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The Rightsizing of the Motorcycle Industry

Rightsizing of the Motorcycle Industry

As I drove around last Saturday to hand out flyers and solicit door prizes for the upcoming Rails and Roads Vintage Motorcycle Show (September 16th 2017 in Winnsboro SC) I stopped at a few dealerships and a few independent shops. In all places the welcomes were warm, but I noticed something very strange. In most cases there was almost no one in the stores besides the employees. When I worked at my local Honda dealership, every Saturday was a madhouse; an empty store on a Saturday was unheard of. It must have been inevitable that after decades of main stream success that it may be time for a rightsizing of the motorcycle industry.

Rails and Roads Motorcycle Show
Rails and Roads Motorcycle Show

Of course the recent news that Harley Davidson was going to layoff some production workers was something no one could have imagined 10-15 years ago. Before that Polaris announced the shuttering of their Victory motorcycle brand. The one bright spot in the market for Polaris is the success of the Indian brand that merged the solid technology of the Polaris company with an old legendary American brand name.

It’s not just cruisers, sport bike sales are off too. All across the market things are not as exciting as they used to be. The big 4 Japanese manufacturers are fortunate enough to have the ATV & side X side UTV market to keep them going, but even that segment has been affected by the tightening of the consumers spending habits. And this seems to be a global slide as the Nikkei Asian Review recently published an article entitled “The Motorcycle Becoming Thing of the Past.” According to this article, motorcycle sales in Japan are only 11% of what they once were. It’s sad to think that motorcycling is going away in the country that proved to the world that it was possible to build reliable, oil tight, powerful & lightweight motorcycles.

The bright spot in the world market for motorcycles is the increasing demand in India where according to the Times of India demand for 500cc and up motorcycles has increased at a 23% calculated annual growth rate from 2014 to 2017. This has led to a number of large players building factories there to pry some of this lucrative business away from Bajaj & Enfield.

Another happy trend is the vintage motorcycle industry. Although it is in very real danger of falling victim to the same over-exposure & over-saturation as the “American Chopper” crowd from a few years ago, right now the demand for genuine vintage motorcycles whether restored or customized in either the “café racer or “Bratstyle,”is extremely high.  Now when you buy that old Japanese 4 or even small displacement twin you have to pay real money for it, if you don’t someone else will. A lot of motorcycle manufacturers have noticed this trend and now offer ready to ride retro style machines to allow you to experience the joy of vintage motorcycling without the misery of actually restoring a vintage motorcycle.

But the motorcycle companies are not the only ones that suffer from a soft demand for motorcycles, the Touratech company makers of some of the finest accessories for the adventure touring market filed for bankruptcy protection this year. This is yet another symptom of the rightsizing of the motorcycle industry. According to the Touratech U.S.A. blog operations will continue as normal during the company’s reorganization.

Motorcycle magazines are another thing hit hard by the rightsizing of the motorcycle industry. The audience is fickle even when times are booming it’s tough for publishers. Two of my all-time favorite motorcycle magazines came & went during the nineties at the height of the motorcycling boom in the U.S. The Old Bike Journal was one and the other was Twistgrip. Both of them came and went pretty quickly, The Old Bike Journal lasted longer because it had a broader audience, but both of these publications came and went during relatively good times.

Recently on Facebook, Buzz Kanter the publisher of American Iron Magazine shared his thoughts on the state of the industry giving some examples of how tough it is to survive and thrive in today’s market. I am going to share his exact words with you in the succeeding paragraphs. (Yes he generously granted permission for all to share them.)

“Call it Industrial Darwinism if you wish. But the business world is really all about the survival of the fittest. I have questioned for a few years how the motorcycle industry could support so many manufacturers, distributors and magazines. I now believe we are about to have a serious shift and downsizing.
I predict a growing number of changes in the motorcycle industry in the next year or so.
Too many motorcycle-industry businesses are over finanically over leveraged and will not be able to carry the debt. Others seem to be poorly managed. But others look healthy, creative and sustainable.
I expect more consolidation of big name motorcycle industry brands, some companies going out of buisness, and a very significant reduction of motorcycle magazines.
Paisano (Easyriders Magazine, V-Twin Magazine, Wrench Magazine, Road Iron Magazine) has announced they are folding all their motorcycle magazines except Easyriders, which they are reducing from 12 to 9 or 10 issues a year.
Bonnier (Cycle World Magazine, Motorcyclist Magazine, Hot Bike Magazine, Baggers Magazine, Sport Rider Magazine, etc) has been cutting back on their magazines’s sizes and frequencies. They just announced they are folding Sport Rider, and I expect more radical cuts in staff and product there.
So what does this all mean? I believe the motorcycle industry is ripe for a “rightsizing” where there will be a rebalancing of supply and demand. As demand for motorcycles, motorcycle parts and motorcycle services continue to decline, so does the financial support of those who serve these markets.
We at the growing family of American Iron media (American Iron Magazine, American Iron Garage, American Iron Salute, and American Iron Power magazines, plus our growing on-line operations) are working hard to understand and react to these changes with strategic and creative ways. We’d like to thank everyone involved with the amazing world of motorcycles for your support as we move ahead into the future.
If you have read this far, I’d appreciate your reaction and suggestions, also please feel free to share this post.”

