Nov 8, 2010

Listening and Living

In the 60’s and early 70’s, Harley and what was left of the British motorcycle industry sort made a stab at addressing the bottom-up-market attack from Japan. Harley branded Italian (Aermacchi) machines and provided minimal support. BSA gave us the infamous 441 Victim that may have sealed that company’s fate all on its own. Triumph and BMW fought back, slightly more effectively. In the end, HD devolved into a portion of a bowling ball company's holdings. BSA and Triumph vanished into bankruptcy. Triumph manged to struggle back, but mostly as a high-end make of rich kid toys. Never again have any of those companies made motorcycles for folks who don't have $15-20k to dump into a recreational vehicle.

Now Japan is on the short end of that same stick. Indian, Malaysian, Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese motorcycle and scooter manufacturers are cranking up production and aiming product at the low end of the US and world markets; the entry level rider. If history was an indicator, you'd expect Japan to respond with bigger, more expensive, less efficient, less reliable vehicles as a response. That's what American and British manufacturers did. Maybe not so.

One advantage Japan has over their stogy 1960's US and Euro competition is that they never gave up on the cheap, functional stuff. They just quit bringing it into to the US. Maybe that's changing. Honda is taking a chance on US riders with the 2011 CBR250R and CBR250X ABS. This is the kind of bike that Japan has left at home or Europe for the last 20+ years, assuming we are too fat, dumb, and rich to ride a motorcycle that has a functional purpose. As usual, Suzuki started the experiment with the TU250X, a fuel injected street bike with manners and abilities. Honda's entry is less practical, but it might be more fun. Yamaha and Kawasaki are sitting this one out, waiting to see if Suzuki and Honda have discovered something new about the American market. By the time they have their answer, they might starve their US dealers to death and miss the whole event.

 The competition doesn't have the dealership problem. Like the Japanese manufacturers in the 1960's, anyone who has a retail outlet appears to be capable of grabbing a Hero, Royal Enfield, Hyosung, Chang Jang, Kymco, SYM, Baja, PGO, or whoever-pops-up-next dealership. The Pep Boys have carried a few brands of Chinese-made motorcycles. So does a filling station a couple of miles from my home. A local hardware store hustles the Hyosung brand, servicing the bikes along side their lawnmowers and snowblowers.  When I was a kid, our local Suzuki dealer also sold Sony televisions, Bogen sound system equipment, and lawnmowers. Our Honda dealer was, primarily, a farm equipment dealer. Yamaha and Kawasaki were sold out of a handyman's Quonset shed along with his regular home repair services. Only BSA/Triumph and Harley Davidson had actual dealerships in town, both of which went out of business by 1968. So it was, so it is.

Will Japan hang on to this business? Your guess is as good as anyone's and probably better than mine.


  1. It seems to me that the Japanese manufacturers had both a cost and quality advantage when they were displacing the traditional manufacturers in the 70s. Is that the case with the Chinese/Indian/etc new players? I haven't heard good things about most of these makes.

  2. Don't forget Kawasaki has already been doing this for years with the now-extinct EX-500 and the recently refreshed Ninja 250. In fact, I hear that the little Ninja is Kawasaki's best-selling model. I hear the Hyosung's are not bad, though around here they sell for pretty close to what better Japanese bikes do. Also, Kymco seems to have a pretty good rep. in the scooter market. The new Indian Enfield's are a bit quirky, but they are about as close to old British bike feel as you can buy new.

  3. Good question, Gerry. The Hyosung 650 cruiser is priced almost right on top of its Japanese and US competition. It has serious quality problems and no price advantage. Kymco is pretty close to the same boat for equivalent models.

    I hadn't heard that the Kawi 250R was the company's top seller, but it is a great bike and has been for years. The "refreshed" version is pretty similar to the last 10 years of that model, though. It's still carbureted, which would be my biggest complaint. The new graphics are nice, but not exactly a big step into a new market. The EX500 was one of my favorite small bikes. Bumping it up to 650 was a step in the wrong direction.

    Personally, I'd rather have the Suzuki TU250X's "British bike feel" over anything Enfield produces.


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