The View from Here: Post-war children of North America were instrumental in growth of the Japanese motorcycle marques, but times are changing.
A shift is coming to the world bike market
Like so many children of the Great Depression, my parents' lives were forever altered by the lost decade of the 1930s. Debt became a curse word and, despite a retirement account that would satiate anyone not employed by a hedge fund, they live an extremely frugal existence. Nothing, but nothing, is capable of enticing them to loosen the purse strings. Their caution, their irrational fear of debt and obsessive devotion to thrift were indelibly stamped by an economic malaise we, their privileged offspring, could never understand.
Few countries escaped the Great Recession of 2008-2009 unscathed, but few - save perhaps Spain and Ireland - suffered through a beat down as badly as the American middle-class. And while I hesitate to label the recent economic travailes as distressing as the Great Depression, there's little doubt that our world has also changed.
I suspect that motorcycling, for instance, is in the midst of a paradigm shift, the most likely consequences of which will be the diminishing importance of the North American market and the resurgence of European brands at the expense of the Japanese.
Both are dramatic changes, the first because Americans have always felt they are the centre of, well, everything, and the second because, if you're a fiftysomething motorcyclist, you can't remember when our sport didn't centre around the Japanese motorcycle. Oh sure, a few odd, quirky types rode BMWs, but before Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda came along, ours was a sport dominated by recalcitrant AMF-produced Harleys, leaky Triumph twins and cranky BSA singles. The Japanese manufacturers brought us reliability, convenience (wow, electric starting and disc brakes on a motorcycle?) and an incredibly diverse model selection, all at a price that made the traditional marques look usurious.
Unfortunately, it seems this last has proven a curse. When the yen was cheap compared with the US dollar, it was easy to offer bargain-basement pricing. It would appear, however, that the days of a currency exchange favourable to Japanese-based manufacturing are long gone and the Big Four's one failing - a reliance on low price and high sales volumes for profitability - has come back to haunt them.
Where other marques - BMW, Harley-Davidson and a now resurgent Triumph - have continued to rely on unique technology for their successes, Kawasaki, Honda et al have fallen into a trap of design consensus. Shop the various "boutique" brands and, save for the BMW S1000RR, you'll find a showroom chock-full of unique flat twins, inline triples and V-twins of every stripe. Peruse the spec sheets of the traditional supersport 600, on the other hand, and you will find only inline-four motors, all with exactly the same bore and stroke.
The result has been the commodification of the segment. With their performance so alike, eventually the difference comes down to price and he who discounts the most wins.
That used to work back in the days when we now-aged boomers were snot-nosed brats just looking for the biggest bike our measly bucks could buy. But the North American motorcycle market - at least its most profitable portion - has matured, and with those balding pates and failing joints has come the one salvation to ageing: healthier bank accounts. It is no mystery that boomers are driving the motorcycle industry and, as sad as that may be, catering to our childhood fantasies for the expensive motorcycles we could never afford has most benefited the marques that have consistently stuck to building exclusivity into their brand image.
There is hope, however. For one thing, the motorcycle market has bifurcated. Along with the aforementioned yupsters buying expensive trinkets, North America is finally seeing a rejuvenation of the beginner segment. However, unlike novice riders of my youth for whom the biggest bang for the buck was the overriding shopping criteria, the focus now seems to be on style. Honda's CBR125R has been successful here not because it is powerful but because it looks so much like a grown-up bike.
I'm further bolstered by other changes we're seeing in the Big Four. Suzuki is dumping its cheap and cheerful motif with an enhancement in build quality that seems to grow exponentially each passing year. Honda is deeply committed to expanding the beginner-bike market. And Yamaha has carved out a truly unique cruiser appeal. It would help, of course, if they started trumpeting these qualities - rather than price chopping - as their brands' chief selling points.
North Americans are going to have to get used to paying more for motorcycles. We're also going to have to get along without models tailored specifically to North America, as the Big Four try to amortise costs by selling one model worldwide, one often designed for other markets. Indeed, North America is likely to diminish greatly in importance to the Japanese marques compared with emerging markets. After all, why should Honda waste time on the diminishing US market when it hopes to soon sell five million motorcycles in India alone?
And, lastly, we long-term bikers are going to have to start giving the Japanese their due; they saved motorcycling from a descent into irrelevance with quality and performance then unheard of. For me, these are still qualities that resonate.