This is sobering stuff from an acknowledged industry leader. The cuts at Bonnier especially bug me because Cycle World is the only one I subscribe to and is the current home of my favorite motorcycle writer of all times Kevin Cameron, but time and the economy march on relentlessly so we must all adapt or die.

Now this all sounds like a lot of gloom and doom, but there could be a lot of positives to the rightsizing of the motorcycle industry. As motorcycling has grown and become more mainstream the many of the long time hardcore motorcycle enthusiasts (especially American motorcycle loyalists) have resented being taken for granted and seemingly being pushed aside as the dealers and motorcycle companies ran chasing after the hordes of trend followers who saw motorcycles as cool fashion accessories to be discarded when the next big thing comes along.

Another advantage is that the companies that survive the rightsizing will be more competitive and have a sounder financial footing for the future. I just hope the ones that do can produce products that I like and still stay in business.

Part of the problem with the motorcycle industry is enthusiasts like me, people with eclectic tastes in motorcycles that no one else but me really wants. The problem with modern motorcycling for me is there are so few motorcycles available that I would have. The short list in order by desirability is;

  1. Triumph Bonneville Street Twin (Yes the 900cc version I’d never miss the other 300cc.)
  2. Moto Guzzi V9 Roamer or Bobber (I prefer the Roamer with its chrome and 19” front wheel)
  3. Honda CB1100 (This bike can do no wrong and would actually be my first choice for a cross country ride, it just blends into the background too easily.)
  4. Honda Africa Twin (Only adventure bike I’d want)
  5. Royal Enfield Bullet (Love the style, riding position etc. but I’d have to keep a Honda in the garage next to it, you know just in case.)

    a real 2012 Royal Enfield Bullet
    a real 2012 Royal Enfield Bullet

Look at this list other than the Triumph does anybody else want one? I must not want one too badly either, the newest bike I own is a scooter an 01 Honda Helix, the next newest one is a 1980 CB650, & the others are from 1964, 1971 & 1972. Too many people bitch on the internet about what they want but when someone builds it they don’t go buy it. I plead guilty as charged to that. Prices are too damn high, income is down, and my 37 year old ratbike is just as roadworthy & reliable as anything I can buy.

This friends leads to the real reason for the “rightsizing of the motorcycle industry”, the customers just aren’t buying. There are a million reasons why not. In my case personally it’s the value of what you get versus what you pay. I can sign the line and get any motorcycle I want, but quite frankly to me they’re not worth the cost. Others just simply don’t see anything new that they want even though they don’t mind spending the money. Plus many vintage bikes especially the Japanese ones are damn near as reliable as anything made today for a fraction of the cost once they get fettled properly. Combine this with a general decline in interest in the experience of driving by younger people it’s easy to see why the industry as a whole is downsizing. The customers just aren’t buying.

The 2012 Royal Enfield Bullet Classic 500 A Psyco Road Test and Review!

a real1956 Royal Enfield Bullet!
a real1956 Royal Enfield Bullet
a real 2012 Royal Enfield Bullet
a real 2012 Royal Enfield Bullet

Let’s take an adventure, a time machine trip of sorts if you will. Imagine if you could take a trip back to 50’s, the golden age of the British motorcycle industry, snag yourself a snazzy new 500cc sporting machine and bring it back to your garage. Since we are dreaming big, now pretend that you have your hand crafted real steel motorcycle back in your fully equipped garage with all the latest and best machine shop equipment you could want. Then while your “friends” in the gasket industry make you a set of the finest modern gaskets and seals, you tear down the engine and re-machine and re-assemble it using modern tolerances and technology. While you are in there update the valve train to hydraulic lifters, so you don’t have to spend any time adjusting valve lash ever again.

A genuine 1954 Royal Enfield Clipper
A genuine 1954 Royal Enfield Clipper
A genuine 2012 Royal Enfield Classic 500
A genuine 2012 Royal Enfield Classic 500

Next load it into your private jet & fly it to Japan for an electronic ignition. While you are there have Kehin to custom build you a fuel injection system and calibrate for your engine. No more tickling the carbs, or cleaning them, or gas dribbling all over your garage from a 1950’s Amal trying to cope with  our 21st century imitation gasoline.

How 'bout a fuel injected thumper?
How ’bout a fuel injected thumper?

