Sometimes, Dead is Better: Why Every Motorcycle Brand Does Not Need To Be Reanimated

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The appeal of bygone bikes is almost irresistible. Bikers, I think, are romantic by nature anyway, so the mystique of great names like Norton, Vincent, or Matchless is only enhanced by the decades that separate them from us. We love a good sad story, but the only thing that’s better than a tragic tale of demise is one of ultimate resurrection and triumph (pardon the word choice). Reviving an old motorcycle brand has never been more popular, but in a motorcycle marketplace that is already fractured and confused, it is a perilous business. While some revived brands are enjoying a bright new life, others are staggering around looking for their brains.

The same thing has been happening in the automotive space for a while, of course, sometimes successfully (the Mini Cooper), sometimes not (the Thunderbird), sometimes just inexplicably (the Dodge Dart). Think of all the revived muscle car models, most of which are quite cool and popular. It’s the Age of Reboot.

Triumph, of course, is the great motorcycle revival success story. From receivership 30 years ago, they’re now a major full-range world player. Indian, after more than a decade of floundering, finally seems poised for success, especially if they really plan to expand their range. Meanwhile, others look like they will continue to struggle. Here are some common-sense thoughts on what separates those groups.

The brand must still have currency. Remember Excelsior? Horex? Crocker? No? Even if you have heard of them, they probably don’t have any personal resonance with most people. Penton is probably more valuable as a pure brand than these names. If part of what you’re trading on is the emotional connection to the brand, it has to still be warm in people’s hearts.

The bikes must be cost competitive.
The market for $30,000+ motorcycles is extremely small, and putting out modern machinery at a marketable price takes serious engineering and manufacturing horsepower. This was a challenge for the new Vincent, the new Norton, and for pre-Polaris Indian, and it will be a challenge for anyone starting out.

Rider experience is everything. Triumph mainly rebuilt their brand around the Speed Triple, a hot, forward-looking bike that advanced the naked sector, not just around new Bonnevilles. No matter how venerated a name might be, or what dead celebrity endorsements you have, it will only get the customer to the shop; the ride will make the sale.

Offer something unique. The quality and variety of bikes available today is unprecedented, and the market is tight, so the consumer is in the rider’s seat. We need more than just another performance roadster or clone cruiser to get excited enough to pull us away from the many great options already out there.

“Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by.” Bruce Springsteen knew nostalgia is a trap. Yesterday’s wine is today’s rotgut liquor. “Boring Stories of Glory Days.” Our love of motorcycle history and heritage has to be more than just nostalgia, because these days are glory days, too. I would love to see all these brand revivals succeed, but they can’t do it on legacy alone. They need to expand the market with reasonably priced, innovative bikes that are a blast to ride.

Now if I can just find some investors to help me buy DKW

Related Links:
Moto Sapiens: Hibernation: Winter Preparation For Your Brain
Moto Sapiens: Bikers, Patriotism and Righteous Dissent
News: Triumph Entry-Level Street Bike Caught Testing

Carter A. Edman teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” at Case Western Reserve University and has taught a variety of courses on creative culture. He rides a modified 2008 Triumph Bonneville and is restoring a 1970 BSA. As the founder of Moto Sapiens he explores the constant evolution of motorcycle culture that is unapologetic, unpredictable and sometimes strange.

Follow Carter on Twitter: @Moto_Sapiens

  • William Connor

    Sometimes it’s not the brand’s fault but the people who try to revive it in order to make money immediately. You have to make a long term plan to succeed not just a quick ROI. It also helps to revive brands that were decently sized to begin with. Penton is KTM anyway no point in differentiating.

  • ThruTheDunes

    Great article, but I must admit to occasionally being caught up in nostalgia. To me, Harley Davidson makes me think first of the photo of my dad sitting on one in the Army after VE day- he was an MP bodyguard for a general when stationed in Austria, so drove all over on one. Indian motorcycles remind me of the guy up the hill from me as a teenager who could never get the throttle, manual spark advance (left hand twist grip), tank mounted shifter and foot clutch to work together correctly while negotiating the intersection at the bottom of the hill – the result (when he was coming home from the bar at night) was a bunch of grinding, cussing, motor spitting and coughing, and 2-3 feet of flames shooting out the exhaust with a big backfire, and finally the roar of the bike as it finally all came together on its way up the hill.

    While these fond memories are part of my nostalgia, I certainly do not miss the technological advances that will now make up my son’s ‘good old days:’ fuel injection, ABS, traction control, chain oilers, and the list goes on. A far cry from the Honda Super 90 that was the first bike I rode. While I am saddened by the demise of some of the brands I knew as a kid (from BSA to Oldsmobile), I do appreciate the progress that the survivors have made: the last thing I want to do is go back to figuring out which unit in the six pack has the faulty accelerator pump…

  • luxlamf

    Great article, may I add that not only Brands but Models should be left to die also, in both MC and Auto’s, who can forget the horrid 25 years Ford put out hatchback Mustangs or whatever GM was calling Cadillacs since they died in 77? I do not understand Polaris, 1st they make the worst bikes on the planet Victory and now they bring back Indian? Tassels and fringe? Really? SO they open another Co selling more Cruisers? Confusing.

