Rough Idle: the motorcycle industry’s chances in the global debt crisis

Dailies -



This week, the United States and the countries of the Eurozone both sustained a new wave of economic crisis, largely as a result of sovereign debt. While these issues are far too large and not the specific domain of this magazine to bear detailed examination here, their effects have very real and deep ramifications on the motorcycle industry and its future as a viable business in North America and Europe. With Wall Street and other key markets dropping in value, consumers will be faced with even greater doubt, a heavier borrowing burden and increased skepticism about their financial security, making discretionary purchases like motorcycles an even dimmer prospect than they are now. In this environment, what chance is there for our much beloved industry?

The motorcycle industry in the developed world has been properly shattered by the recession that began in 2008. Every global manufacturer from the big four Japanese to European legacy brands to one-time financial titan Harley-Davidson has been humbled by the overnight evaporation of sales, swelling of unsold stock and disappearance of easy financing. Several brands failed, most notably Moto Morini and Indian v7.0, while others like Harley-Davidson and Yamaha were forced to radically restructure, selling off assets and permanently eliminating factory capacity.

The past two and half years have seen the return of some growth or at least stemming the bleeding that has drained the industry. But clever statistical manipulation aside, the ugly truth is that the recovery seen in other industrial sectors has simply not materialized on two wheels. Even Chinese OEMs have felt the sting as western markets, a significant growth area for them, dried up and hundreds of tiny resellers (companies that purchased stock Chinese made motorcycles and resold them under their own brands) went belly up over the past 30 months. It is true that many legacies are seeing a renaissance of sorts, as a falling Euro, rising Yen and dealer overstock has led to near price parity between once exotic brands like Ducati, Triumph and their Japanese mainstream rivals, but this slight uptick (for those legacy brands) has only served to dull the losses incurred overall.

They Will Come, Rain or Shine

First, the good news. Motorcycles have two undeniable virtues that help make them such a robust consumer item: economy and emotional appeal. No matter which way you slice it and no matter where you live in continental Europe or most of the lower 48 States in the US, a motorcycle (meaning most powered two wheelers) is a cheap way to travel. Since its invention in the late 1880s, the humble motor bicycle has survived many peaks and valleys in the economic cycle by always reminding us that it is a frugal and efficient means to move one or two persons from point A to point B. Parking is free, fuel consumption modest and maintenance a joke. If you live in a city with congestion charges such as London or in a jurisdiction with downtown vehicle taxes like Toronto, then a motorcycle makes even more financial sense. Compared to running a private car, a motorcycle will always undercut it by an order of magnitude in terms of gross operating cost, which is why even during the darkest times of 2008 and 2009, global motorcycle sales increased by nearly 30 percent.

The second and, for those of us reading enthusiast sites like this one, more compelling reason is that motorcycles will always be more fun than driving a car or taking the bus. Millions upon millions of people worldwide know this and willingly put up with being rained on, riding in colder climates and the increased risk of injury because, in the daily grind to and from work and other life obligations, the motorcycle offers a fantastic and therapeutic escape. It is undeniable. Motorcycles are divisive along cultural lines, some consider them and motorcyclists to be unruly or even anti-social, but a much larger portion of the modern public regard motorcycles as highly desirable fetish objects and part of an aspirational lifestyle that marks a user as a self-confident, empowered individual. It is on this latter role that the motorcycle plays its trump card and elevates it far beyond something as banal as an expensive house or car. It takes much more commitment and skill to earn enough wealth for a Beverly Hills mansion or an Aston Martin than it does a Ducati, but to operate a motorcycle well is to sacrifice personal safety, overcome deep-seeded fears and inhibitions and accept a certain amount of suffering. It is these last qualities, that make owning and operating even a humble scooter or pedestrian commuter bike inspirational.

Squeezing Blood from a Stone

Now the bad news. As I have often commented in this magazine, the perversion of the motorcycle in North America into a luxury good for spoiled adults has been a terrible curse on future growth and remains, still, the single greatest barrier to a healthy industry. Even in Europe, where cheap and cheerful motorcycles and scooters are the order of the day, there has been some drag in the recovery caused by the over marketing of motorcycles as prestige goods, if not outright luxury items. The net result today is that few under 25s in the United States consider buying a motorcycle as compared to 30 years ago. By pushing ever upmarket, the manufacturers guaranteed themselves a profit bonanza at the cost of neglecting to harvest new, younger and more diverse markets.

The last JD Power US Motorcycle Competitive Information Study, issued early last year, surprised no one when it outlined that the average age of a new motorcycle consumer in the US was 49.

Adding to this demographic chasm and the thorough lack of desirable entry-level motorcycles, is the new economic reality of our times. Whereas Baby Boomers spent the better part of their lives enjoying vast amounts of accessible credit and the greatest period of economic prosperity in human history, generations X and Y are living with the now all too familiar cycle of repeated job insecurity followed by bubble growth. While some may consider this a natural evolution of the capitalist economic system, the reality is that it has created a yawning gap between the dwindling middle classes and the rich, who cannot now be depended on to support the bulk buying of the motorcycle industry. The results speak for themselves. Motorcycle sales in Italy, the US and Great Britain (three of the most important western markets) are down and show no sign of recovery. Italy, once a flourishing motorcycle market with annual sales beyond 450,000 units per year (nearly on-par with the US), has been officially labeled “a market in crisis” by ANCMA, the government’s motorcycle industry reporting body. Sales of scooters slide by double digits every month despite massive government cash incentives (a kind of cash for clunkers on two wheels). In Britain, sport bikes sales have gotten so poor that retail prices are at their lowest levels in two decades, when prices are corrected for inflation. The reason is simple: no one has the cash and few have the credit to make new vehicle purchases.

Time For a Reboot

We North Americans are can-do people. In the face of impossible odds, we (and, it must be said, our British cousins from whom we likely inherited this characteristic) have repeatedly shown that when our backs are up, we deliver. The motorcycle industry here isn’t worth saving in its current form. The idea that 25,000 square foot big box showrooms located off of highways, filled to excess with motorcycles with prices to rival compact cars, are somehow going to be the bread and butter of powered two wheeler sales is science fiction. It was a shaky premise at the best of times and now makes no economic or socio-cultural sense whatsoever. More than three-quarters of us live in dense urban areas, where motorcycles are at their best as transportation. But sadly, North Americans no longer see them as transport. Dealers, those that survive, are rarely in downtown areas or suburbs where people actually live.

Manufacturers too, must abandon the absurd idea that each and every retail outlet must be a brand temple, an expensive single-brand shrine heavy on merchandise and light on customer service and value-oriented motorcycles. For too long in North America and increasingly in Europe, the motorcycle has been peddled as a boutique experience, which is just as intimidating as the grungy, oily old mom-and-pop multi-dealer motorcycle shops used to be. A gentrified, globally-minded and technologically savvy urban consumer does not need a bike shop that feels like an Apple Store, they need a genuine motorcycling environment that eliminates the cult-like aires of the old days, but also isn’t so sanitized by marketing gloss that it loses sight of the visceral experience that is buying and owning a motorcycle. Less cappuccino machines, more man-machine interaction.

If the problem is structural, then the cure is nothing less than a re-imagining of the motorcycle product-retail-ownership experience. It sounds daunting. Already many, if not most, industry veterans will be saying that such wide changes are beyond the reach of an industry already on the ropes and without money. But, to do less is to accept inevitable decline and to ignore the powers of a fresh start. In Hollywood, the reboot is a well used tool to reinvigorate a film concept or story franchise that has gone stale. By taking at root what works and throwing the rest out, adapting to new concepts and new paradigms you allow a new and potentially wider audience in to expand your appeal. Of course, it may seem like a silly analogy, considering that the make-believe world of cinema is easier to recreate than the physical, practical manufacture and marketing of machinery, but for either to work in these new times, new technology and new business ideas need to take hold. Modern digital graphics and special effects made the camp and outright childish superhero movies of the ‘70s into a mainstream sensation and cash cows they are today. Digital distribution of those films through online retailers like Netflix and iTunes revolutionized that industry. Similarly, new technology in motorcycle engineering, from the electrification paradigm to the potential of manufacturers embracing common platforms and letting smaller entities design and sell wildly different bikes means that in the future, a Honda purchased in New York might be unique from one purchased in Boston. Just as with the entertainment business, the technology is already there but it is not being explored. We are trapped in the same, conservative evolutionary business model that stated categorically that only vertical twins made good sport bikes in the 1960s or that a Ducati power cruiser cannot be a Ducati.

