Motorcycle Trends for 2017
For a motorcycle enthusiast this is an exciting time of year. Actually, any time of the year is exciting, come to think of it. At this time the thrills come from all of the manufacturers trotting out their latest great ideas for the year to come. It’s fun to see where they’re choosing to invest their manufacturing and marketing dollars, as over time their choices change.
This is by no means a complete review, as I lack the sources and work ethic to do a lot of deep research. Thus, the following may be superficial, but I hope it is interesting. In any case, you’re not paying for it.
From 2001 to 2003 I had a call-in radio show, and every year at about this time I would invite my friend Harvey Gilkerson to be the guest. Unlike me, Harvey did spend the time to research and learn, and he always offered a wealth of fun detail on what was to come on two wheels in the year ahead. He was better informed than anyone I knew in the industry. I learned in 14 years in the motorcycle business that customers almost always know more about what is coming than dealer personnel do. Some customers go to great lengths to hear the latest, while people in the dealership are more focused on what is in the store today. They may expend some interest on what is coming, but only for the brands they sell.
Here are some things I’d like to point out as we rush toward 2017.
Best New Trend: Small displacement motorcycles. Been waiting for this for what seems forever. When I got into motorcycles, it was possible for a young man (and most motorcyclists were man back then) to get into motorcycles at a very low cost. Particularly Japanese bikes of a sporty persuasion. You could purchase a Honda 250 Scrambler with the carefully stashed proceeds from a summer of mowing lawns, and all of the cool guys in my high school did. I was not a cool guy, but I can still recall waiting to board the bus after school and looking out at the parking lot at the rows of new and used motorcycles being readied for escape.
By the early 2000s a small sport bike was 600cc, and the price had zoomed past $6,000. Performance had long ago surpassed anything that was available at any price or displacement when I started, but $6,000 plus gear plus insurance plus, plus, plus, pretty much eliminated most young people. Kawasaki soldiered on with a 250 Ninja that was less expensive, but it was beyond long in the tooth and the styling left a lot to be desired. Like style.
A couple of years ago Honda and Kawasaki dipped a toe into the younger (and physically smaller) market with 250cc sport bikes that went fast enough and looked terrific. Now everyone is in on the act, and the future looks bright for the young buyer. This is spreading now to include smaller displacement (and physical size) cruisers and dual sport bikes, and even sport tourers. May this wave of sanity continue.
The End of a Trend: Performance. In the 1960’s all motorcyclists wanted more. More power, better brakes, better handling, and especially – more power. My first three bikes had less than 50hp, and yet I was able to complete several multi-state rides of 3,000 miles or more. With the inevitable march of technology, motorcycles of a performance bent have now outstripped the riding ability of anyone who is not a professional racer. Even worse, they’ve grown too fast for an increasingly decrepit surface transportation infrastructure.
Between roads that are falling into disrepair and rapidly worsening traffic volumes, there is literally nowhere you can exercise a modern large displacement motorcycle to the point where it is using even 75% of its capability. Where on a public road can you unleash a 200hp motorcycle that can reach 100mph with at least three gears left to use?
Response Trend: Many purchasers of high performance motorcycles are now reserving their use to track days only, not ever using them on the street. I think this is a disastrous trend in terms of sales, which is why you see manufacturers spending less and less time and energy on new technology or even more performance. I suspect that most high performance and high price sport bikes are now used as “halo” bikes. Their purpose is to draw people into showrooms on their way to purchasing something more reasonable. Some of them are now made different each year by the application of what a long term industry pro termed “BNG.” Bold New Graphics!
The Stagnation of Big Tourers and Sport Tourers: To a lesser extent, this segment parallels what is happening with sport bikes. The Yamaha FJR, Kawasaki Concours, BMW R1200GT, and a slew of others are nigh on perfect for their intended use. Is there any meat left on the technology bone to entice increased market share? I don’t know. And large tourers? Where is the noise over the latest Goldwing? I have not seen one mentioned in print in a very long time. Lots of ink spilled over Harley’s new engine, which harnesses most of the technology others were using twenty years ago, but the riding experience will be about the same.
Trend I like The Most: Retro. It is now possible to produce a motorcycle that looks almost exactly like one built back in the boom times of the 1960s and 1970s. Triumph perhaps leads the way here. If you park my 2016 Triumph Bonneville next to a 1968 Bonneville the resemblance is absolutely eerie. And yet, mine has fuel injection, an engine of almost twice the displacement but virtually identical exterior size, ABS brakes, heated grips, traction control and modes, and on and on. It is amazing. BMW is now offering three of four models in a similar vein. I have seen mock up pictures of prototypes that might make it to production, such as a reborn Kawasaki Z1000, that are drool worthy. I looked at a new Norton the other day, which looks appropriately retro and yet actually functions reliably. Save the letters – I once owned a 1982 Norton.
