I keep wanting to write this article, but it needs to be a thorough and well-researched piece. I never can get to it. But I need to tell people the gist of what I’ve noticed for awhile: people are still buying motorcycles… they just aren’t buying new ones.
People keep saying millennials aren’t buying motorcycles and the Baby Boomer generation is aging out of the sport. Well, that’s partly true. Boomers are stepping off the bike for good, or are buying the last bike they’ll ever own.
However, people age 20-40 are still riding; they just refuse to buy new motorcycles. Why? Because manufacturers are focused on profit margins; the realm of the $25,000 luxury touring bike or unobtanium sport bike. They have the bells and the whistles, and you can sit in your garage and stare at them for hours. One thing many of us can’t do though is afford to put one in the garage.
If you want to attract younger riders, don’t offer them a machine that costs twice what a Nissan Versa goes for and is as hard to insure as a BMW M-series. The attraction to motorcycles is, for many of us, the simplicity of getting out on the road… of feeling in control of your destiny. A Honda XR650 can do that just as well as a Honda Goldwing, leaving you $16,801 in gas money (based on MSRP for 2018 models of each bike).
Better still, get a 10-year-old XR650 with several upgrades and cheaper insurance. Manufacturers will never admit it, but they aren’t building what millennials want. Then industry pundits go on to blame millennials for not buying new motorcycles. It’s no wonder a “f*ck the factory” mindset exists among riders bopping around on Ironhead Harleys or a mid-2000’s GSX-R1000.
What took this from a pet theory to a gobsmacked reality for me was some data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The report [pdf] shows that on-road registrations have doubled from 2002 to 2017 (from 4.2 million to 8.4 million).
But their illustration 4b is the real bombshell: registrations of 10+ year old motorcycles went from 39.5% of the total up to 60.4% in the same time period. Total registrations fumbled from 2010-2013, stuck at about 8.0 million as the world economy fell in on itself. Then things began to tick up again, though they’ve only made it up to about 8.4 million in 2017.
And Boomers still seem to be driving the market: cruiser-style motorcycles have lost a percentage of total registrations while more comfortable touring bikes have gained share. This is also showing in new-sales data, with average age climbing.
Fortunately the manufacturers aren’t blind like American car manufacturers were in the 1970’s, so there’s hope. But when people want simplicity and a feeling of personal autonomy, it’s hard to sell them an $18,000 motorcycle with 15 levels of traction control. Witness though the Honda Rebel and its revamp. Honda sees a customer that wants to customize without a masters degree in electrical engineering. There is a whole family of CB500’s as well, showing that Honda knew they had to design a platform first, then build motorcycles from that (with thinner profit margins you have to think smart).
Harley is struggling to get people on its Street 750 model, but its continued existence shows the Motor Company’s desire to sell an entry level bike that isn’t 500lbs and $9000. They’re also bringing a host of new models, with several based on a new platform.
But also witness the continued desire to rule the roost with a flagship model. Honda now has a street-legal version of its CRF450, selling for over $10,000. How long will the XR650 stay in their line-up if it seems redundant having two dual sport motorcycles in the family? Kawasaki has already killed off its venerable KLR650, and I’d wager a more modern (read: more expensive) adventure-touring bike will be taking its place in the 2019 line up.
But that’s not my point. What I’m saying is you have to build what people want and can obtain. Ferrari doesn’t try to sell 500,000 units a year because it knows there aren’t enough people who want and can obtain one. Oh, there is without a doubt 500,000 people who would love to own one, but they aren’t in the target demographic (i.e. they’re not filthy stinking rich).
Right now the OEM’s are closing their eyes to the fact that people don’t want to feel like a bad ass so much as they want to feel they have a slice of themselves that no one can touch. The old sell is to say you’re missing something in your life, and our product is the solution.
People may still want to feel like a bad ass or project an image of rebellion, but not to the tune of $10,000 plus a helmet and a jacket and maybe we can tack it all in the financing on top of the crushing debt you’re already dealing with. Do ya feel more free now? Yeah, thought so. Even a $2500 bike is hard to afford for many, but they get the job done and you have money left over to actually ride the damn thing.
Even in the hustle of city traffic, on a motorcycle you can put your phone in your pocket and just ride. It’s you, the bike, and the road. No onboard trip computer talking to you like HAL, and no complicated interface. That clapped out Honda CB550 may make your pants smell like oil and exhaust by the time you get home, but since when was that a bad thing?