Show Me The Money

All the planning and speculation in the world won’t help if there is no cash to get the ball rolling. According to today’s headlines, an even greater scarcity of money is going to be the likely scenario for the immediate future. Fewer sales, more cutbacks in new product development and possibly a few more brand failures are in the cards and that may make it seem truly hopeless. But it isn’t. Remember what happened in postwar Europe? The motorcycle industry flourished when we were shown just how exceptional a device the motorcycle is at the very worst of times. No other industrial good has engendered such feeling, so many stories and long lived affection between a human and an inanimate object as the motorcycle. Grown men have whooped with joy and cried in equal measure behind handlebars or when telling tales of them. Myths and legends of titanic scale, from events like the Isle of Man TT to the romantic dream of cruising on a Vespa a la Roman Holiday have motivated more to try out motorcycling than any Madison Avenue ad campaign ever could. In short, the motorcycle delivers human emotional satisfaction on an epic scale, in addition to practical transportation at a bargain price. When times are tough, smart people look for synergies like this to satisfy their needs on a budget.

But it is time for us to deliver. As an industry, we must rehabilitate ourselves from past addictions to superfluous excess and get fun, sexy and affordable product to the new urban and increasingly non-traditional market as soon as possible. It will likely be some small start up, perhaps in the burgeoning alternative energy arena, that first shows the way forward. Perhaps one of the Japanese will again demonstrate the same penchant for paradigm shifting thinking that broke down and rebuilt the industry in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Whomever it is, we have a shrinking window of opportunity. The western consumer is deeply jaded and, if he isn’t catered to soon, then he isn’t likely to be around when the money starts flowing again.

Michael Uhlarik runs Amarok Consultants and designed the Amarok P1.

  • Thom

    The sad thing is Americans haven’t viewed Motorcycles as practical transport since the dawn of the Model T , so the chances of anything changing that mindset here are next to none , if that good .

    The worst part being that its been the Industry as well as the Media/Press thats been responsible for continuing the Mindset of M/C’s being Luxury Goods and Hobby Horses , with their constantly promoting Luxo barges ( Cruisers ) Hyper Speed Pocket Rockets , Tank Like Multi Purpose M/C’s as well as Dirt Only bikes . Stunt Riding , Irresponsible Street Racing , and general Hooning getting any and all of the press

    Anything even vaguely resembling ” Practical ” such as Sidecar Rigs , Commuter M/C’s , Scooters etc are at best pushed to the back of the class , or at worst ignored completely .

    Then toss in a good measure of the So Called M/C Enthusiast who as on this site , continues to mock and belittle anything ” Practical ” in the motorcycle world and you’ve got the perfect formula for self destruction in the oven .

    So for all of us , from idiots like myself , subscribing to this site , to the media , to everyone involved in the Industry , its time for a major Re-Think .

    Either that or we’ll all be Re-thinking what to do for Fun Transportation in the Future .

    • Gene

      Hear, hear! It’s a real pain getting financing because “we don’t finance recreational vehicles and other toys” – It’s really hard to get $7k for something like an SV-650, but I can get $30k for some 4-wheeled deathtrap at the drop of a hat.

    • Sean Smith

      Side-cars are undeniably awesome, but their also one of the least practical vehicles I’ve ever operated.

      The gas mileage on a Ural is great, but aside from that, you’ve got all the downsides of a motorcycle (danger, exposure to the elements, somewhat limited load capacity), all the downsides of a car (no lane splitting, hard to park) as well as their own unique downsides like terrifying handling and the ever present danger of flipping the rig while trying to make a right hand corner.

      Buy a sidecar rig because it’s incredibly cool, can go anywhere off-road, because you can’t use your legs, or so your dog has somewhere to sit on multi-week trips across south America or Canada. Please don’t buy one as a commuter though.

      • Thom

        @ Sean Smith

        Yeah but you can carry things w/ a sidecar , ride thru snow and ice ( with the right tires ) take three reasonably comfortably etc etc etc .

        Also , seeing as how the Ural is about as technically advanced as a Stone Axe , I’m not sure its such a good standard to be judging Sidecars by .

        If the majors ( Honda Yamaha etc ) put their minds to it I’m guessing most of your complaints could be solved , excepting the lane splitting which honestly I’m not convinced is ever a good idea .

        • Will

          The only transportation I own is my bike. My dad and all his buddies only rode motorcycles up in the Arkansas boonies when they were younger. I don’t think that the idea of bikes as transportation is totally dead, but it’s not marketed to anyone. It’s up to the consumer to make that choice, and then wonder which clique they want to ape since every bike has to have a strictly defined market space and the requisite accessory list.

          As for sidecars, why are they still stuck in the 60′s? When I look at the front end of an MP3 leaned over in a turn, I wonder why sidecars can’t have an independent suspension like that. I’m no engineer, but can it be that hard? I’d love to hook up a sidecar, but they look like a huge pain in the ass to lug around.

      • HammSammich

        This is a generally good point. I’ve been mulling over a sidecar setup so that I can continue to commute by motorcycle during the winter, but truth be told there is little practicality involved. If I was honest, it would be primarily for fun and of course bragging rights (Who wouldn’t wanna be known as that “Crazy Mo-fo who rides a bike in 2 feet of snow!?”). For me, the most practical commute option is actually mass transit. But I live near where I work in a relatively small city.

        In fact aside from these emotional arguments, I suspect that the only other thing that could make a sidecar better than a car, is that they are (or at least can be) relatively less expensive.

    • the (unfortunate) roomate

      “Then toss in a good measure of the So Called M/C Enthusiast who as on this site , continues to mock and belittle anything ” Practical ” in the motorcycle world”

      as someone who spends a good part of his day sitting around arguing about bikes with the HFL idiots, this quote really got me thinking, but i dont think you can really call this a fault.

      no one is excited to brag about the hyundai accent they just bought, but hyundai keeps making em and people keep buying em. theyre cheap, theyre economical, they come with a warranty. I dont think a guy in a ferrari is gonna pull up next to the guy in an accent and think that they guy in the accent has missed the boat on what a cool car is (as he might if he pulls up next to a guy in a maserati), he’s going to assume that the person in the accent made the best choice to fit their needs and with the resources available to them.

      the same with motorcycles. when i see someone who has spent roughly the same amt of money as i have or that uses their motorcycle in a similar manner as i do, i feel free to judge them for riding something stupid or making a poor choice. when i see a guy on a sv650 on the freeway in the morning or a guy with a cheap japanese scooter around town, i think that he has chosen the best tool for the job and am glad he is one less car out there trying to hit me and gets to experience the same feelings i do riding a motorcycle.

      there is room in motorcycling for more than just the enthusiasts.

      • Thom

        @ the ( unfortunate ??? ) roommate

        ( is it really that bad ? )

        You make a decent point , but the one factor you’re ignoring in your argument ( in the classical definition ) is that the Automobile is the Established King Pin when considering ” Practical ” transportation in the US . So the fact that you or I might trash say a Hyundai as boring dreck will have little or no impact on whether or not Hyundai will continue to successfully sell them

        Whereas ( damn I’m sounding like a fricken lawyer here ) Motorcycles are the Bastard Child of Practical Transportation and any bashing done by the likes of you and I ( guilty as charged ) will have a major impact on the sales of said ” Practical ” motorcycle .

        We’re dealing with this very issue in the Bicycle Industry right now , but …………. Bicycling has gained a few strong allies in the Transportation Not Sport & Excercise movement , both from the Media , manufactures etc , which is gradually turning both the Industry and the General Publics view of what a Bicycle can be around. And sales are on the rise .

        We need the same or better from the Motorcycle World as from my point of view Motorcycling is in much more dire straights .