There are several advantages to manufacturers in this niche. For one, because bikes back in the day were so much simpler, a lot of expensive stuff can be left off a retro. No bodywork, simpler suspension, simpler and lower horsepower engines than your leading stuff, and a demographic that is probably older and more able to purchase. And as a double bonus, they tend to be cheaper. My Bonneville was the “loaded” version, and had a list price of $12,500. And this leads me to my favorite trend:
The Return of Beauty: For twenty years the emphasis has been on function. A glaring exception has been Harley. Harley invested a ton of money almost twenty years ago in a just beyond state of the art painting facility, and Harleys have had the best paint jobs of anyone for a very long time. Ever year Harley comes out with new models with just a tick or two of new innovations in function, but the paint – oh my. Gorgeous. Now that is spreading.
Every time I park the Bonneville someone comments about how beautiful it is. This applies to both motorcyclists and to people who do not know what it is. And I mean “every time” to be taken literally. Closer inspection reveals the pin stripes on the tank are hand painted, and the initials of the person who did it are under the seat. You have to love that. People in cars cruise parallel to me to get a better look, not that I am all that happy about that. In short, motorcycles that are beautiful more than they are hugely functional are now “in.”
The Trend That Will Not Die: But I hope the preceding may kill it. Somewhere in Japan, in my imagination, there’s a giant tank that is 100 yards tall and 300 yards in circumference. That tank holds flat black paint, and the Japanese siphon off hundreds of gallons of the stuff to spray on frames, tanks, fenders, fairings, etc. When will that blasted tank run dry? The effect of all the black paint is to lose the details of the design and create a black blob. There was a time when flat black was the new cool thing. That was 1998. It’s time for colors to return to motorcycles. Harley has had their own way with a wild and creative color palette for long enough.
Speaking or Harley and retro together, some might argue that all Harleys are retro, but I think the reality much more complex than that. If your core company religion is an air-cooled V-twin, and yet you want to stay competitive with modern performance standards for power, braking, and fuel economy, plus requirements to control both noise and emissions, you face a very tall task. Harley has stirred multiple solutions into this cocktail of engineering challenges. Partial water cooling has snuck into some of their larger designs. Very hard brake pads help with stopping, at the expense of requiring some break-in miles. Sophisticated electrics, which they do not talk about much, control many engine functions. Harleys had cruise control that was simple and effective long before most others did. The addition of a small light on the instrument panel that lit up only when in 6th gear was a brilliant solution, to my mind. In short, Harley has successfully marketed “old school” while using a lot of leading edge technology. They just do not talk about it much. Coca Cola may have invented marketing, but Harley surely holds the crown in motorcycles.
In 2000 or so Harley did introduce the VRod, with a water cooled and very sophisticated V-twin engine, most of which they designed. It is a brilliant engine, albeit heavy, but Harley lacks the desire, expertise, or corporate will to use the engine in the many forms it should have taken. A lost opportunity, to my way of thinking.
Retro Spin-Off Trends: Retro has worked very well for Triumph and others, and now there is a new wave of bikes from the same sorts of marketing thinkers. Street Scramblers. These were huge back in the 1960s, led by the Honda 250, 300, and 450 Street Scramblers. These were pure street bikes with a smattering of ‘get tough’ dirt bike parts and pieces, and they were brilliant. I put 19,000 miles on a Honda 450 Street Scrambler, and all but about 300 yards of that distance was on pavement. There was that one rainy afternoon with a friend on his similar bike that featured a lot of mud and wet grass. How I managed to not fall down is something I will never know, but I did not repeat it.
Triumph made a Scrambler version of their bikes both back then and for the past twenty years, but it is probably the Ducati version that it leading the charge now. A low seat height, relatively affordable (for a Ducati) and oozing cool, these bikes are the hot thing, and variations on that theme will be prominent in 2017. And I heartily approve.
Bobbing and Bagging along: The latest trend seems to be “bobbers” and “baggers.” The terms go back to just after World War II when returning GIs (and others) purchased thousands of surplus motorcycles meant for the war effort and “bobbed” them, which meant taking off anything that did not make the bike go faster. Front fenders went away, rear passenger seat gone, and often the rear fender was removed or “bobbed.” Of course this made the bike less utile, so some added saddlebags to the back, creating a “bagger.”
