Technical Editor Kevin Cameron was asked to deliver the keynote address at the Ride For Kids live auction during the inaugural AIMExpo in Orlando, Florida. This is the transcript from that speech.
Nineteen seventy-two and 2005 were great and memorable years, but only a dreamer could think they’d last forever. When I was a dealer, we lived for those $10,000 days. After banking the cash and checks, we would take ourselves out for dinner at someplace rather good. Setup men were busy out back, rolling ’em out.
Now, we’re in the midst of a great motorcycle industry hiccup, wondering what the future will be. Fortunately for us all in this industry, 2008 was only one in a series of such hiccups, and the motorcycle remains the most versatile of vehicles. Less complex and expensive than cars, it is much quicker to change and adapt to markets and fashion.
The ’20s brought a fabulous boom, with England alone being home to 200 makes. For a manufacturer, a win at the Isle of Man TT could triple sales, week to week. For a time, English motorcycle registrations exceeded those of cars. Sports singles were hot, and Brough big twins inspired lust.
Then came the Great Depression, and famous names became history as company after company folded. Dealers and makers alike cut prices to below cost, just to keep something rattling in the cash drawer. This caused the upscale and very nicely finished Sunbeam motorcycle, formerly selling at nearly 200 pounds, to be dropped to 60. Desperation!
But when World War II ended in Europe, the fastest way to get transportation into production was in the form of motorcycles. Very quickly, Germany again became the world’s largest producer. By the ’50s, car factories had been rebuilt and retooled, but motorcycles fought back with mass production and pressed-steel structures. Remember those funny-looking NSUs?
Then came 1955, when cheap cars and higher wages chopped motorcycle sales in Europe. But not in England!
England, bankrupted by two world wars, had to export. They discovered that Americans wanted fun. Most English bikes had been singles, but suddenly, every export maker—BSA, Triumph, Norton, AJS/Matchless, and Enfield—offered freshly designed twins. Boatloads of Triumphs and BSAs were shipped, and because Americans believed too much was just enough, those British twins were continually souped-up to deliver ever-more performance.
There was pushing and shoving in the marketplace. Something new was coming to the US.
Pete Dalio was an Indian dealer in Fort Worth, Texas. He took on Triumph in 1949 because he wasn’t happy with the new OHV Indians, whose rocker boxes cracked and even just fell off.
The Indian district manager told Dalio, “Pete, you’re going to have to make a decision on which one to keep. You can’t have Triumph in an Indian Dealership.”
Pete replied, “That’s no decision. Roll them damn Indians out of here.”
“On his machine-tool-buying trips, Mr. Honda saw that motorcycles were not transportation in America. They were entertainment for people with money to spend.
In Japan, too, the first form of transportation to go into production after the war was small motorcycles. At one point, more than 200 makes existed—remind you of China today, does it?—most of them regional. Only the strongest and most organized makers, backed by wide dealer networks, could keep their products running. The others fell by the wayside.
Soon, the surviving makers had saturated the Japanese transportation market with their proven products. What now? Would the Japanese motorcycle industry, like the German and the Italian ones, be destroyed by the eventual tooling-up of small, cheap cars?
Mr. Soichiro Honda and his partner, Takeo Fujisawa, thought about this. On his machine-tool-buying trips, Mr. Honda saw that motorcycles were not transportation in America. They were entertainment for people with money to spend. But Harleys and 500 and 650cc British bikes were too much fun for most Americans. What if two-wheel fun could be offered in a smaller dose?
The resulting “You meet the nicest people” concept was very successful for Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Hodaka, Bridgestone, and Tohatsu. Just as Alfred P. Sloan made economic steppingstones out of General Motors car brands, so the 50cc step-through became an 80, then a 125 twin, then a 250.
Americans first accepted motorbikes, then small motorcycles, then motorcycling itself. The Japanese marketing plan created a market that had not previously existed, and motorcycling was socially okay in the US. Once that was accomplished, sales of entry-level machines, such a step-throughs, dried up. In a sense, the draw bridge that had carried hundreds of thousands of Americans to the enjoyment of motorcycles was now raised.
Motorcycling had been a closed culture in the US in 1950, divided between two makers of rugged but traditional heavyweights. Then, first the English and then the Japanese opened the market. And since then, motorcycling has closed again. Small, easy-to-like little motorbikes have vanished. The first-time buyer’s two choices in 2005 were either a 160-mph 600cc sportbike or something that looked like a cross between a sidewalk bike and a chopper.
Through the ’90s. there were half-hearted campaigns to find new buyers, to again bring outsiders into motorcycling, thereby broadening its base. A given maker might hire a new ad agency. Advertising in motorcycle magazines and competing in races were just preaching to the choir, they said. So TV ads were beamed out to harried housewives, trying to get the ironing done while the youngest was asleep. She didn’t buy a motorcycle.