        So yeah Mr Roommate ( unfortunate ….. really ? ) lets have the Ducs n Customs , Whacked Out excessive performance M/C’s etc. But with a Healthy foundation of practical , hopefully good looking day to day transportation as well

        Cause at this point in time we’ve got a whole lot of Icing , with Zero Cake underneath it all to support it .

        • the (unfortunate) roomate

          i’m not sure much of what you wrote makes much sense, but im gonna do my best to respond to what i think you are trying to say.

          so, because they aren’t viewed as a normal mode of transportation, my telling some grandpa that his victory is lame or some squid that his busa with an extended swingarm is retarded is hurting the idea that its ok to commute on an sv650 to work?

          and why would you make fun of a hyundai? not everyone can be as wealthy as you.

          and yes, it really is that bad. my friends, on their own mind you, started calling him “that kid sean babysits.” it’s like living with an infant.

          • Dumptruckfoxtrot

            I think divisive action in a hamstrung industry is probably not helpful for that industry. Some people are really attracted to having a Honda Rebel as a first commuter motorcycle. Even though typing that might make me puke a little in my mouth, it’s a good thing that anybody gets on any motorcycle these days. Constant harping on cruisers or sportbikes only continues the clique-ishness of motorcycling.

            • Kirill

              I think its less harping on the d-bags and more the d-bags being the only people on bikes a lot of people see. Most of the bikes ridden around on the average day are super-loud Harleys or super-loud supersports – and most of the people that are “normal” riders are probably going to be gear nazis and will make riding sound like a huge pain in the ass. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for ATGATT, but telling people that they have to buy the better part of $1000 in bulky overcoating OR ELSE before they can ride isn’t going to encourage anyone. That you can’t buy a normal-looking riding jacket for a reasonable price certainly doesn’t help.

              • jason McCrash

                Great post Kirill. that is why I posted further down the page about UJM’s. The markets overseas may have bikes that fit that category, but they aren’t offered here. Most of the bikes I’ve owned have been models that were only sold here but were available overseas for years (Transalp, Fazer FZX700, ZR1100 Zephyr….. ). If you don’t advertise all of your products well than they won’t sell. Look at cafe bikes now. That show Cafe Racer is a joke (last season at least) to me until I look on craigslist and see that all of the old UJM’s are being made into cafe bikes and are bringing good money. Proving once again the value of the UJM.

              • Will

                To a certain extent the dbags are the only ones being marketed to. New riders seemingly only have the choice of looking like a power ranger or a land pirate (or now there’s also the rockabilly/rocker/greaser option). There’s not a ton of in-between when you’re on the outside looking in.

                • jason McCrash

                  ^ Good post!

            • the (unfortunate) roomate


              it’s not about contributing towards the cliques in motorcycling. i own a bonneville, but because of my current rotation as wes’s babysitter, get to ride pretty much everything. there are bikes in every genre that I love, just as there are bikes in every genre that i think are absolutely absurd. just because i only own one type doesnt make my opinion on the rest of them garbage.

              i said victory and busa’s with extended swingarms, not all cruisers and sportbikes. not to be nitpicky, but my point was that my making fun of people who buy motorcycles as a luxury item or people who buy ones that are so over the top and ridiculous doesnt have much impact on people buying entry level motorcycles. bikes purchased as a toy or for the sunday rider look much different than entry level bikes purchased by new riders to commute on and im pretty sure (or I at least hope) that the guy buying the rebel is gonna make fun of the guy on the victory with me.

  • skadamo

    This is one you have to chew on for a while :D

    Brammo tried Best Buy. Zero tried “regional sales reps”. Harley does the huge stores. So you think the answer is somewhere in between?

    I was really curious to see how US Highland’s dealer model would have shaped up. They envisioned a kiosk for customizing your dirtbike for your rider type/profile and whatever bling you wanted. Thought the personalization was cool. Maybe apply that thought to inexpensive, efficient, fun bikes?

    • Joe

      I always thought the answer would be small, urban dealerships, either single or multiple manufacturers in each.

      There isn’t a ton of space, but you are right in the middle of the people you should be trying to attract: younger, tech savvy, motorcycle illiterate consumers. Offer urban friendly bikes (such as Brammo)and you are bound to get consumers through the doors.

      • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]

        In countries where motorcycles and scooters are the norm for everyday transportation, you see many small shops filled to the brim with motorcycling accessories and perhaps 2-10 motorcycles for sale. You don’t see the kinds of uber-showrooms that are typical in the US. The experience of purchasing a motorcycle in these countries is more like buying a bicycle as opposed to the more intimidating experience of buying a car in a giant showroom with a sleazy salesperson who keeps having to go back to his/her manager while pretending to be your advocate in the deal. Unfortunately, in the US, motorcycle sales follow this car selling model.

        In my recent trip to India, I saw plenty of motorcycle micro-shops, even in tiny, poverty-stricken towns.

        BTW, a certain mega-dealership chain here in my town runs a small, living-room-sized Vespa dealership close to college central. Going in there is a totally non- intimidating experience, and despite this particular chain of mega-dealerships being cheating scumdogs, they seem to be moving a whole lot of Vespas because I see Vespas tagged with their name all over town.

        • Mark D

          While you were in Boston, ever make it to Riverside motos in Somerville? Simular setup, though about 50/50 splut with scooters (Aprilia and Kymco) and bikes (ducati, kawasaki, triumph). Small shop, in a smallish square of a drnse urban area, decent gear section. I think they do good business, and it would be easily replicated in any urban area.

          • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]

            In the past ten years or so, I’ve purchased three Ducatis from Riverside.

            Do you know that they have a multifloor facility just down the road that they use for storage? Apparently, they have many times the amount of motorcycles in that facility than what is available to see on the floor of their current showroom. The city promised Riverside’s owner that if he bought the property, he could turn the new property into a showroom. But then something happened, the city reneged, and years later, the owner is still waiting for approval to open the bigger space.

            Just counting their current showroom, Riverside is probably 10x the size of the Vespa “boutique” store I mentioned above — and the many small shops I’ve seen now throughout Asia, Central America, and Eastern Europe.

      • Mr.Paynter

        In my city (durban, South Africa) we have the middle ground big-ish (by my standards) dealerships, with a few manufactureres, basically they’re my city’s Triumph, Aprilia and Kawasaki dealerships, along with a cheap Korean scooter brand.

        Single manufacturer shops are eeeking by, they’re flourishing (They just built on)and having open days, letting us demo all of our dream bikes including the RSV4!

  • Bill

    Sounds something like what Honda did fifty years ago, the”You meet the nicest people on a Honda”ads backed up by less expensive new type two wheel product.

  • Brant

    Street Triples for everyone!

    • Wes Siler

      Brant for president!

      • Jesse

        I approve this message.

      • jpenney

        This is my new political party!

    • 80-wattHamster

      I’ll take mine in white, please.

    • Dumptruckfoxtrot

      Here Here!

    • robotribe

      Where were you when I had to pay for mine? First the Alpinestars giveaway, now this!


    • BenP


  • Denzel

    Consumers need to lead this reboot revolution. I think for the industry to reboot, it will probably be in response to some cultural shift, not leading it.

    Consumer paradigm shifts typically seem to be organic in nature, with a particular product for some reason galvanizing the market, or a taste-making portion of the market.

    Industry may try different things, until a product or concept hits the right societal nerve, and it takes off. A reasonable scenario for bikes might be that young consumers find a product they can identify as their own own (for green, progressive, fashion or other reasons), probably electric, maybe, god forbid, scooterish, but defintely ‘not your father’s harley’.

  • Steven

    We squandered the fortunes of the past two generations, the present one, and of generations as far into the future as I can imagine on building the least efficient cities imaginable. We have sunk trillions into sprawl that can only be livable with personal automobility, and there’s no way to get it back. We can’t abandon the suburb because there’s no room to house everyone in walkable, sensible neighborhoods. In an energy-scarce future, the 150mpg motorbike is the only thing that makes sense.

    We’ll probably have to buy them from the Chinese and the Indians.

