Chinese production and niche motorcycle manufacturing for Western markets

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Say the word “China” and after thinking about cute pandas, MSG and federal debt, most motorcyclists will likely think “shitty bikes.” But what if there was a way to capitalize on very low-cost production and still create a product that satisfied western two-wheeled sensibilities? That’s exactly what the Super Motor Company, a Dutch startup, is doing with these modernized Cubs.

“For years I had been searching for a new Honda super cub (even during the times I was working on Goodspeed),” says Dimitri Hettinga, one of two men behind the company. “I tried the Japan route first. But could not proceed because of type approval problems with a Japanese cub without EU type approval.”

“Then I tried to search for a factory that still had the production tooling for the Super Cub. After 2 years I finally found one and asked them to put a sample together according our own specs  (aesthetically) to be able to test it, and we did. The result was devastating. It was shit. But happily the factory was very anxious to make it work and took every problem seriously. So together with the factory we developed a new product based on the frame of the Honda c90. The rest of the Cub is a mishmash of Honda c50, c70 and c90 parts ranging from 1968 to 1982. But we also developed a new handlebar/headlight assembly to meet the EU type approval standard.”

“We tried to destroy it by doing 80 laps on a go kart track at full revs and shifting gears like it had a quickshifter. Crazy, but it survived. The engine never failed”

Now, the Super Motor Company is selling three versions of this updated Cub replica in Holland. They’re all semi-auto, three-speed, four-strokes that come in 50cc and 100cc capacities to satisfy various levels of local license tiers. The 100 can hit 62mph and return around 175mpg. They’re stylish, high-quality, high-value products that perfectly capitalize on a market niche.

But the real story here isn’t neat little scooters being sold in Holland, it’s a young European business with limited design capabilities, no manufacturing experience or assets bringing a new motorcycle to market for a reasonable price. In 2010, where there’s a motorcycle manufacturing will, there’s now a motorcycle manufacturing way.

“What they say about Chinese products (without intervention) is true,” says Dimitri. “It is crap. Though if you put some effort in a cooperation with them you can get to a quality product. It is a slow process. It took 10 months to develop a product that could meet EU quality standards and 2500 emails to and from the factory to get it done.”

Look at the neat product and the slick marketing and you don’t see China, but you do see a cheap price tag and a small company competing in a market traditionally reserved for big players. This is exactly how the fashion industry and most of the gadget world works. Westerners with soft skills like design, marketing and the ability to spot an opportunity turn to Eastern production bases for manufacturing. Those jeans you’re wearing? China. Your shoes? China. The iPad you’re reading this on? That’s made in China too. Why not the high-quality, appealing, mid-capacity motorcycle that today’s young riders need? Maybe we shouldn’t be looking to Honda to make that bike, with low-cost Chinese manufacturing and some classic American entrepreneurialism, maybe a startup could.

“It wasn’t smooth sailing,” warns Dimitri. “Our first shipment of cubs was a real pain. Because all the carbs of the 50cc models were faulty so we had to do a recall. And we had only just started then. Now, business is good.”

Super Motor Company

  • Glenngineer

    I work at a small business, and I work with other small businesses, and I work with entrepreneurs.

    I really, really appreciate a guy that say, without reservation ‘It was shit.’

    Best of luck, dutch guys.

  • Cajun58

    When I think of China I think of lead poisoning will this bike give me lead poisoning?

    • Wes Siler

      Only if you lick it.

  • Mark D

    Quick! Somebody find the tooling for the Honda Hawk GT!

  • Ducky

    Some of the Japanese OEMs have been making bikes in China for decades. I remember during a visit to the Shanghai expo seeing rows upon rows of shiny new Yamahas and Hondas (they were workhorse bikes).

    I don’t see how any of this is a revelation- as with any factory, you have to work with them constantly to create a quality product- the important thing is that the factory is willing to improve and does so at a fast pace. I should note that 10 months for a product to materialize is phenomenally quick, because major OEMs take 2-3 years to develop something and perform quality checks on them.

    Also, instead of emails, they should try visiting briefly to see these things progress in person (that’s what engineers should be doing anyways).

    There are small learner bikes coming from China already- I’m sure you guys at HFL have heard about the Megelli 250R, designed by a couple of Italians and made in China.

    Building something like a 400cc low-cost bike is something more involved though (unless we’re talking an enormous thumper)…

    • Wes Siler

      I think the revelation is that two guys working on a small budget were able to bring a unique, quality product to market in a short time frame. I don’t think anything like that’s been possible before.

      • Ducky

        I’m not sure actually, does Johnny Pag count (honestly, I have no clue)? Because he also markets and sell bikes that were made in China to his specs. There’s also Cleveland Cyclewerks, started by one guy and also having bikes built in China because -get this- nobody in the area wanted to help him out in the US because of liability concerns.

        What this DOES show is how it’s possible for someone with a great idea, know how and some money to actually get a business started up by taking advantage of willing factories in countries like China.

    • nateberkopec

      That’s not an enormous thumper. This is an enormous thumper.

      • Ducky

        Sir, you win the internet. PLEASE tell me that thing has something resembling a counterbalancer

  • Ceolwulf

    Sound like the sort of thing Cleveland Cycle Werks is trying to do.

    Getting distribution in place seems to be a big hurdle.

  • UrbanRider

    Very inspiring a great story.

  • lidewij

    This is dimitri but I am logged in under my misses name.

    Great to read all these comments and the positive feedback.

    But of course I went to China to inspect the factory and physically worked on the bikes to get to quality up the our spec. There is a lot more to it than 2500 emails.

  • scottydigital

    Ducky, this is Scott from Cleveland CycleWerks (I am an avid reader of HFL Mag). It is a bit more complicated then that, but basically China can be challenging and rewarding. The key is to be ruthless with quality. We have 3 full time, and 2 more part time QC people. It is nice to see what Super Motor Company is doing. I would love to team up with the guys in the future. I am a firm believer of making friends with smart people. These guys seem to have some good ideas!! I wish you guys all the best!!!

    • Ducky

      Hi Scott, sorry for oversimplifying things. I have nothing but good things to say for entrepreneurs like you guys, and it’s nice to hear perspectives from startups in the motorcycle world trying to get something going. Think we’ll see a piece about you guys here? ;) I wish you continued success.

      • scottydigital

        There might be something about CCW here shortly. No worries about over simplifying, sometimes that is a good way to be. Peace.

  • DougD

    Cool. But even if this particular motorcycle is quality, it’s going to take a loooong while to polish the anti-China mar from the motorcycle industry as a whole.

    That distrust runs deep.

  • Core

    Very cool and inspiring story.

    I found what one of the poster’s here said, about not wanting to help out a local start up because of liability issues to be ironic. I guess that goes to show, we have some serious issues to solve in this country. One is trust/quality, and the other is well, a lot of people are to ‘Sue happy’.

  • Core

    To clarify, I meant a local manufacture’s, or at least this is what it sounded like, didn’t want to get involved.

  • Alexakis Otinane

    very very very bad experience with these bikes.
    Its a fake: with bad quality and bad service.

    It takes up to 6 months or more to get a part.

    Just for your own shake, choose something else and i am talking on personal experience.
    Proof/facts available upon request.