Sayonara to Japanese Motorcycles

Where Have The Japanese Gone?       And Why?

The new motorcycle designs for 2012 are rolling out in various social and media outlets around the world. What is headed our way from Japan?  Really, nothing at all. Bear in mind that I’m employed by a BMW dealer, so the fact that the (one-time) “Big 4” Japanese motorcycle manufacturers have evidently decided to commit mass seppuku before the American market is not all that bad from a strictly personal business point of view. As a rabid motorcycle enthusiast, on the other hand, it makes me very sad.

Look at what the Japanese have announced lately. In all cases I will use “New” without quotation marks to save time and not bother to belabor the point that there is very little at all that is new from Japan.

In sport bikes, once the cutting edge of the samurai sword of Japanese market domination, the blade has dulled from razor sharp to rusty and dull. The new Suzuki GSX-R looks like any GSX-R of any displacement for the past ten years, unless you’re a hopeless Suzuki fan who memorizes VIN #s as a hobby. The new Honda CBR 1000 has ABS (as a $1000 option), but no traction control available. The new Yamaha R1 has traction control, finally, three years behind BMW and one behind Kawasaki. The new Kawasaki has almost as much power as a three year old BMW S 1000RR. And this in sport bikes, traditionally a Japanese stronghold.

In large tourers, the Honda Goldwing is – the Honda Goldwing, but wait! It has two tone paint and a mild redesign of the saddlebags – but the older taillight lens design will still fit for those who so prefer. Kawasaki now makes a large tourer that is heavier and slower than a Harley. What? How can that be?

In cruisers, the initialism that pays is “BNG,” industry sarcasm for “Bold New Graphics.” The cruisers all look the same, and in almost all cases are exactly the same to those made for the past 5 years, except for changing a paint color or moving a stripe around. It is almost inconceivable to type, but Harley-Davidson, that bastion of selling the sizzle rather than the steak, is now rife with new technology and development compared to the Japanese.

In sport touring bikes, the Japanese offer many perfectly fine models that have remained static for three to six years. Meanwhile, BMW has bracketed them with the R 1200 R with bags for those who prefer a “less is more” approach and the K1600GT with six cylinders of 160 smooth horses and the next word in technological doodads.

In dirt bikes the Japanese are still there, but the market is shrinking in concert with available riding areas, and more and more manufacturers are turning to dual sport bikes that can be ridden to dirt areas, saving the cost of a truck.

What happened? I think I know, but before we move to that depressing reality, let’s take a stroll down the lilac-scented path of 40 years of memory. Rather than descend into rant, consider merely the technical innovation and variety of design in the Japanese motorcycles I have owned. The Yamaha YDS – 3 was an air-cooled two cylinder 250cc two-stroke. The Yamaha XS 750 D was an air cooled 750cc triple with shaft drive. They were made a dozen years apart and had literally no parts in common. In between them (in my garage) came two examples of the Honda 450 – an air cooled twin with dual overhead cams and desmodromic valve actuation – and a Honda 500, an air cooled in-line four. After those my affections veered toward Kawasaki with a 1999 Kawasaki ZRX. The ZRX started the “retro” craze with a water cooled 1000cc four, electronic aids to mimic fuel injection and twin rear shocks that actually worked. Then came a Muzzy Raptor Kawasaki Ninja containing an inline water cooled four with flat slide carbs and all sorts of trickery that was state of the art in 1996. That’s a total of seven motorcycles with 5 different engine lay-outs and radical differences in form, looks, and function.

The entire breadth of design variety of the Japanese manufacturers between the late 1960s and 1990s was ever so much wider than that. Each year at new model time enthusiasts were treated to a Christmas-level assault on the imagination (and wallet), with new designs and new technologies coming in an endless and delightful stream. You had turbocharged engines from all four Japan manufacturers in a couple of different engine formats. Suzuki even trotted out a rotary engine built under license from Wankel. All of them played with two stroke designs of varying degrees of exotica until societal distaste for the blue haze of their combustion kicked them to the curb. Japanese motorcycles featured the full panoply of engines: one, two, three, four, and six cylinders, and the fours and sixes were made in both air and water cooled variants. As we lurched into the 90s, overdosed to glazed eyes on this cornucopia of design excess, they even made motorcycles that made no business sense but went into the file of “because we can.” Honda made a few motorcycles with oblong pistons in a desperate attempt to create a Moto GP bike that was not a two stroke. Yamaha came out with a bike with center hub steering, for which no consumer clamor had been heard. It was an amazing and exhilarating time, and no more likely to recur than a brontosaurus dining on water plants at Green Lake in Seattle.