  • JonB

    I’m looking around SF, and most of modern metropolitan America and watching the bicycle ingratiate itself with the same demo the motorcycle industry needs to charm, beguile, and capture.

    Blogs, social media influencers, partnerships with car companies(Parlee x Prius for gods sake), fashion lines from big companies devoted to the functionality of bicycle clothing(Levis, Paul Smith), zines, editorials, parties, races, redbull events, the bicycle industry has quietly captured a cool new market share due to the down turn, while the MC industry does little about it, much like this article states.

    Is it a total chance that Deus, one of the most successful hipster/imaginative/non-standard industry companies also dabbles in bicycles and surfboards?

    The MC industry, and all of its stodgy old veteran experts have lost their artistic/fringe/devil-may care-attitude and ultimately their relevance.

    I agree, it is totally time for someone to do something awesome, I have little faith it will come from the big 4 down in Irvine/Torrance.

    • michael uhlarik

      The bicycle is a very cheap and easy industrial product to make, compared to a motorcycle. However, there are certainly lessons in how to be relevant there.

      As for the big four, they are NOT in Irvine/Torrence. They are in Japan looking only slightly at what is happening here. That is the problem.

      • JonB

        Well said re. Japan.

  • Scott-jay

    Fellows, we are livin’ great days.
    Litigators and life-savers will prevail.

    • R.Sallee (Ninja 250)


  • T Diver

    So your saying the economy kept you from showing up to Laguna? (Kidding.) I work in finance. Thanks for depressing me further. Thank god for all the used bikes.

    • michael uhlarik

      I am not saying that in the article, but it is a good interpretation of events.

      Don’t be depressed. Do some good. Finance a motorcycle business.

  • Liquidogged

    Well, this article was worth my subscription this year. Very well done.

    There’s a bit of a conflict, though: it’s difficult for people to see one thing as both practical AND exciting. American marketers of all kinds of products have set those two traits against each other since the dawn of advertising, and it is now an idea that is firmly entrenched in the public consciousness. Now the idea that these two traits can be combined is being resurrected, but even auto manufacturers are having a tough time on the sell.

    Look at Honda’s CRZ. It’s the heir to the CRX throne (one of the most beloved small and sporty cars of the 80′s) with the twist of being a hybrid – Honda calls it a “sport hybrid”, and it even has a 6-speed gearbox. However, they clearly have no idea how to market it effectively, and if the reviews are any indication they have not actually produced an experience that fully realizes either “sport” or “hybrid” – the car is apparently fairly boring to drive and also doesn’t get the mileage you would expect.

    The moral of the story is that turning the industry around is going to mean reconciling our old friends Practical and Exciting in the eyes of the public. It’s not enough that bikes are practical and exciting – the industry has to convince buyers that those two things can actually exist in the same product.

    • michael uhlarik


      It is not difficult to see one thing as practical and exciting. Ask anyone who owns a nice car and drives it to work. Or an iPhone instead of a generic cell phone. The Vespa is the most iconic example of a motor vehicle that is immensely practical and yet engenders legions of super-fans and enthusiasts.

      Good design, good product planning, and good, original and thorough retail concepts can make any product both fun and useful.

    • karinajean

      re: the CRZ/CRX:

      The first generation honda insight was built on the CRX body and frame. it was also a teardrop 2-seater, manual transmission, and had the added benefit of a hybrid. The CRZ is a poor iteration, if you ask me. all money and flash, exceptionally poor mileage for a hybrid. the second gen honda insight is a sized-down prius.

      these cars are really the perfect example of how a motor company can entirely misunderstand what makes a good car good, and even more so, what makes a good car better.

      – signed, “my other motorcycle is a 2006 (first-gen) manual transmission honda insight.”

      • Sean Smith

        No it wasn’t. It was built on a proprietary aluminum chassis. Honda Tuning was one of the mags I read while I failed high school English.

        • karinajean

          oh terrible! my mistake: I thought both the insight and the crx were on the same aluminum frame, which was built in japan, and when that factory stopped building the aluminum frames the first-gen insight was phased out of production.

          but then, I read lots of terrible novels while sitting through high school english, and everything I know about the insight I learned from the internet.

          • Sean Smith

            If the CRX had an aluminum frame, it would have been quite a bit more special, it did get some neat materials though. When Honda took it racing, they put a carbon fiber hood on it to match it’s plastic fenders. Before then, no one had ever used carbon fiber to make a hood and it started a trend that is still going strong today.

      • HammSammich

        Although they looked similar, I think the first gen Insight used a unique aluminum body and frame, unrelated to the steel body/frame of the CRX…

        Sean beat me to it…

  • HammSammich

    Thanks for this Michael. Marketing bikes as transportation (and of course making bikes that are better transportation) seems like it would go a long way towards helping to reform and revitalize the industry. Sadly, few, if any, of the existing manafacturers have demonstrated the willingness to take leadership towards such a change, perhaps for fear of alienating what little hold they have on the remaining few “luxury-toy” buyers. It seems that in order for this change to occur, it will take oustiders. Even if those outsiders are not the ultimate winners, they might push what remains of the old guard towards making the necessary adaptations. From my lay perspective the frontrunners that show the most potential may be in the EV bike industry as you note, but could also come in startups like CCW, or lesser known Asian manufacturers like Kymco.

    Whatever happens, it’s gonna be a wild ride, and I just hope I’ll be able to look back on my current trepidation as silliness in the light of a motorcycle renaissance.

    • Roman

      Agreed. I just don’t see the “establishment” doing anything to present motorcycles as an effective, practical form of transportation. Just look at the things AMA focuses on, I mean, we’ve gone over this before. It’s definitely going to have to be an independent, outside effort. Then again, I think the people you’re trying to attract may actually prefer that approach.

  • jonoabq

    Americans don’t buy/ride m-cycles largely because they are scared…period.

    • the (unfortunate) roomate

      did you miss the point of the article above?

      • Sean Smith

        Yeah, I think he did.

        • jonoabq

          Actually I do get it, and agree (sadly) with most of it. Economic conditions aside, most people are quite frankly scared shitless of riding a motorcycle, and after seeing how many people drive (their cars) possibly should be. No matter how financially attractive future economic conditions provide the incentive to adopt motorcycles for everyday travel it will most likely never happen.
          You can deliver all the product you want but until you address the overwhelming sense of doom skull/crossbones associated with motorcycles not much will change.

          • Sean Smith

            That’s what Honda did with their old “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign. It’s not impossible.

            • jonoabq

              Ok not impossible I suppose, so I’ll go with “unlikely”. One company does not an industry voice make and currently I don’t see much to counteract years of “donorcycle” comments from the public at large. If there’s a consolidated message out there now what is it?
              Its not that I disagree with the dire situation of the industry as a whole, but its not simply about the economy. Its one thing to convince people that motorcycles can be affordable, practical, etc. but getting them to overcome their fear of learning to ride one is entirely a different matter.

              • Xenophya

                We’ve been involved with several research projects in the past few years and there’s no denying that safety is one of, if not THE most stated reason for people not riding/buying motorcycles. How many times have you met people, told them you’re into bikes and they reply “oh I’d love a bike but I’d kill myself”? The industry needs to jump on the media line that all motorcycles are death traps if we’re to get more people onto 2 wheels.

                • the (unfortunate) roomate

                  ya, it’s shocking that Americans don’t own up to “im too poor” as their number one reason.

              • the (unfortunate) roomate

                you’re totally missing the boat, lemme help you out:

                *20-30 year olds like motorcycles
                *20-30 year olds want motorcycles
                *20-30 year olds dont have much money for “luxury” or “toy” items, and if they do, they likely have many other interests competing for their money (girls, babies, traveling, and the normal American dream of having a nice car or buying a house)
                *20-30 year olds have 2 options
                **A)buy something in the $1000-$3000 range on craigslist and having it probably suck and need work (which by the way is becoming harder and harder to find people to do)
                **B) buy something for $8000-$10000

                the problem isnt fear. we’re young. we’re dumb. we think we’re invincible.

                the problem is that there arent smaller displacement and nice looking bikes for $3000-$6000 and that even if someone gets wise and begins to make them, no bank will ever give us a loan for a “toy”.