Oh well it is a nice fantasy, but one part of it is true. You can get a brand new hand built “British” (in name and style anyway) motorcycle that looks like it fell out of a time capsule from 1955. The first Royal Enfield motorcycles were produced in 1901. In 1967 the factory in England closed but the Indian made Enfield Bullets soldiered on and have evolved into the reliable, oil tight and modern emissions compliant machines we have today. While these are not fantastically powerful machines compared to our modern machinery they are much better in so many ways than an actual antique motorcycle.
Immediately when approaching the Classic or Bullet 500 you are struck by its relatively compact looking dimensions. Today so many “retro” styled machines have turned into larger than life caricatures of the machines they are trying to imitate. This is one of the reasons I dislike so many of them, being a fan of 50’s-70’s bikes such as the CB400, XS650, or old Triumphs and Enfields, to me the new “retro bikes” look tacky compared to the real thing. The 2012 Royal Enfields are not retro replicas; they are still the real deal. An upgraded genuine vintage motorcycle that is available right now with a 2 year warranty, imagine that.

See what I mean about the size of modern bikes?
See what I mean about the size of modern bikes?

When I threw my leg over the Classic 500 and hoisted it off the kickstand the first though that went through my mind is whoa this thing feels substantial. Not overweight & porky but definitely dense, solid, and hefty feeling. You can feel the steel in this one. With my 29 inch inseam I can sit on the saddle with both boots firmly on the ground.

motopsyco on Enfield Classic 500 with Desert Storm paint
Just hit the magic button and you’re ready to go!
2012 tan Royal Enfield Classic 500
Rolling it round a little bit.
Bike; 2012 Royal Enfield Classic. Rider; motopsyco
Bike; 2012 Royal Enfield Classic. Rider; Motopsyco

Hit the starter button and the fuel injected single starts up with a nice thump-thump-thump idle note that is a characteristic of a big slow revving single. Yes it vibrates a little but it’s a pleasant soothing feeling not annoying. Pull in the clutch, snick it into first gear, and ease out on the lever. Just remember that you are working with authentic 1950s horsepower (27.5hp @ 5250 rpm) so don’t pull out too closely in front of that sports car that is barreling down the street at twice the speed limit. Even 1950s horsepower is more than enough to stay ahead of most traffic from stoplights around town. Plus people look. These are good looking motorcycles that are different from the mundane and commonplace Hogs and crotch rockets that litter the streets around here.
In addition to thanking LA Motorsports for allowing me to borrow a couple of their motorcycles I really want to thank general manager John for pointing me towards Jamison Road in Summerville. While it had too much traffic to really cut loose it is the kind of road that is perfectly matched to the feel and great handling of these bikes. It was just a couple of miles of nice sweeping turns that let me roll the bike from side to side in a most enjoyable fashion while the engine played a slow bass drum beat as I rolled the power on through each curve, and slowed back down just so I could do it again & again. This is the kind of handling that comes only from classic British motorcycle architecture. No high tech suspension and wheels, just good frame design and a nice wide handlebar. Sure I could probably run that same road at 3 times the speed of the Enfield on any late model plastic covered crotch rocket, but to be honest with you, I would not have been any happier, nor had a better time doing so.

leaving LA Motorsports in Summerville S.C
leaving LA Motorsports in Summerville S.C. for a ride on an accessorized Enfield
A red Classic Royal Enfield 500
The Accessory exhaust sure sounds good on a Royal Enfield 500

I did not try any interstate trolling or top speed runs, and quite frankly as the top speed is around 85 or so I would not be afraid to, but this is a bike that really belongs on twisty country roads. The suspension is basic stuff but competent. The single disc front brake & rear drum brake are well up to the task of handling what this bike can dish out.
One selling point of this machine is its 85 mpg fuel economy. Folks, that is getting close to moped territory, but on a real solid steel motorcycle that can haul 2 people around with aplomb and looks damn good doing it.
As India becomes more and more of a manufacturing powerhouse the fit and finish of these motorcycles is now much better than when they were first reintroduced to the western world back in the early ‘80s. They have always had the right look, but now they have the polish and refinement to go with it. Plus this is probably the most comfortable motorcycle I have ridden in the last ten years.

one good looking classic motorcycle
one good looking classic motorcycle
The Royal Enfield 500 engine is the epitome of classic style
The Royal Enfield 500 engine is the epitome of classic style

<the 2012 Royal Enfield Classic in red>
the 2012 Royal Enfield Classic in red

If you want to turn curves at reasonable speeds in the country and turn heads like a rock star in town, and you don’t care about being able to run 150 mph, or looking like a rich yuppie poser, then this is the bike for you. My road tests are not about outright performance, but about how a motorcycle makes me feel, and this bike makes me feel damn good. It’s not badass, does not have exotic cachet, power, and is not a status symbol, it is just a motorcycle without all that extra bullshit. Plus you can get a brand new one out the door tax, title, tags & all for around 7 grand.
And I can see myself owing one….

Peace Y’all