Honda’s Pacific Coast super-scooter was, marketing students learn, aimed at the kind of man who drives a BMW car but rejects motorcycles as too crude, too much like steam locomotives. He wants refinement. Oho! This takes me back to 1946, when British social theorists proclaimed that motorcycles would return to the fabulous popularity of the ’20s by being made more like cars. Clean, quiet, maintenance-free motorcycles were the key. Sunbeam built the fat-tired, shaft-driven S7. Vincent built the fully enclosed Black Prince. British car-bikes flopped.
So did Pacific Coast, which looked a lot like a Black Prince in white or red. In all the years since its introduction in 1989, I have seen one.
“Motorcycling was refracted into all its specializations—touring, off-road, sportbikes. New categories were created: baggers, adventure-touring, sport-touring.
The US market changed, and it specialized. Through the boom years of the ’70s, the market was young men with good industrial jobs. Just as those jobs were going overseas, older men began to wonder if life wasn’t passing them by. They had a fling with motorcycles, many of them expensive. Motorcycling was refracted into all its specializations—touring, off-road, sportbikes. New categories were created: baggers, adventure-touring, sport-touring. Motorcycling gelled into separate activities, and so did riders. Depending on which $2500 outfit you were wearing, you could be identified as a Harley guy, a touring guy, a sportbike guy. And if you went into a dealership as a newbie, you would be called upon to declare yourself.
The 1000cc Brough SS100 of the 1920s and the ZXs of the present caused a friend of mine to postulate his “Displacement Law of Economics.” According to this law, when the displacement of the most-desired motorcycles reaches 1000cc, general economic collapse is just around the corner. Looking back at 2008 from the vantage point of the present, this makes a kind of sense. It says that when people have enough extra credit to feel they need a 200-horsepower motorcycle, something somewhere is out of balance.
Anyway, 2008 arrived and everything changed. Now, the US economy is recovering somewhat, but it’s clear things have changed. We need a new plan.
The industry is cautiously trying to fix itself by again offering bikes that don’t come with a pre-packaged identity but are whatever you want them to be: Kawasaki’s Ninja 300, Yamaha’s FZ-09, Honda’s NC700X, and CBR250R. They don’t add up to a re-lowering of the drawbridge; there are no 50s, 90s, or 125s, and they are not cheap. Many of us had imagined the Chinese might step into those categories, but it appears they remain in the state Japanese makers were in the early ’50s, with a great many builders competing for the domestic market, none of them able to exert dominance or strong enough to export a solidly reliable product.
Regardless of what products are offered, who will the new buyers be? Automotive writers have speculated that today’s young people have somehow become immune to motor vehicles and will remain so. Supposedly, these people are happy with the “connectedness” promoted by social media. For previous generations, a driver’s license represented freedom and adulthood, but for coming generations, motor vehicles are more problem than solution, sources of pollution and gridlock.
“The major reason why the New Youth is not buying cars, houses, and motorbikes is that he has no money, not because his new green beliefs forbid it.
But people have to live. Gloom-and-doomers warn that today’s youth lives in a virtual world, with unknowable new tastes and attitudes. But the underemployed 23-year-old, living in his parents’ basement surrounded by pads, pods, and screens, can’t stay there forever. When mom and dad leave the scene, he will need a car, a job, and a life. Like it or not, our nation is structured around motor vehicles and cannot quick-morph into Green City of the Future because iPod people disapprove. Except in downtown areas, people cannot walk to work, to the store, to meet their friends. The major reason why the New Youth is not buying cars, houses, and motorbikes is that he has no money, not because his new green beliefs forbid it.
Yes, it’s true that we can neither predict nor control the changes yet to come from social media and its technical devices. No one can know where all this leads. We do know that it changes constantly. MySpace was huge but disappeared. Facebook is huge but its stock value teeters. Email is now regarded as uncool, replaced by texting.
Then, there’s the completely unforeseen. In 1985, officials from the US, Japan, German, Britain, and France sat down in the Plaza Hotel in New York City to rearrange currency valuations. As a result, Japanese goods became much more expensive for US buyers, and this caused Japanese producers to begin shifting parts production to China. The reason for this so-called “Plaza Accord”? To reduce the US deficit and protect US producers. Look at all the progress they’ve made since.
It’s still possible for children to grow up on minibikes and MX80s, but in a world that wants to surround children with a wall of 100-percent guaranteed safety, it’s less likely. Lawsuit-world has no room for even the slightest risk.
Despite all this, people want and need to have fun. Lots of my friends in engineering or the sciences first became interested in those areas thanks to early experience with motorcycles. Motorcycles are in human scale. I have carried motorcycles up and down stairs, and I have stood them up on their back wheels in small elevators. Motorcycles are personal. Rider/tuner/engineer Warren Willing brought his disassembled Yamaha TZ750 racer to Laguna Seca from Australia in hand baggage. Motorcycles are an attractive and manageable project. Motorcycles are simple enough to be easily understood. Motorcycles are like skiing, but with the added ability to go uphill. Motorcycles become a part of the rider, extending his or her abilities on or off-road. These qualities are always inherently part of every motorcycle and cannot be legislated away by do-gooders.
And finally, motorcycles are adaptable, with a long history of quickly filling whatever niche is available. We will adapt.