The Motorcycle Market for 2019
Reader note #1: It has come to my attention that if you are reading this on a smart phone, my entire website does not display. Among other horrors, this prevents you from clicking on and ordering any or all of my 8 books available from Amazon. You must go to www.davidpreston.biz on a computer to slake your thirst for essays and novels that feature (mostly) motorcycles.
Here is my every few years guess at what is coming for motorcycle enthusiasts in the coming year. As usual, there are caveats. Although I worked in the motorcycle business from 2000 to 2014, I was a mere customer service enthusiast sort and never made serious decisions about marketing or sales. I have been riding on a frequent basis for over 51 years and have traversed several hundred thousand miles on two wheels, and yet I have the mechanical skills of a hamster (no disrespect intended to hamsters). I have read thousands of motorcycle magazines and been published in several., and yet I have no formal education in either business or motorcycles.
In other words, what follows is worth about what you are paying for it.
When I began cogitating on this topic a week ago I had some ideas. Now that I have done some research and interviewed motorcycle friends, I am mostly confused. Ironically, that also sums up the state of the motorcycle business – confused.
All of the parameters that used to determine success in a limited market fueled by passion (mostly, in the United States anyway), seem to be up in the air or disappearing.
Motorcycle magazines, which ate up thousands of hours of my valuable time over the years, are disappearing. I subscribe (now) to only two, Motorcyclist and Cycle World. Sadly, each month I read through an issue and wonder why I bother. For one thing, it is not each month now, but every other month. For another, a careful reading will find virtually no articles about new motorcycles. A recent issue has lovely pieces about fantastic people and motorcycles that became legends – 40 years ago. There was a large article on tattoos. Really? Where has all the good stuff gone?
I realize I should probably subscribe to Motorcycle Consumer News again. Does it still exist?
Trivia note: a long time ago it was Road Rider magazine and featured two of my early publishing successes. An article about a 5-day honeymoon ride in 1972 on a new Honda 500 4, titled “2 by 4” because I am that clever, and surely the worst poem ever published in a motorcycle magazine or anywhere else – possibly excepting “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree.” Gaack.
Turn to the internet. Like many, my phone receives almost daily epistles from the motorcycle magazines, and some of these offerings are comparison tests or road tests of new machines. This leaves me utterly cold, as I miss spending time reading articles and gazing at the pictures of motorcycles I might or might not want to purchase. But my friends, who are younger and mostly tech types, seem to love this. Magazines used to be a direct feed to sales of bikes, and now what magazines that remain are linking customers to the bikes through their phones. Is that good? (Did you note the clever use of “linking”?)
Racing on TV? Pretty much gone, in the case of MotoGP or Superbike, unless you pay for a subscription. That is not mass-market appeal.
A small ray of TV sunshine peeps through with American flat track racing, reborn from dead and buried status for two decades. The shows are well produced and offer short races for today’s audience, which has the patience of a blow fly, and the racing is close and in your face. Modern road race machines operate on courses designed with rider safety and enormous speeds in mind, so the tracks are wide and run-off areas acres wide. Thus, the TV camera is always a long way from the action. The Isle of Man races are a notable exception, and they have suffered an average of one rider death every year for over a century.
Flat track has also benefited from the dominance of the new Indian racers, and the desperate efforts of Harley-Davidson to ramp up to competitiveness in the only form of racing they have ever dominated.
I think the flat track producers have taken a lot from how NHRA drag racing is presented in person and on TV. Short races, lots of action, and incredible sounds – all of them very near the customer or TV camera. Still, I miss the days of herculean battles all over the world in road racing on TV, including for a while the road race endurance events. All gone, and they may not be back.
TV ads for motorcycles? Pretty much unicorns now.
Newspapers have never covered motorcycles very much, except for a juicy blood-soaked screed whenever some gang types decided to shoot each other.
So, the mass audience you want for your product is not going to see motorcycles all that much on TV, in the paper, or in a magazine. Not good.
When we look at manufacturers the crystal ball continues to fill with smoke.
Harley-Davidson appears to have lost its way and is now reaching out in several directions at once. Or not.
A few months back they made a sizeable investment in an electric motorcycle firm, and then later backed out. Their CEO recently gave an impassioned speech about all the exciting things they are going to do, but if you listened closely there was a dearth of any detail or hard dates for production of – what?
What do customers want? Excellent question, and my guess is as good as yours. I think smaller and less expensive bikes, which are selling, are going to be the future. Ironically, this would go back over 50 years to when the Japanese flooded America with hundreds of thousands of small and inexpensive bikes that were well made and offered surprisingly good performance. Every year they got better, and a little bigger, and a little more powerful, and expensive. That may happen again.
Another problem, and there is no shortage of them, is a road infrastructure that falls ever further behind machine capability, worsening traffic, and an aging traditional demographic.
A modern sport bike of 600cc or more can no longer be ridden anywhere near its massive capabilities on a public road. There is too much traffic, too many hazards, and a few seconds of throttle can write a check the rider’s talent probably cannot cash. They become toys to be used for track days, that that is a small sliver of a small market. They are still fun to ride, even at sane speeds, and fun to look at, and good for the ego. That is enough for some buyers, but again, large sales are probably not going to happen.
