What would you say if someone told you that half of all the motorcycles sold worldwide every year were made in China? You’d probably wrinkle your forehead, stare blankly into space and blink your eyes in disbelief. China? Can’t be. What’s the catch?
There is none. It’s a fact. And someday fairly soon, you and the rest of the motorcyclists in the U.S. will come to know it all too well. In 2003, China produced a staggering 14 million motorcycles. According to one credible source, China has been the world’s largest producer of motorcycles since 1994!
Okay, so there is a catch: At this point, the Chinese do not make motorcycles that compete directly with the vast majority of those sold in the U.S. Most Chinese streetbikes are small by our standards, single-cylinder tiddlers in the 50/100/125cc range. A few Twins up to 250cc sneak into the mix, but there aren’t many models larger than that. And, of course, China produces a wide range of scooters, which make up a huge percentage of that country’s two-wheel production.
Actually, scooters and small-displacement kids’ dirtbikes are two categories in which Chinese bikes are already having a noticeable impact on the U.S. market. Both segments tend to attract buyers hoping to spend as little as possible, and the price tags on the Chinese offerings are only a fraction of those on their Japanese and European counterparts. With rare exception, the quality of these Chinese machines is significantly lower than that of the higher-priced bikes; but for people who only intend to casually putt around on the vehicles every once in a while, the trade-off can be worthwhile.
For residents of the world’s largest communist country, the motorcycle is not a recreational vehicle or an object of personal passion; it’s a utilitarian device that provides millions with their only reasonable, affordable means of transportation. Many citizens of China—as well as those throughout most of Southeast Asia—cannot afford cars, so it’s no wonder that country has one of the world’s largest concentrations of small motorcycles and scooters. Most of these riders also can’t afford the higher-quality Japanese motorcycles and have instead resorted to buying Chinese-built imitations—some legal copies, others not so legal.
Popular perception would suggest that these imitations are shoddily built and of low technical content, but that’s not always the case; many indeed are dreadful, but some are decent and still others are quite good. The better ones typically use proven Japanese engine, chassis and suspension designs that are only a generation or two old. The end results are durable, practical bikes that often cost a fraction of what the originals would sell for.
Potentially, Americans looking to get into motorcycling at minimal expense stand to benefit greatly from these savings, so what’s not to like? Well, at this point, quite a lot. For starters, how about an infant industry with little or no dealer network? How about very little buyer recourse should something break or fail? How about too many manufacturers, distributors and other middlemen clouding the market with false hopes, hollow promises and flat-out misrepresentations?
This may sound like doom and gloom, but the true picture is brighter than that. Considering that there are more than 100 supposed motorcycle “manufacturers” (most are actually just parts suppliers) in China, there’s bound to be some bad apples.
That situation is changing, though, and surprisingly enough, some of the most powerful forces driving that change are the Japanese manufacturers. In the past, when a Chinese company copied a Japanese design, legal action or economic sanction would have been the order of the day. But in this era of global economies, the Japanese are instead setting up trade and manufacturing partnerships with some of the Chinese companies. Although this potentially gives the Chinese an opportunity to copy Japanese designs more easily, it’s actually having a reverse effect. The riders in Asia are demanding better quality, more features and higher technology for their money than in the past, so legally partnering with the some of the world’s leading manufacturers is a real shot in the arm for the Chinese companies.
Truth is, several manufacturers in China have been producing high-quality motorcycles for quite some time, but at this juncture, they have no interest in expanding to the United States. When they look at the certification hurdles imposed by the EPA, DOT, CARB et al, as well as the time and expense of creating a legitimate dealer network here—not to mention the promotional effort required to get the program off the ground—they simply shrug their shoulders and continue with what they had been doing: selling all the motorcycles they build as quickly as they can build them. They don’t need to be in the American market, so they aren’t.
As the Chinese motorcycle industry evolves to meet the demands of markets within and outside its own boundaries, the quality of its products will only increase. The lower end of the market will soon be crowded with small bikes that are just one or two technological generations old, built to Japanese standards in Chinese factories.
For the present, what this means to motorcyclists in the United States is unclear. The expense of building or even copying a modern fuel-injected full-size motorcycle—whether sport, standard or cruiser—is still too high to justify the cost of entering the high-end market, especially without a proven name behind the model. For new and recreational motorcyclists, or for those who just want something to putt around on without much investment, Chinese motorcycles will open a whole new world of possibilities. There will be more and cheaper motorcycles available to the public.
Currently, no one would consider these new imports to be anything but economy machines. Cycle World’s own experiences with Chinese bikes have been inconclusive at best. A faux enduro model that had a premature valve failure, a cruiser that, ahem, “borrows” styling cues from another manufacturer, and a scooter with too small of a gas tank do not constitute a representative sample. But aside from its tiny fuel capacity, the scooter wasn’t all that bad: An alarm, a remote starter and decent performance could be had all for one-fourth the price of its Italian competition.
You can’t help but draw parallels between the current state of the Chinese bike market in the U.S. and the Japanese motorcycle industry here in the late 1950s. At first, the Japanese copied some designs and styles, but they quickly “got it.” They figured out that to compete in the global marketplace; they had to design their own machines and create their own images. They offered a different riding experience than what was available at the time, and did so with reliability and sensibility—two words which, in that generation, were not always part of motorcycling’s vocabulary.
The Chinese seem to be following this same model. Oddly enough, the greatest proponent of capitalism, the United States, will benefit from government control of the greatest communist nation, China. No matter what the current perception of the products from China may be, there are people in that country who do know how to build a motorcycle. Rest assured, the Chinese will one day “get it” and come into the global marketplace firing on all cylinders. One day soon, we will be the target demographic for the Chinese motorcycle industry. And if any part of the history of the Japanese entry into this market is repeated, we’ll be the better for it.