During this time the Japanese had, for all intents and purposes, the entire market share to fight over among themselves. The English had managed to shoot themselves in the foot so repeatedly with both car and motorcycle manufacturer that they made extinct their entire industry, all by themselves. Today there are “English” car manufacturers whose owners reside in Germany, and India. That last word is a clue. The Italians busied themselves with reforming their government every time the wind changed direction, and the Germans plodded ahead with stoic acceptance that all motorcycles were opposed twins in black with white pin stripes – reliable for decades and as exciting as a phone book, and to some extent, equally as relevant in a world turning to cell phones.

But nothing stays the same. In 1989 John Bloor, an incredibly successful real estate developer in England, purchased a dead factory for re-purposing. So the story goes, he was informed he had also purchased rights to the Triumph motorcycle brand. I think that tale is a bit facile, but in any case he decided with the logic so typical of the English that he would become a motorcycle manufacturer. Well, sure, that makes sense…

What did make sense was to begin small, with a modular approach that allowed the manufacture of multiple engine families based on the same architecture. Triumph has grown at a steady pace that is now accelerating, and Mr. Bloor is a deserved hero to motorcycle enthusiasts everywhere.

In Italy, Ducati chanced upon a design that proceeded to win a lot of races, and then sales were off to the races as well. That success spurred on others, and former scooter giant Aprilia jumped in.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the staid BMW folk had an epiphany and decided that either they would broaden their product offerings, or die. In came the GS, which invented dual sport as a new niche of the hobby, and out went the black paint and white pin stripes, replaced by a dizzying array of engine designs that now includes singles, twins in two configurations and 5 or 6 iterations, two different fours, and now a six – utterly astonishing considering the size of the BMW effort. BMW is actually a motorcycle company that also makes cars, not the other way around, and the design and marketing talent is routinely cross-pollinated, to the benefit of both.

When the economy tanked from 2006 or so until (hopefully) the not very distant future, the sales of all motorcycles crashed. Buyers could no longer get loans for “toys,” as the hubris-heavy bankers viewed them. As the debacle deepened, the Japanese manufacturers and most of their dealers found themselves warehouses deep in unsold inventory, with more crates on the way every day. Even Harley suffered grievously.

Interestingly, the buyers of “niche” brands like BMW, Triumph, Ducati, and a few others, tended to be people with fluid resources who purchase motorcycles with a check, not a loan. At the same time, such dealers were almost exclusively small in size, making it easier to weather the storm.

Today, glossing over the shortcuts in this potted history, we have dealerships for the Japanese brands closing by the month, and BMW, Triumph, and Ducati continue to gain market share and trot out new models and technological advances at a pace that is hearkens back to the Japanese efforts of three decades ago.

So what has Japan done in response? When I entered the motorcycle business at a multi-line and multi-dealer company, I eagerly awaited the onslaught of new ideas from Japan. Each year the Hondas would come out and…underimpress. Well, surely next year. After ten years…what?

What has happened, to my mind, is that the Japanese market planners have taken a long stare at the world economy, and opted for the long-term. The two leading economies in the world at this time are China and India. According to the media, both are enjoying double digit economic growth each year, and predicted to continue at an accelerating breakneck pace for the next two decades. After some initial forays into co-marketing and co-production with the Chinese, with mixed results, the Japanese factories are now full speed ahead with a multi-faceted approach to manufacturing and marketing smaller motorcycles for the Indian and Chinese markets. I heard recently that one local dealer, who has dropped the two Japanese lines he was carrying to concentrate on Ducati, pointed out that it is not possible to run a business with a $100 profit on a $10,000 motorcycle. However, it is possible to run a business with a $100 profit on a $3000 motorcycle you are selling in the tens of thousands.

That seems to be what is happening, so Americans waiting for the next explosion of Japanese design genius are at least a half a world away. We have been abandoned, and they will not return any time soon in any marketing guise we recognize.

But wow – just look at the new designs from BMW, Ducati, Triumph, and others! They are leaping from success to success. It’s all good. Did I mention I work for Ride West BMW? Each day the truck brings new singles, twins, fours and sixes, in a tasty array of both street and dual purpose designs.

Within a few years, I betcha, a new motorcycle market will be the established norm in the United States. The Japanese manufacturers will have a presence, but with motorcycles that lack the sophistication of their European brethren and are cheaper to purchase. Just as it was a half a century ago when they first arrived.

Copyright 2011                            David Preston

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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