Now both of these styles are back with a vengeance, with Ducati and Triumph and others offering the bobber look, and several going for the bagger ideal, even Moto Guzzi and Honda. Like the street scrambler niche trend, there is not much of any performance advantage to the bobber or bagger ilk, and in fact most of them are less capable than the bikes they are based on. It’s all about capturing a look or a mood or a style. Not much wrong with that that I can see. Motorcycles, at least in this country, are still for the most part toys for adults, and if you can have the exact toy you want, more power to you. Like retros and street scramblers, the bobber and bagger variants allow manufacturers to offer a wider range of models at little additional cost, and in many cases less cost, which may (or may not) lower the purchase price. Most are based on cruisers, which have always sold well, and adding the requisite “look” is relatively easy.
The Trend That Never Was: Women riders. People have been excited about the coming “boom” in female motorcycle ownership for decades, but although many more women ride now than in the past, the tidal wave that has been predicted has never hit the shores of the dealerships.
The predictions came about with the rise of participants in motorcycle safety classes, first of all because they were a very good idea, and secondly because insurance and licensing pressures gradually made them all but mandatory. People got excited when they saw that the percentage of women in these classes spiked upward, in some areas reaching almost 50%. However, one factor was left out.
I have long opined that one of the great benefits of such classes is that they allow people to give motorcycles a try. Some of them find out that either A.) They actually do not enjoy riding motorcycles or 2.) Their motor skills and depth perception send them strong messages that they should not ride motorcycles. Either of these conclusions is of great value, and easily justifies the reasonable cost of the class.
I think a hefty chunk of the people who opt out, for good reasons, are female. From my limited experience (never having been a female); it seems to be much harder for women to get into motorcycles. In our sexist culture men are often ‘taught’ through movies and social interaction that they can do anything they want, particularly if it carries a whiff of danger. In fact, it is almost that they should. Women have to slog through a lot of crap related to ‘girls don’t do that’ or simply ‘you can’t.’ There are women (like my mother, wife, and daughter) who don’t particularly give a fig newton about what others think. But not the majority.
I just noticed that I used the word “hefty” and “female” in the same sentence. No slight intended
In addition, women are often more sensible than men, and may choose to opt out of something when the going looks dicey, whereas men may allow the powerful forces of testosterone to lure them on to folly. Been there, done that.
Yes, I simplify, but it is not all bad. It used to be that there was a used Sportster on the floor with almost no miles. Every day. Hubby had been so sure his wife would love riding that he bought her one as a surprise. The wife wanted to show her appreciation, and perhaps took the class. But in reality, she may have enjoyed riding behind him as a passenger, but just did not like riding at all. Eventually the bike would show up on the sales floor with less than 500 miles. At a large cost in financial terms, and possibly marital bliss.
Today women are faced, at last, with motorcycle gear that is designed for a female shape. It may take some looking, but it does exist. The safety classes provide a great start. Most men in my experience are delighted to have a woman or three join a riding group. And best of all, women of shorter stature now have a bevy of beautiful bikes to choose from. It used to be a Harley Sportster or a Ducati Monster and that was about it. Now their choices abound.
So yes, more women than ever are riding, and we are all the better for it. But a massive increase ain’t gonna’ happen.
The Trend I Ignore: There are probably things happening with dirt bikes. I lack curiosity about them and don’t particularly enjoy riding them, so I will pass on this enormous segment of the market, and with that I include dual sport bikes. Also electric bikes and scooters. Sorry. Just not my thing.
Clouds on the Horizon: It bothers me that motorcycle racing is disappearing from the common TV screen. Moto GP and World Superbike used to be available for free, along with AMA pro road racing, but now can be accessed only by the purchase of an additional package, if that. The most likely place to see a motorcycle now is on a “bad boy” show or movie such as “Sons of Anarchy” or various spin offs, and that is a shame. There is so much more to motorcycles than cruising around being, or pretending to be, some sort of bad ass biker dude.
The Isle of Man TT races are shown each year on a major cable channel, but I’d like more than one hedonistic week of binge viewing a year. I’d like to see TT racing and flat track racing as well. The new USA road racing body organized by Wayne Rainey shows promise, and the serious entry of Indian into AMA flat track racing does offer some silver lining to the clouds. I hope.
That’s what I think. You?
Copyright 2016 David Preston