According to the annual “JD Power US Motorcycle Competitive Information Study,” the population of motorcycle buyers has aged from 40 to 49 years old since 2001. That may not sound terribly shocking as that aging is in proportion to time, but it does indicate that the audience for motorcycles in this country is essentially stagnant. With US sales down 40 percent in 2009 and decreasing a further 18.3 percent through Q3 2010, a smaller overall population of riders that are also older logically indicates a decreasing percentage of young bikers. In 2007, it was estimated that motorcycle buyers 30 and under made up only 17 percent of the market. As JD Power concludes, “many owners may soon exit the market” due to aging. What is the motorcycle industry doing to reverse this trend? Essentially nothing.
At a meeting with Honda last fall, Grant and I urged the manufacturer to import or develop models capable of appealing to riders under the age of 49, as well as overhaul its dated marketing to be relevant to today’s potential riders. In response, we were told, “Honda sees Baby Boomers bankrolling the motorcycle industry for the foreseeable future.” It was made clear that we were essentially ridiculous for suggesting otherwise.
Of course, since that time, Honda has taken one step towards making its brand relevant to the under-49 crowd: the CBR250R. But that’s not to say the bike doesn’t have its problems. Retailing for exactly the same price as the Kawasaki Ninja 250, the single-cylinder Honda lacks performance in comparison, making only 26bhp to the Ninja’s 31, a crucial deficit when you’re using every one of those ponies simply to keep up with highway traffic.
Full Disclosure: this rant is partially motivated by the fact that Honda is currently holding a media launch for the CBR250R in LA, yet failed to invite any publications that reach that under-49 audience, including Hell For Leather. Sure, we fail to toe the corporate line, but we do so because reprinting press releases fails to appeal to young readers, of which we can boast more than 400,000 a month. Taking a look at the demographics of the usual motorcycle media suspects, we can see that a magazine like Motorcyclist boasts a circulation of 217,848 and the largest demographic it reaches is 55+. Great for bikes like the VFR1200, not so much for bikes like the CBR250R. This kind of myopic marketing is pervasive in an industry that’s more about doing favors for friends than it is actually trying to sell bikes.
Enough with the navel gazing, let’s look at the major new bikes released for 2011 and their ability to shirk the geriatric trend. There’s the Ducati Diavel, which we learned is mostly selling to 50+ men even if it is attracting more women than usual. The Aprilia Tuono V4R? When it goes on sale late next year it’s likely to command a price similar to that of the $15,999 RSV4 R as well as insurance and running costs similar to those of the exotic superbike. The Triumph Tiger 800’s capacity is heading in the right direction, but starting at $9,999 it remains a premium product competing in an already bloated segment. Other bikes we’ve seen released for 2011 include the BMW K1600GT/L — an old man’s bike if we’ve ever seen one — and the MV Agusta F3 — sexy as all hell, but yet another exotic in a world of recession.
In his article, Motorcyling’s Missing Link, noted motorcycle designer Michael Uhlarik identified sexy, accessible, small- and mid-capacity motorcycles as what’s need to convert young people into motorcycling.
In addition to the CBR250R, the only other youth-oriented product from a relatively major manufacturer entering the North American market in 2011 is the Aprilia RS4 125. Wonderful, but a four-stroke 125 is mostly applicable to European age-related licensing tiers and Americans are likely to find 15bhp inadequate and the presumably $4k+ price tag unpalatable.
The one shining light in all this is Cleveland CycleWerks, a company that was thwarted in all its attempts to manufacture small-capacity motorcycles in America. Now selling bikes designed by and for young riders in America, but made in China, the brand hopes to sell 3,000 bikes per-model by the end of next year. Sure, 12,000+ sales is a relatively large drop in a bucket that will likely manage less than 500,000 total, but it’s hardly more than a baby step in the right direction and that baby step is coming from an outsider, not an established player.
Looking at the CCW Misfit, we see a 250cc cafe racer/standard that’s far more credible to people our age than the fully-faired, Shamu-alike CBR250R, a bike that would also be far more practical for learners and for urban commuters. $800 cheaper too.
Suzuki does sell a bike in a similar vein, the TU250X, but in this country its received virtually zero marketing and, as a result, many dealers don’t even stock it. Tales in forums of buyers who want one, but are unable to find a dealer that carries one, abound.
Of course, it’s not like there’s a nascent market simply waiting for the motorcycle industry to cater to it. At 30 years old, most of my contemporaries have no interest in riding motorcycles, even if bikes were made that appeal to them. Today’s young motorcycle buyers all seem to have one thing in common: dads that ride too. I’m sure you can see the limitations of relying on families to pass riding down through the generations. It relies on quality parenting, not reality. What we lack as a nation is a coherent argument for motorcycling.
Why should a 30-year-old working in advertising and equipped with plenty of disposable income take up riding? It’s dangerous, it’s inconvenient and it’d make him look like a redneck. Yet look at any ad or in any publication targeting that demographic and you’ll see men wearing dirty jeans and t-shirts, leather jacket and boots; men working with their hands. That’s motorcycling, yet the motorcycle industry is absent from these media channels. Why?
While young people are busy turning away, motorcycle manufacturers are spending their budgets chasing a piece of an ever-decreasing pie, spending money on things like racing, which we love, yet we must admit is utterly irrelevant to our peers, even the ones that ride. Why is Triumph attempting to steal sales away from the F800GS when the number of sales it can steal are decreasing each year. Why isn’t it instead focussing on opening up new markets among new riders?
Look, we don’t claim to have all the answers and would be wary of anyone that claims to. But, we can’t sit back and observe from the outside as motorcycling ages out of relevance. It might be ironic, but one day, we want our kids to ride too. What we’re looking for is at least some indication that somewhere, someone at a major motorcycle company is looking for a way to make sure that happens. In the shorter term, we’d simple like to see less emphasis on the grey hairs and more on the long hairs. Our peers might not be buying bikes now, but, with the right kind of persuasion, someday they could.
We’re not the only ones saying this. JD Power concludes by saying, “[it’s] more critical now than ever for manufacturers to focus on attracting new customers.” Let’s make that happen.
via JD Power