                • Joe


                • Roman

                  Not sure I buy that. You can get a really, really nice used bike for $4k. I bought a mint, lightly used Triumph Speed Four for less than $4k back in 2006. Then I bought a fully farkled 2000 VFR800 for $3700 back in 2009. Neither bike sucked, neither needed work. So I don’t think the initial purchase is the barrier to entry. Now granted, if I added up all the money I spend on gear, mods, track days, etc….the value aspect pretty much disappears.

                  I’m just saying that as a 20-something with a decent-paying government job, being able to afford a bike was never really an issue. I just couldn’t afford the bikes I like when they’re new, because I had no desire to finance a motorcycle purchase.

                • evilbahumut

                  I think the industry sees this somewhat but with the state of the economy, things that should be appealing end up being priced beyond reach. Ie: 2013 KTM Duke 350… How much you want to bet this will be priced at $7K?

                  I wonder if the CBR250 and Ninja would sell more if priced $500 cheaper?

                • Xenophya

                  that’s assuming that only ‘young dumb invincible’ 20-30 year olds are potential new riders.

                  What about if you’re 16-17 and still under parental rule? Chances are at that age your parents will probably make some financial contribution and will have some say regarding your choice of transportation. If Mom says no it isn’t probably going to happen. Likewise if you’re 35, married with kids. The thought of the worst happening puts people off, even if they rode previously.

                  Don’t get me wrong, as riders of 250 2-strokes we’ve been shouting for a long time about the lack of quality entry level bikes (just ask Mr Uhlarik) and have put the case to several OEMs, but to think that alone is the salvation of the motorcycle industry is a little short sighted.

                • the (unfortunate) roomate

                  @ roman – at 18, i was able to save up $1000 for my first bike, which i sold when i moved away for college. at 23, i saved up $2500 for my second bike. neither ran “gentlemenly” and both were heartbreaking. if you woulda told me i needed to spend 4k on a used biked (and i couldn’t finance) that woulda been out of my price range.

                  @ evilbahamut – with the current 690 going for the 7k-8k range, i doubt it will be that high, though it will still probably be too high for most first time buyers. i dont see a duke 350 as a starter bike though and KTm is one of the companies with components worthy (almost) of their selling price

                  @ xenophya – see points number 1 and 2. at 16-17, the safety thing is more of a factor than the money. if a bike is an option at all at that age, the kid has either saved a ton or parents are buying and its more about their perception and the regional area.

                • Roman

                  @the (unfortunate) roomate- You did say 20-30 right? I bought my first bike at 24, for about $1100 (a wheezy GS500), the Triumph came next year. I mean, that’s a lot of bike for $4k, fully adjustable suspension, sportbike frame, 100 hp. And this was back in ’06, before the great recession.

                  My point is that you can definitely get a nice bike for $2500 these days. A well maintained 1st gen SV650 for example. The problem isn’t the availability of affordable bikes, it’s getting people interested in riding in the first place.

                • the (unfortunate) roomate

                  @ roman – that is a lot of bike for 4k. the issue is that 4k is a lot for lots of people my age. most sv650′s that are worth anything are in the $3500 range (ive been looking for 2 different friends for the past 4-5 months). the $2500 range is hard to find good, dependable bikes. theyre always old and, as im sure we all know, people like to tinker and play with bikes and youre never quite sure who has messed with or cut corners on your 30 year old, brand new bike.

                  again, the point is about what is made available now, not what you can find on craigslist.

                  my point stands. it is very much about the availability of affordable bikes. the 250cc-500cc new motorcycle market is non-existant.

                • Roman

                  I think the SoCal bike market might be a bit of an outlier. If someone asked me to find them a decent used bike in the $2500 range, I really don’t think it would be a problem.

                  I do agree about the lack of options in the 250cc-500cc range. Not necessarily because they’d be that much more affordable than a new Ninja 250, but those bikes are just fun and there needs to be more variety in the market.

                • jonoabq

                  So at this point I would have to conclude that to address the cost issue without addressing the bank’s perception of the role of a motorcycle and the public’s acceptance of motorcycle as practical transportation is a mistake. The argument needs to be make not to us, but to those that don’t read motorcycle articles, ride motorcycles, or view them as anything but affectations of wealth or style.

        • Stephen


  • Jeremy

    I commute to Manhattan on a motorcycle, and though I don’t ride the cheapest bike that would get the job done, I still think it’s a great value. Nothing I could have spent that sum of money on would provide the fun and practicality of the first motorized transportation I’ve owned in my 7 years in New York. Are my peers (none of whom ride, even the ones who could easily afford a bike) scared, or just unaware how fun/practical motorcycling can be? I’m not sure. Motorcycling requires a lot of commitment if you don’t grow up with it, from buying gear to taking lessons to educating yourself to overcoming the objections of everyone who assumes you’ll be highway meat before the first oil change. However, I don’t fret too much about a lack of company on the road. Fuel prices will continue to go up in the years ahead, and even my Sportster gets better mileage than almost any car out there. It’s fun, it’s fairly cheap, and it gets you where you need to go. That message has to get out there at some point. I hope.

  • karinajean

    I say this with love: how ’bout all the real motorcyclists stop making fun of hat boxes (oh excuse me TOP CASES) so people get used to seeing them more? that thing has done more for my ease of motorcycle commuting than anything else EVER. I would say it’s improved my commute more than waterproof boots and warm gloves, even.

    which is a flip way of saying: there’s a lot of people who say that consistent motorcycle commuting can’t be done in places with heat, or rain, or snow – but there are a few people who are out there making it happen. it takes some forethought and planning – which our current car culture does NOT require – and an understanding of what tools are most awesome for the job.

    with direct reference to the article:
    “The idea that 25,000 square foot big box showrooms located off of highways, filled to excess with motorcycles with prices to rival compact cars, are somehow going to be the bread and butter of powered two wheeler sales is science fiction.”

    This hasn’t worked well for car companies either. clearly a reboot of the entire motor vehicle industry is needed. the business model built on the assumption that people will buy one new expensive vehicle every 5 years can’t continue to be profitable in today’s economy, and for that matter, the assumption that we all need a big SUV/Truck for that 1 week a year we head out camping with a million kids, dogs, and boats-slash-campers is pretty foolish too.

    it would benefit manufacturers to make lots of affordable single-purpose vehicles that people can buy a few of – a small nimble motorcycle for your urban commute, and a slightly larger less nimble but fast as heck motorcycle, maybe, for your annual easy rider trip. a little compact car for commuting in ice storms and can’t ride your bike, and a larger one for when you’re in charge of the car-pool. there will always be innovators who will make a compact car into a regular family vehicle and long distance camp wagon, and a little DRZ400SM into a long distance touring machine. Everyone wins.

    • Kevin

      Top boxes FUCKING RULE.

      • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]

        +1. And a top-box with a cushion doubles as a backrest for a passenger. And one with integrated lights triples as giant brake light for greater visibility.

        • Kirill

          +2. I’m probably the only person in the country with an XR1200 that has a top case. It makes the bike so much more practical, though it does look a little silly.

          • Jesse

            I’m with you. Full GIVI Wingrack (topbox and side cases, if needed) on my Honda F3. Is it ridiculously practical? Yes.Does it look funny? Yes, but I’m not staring at them when I’m riding.

      • Kevin

        This Kevin also has a top box.

        • Sean Smith

          You guys are gonna have to fight to decide who gets to be the original Kevin and who has to pick a new name or be forever known as K2.

          • Joe

            I seem to have the same problem. I was thinking of calling myself “Ironballs McGinty”.

            • Joe

              I propose a motorcycle joust at dawn. lol

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]

      I like your thinking Karinajean. In the 14 years I’ve owned my Toyota 4Runner, I’ve owned 7 different motorcycles and over a dozen bicycles. I’ve put more miles on my two-wheelers (combined) than in my Toyota. I pull the Toyota out of the garage when I need to haul the fam or big/many things. I drive it so rarely that it often sits for months in the garage on a battery tender. And when the roads are icy, I ride my winter bicycle with its studded tires.