What about electric motorcycles? Have you ridden one? Most of my friends are eager for them, but I rode one and it left me flat bored. An excellent device for getting from point A to point B, and getting better rapidly, but getting from point A to B is not why I ride a motorcycle. I have a car for that. Motorcycles have traditionally offered romance, noise, beauty, vibration and yes, a dash of uncertainty. A flat black transportation module that happens to have only two wheels does not stir my juices. But then again, I am not the new market, so this may prove to be the future. …but I doubt it.
Can you imagine the task of the marketing guru who designs the ad campaign for the new Harley electric bike, if and when it appears? I have no idea how I would even start that concept. Your traditional Harley buyer is probably out, and your new market person has a few images in his or her head about Harley – that you helped put there – that will get in the way. To put it mildly.
Harley-Davidson catered to Mom and Dad on a large cruiser for decades, but due to the cost of the machines, Mom and Dad eventually became Grandma and Grandad. Those folks are now leaving the sport for the most inevitable of reasons, and they are not being replaced.
Ironically, Harley was the first manufacturer to target women as customers, but they have never offered much in the way of motorcycles for a broad range of women. No, that was not a pun. Women tend to be shorter of leg and arm than men. Most do not want to take on a Road King, especially if they are new. The Sportster, yes, but what if the woman is interested in performance? She can turn to the Ducati Monster, and some of the smaller sport bikes, if the seat is low enough, but again her choices are slim. The industry has spilled a lot of ink about their commitment to motorcycles and gear designed for women, but the reality has come nowhere near the hype.
Can women become a major market for motorcycles? It would take a massive investment in time and money to make this happen, and I do not see any manufacturer with the stones or the means to attempt it. If you think the tech industry is male-dominated at the management end, name a woman in a position of decision-making authority at any major motorcycle manufacturer. Mary Bara is the CEO of General Motors, after all. And in motorcycles? Waiting…
“Retro” is a hot corner of the market now, as seen by the success of Triumph with the many Bonneville models. I own one, so bias is inherent. The 900cc air-cooled Bonneville and later T120 1200cc (water cooled head) Bonneville have sold so well there are now an innumerable number of variants, and more on the way. Your local dealer can offer a new Bonneville at a price point of abut $9,000 to $15,000. That is a cost range of 60% for bikes that have the same name. They are selling as fast as they can be made.
But I do not think buyers really want “retro” all that much. What they want is a great looking bike that is reliable and makes them smile every time they see it. My 2016 T120 Bonneville may look eerily similar to a 1969, (very intentionally), but also has heated grips, ride modes, ABS triple disc brakes, and 10,000-mile oil changes. And a cell phone charge outlet under the seat – on a British motorcycle! Joseph Lucas, Prince of Darkness, has left the building.
Jay Leno once said “A real motorcycle is one you can see through,” and I think he nailed it. What buyers want is simplicity, with all the modern complexity hidden. That will earn a bike the retro label, even if none of the parts are close to the model exemplified.
One example – my 2016 T120 astonishes when parked next to my friend’s 1973. The engines appear to be the same size. His is 650cc, and mine is 1200cc – the benefit derived from the hidden radiator that allows for much smaller cooling fins that may or may not even need to be there, surrounding an engine of almost twice the size. And power.
Another factor that nobody mentions – color. About 10 years ago the Japanese discovered an apparently limitless tank of black paint. There were also tanks of dark gray, graphite, charcoal, matte black, etc. This has always puzzled me. Why would you try to lessen the visual impact of an exciting product? Are you trying to make it disappear?
For years Harley would come out with essentially the same bikes year after year, but they also had the best painting facility and some inspired palette choices. Every year when the new ones rolled in to the dealership where I worked, I was astonished at the glory of them, and had a pang or two of desire to buy. I did not need one, but still… gorgeous.
One way to boost sales (possibly) would be to ban all black paint schemes for a year or two. Go back to “retro” colors even – various shades of in your face green for Kawasaki, blues for Suzuki and Yamaha, Hondas in red, white and blue, and Harleys in – everything. And get creative, too. How about a Ducati in blue? A BMW in candy apple burgundy? And how about going really wild and using – chrome? You get the idea
In America, motorcycles have historically been purchased, in the main, as toys. That attitude needs to be re-embraced by the industry. With the current and coming onslaught of electric vehicles, Uber, Lyft, autonomous vehicles (ugh), motorcycles can either try to compete as rational transportation solutions, and good luck with that, or reverse course and make better and more attractive toys. I want my toy to be exciting, the light up my eyes when I see it. I want to sun to bounce off the gorgeous paint and gleaming chrome, and I want each ride to be an experience, not transportation. I want to experience joy, not the disaffected scowl of a post-modern anti-hero.
For 2019 I have no idea how it will all work out. Sadly, I don’t think people in the industry do either.
My guess is that customers want motorcycles that are fun to look at, fun to ride, dead solid reliable, and affordable. I think the market is there, but there are questions about how to reach the market.
To do that I would go with smaller frames and engines, lots of bright colors, and chrome. And, if you must, tout them all on social media.
Copyright 2018 David Preston