way.

Two glass-fronted offices house the R&D department. Though their windows are partially obscured, it’s easy to see the small team inside and the projects their working on. I wonder if the 3D schematics on the giant computer screens are really new components or whether they’ve quickly called-up the drawings for a 2003 gearbox to throw us off the scent..?

Towards the end of the visit we’re ushered into a meeting room, to await the arrival of TM’s owner, Gastone Serafini. As with most other rooms in the building, TM posters adorn the walls - a mix of classic motocross images and contemporary supermoto shots.

Serafini originally joined the company in its founding year, 1977, as an MX rider, and when his race career came to an end he stayed with the firm, eventually taking over when the founders retired.

I’m expecting slick hair, an even slicker suit, and the confident-bordering-on-arrogant air of someone who owns such a brand. The reality is nothing of the sort, for in walks a man dressed in baggy trousers, trainers, and matching TM-branded hooded top and baseball cap.

We fire questions at him, each one translated before we get a (translated back)  reply. I’m keen to know whether, like Beta, Husqvarna, KTM, Gas Gas, Husaberg and Sherco, TM have any plans to build a sub-450cc E2 thumper? With the adaptability that running your own manufacturing plant brings, it seems logical that the marque would build an en-vogue 300-400cc four-stroke. The answer surprises me. There is the ‘possibility’  that the factory will build such a bike, but they’re hoping that their latest project will negate the need for such a model. What they’ve been working on, in conjunction with the engineering department at a local university and F1 engineers, is a new design of cylinder head which they claim will endow a 250 four-stroke with similar performance to those bigger machines. 

Curiously TM have no plans for expansion or ramping up production. Serafini sets his sights on producing those 2000 bikes each year and he sees that as quite enough.

I’ve visited the ‘factories’  of a number of other manufacturers and they’ve often simply been assembly plants, where parts produced by outside suppliers are shipped in and pieced together to form a motorcycle. TM is very different. There seems to be real pride in the fact that they produce as many components as possible - even the panel bolts are manufactured in-house! - and the fact that they’re not held ‘hostage’  by suppliers is surely one of the reasons that they can continue doing what they do, and Serafini can sleep soundly at night. Well, when he’s not down in the workshops, that is…

Product Placement

With no plans for expansion at the moment and limited production, TM are unlikely to shake that ‘niche market’  tag. But is that necessarily a bad thing? With a factory who are clearly passionate, an enthusiastic established dealer network and decent parts availability, running a TM is certainly no worse a proposition, and in many cases a better one, than owning a bike from any other small manufacturer.

In some respects the level of finish far exceeds that of most dirtbike brands, and on the whole it’s those parts that are concessions to road legality which let the side down - the clocks are nothing to get excited about and the switchgear is nowt special either. (Having a killswitch on both ends of the bars but only that works shows that the bits have come from a parts bin.)

Of course, there’s also the thorny subject of the price, as TMs have traditionally been at the higher end of the market (Prices here are from 2012).  And if you’re looking to buy a four-stroke then that’s still the case as a 250Fi is around £500 more than the equivalent orange bike. However, things are a little different if you’re after a two-stroke. KTM’s 250EXC retails at £6295. Gas Gas’ CC250 Racing is £6249. And the quarter-litre TM? Cheaper than both of ‘em at £6195!

So no longer is a TM an EXPENSIVE exotic alternative to a more mainstream brand. Now it’s simply an exotic alternative. And a very tempting one at that…

Thanks to: Nick and Mike at TM UK www.tmukonline.net for a great launch. To Llewelyn Pavey. And to Robert Lynn for the crutches!

There are many more issues of RUST Magazine for your perusal just click on the link and enjoy! https://www.rustsports.com/issues/

Copyright © 2017 Rust Sports Ltd. All rights reserved.

This site uses cookies

This site utilizes cookies to personalize content, analyze traffic, and assist with promotional and marketing efforts. You consent to cookies if you continue to use this site or you may opt out here.