    • Sean Smith

      Top boxes are awesome. Pinkyracer bolted one to her R1. I have a cheesy cortech one for my bike. And the Moto Guzzi Stelvio I rode to MotoGP had a giant one with a backrest. Both Ashlee and Wes swear they could fall asleep back there.

      • the (unfortunate) roomate

        imagine how scary that would be. waking up and finding yourself sitting on the back of a motorcycle flying down the freeway.

    • jason McCrash

      When I visited England and Ireland 10 years ago I saw top boxes on use about every bike on the road. They are awesome. My ZRX1100 had one that almost never came off. Co-workers called it a hibachi. I called it useful.

      • dux

        Brilliant! I may put a small grill on the back of my CBR. Camping trips are gonna be awesome from now on!

        • jason McCrash


    • Gregory

      I am pro-milkcrate and I vote.

      I have two milkcrates, which I can switch out depending on my needed carrying capacity. There’s the “wide” milkcrate and then a thinner “normal” milkcrate. I think one is from Alpenrose Dairy and one is a Multnomah County recycle crate.

      Portland, OR
      2007 Kawasaki KLR 650.

    • BenP

      I want one for my Street Trip, but I think it will look ridiculous… but it would make it so practical.

  • Kevin

    “As I have often commented in this magazine, the perversion of the motorcycle in North America into a luxury good for spoiled adults…:

    You really could have stopped at “luxury good,” which I think is a fair label for any $10K+ nonessential purchase. In that sense, a ZX-6 is no different than an 1198 or an RT or a Fat Boy, if not purchased as the primary form of transportation. And even then, you could have bought a capable scooter for half the price. So pretty much all performance-oriented motorcycles are for “spoiled adults” by that logic since $5K or less will get you all the practicality you need.

    But it would be nice if folks on this site could get their point across without blaming older people for their success or for the state of the motorcycle industry.

    But I take some comfort in the fact that when you 20-somethings are in your 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, you’ll have to take the same crap from your juniors. It’s just the cycle of life.

    • HammSammich

      Unfortunately, it seems that we won’t have to take the same crap from our juniors…We won’t be buying luxury goods because we’ll be too busy trying to come up with our own retirement income out of pocket after having paid for yours.

      j/k…sort of…

      • Kevin

        Meh, I’m probably 25 years away from retirement but I take your point. The squeeze is on the middle class, and I don’t see that changing for a long time, if ever.

        Word to the wise: find a way to go into business for yourself. If you’re lucky, you can do well and one day walk into the dealership and pay cash for the bike of your dreams. Nothing quite like that feeling, trust me.

        • HammSammich

          Really, I’m just giving you a hard time. I’m 33 with 2 young kids, so things feel tight sometimes, but my wife and I are both doing well in our careers and at our current trajectories will hopefully be able to fund most of our retirement ourselves. I personally hold no animosity against older generations for our current fiscal situation. I think the problems we find ourselves in are largely the result of disperate competing interests each sneaking parts of their antithetical agendas into policy; namely democracy.

          As far as paying cash for a bike, I recently got a taste of how that might feel – having just paid off the loan on my Bonneville a few months ago…The stereotypical freedom associated with motorcycling is that much sweeter when it’s not tethered by a 48 month loan. :)

          • Kevin

            Congrats on your free-and-clear ride!

  • ktaisa

    we all know how shitty everyone drives in cars. do we really think they will drive any better on a 2 wheels? out of everyone i know that drives maybe 2 or 3 of them are fit for a bike. the rest would be dead within a matter of days.

    a proven estimated stat that i just made up is that 97% of drivers are retarded and have no hand eye skill what so ever.
    it will take some serious mad max shit to get all these people out of their cars and when that happens we will have 100x more retarded MC drivers on the street.

    i want as many 2 wheelers on the street as possible just like the next biker

    1. cuz its bad fucking ass
    2. cuz its better oil consumption overall
    3. cuz it will increase overall awareness for the cagers, and maybe they will look for us more

    However if you are a klutz and have no idea how to process simple body movements to whats happening around you then i do not want you on a bike unless you are willing to learn to actually drive

    PS – He who dies with the most toys wins

    • Dumptruckfoxtrot

      “PS – He who dies with the most toys wins”

      My motorcycle isn’t a toy, it’s how I get around. That attitude is what keeps the motorcycle industry in the US from flourishing.

      • ktaisa

        Everything is a toy

    • HammSammich

      “However if you are a klutz and have no idea how to process simple body movements to whats happening around you then i do not want you on a bike unless you are willing to learn to actually drive”

      If someone is too clumsy to safely ride a motorcycle, then why on earth would you want them to drive a “Goddamned 2-ton murder machine” instead?

      • Joe

        Agreed, at least on a bike they only kill themselves.

    • JonB

      “a proven estimated stat that I just made up is…”

      That is awesome.

    • Justus

      I think there’s an argument to be made for increased danger. Part of the reason why so many people drive like tools is because they feel safe in their cars, whether they actually are or not. Some Euroopean cities have actually removed all traffic lights/other forms of their downtown centers, turning them into total anarchy. The result is more accidents, fewer injuries and fewer deaths. Why? Because people actually pay attention when they don’t feel totally safe!

      I think the same applies to motorcycles. A person who may be totally oblivious while driving a car is going to take a lot more care while riding a bike out in traffic.

      • Andrew

        I think you mean less accidents, not more? They’ve also done a similar test in a few towns by making the curb only a couple inches high and pulling the sidewalks way tighter to the roads. Again, people slowed down, paid more attention, and had less accidents.

  • jason McCrash

    The industry did this to itself. I’m 41, I remember all of the UJM’s and Brit bikes around when I was a kid. Some guys put wheelie bars on, some a giant Vetter fairing, some knobby tires, etc. The industry has created so many niche bikes that motorcycling is no longer considered transportation, it is either a “hobby” or a “sport”. Both of those ideas are retarded. Working on bikes could be considered a hobby and unless you race bikes it isn’t a sport.
    My best friend in Hermosa Beach is a part owner of 3D Industries in OC that designs and makes clothing for the industry. They have seen a 50%+ drop in sales. The majority of people don’t have the cash to buy whatever jersey Reed or Bubba are wearing from week to week. They buy one and use it all of the time. But the industry wants everyone to think that they NEED all of those jerseys when they should be focusing on bike sales. The profit margin is higher on clothing I’m sure, but how many tshirts do you need to sell to make what you do from one bike sale?
    I dig bike history and have a book called “The Motorcycle Industry in NY State” and what someone said early on in the comments is right, the low cost of cars killed off the bike industry in the US. The use of the Jeep in World War 2 pretty much finished off Indian and Harley has made it’s own bed. All of the arrogant pirates forget the vast range of bikes HD used to offer from the Topper scooter to the Servi-car to the rebadged Italian dirt bike that kid rode in the Bad News Bears. They also ignore the over 700cc tariff that saved their ass in the 80′s. HD took billions in gov’t money that was hushed up (as part of the whole car industry bailout) and instead of seeing that as a wakeup call they continue along selling overpriced bikes and tshirts.
    The comment about “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” was a good one. Find a Hot Rod or Cycle World mag from the late 60′s to early 70′s and you’ll see women riding in the adds, guys in business suits riding to work, ads that show how you can go from commuting 5 days a week to running fire roads on the weekend with the same bike, etc. Today every ad is niche. Tough guy stuntas, Gold Wing travelers, BMW ATGATT-ers, blah, blah, blah.
    I think Triumph has done a good job with the Bonnie based bikes. Regular Bonnie, Thruxton and Scrambler. Just like they offered in the 60′s and 70′s. You can buy any of them and convert it to the other with off the shelf parts.

    A great article and sadly a POV that the industry itself is too arrogant to recognize.

