Decline and fall

Most motorcycle manufacturers have come and gone.  Pick your favorite defunct moto brand, google it, and surely you will find that someone has written a book all about the reasons no one is making them anymore.  But really, every motorcycle brand failure can be attributed to two reasons, people lost interest in buying them and or their makers lost interest in building them.

When it comes to why consumers buy motorcycles, this too can be broken down to two reasons, they want affordable basic transportation or they want a motorcycle for fun.  Because most motorcycles are road legal, motorcyclists can combine practical transportation and fun, or at least that is what they tell their wives, mothers, husbands...   There is a (much) smaller market of motorcycles for commercial, police, or military use.

Motorcycles started out with the marriage of the safety bicycle invented in 1883, with the high speed small gasoline engine, invented only a few years later. It is estimated that there were over a hundred motorcycle manufacturers in the USA in the early years of the 20th Century.  

Meanwhile cars were getting more affordable.   The Ford Model T made the car king.  Mass production and that almost everyone wanted them, supercharging economy of scale,  pushed the selling price of the Model T down to $260 in 1925 from it's debut price of $825 in 1909.  

A model T weighed between 1200 and 1600 pounds, so it cost about 22 cents a pound.  By comparison, a utility two stroke 221 cc cheapest 'entry level' motorcycle sold for about 175 dollars and weighed about 160 pounds, nearly a buck a pound. Larger motorcycles weighed more and cost more. The 1922 roughly 400 pound Indian Chief sold for $435, a 1922 T Model could be had for $319.  The large number of Model Ts sold and similarly priced Chevrolets and Plymouths also meant there were plenty of low cost used cars available.  The sales decline of motorcycles and rapid disappearance of USA's motorcycle industry was attributed to the Model T, but what about the rest of the world?

In the early 20th Century much of the USA was still an empty, lightly populated semi frontier.  Most of the towns and cities west of the Appalachian mountains were less than 100 years old, many a lot less.  A large proportion of the population was rural, towns were distant, swift transportation was more of a necessity than a luxury
Europe on the other hand, was densely populated. Distances were small, people lived and worked within walking distance of everything they needed, climates were milder and less extreme than North America.  Bicycles and motorcycles could be used year round in most of Europe.  Even though the Model T had made it to Europe, it never achieved the numbers or impact that it had in the USA.  Cars were for the better off, fuel, licensing and road taxes were expensive. Accommodations for cars  such as wider streets and convenient parking was scarce, motorcycles were much easier and cheaper to own and use.

A Golden age of motorcycles rose in Europe at the same time of motorcycle decline in the USA.  The European motorcycle golden age was interrupted by WWII.  The decline of the European Motorcycle industry in the late 1950's and early 60's has been blamed on short sighted management and the failure to respond to Japanese motorcycles.  That this happened is without question, but is it really the main reason?   

Every major manufacturing enterprise starts at home. With growth and success comes export, and if successful enough global domination.  So what were the Euros doing in the 50's and 60's?  The Krauts had been building huge numbers of  VW People's Cars since the war ended.  French roads were clogged with the weird but wonderful Citroen 2CV, the Italians had the slightly larger than a wheelbarrow  Fiat 500 to ride four people around.  British Motor Corporation introduced the Mini in 1959, a tiny four seater that could fit four adults as comfortably as a 21st Century budget airline.  As in North America in the 1920's four wheels replaced two.  

By now motorcycle makers had learned a thing or two about how to manage mass production and lower costs.  Cheap cars were still priced about the same as an expensive motorcycle, but motorcycle makers were able to grind out small motorcycles and mopeds for considerably less than the cheapest car.  Affordable motorcycles were mostly bought by young people, but there was also a huge market overseas where even the smallest and cheapest car could still only be afforded by a few.  In 1950 a BSA brochure claimed that BSA was the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles.  This was probably true, as much of BSA's production went to British colonies and Commonwealth countries.  

Post World War II Japan  resumed  manufacture of consumer goods, developing  a motorcycle industry for the nation's transportation needs that that would soon be the world's largest exporter of motorcycles.  

