So much has been written about shrinking motorcycle sales last year. In pubs and bike shops the common theme is shrinking new bike registrations and the piling up of unsold new stock.
Ink has been spilled trying to find the reasons underlining the crisis, while industry representatives spin the numbers of their respective corporate sales reports to boast, or excuse, performance.
The numbers are stark. By September 2017 US motorcycle icon Harley-Davidson saw new bike deliveries fall by nearly 7%, greater losses than the overall market shrinkage of about 3%. According to the Motorcycle Industry Association in the UK new bike sales have collapsed by nearly 15%. Dealers are hurting, and indicators are that as the final 2017 tallies will be worse still.
As a former senior designer and longtime product planner in the motorcycle industry, reading these missives frustrate me almost as much as the bad sales news itself. One writer on MotoFire pointed the finger squarely at the greater motorcycle community and it’s myopic culture. He was right, but equally guilty are the professionals representing the manufacturers in the US and UK, who lacked the vision to see past the present moment and plan for the future.
For the entirety of my career in Europe the bosses at Yamaha, Aprilia and others towed the line, saying that there was no market for small displacement motorcycles that offered a premium experience.
For three decades starting in the mid 1980’s, US and UK motorcycle markets were each utterly dominated by one type of bike. In America the air-cooled, v-twin powered cruiser made up more than half of new motorcycle sales while in Britain fully faired sport bikes were the bread and butter of the industry. Both the US cruiser and UK sport bike demographics were populated mostly by middle-aged men, and nurtured a culture of aggressive exclusivity. They were testosterone-soaked boys clubs that looked down their noses at other types of motorcycle. Small, modestly priced or entry-level models were openly mocked, as were those who rode them.
It can hardly be surprising then, that even during the boom years between 1995 and 2008 the average age of new motorcycle consumers climbed steadily upwards while remaining almost entirely male. Newcomers to the sport, while not actively discouraged, were not exactly welcomed by the fraternity, with many dealerships hardly making any effort to stock and sell alternatives when fat margins and volume sales were to be had with the big bikes.
Manufacturers were completely complicit in this behavior as well. For the entirety of my career in Europe the bosses at Yamaha, Aprilia and others towed the line, saying that there was no market for small displacement motorcycles that offered a premium experience. Entry level, they said, meant basic, low spec vehicles aimed at commuters, deliveries and riding schools. The Yamaha MT-03 that I designed in 2003 was originally intended to be just such a commodity motorcycle. It took many in the team lots of time to convince the project leader that the market was hungry for more.
The disconnect between sales and product planning was a chicken-and-egg situation. Product planners and marketers looked at past and present sales data and said there was no demand for smart and affordable bikes because the sales were not there. But the sales were not there because there weren’t any smart and affordable motorcycles available for sale.
For more than a decade, what the industry marketed as an entry-level sport bike or cruiser meant heavy, old technology nails like the Kawasaki GpZ500 (Ninja 500 in the US) or the Suzuki 650 Savage. With derivative styling forced onto low seat proportions, and offering weedy performance on the road, they were rightly dismissed by the motorcycle community which turned off many would be aspiring bikers.
Models that offered authentic style and performance at near entry-level prices like Harley-Davidson’s 883 Sportster or the Aprilia RS250, on the other hand, required commitment. They had the chops to win credibility from the fraternity, but that same cred intimidated beginners not fully committed to motorcycle culture. In any case, both were too much motorcycle for novices, the Aprilia for it’s searing performance, and the Harley as a consequence of weight.
Added to this was a media frenzy that did it’s best to portray motorcycling at its most extreme. From television programs glorifying biker gangs, to chopper build-off reality shows starring rowdy men, to adventure touring specials featuring celebrities getting stuck in the wilds of Siberia, the old image of motorcycling as a dangerous activity done by misfits was further cemented in the public’s mind. While this surely attracted some to buying a first motorcycle, it completely turned off most others.
And so we come to the financial crisis of 2008, and the steady decline that lead us to today. The Baby Boomers aged out of the new motorcycle buying market, and the aforementioned lack of investment needed to attract new, younger and more diverse people into motorcycling acted together to bleed out
Since 2010, the industry has seen the wisdom of importing small, cool and affordable motorcycles from the far east, which has helped a lot. Honda was first, bringing the Thai build CBR125R to the UK, Canada and eventually the US in 2012, which promptly became one of the best selling motorcycles in those markets. This success led the way to the revival of cheap and cheerful motorcycling, so that today’s consumer is almost spoiled for choice under 500cc.
Manufacturers have to stop selling bikes to bikers, and start selling them to people
Millennials, women, novices and many Generation Xers who may have wanted to ride but never stepped in before are all ripe for persuasion. But the damage is done, and it will take a lot more than terrific hardware to recover. The way motorcycles are portrayed to the general public, the way and place they are sold and serviced, as well as the stories and reviews produced by journalists, need to change with the times.
Motorcycling can be what it is today to those of us who love it the way it is, but it must also become something more to the public at large.
60 years ago, Honda transformed the motorcycle universe by democratizing the type with the Super Cub. There had always been entry-level motorcycles before it, but the whole Super Cub concept was born of the need to make motorcycles clean, safe, easy to use, friendly and fun to everyone. As the American Honda ad campaign “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” led to the explosion of new riders in the US, so too must go the industry as a whole at the present time.
Manufacturers have to stop selling bikes to bikers, and start selling them to people. The already captive audience who read dedicated news sites like MotoFire and watch MotoGP have to stop being the focus. Literally no one cares about radial brakes, big piston forks or bullshit marketing speak like “mass centralization”. To win the next generation of motorcycling public we need to demonstrate that motorcycles are gateway drugs to attainable feelings of independence and safe thrills.
It will be hard, requiring a massive top-down image makeover, but it has to get done. Because nothing less that the future of motorcycling in the US and UK are at stake.