    • HammSammich

      As a Bonneville owner, I agree that Triumph has done a decent job marketing their modern classics as fashionable, do-it-all bikes, and this is largely accurate. The Bonnie is an excellent daily commuter for me. I’ve toured on it in relative comfort. It’s also loads of fun on twisty mountain roads, trying to keep up with friends on sportbikes. Finally, they’re pretty damn simple bikes. Aside from slinging Firestone Tires in college, I’m no mechanic, but armed with my Haynes manual, I’m comfortable doing all of my maintenance, including valve checks, etc.

      All that having been noted, it would be nice if there were similar options that weren’t so hung up on fashion-minded “Retro” looks. I love my bike, but even I’m put off by the faux-rocker style that has been adopted by many of the Triumph crowd (there is a fine line between them and Harley’s Bondage Pirates).

    • cadillacjack

      “to the rebadged Italian dirt bike that kid rode in the Bad News Bears”

      “I ride a Harley Davidson… does that turn you on?”


  • Ola

    What a brilliant article. I usually only sub one month at a time and let it lapse a week or two in between. I paused in the middle of this to get a six month sub.

  • CG

    I had to laugh at the idea of merchandising stupidity given that yesterday my wife and I wandered by a BMW car dealership looking for a 128. A what? (I gather they really don’t sell 1 series here in the US.) Every new BMW on the lot was silver, white, or black. As the salesman explained to my obviously dim wife, no one wants any other color. “How would they know since they don’t have any other colors?” the wife asks. Hell if I know.

    Most industries will, by nature, chase the easy money until it is gone. The interesting aspect to the next few years will be to see who the clever ones are (alas as a Hondaphile – in mc – I am afraid the MBA marketing types have taken over the company). Given that Peak Oil is now enjoying its’ 100th straight year of being a myth, it may not take battery bikes to entice everyone, but an 1800cc cruiser with a bat wing front probably ain’t it either. At some point in the near future micro-manufacturing will become a reality, and at such a time the explosion in choices in many industries will amaze all of us. If the politicians don’t f*** all of us over first.

    • Core

      “If the politicians don’t f*** all of us over first.”

      Well truthfully our political system is screwed up.. I’d even go as far to say that maybe we have a lot of sectors in federal government we don’t need…I’d also go as far to say that politicians will do anything to get votes, whether through legislation or regulation.

      So basically they will find some way to screw the working man over.

  • goodcat8

    I subscribe to HFL for articles just like this one.

  • Nick

    Just returning from the largest display of American motorcycling delusion, aka Sturgis. Average age is about 55, average bike price is about 15k, and average ideology is rebellious. If this is representative of the largest population of motorcyclists in the country, we’re not going to turn things around in the next 5 years, but once the bottom drops out on this population, the door is wide open for positive change. Thanks for the thoughtful article Michael!

  • oldblue

    A really good read. Looking at the current situation I kept thinking of the Solus video on this here site. Simple, elegant bike, not seen as anything special when it was sold back in the day, but a real icon now.

    Can’t see it in a Ducati showroom, but it’s the sort of base level bike we need now.

  • M

    if cleveland can get the rest of its line-up out, i do think it will fill a huge gap. the reason i bought an old suzuki years ago is because i was in the market for a new moped or scooter and decided that paying the same for a used motorcycle would make a lot more sense in terms of versatility and fun. sorry, tomos arrow and honda ruckus.

    several motorcycles later, the rest is history. but, it would have been an easier decision to make if i could have spent the same amount on a NEW bike — one with a warranty and no “you’ve got a motorcycle, now you’re a motorcycle mechanic” learning curve.

  • mugget

    Motorcycles emotional appeal. True that. Riding to and from work are usually the best parts of the day for me.

  • Thomas

    The perception that motorcycles are smart and efficient for commuting is true only as applied to small-dispacement bikes. I have 2 bikes, a BMW R1150R and a Ducati Monster 620. I don’t drive a car. I don’t think I save that much money by not driving a car with those bikes. My last service bill on the Monster was about $900; I’m taking my BMW in for service this weekend, and that will set me back about another $900. My wife took her Honda Element for the 100,000 mile service the other day and that cost only about
    I’m selling my Ducati and buying a Sym Symba.

    Long Live the Motorcycle!

    • the (unfortunate) roomate

      you also happen to ride bikes made by the two companies with the highest maintenance costs.

      my service on my triumph is half the service on my mazda and it gets twice the gas mileage.

  • always_go_big

    Excellent piece, more of the same please (including the comments based discussion!). You’ll have my money for months to come.

  • Xenophya

    One relatively successful scheme here in the
    UK is the “Get On” campaign which has been offering free sessions with an instructor.

    Works on the theory that if you can get someone to swing their leg over anything, even a little CG125, within 5 minutes they’ll have a grin on their face and want more.

  • Keith

    Great article Michael.
    One correction though..”with downtown vehicle taxes like Toronto” Our new Mayor eliminated this charge. Motorcycles do get free parking still.WOOT!
    I have to agree with Jonoabq on the perceived safety issue. How many times have you heard”oh no, you are not getting a bike”, or”those motorcycles are dangerous” or”now that you have kids you have to stop riding”…etc(rolls eyes)
    We live in a market where SUV sales flourished and one of the selling points was that they are “safer”. Don’t get me started on THAT fallacy.
    However, we do see a demand for smaller, more fuel efficient cars, as a direct result of the cost of fuel and considerations of economy.
    My hope is that, eventually, this will trickle down and cause motorcycles to be taken seriously as viable transportation.
    As for new models, the concept of practical and exciting can be mutually exclusive. There are already many low displacement, practical motorcycles being manufactured for other markets but until the buyers demand them, we won’t see much change.
    On a side note, I recently purchased a 1988 Honda Hawk from the original owner. He handed me all the receipts for service, including the original bill of sale. It was a trip through the history of retailers names that have now faded into obscurity.

    • michael uhlarik

      You are right, Mayor Ford did eliminate that tax, but I was using it to illustrate that this type of user fee exists, and will spread as municipalities struggle with budget shortfalls. Anyway, Ford is a dick and the fee will likely return, albeit with a different name.

      Regarding the Hawk’s history… Toronto is a great example of how credible bike shops have all disappeared. The fact that you have to travel 50km to Whitby to buy a KTM or Triumph from a big box like GP Bikes. Sad really.

  • John

    Thomas is right. If you crunch the numbers for tires, valve adjustments, chains, etc., a small car like a Ford Fiesta that gets 40 mpg with a dual clutch automatic and costs $15,000 will be a better value than most bikes for every day commuting duty.

    Bikes are NOT cheaper to operate than a compact car.

    The only way a bike makes sense from a purely money saving point of view as a commuter, is a scooter, or a Sportster with it’s belt and hydraulic valves, with a super long wearing cruiser tire. That’s why bikes like the old Honda Nighthawk shaftie were so cool for everyday riding. The new NT700 “Dauville” is one of the few proper bikes that may fit the bill.

    Now, if you factor in fun, ability to lane split, ability to park anywhere and save on parking costs, the Zen of riding, then the bike wins. If it is purely a money exercise, the car wins.

    Americans just don’t see motorcycles as everyday transportation because we are a society of fat, lazy, terrified, moronic sheep.

    It takes self discipline, common sense, motor skills, self awareness, and individualism to be a true motorcyclist.

    Look out the window. Is that what you see passing by?

    No, you see fat, lazy, texting, Facebook updating, zombies who can’t think for themselves, have to use their ” lifeline” to make a decision, have to turn back to the audience to bid on a toaster, and couldn’t work a clutch lever to get away from an Extinction Level Event asteroid strike.

    Screw this, I’m going for a ride.

    • the (unfortunate) roomate

      you’re forgetting about how much your time is worth. I can’t tell you how much turning an hour sitting in traffic into 25 minutes on my bike is worth.

  • jpenney

    In my area (KCMO) there really are no benefits to motorcycles as transportation. We can’t lane split/share/filter, traffic isn’t very bad and parking isn’t really a problem.

    We also have terrible weather. We just came off of a killer (literally) heat wave and now we have “isolated” severe thunderstorms. In the next couple months we could be hit by a crippling ice storm at any time.

    Even the bike culture here seem anti-practicality. Lane splitting came up recently on a sport bike forum and the overwhelming response was negative. The riders here just want their fun toy for wheelies or their loud pirate barge.