The British, Italians, Germans, Austrian, and Eastern Europeans were also producing motorcycles for the masses, which would soon be replaced by cheap small cars for anyone who just wanted convenient transportation.  Motorcycle customers tended to be the young and fit, who enjoyed motorcycles for sport as well as basic transportation.  Manufacturers could count on some of their small cheap bike customers upgrading to larger and more prestigious models.  

It is a poorly kept manufacturing secret that 'upgrading' products to more attractive models, results in higher profit for more or less the same build cost.  If company management decides to skip building cheaper models that have little profit to concentrate on making expensive much more profitable models, they don't have to make or sell as many to get the same income.   Making less of a thing will always cost more than making more of a thing because of the loss of economies of scale.  To make or buy each part becomes cheaper the more you make or buy.  A more expensive motorcycle (or any other product) is mostly a collection of the same items used to make a cheap one,  dumping the cheap models increases unit cost of manufacture.

So where are we today?  Large expensive motorcycles are still a niche market, catering to relatively young, relatively fit, mostly men with disposable income.  Relatively young is not as young as it used to be.  The 2022 Canadian motorcyclist is either side of 40 years old.   Motorcycling used to be a popular youth activity, but today's youth have a much greater range of choices of what to do with their spare time and money.  Added to that is that there are no real beginner motorcycles.  

A 2020 beginner bike is likely somewhere around 400 to 600 cc with between 50 and 90 horsepower,  weight between 400 and 500 pounds.  A 2020 beginner bike would have been the fastest most powerful motorcycle you could have bought in the 1950's.  It must be said that 2020 brakes and tires are also light years ahead of what was available in 1950, so it is not as crazy as it first appears, but it also must be said that road speeds in the 1950's were closer to 30 mph than they were to 70 mph , which is pretty much what you you can expect on the open road in 2020 Canada and the USA.  A 2020 beginner needs to be braver and stronger than a 1950 beginner.

Meanwhile in the rest of the world, the market is flooded with cheap lightweight motorcycles and scooters priced between 1500 and about 3000 Canadian dollars  made in China and India.  They are what they are, cheap transport mostly for young adults.  They get ridden into the ground, pretty soon plastics are broken, chains are sagging, but they never stop running.  No doubt most of the kids who ride them would rather have a car if they could afford one, but a small number will discover that motorcycles are fun and buy something nicer when they can afford it.  

Chinese and Indian motorcycles have priced cheaper Japanese bikes out of the market wherever they are sold.  Japanese motorcycles are for those who want something a little better that costs more.  The Chinese bikes are clearly channeling Japanese bikes.  Chinese bikes mostly come from government owned factories who could care less about establishing any kind of brand recognition or loyalty.  They will stick any brand name on the same model depending on what they think they can sell.  The Indian manufacturer's are in the private sector, they compete with the Chinese, but maintain their identity.  India also makes more motorcycles than any other country.   

At the moment the future of motorcycling for fun belongs to India.  Indian manufacturer are resurrecting historical motorcycle brands such as Norton and Jawa. Royal Enfield India has never stopped making motorcycles long after the UK company closed its doors.  Other established motorcycle makers from Europe, Japan and USA are either allying with Indian motorcycle manufacturers or establishing branch plants in India. 

Chinese motorcycles are starting to arrive in Canada. In the past they were sold as "off road" motorcycles when in fact they were street oriented dual sports that would have been steet legal here if the importers had gone through the onerous task of getting Transport Canada  approval.  CF moto, a Chinese manufacturer has recently entered the Canadian market selling machines branded under their own name.  Their Canadian model line looks like some of the more "affordable" bikes sold by Honda or Kawasaki  but half the price.  It will be interesting to see if the Chinese can duplicate the bike sales explosion achieved by the Japanese manufacturers in the 1970's.  Kids must be getting bored of their phones by now.


Popular posts from this blog

A tale of two XTs

I'm baaaack

Buenos Aires