    • Piglet2010

      Victory is better in every objective way than Harley-Davidson.

    • LS650

      They may not be to your taste, but I would hardly call Victory the “worst bikes on the planet”!

      • Piglet2010

        I think the worst are the no-name Chinese built bikes sold out of port warehouses with no dealer, parts, or warranty support – or even the ability to be registered for street use.

  • LS650

    Good article, but I’m not sure I would agree with one part: “Triumph mainly rebuilt their brand around the Speed Triple”.

    Really? Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Speed Triple didn’t come out until the renewed Triumph had produced many thousands of bikes through the 1990s. Yes, the Speed Triple is a great streetbike, but I don’t think you can claim it is what they rebuilt the brand around.

    • Michael Howard

      And I highly question that people who are drawn to the Bonneville have any interest whatsoever in the Speed Triple. And vice versa.

      • Adam Gus

        I actually own both of them. They are completely different bikes for different purposes. So I can’t say I agree with you there…

      • aergern

        You’d be wrong. I have the Street Triple which is just the smaller version and I have a Bonneville .. two totally different rides. They both serve different moods. :)

    • William Connor

      They brand really took off when they reintroduced the Bonneville. However the Street Triple is the best selling model currently.

    • Justin McClintock

      While the Speed Triple wasn’t their first bike after their resurrection, it was the first that really set them apart. It’s what helped make them successful (that and the new Bonnie anyway). Prior to that, they were trying to build Japanese-style bikes….and not doing too well at it.

    • disqus_SB5uBoEFy2

      I think Triumph never actually “died”, but stopped production and went into ‘receivership’ in the 80′s. It was only a few years and they began reproducing original Bonneville in transition. The first ALL-NEW Triumphs were the T3 line, starting in ’90. There were many modular variations in 750 & 900/3 and 1000 & 1200/4 configurations, but the 900/3 was the shining star, and the Speed Triple was the model that really took off. 1993 I believe… 20 years at this point.

      I know all of this by heart, having a 1999 Thunderbird Sport (a great motorcycle that made me want to learn the history… a ‘retro’ version of the first speed triple. Plus it’s in the haynes manual that I’ve read and re-read). I just bounced over to the Wiki article for fact checking as well (if that counts as fact-checking). Worth a read for the curious.

      • Mason Apostol

        I have a 1995 Speed Triple. Even that name is a throwback to Triumph’s Speed Twin from the mid-20th century.

  • Tim Watson

    History without a future is just history.

  • ThinkingInImages

    I agree that some model names/designations should not be resurrected, as well. Let them retire gracefully into history. A perfect example is the Honda Sabre. What was once a powerful V4 sports motorcycle, is now a v-twin cruiser.

    • Mykola

      The Kawasaki Eliminator faced the same fate, going from 900cc and 600cc Ninja motors dropped into long quarter-mile-friendly cruiser frames, to a dinky little 125cc cruiser that lingered too many years before finally dying.

  • grindz145

    Unless some important piece of heritage is maintained, other than a namesake, it can’t be justified.

  • ThinkingInImages

    We left Norton out of this conversation. There’s a grand old marque back in the game. Another is Moto Morini.

    Years ago I came across a Moto Morini ad. I contacted them and they offered to bring a motorcycle to my home to test ride, some 75 miles away. Amazing.

    • Corey Cook

      Saying that Norton is “back in the game” seems to be a bit of an overstatement. They are a current company and they do supposedly build motorcycles, even if you can’t actually buy one… They seem to be doing nothing other than milking their past glory though, no innovation is taking place.

      • Piglet2010

        The first batch of US specification new Norton’s actually just arrived in the US.

      • Chris Cope

        Norton feels like a scam. They have a lot of work ahead of them to make me think otherwise.

  • Street Kore

    I find this to be a double edge sword in respects. I thought Norton had a serious shot at a come back if they had the financials and logistics sorted out a bit better. They had the right idea with the Commando. Recognizable, classic name sake with retro appeal and modern quality and performance. This could have been their Bonneville if they had toned it down to a more appropriate production level setup. And then the rotary platform to step off of as a performance platform. Unfortunately, I think they also priced themselves as a niche company.

    The new Indian thing is going to be a hard brand to capitalize with when you are basically adding to an already saturated market with a very stale idea. Then again, it’s hard to picture Indian developing a top end superbike either. No one would wear it.

    • Piglet2010

      What could be more stale than an air-cooled Harley-Davidson?

      • Street Kore

        I don’t know. Another over dressed bagger with more sparkle and fringe then Liberace. But hey, some people are into that stuff.

  • Don Fraser

    If you really want old, there is a bunch of them out there. Soon to be 63 and still think improvement and progress means lighter, safer, stronger, and for 1/3 the money of a new car.

  • MC MotoHistory

    I don’t about europe but the speed triple was in the line when it was introduced in the usa in 1995.