    I don’t think cost would sway anyone. Used cars are cheap and plentiful here. Bikes, while saving on gas, eat tires much quicker than cars. Maintenance is more frequent and severe (when was the last valve adjustment on your car?). At one point I ran the numbers for a bike purchase. It’s not even close to breaking even.

    It’s going to be a big challenge to get bikes viewed as practical here in the midwest.

    • the (unfortunate) roomate

      wait…there are states other than California, New York, Texas, and Florida?

      move to california. seriously.

      • jpenney

        Hah! I think cost of living would mean a serious change in lifestyle :-/

  • aristurtle

    The appeal of motorcycling is basically not about practicality. In a first-world country, motorcycles are neither more practical nor cheaper than cars except in a handful of edge cases.

    People like motorcycling because they are more involved in the the process of transportation than they are when driving a car. (This is basically the same reason why some people still choose manual transmissions for their cars, despite automatics now being essentially the same price or sometimes even cheaper, basically just as good or better on gas mileage, and better for the thing’s resale value.)

    This then presents the question: do Americans, and hell, people in general, really want that kind of involvement? I’d bet against it. Mass transit in this country (again, outside of a few edge cases) is a flop because people like the idea of going where they want, when they want. But they certainly don’t care about the process of actually getting there!

    The fundamental appeal of motorcycling is that the journey is more important than the destination. Bad news time: that’s not an idea that most people agree with. On the contrary, when Google finally irons the bugs out of their self-driving cars, people are going to be buying them up as fast as they can, and taking a nap or reading a newspaper or having breakfast scotch on their commute to work. And considering that that’s basically what they’re doing now, when they’re supposed to be driving it’s hard to argue that this is a bad thing.

    Bottom line: motorcycling is a niche market because it will only appeal to a small niche of people. Better get used to it…

    • Denzel

      Agreed, ArisTMNturtle, as a general rule, people gravitate toward safety and security, especially in a world they view as increasingly stressful and uncertain. Riding is inherently stressful due to the vigilance and involvement required. Some people (the niche that rides) appreciate this as being alive. The uninitiated, not so much.

      All HFL readers please commit to teach one person how to ride!

      • Kirill

        The stupid irony of it is that sitting in traffic futilely fuming is actually more stressful than splitting with full concentration.

        When I ride in to work, I come in alert and ready to function. When I drive in, I usually start pissed and stressed out.

        • Tony M.

          “When I ride in to work, I come in alert and ready to function. When I drive in, I usually start pissed and stressed out.”


          Although I still wish I lived in CA and could lane split instead of this stupid state. Still mostly applies though.

      • Thomas

        I’ve taught two people, and working on two more! I’m doing my part!

        (this is @ Denzel)

    • robotribe

      “Bottom line: motorcycling is a niche market because it will only appeal to a small niche of people. Better get used to it…”

      Admittedly, I’ve only recently swallowed this fact. It’s true in many respects that those things which we “love”, and by default, associate as core to our identities, too often are confused as being integral and relevant to everyone else on the planet. We could be talking about religion, a particular television show or iPhones; it’s all just “stuff” we too easily believe is a universal solution or alternative to larger population.

      As already stated by others many times over, you won’t get more people out of cars and on to bikes in the USA until there’s some compelling reason or burden (taxes, higher automobile prices, traffic congestion that limits automobile exclusively etc.) that forces them to do so. That’s why scooters sales increased 4-5 years ago when gas prices shot up and why they fell short when gas prices subsequently fell.

      Cars are more practical for N. American living, and that’s what most of N. Americans, for better or worse, want or need.

  • Thomas

    Painting with a broad brush here.

    1. People ride bikes because bikes are cool.
    2. Just like cars, cool bikes are expensive. Even if you buy a used cool bike at a good price, maintenance is expensive.
    3. Just like cars, practical and inexpensive bikes are small and not particularly exciting. Kids who buy these small bikes do so because they can’t afford anything better and dream of the day they can upgrade to a cool bike.
    4. Same thing for scooters. A Vespa is an expensive luxury item that people buy because they’re cool. If a scooter buyer really wants to go practical, they’ll buy a Kymco or something like that. But please, $5000 for a Vespa scooter is a straight-up luxury.
    5. Bikes are generally impractical. Yeah you can split lanes if you live in California, and you may (or may not depending on your bike) save a little money on gas. But you are limited when it comes to comfort, safety, passengers, cargo, etc.
    6. Again speaking very generally, and just like cars, practical bikes and cool bikes are 2 separate things.

    *Most people ride bikes because it’s cool.
    *Cool bikes are not really cheaper than cars.
    *Very few people ride bikes to be practical because, well, bikes really aren’t very practical for most people.

    I commute every day on bike. I choose to do this because I just love riding, and I think bikes are cool. But I accept the fact that there is nothing really practical about doing this, with the exception of the time I save by lane splitting.

    @the (unfortunate) roommate: Getting your Triumph serviced costs less than your Mazada? Really? Where do you go, because my buddy pays a small fortune for his Speed Triple.

    • HammSammich

      I dunno Thomas, maybe I’m misunderstanding, but your supposition that affordability/practicality are somehow mutually exclusive of coolness, seems inaccurate and subjective. If you feel that only Supersports or only raked-out choppers are cool, then I suppose I can understand your perspective, but still I question your notion of what “cool” is. I frequently see a geezer riding around town on his Ural. He’s out there having fun in the open air with his dog in the sidehack. To me that’s cool. There’s a high school kid around the block that has a little 1970′s 2-stroke Suzuki Enduro that he’s fixed up and rides to school. To me that’s cool. There’s a couple that I ride with sometimes that go on long (2500mile +) 2-up tours on their BMW K1150RT. They’re cool. Despite their very different backgrounds and bikes, all of these people share in common the fact that they love motorcycles, and clearly enjoy riding them. They’re not posing for the approval of other riders or cagers.

      I appreciate that there is an element of style and fashion involved with motorcycling, that shouldn’t be discounted because good design is important, but if the only reason you ride is to project a cool image, then it seems you’re missing the point.

      • Thomas

        You’re misunderstanding. First, as I said, I’m painting with a broad brush here. But ultimately, there’s nothing controversial to what I’m saying. A Hyundai Accent is a fine little car. You can have a great time with it, but nobody gets excited about that car. A Honda Rebel is a fine little bike, and you can have a great time with it, but nobody’s going to get really excited about that bike. This is everywhere, especially in places like HFL. Here at HFL, like most other motorcycle magazines/blogs, you read lots of stuff about exciting (and expensive) bikes, but not a whole lot about bikes like the Honda Rebel.

        It’s not so much about posing and trying to get approval, it’s about having a sense of pride and excitement in your machine.

        • Ben Incarnate

          To be fair, HFL is very much on top of developments in the 250cc realm. That there isn’t as much to report on in that realm is a different issue entirely.

          The guys who run this place are complete dicks.

          (Like my diet, I strive to be balanced in my comments.)

  • updownsideup

    everyone should have a motorcycle to get around after anarchy strikes. just sayin

  • Core

    “Similarly, new technology in motorcycle engineering, from the electrification paradigm to the potential of manufacturers embracing common platforms and letting smaller entities design and sell wildly different bikes means that in the future, a Honda purchased in New York might be unique from one purchased in Boston. Just as with the entertainment business, the technology is already there but it is not being explored.”
    This made me think of the MPAA and .. whoever was the head honcho of the music recording industry… And how long it took for them to actually take advantage of broadband internet..

    We are trapped in the same, conservative evolutionary business model that stated categorically that only vertical twins made good sport bikes in the 1960s or that a Ducati power cruiser cannot be a Ducati.”

    This just made me think of our industry and the regulations and taxes they are going to have to face… or heck, a while back their was that article on this site about that start up company.. and all the problems he ran into trying to get off the ground….

    Its going to be a big mental thing to get over in this country… Its like this country flip flops from one extreme to another.. like their is no middle ground with people. (I say this in a general sense..) But you can look at it this way as well.. Crotch rockets, Cruisers, and Scooters..