Big Bikes Are Out, Small Bikes Are In To Attract New Riders to a Dying Industry

The motorcycle market is shrinking and if left unchecked, could diminish into nothing. Manufacturers are scrambling for new riders and the push is on for attracting young people into a mode of transportation that they previously shunned. Ad campaigns are out there advertising what could be premium-priced bikes for under $12k and the push is on for more new-rider training. Manufacturers are moving away from their traditional looks and styles in an effort to attract new buyers. What spawned this shift? The motorcycle industry — at least in the North American market where motorcycles are considered a luxury, not a necessity — is dying. Yes, the statistics show it is true.

Continue reading for more on the shift in the motorcycle market.

It Isn’t Just Harley

2016 - 2019 Harley-Davidson Street 500 / Street 750
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The Baby Boomers are rapidly leaving the riding ranks and the young guns aren't feeling the old-style machines.

“The sky is falling,” they’ve said for years. It started out with the usual suspects; the hate-Harley crowd, the wish-we-were-Harley bunch, and the folks who just hate two-wheelers in general. All of that fell mainly on deaf ears as the usual effluvia from that quarter. Next came the folks who resent the Boomer generation for one reason or another, but they got lost in the rest of the “Boomers ruined this/Boomers ruined that” group and were equally ignorable. But now, here we are with the big-money experts and their statistics. Yeah, I know the four types of lies are lies, damn lies, all the lies, and statistics, but the numbers bear out what we all know, or at least suspect, to be true; the world is becoming a very different place as Boomer dominance wanes and manufacturers begin to look to the newest generation to fit the 18-to-34 bracket.

If you want evidence that the builders are responding, I invite you to look at almost any lineup out there, and take note of anything with “scrambler,” “roadster” or “cafe’” in the name. My generation (X) missed out on our chances, it seems. Boomer consumerism trumped Gen X for long enough that our influence is negligible in this current shift. There simply aren’t enough of us to buoy the American-style cruiser builders, and the Millennials seem to be wholly disinterested in chrome sleds that fall into the “may not get you home, but will definitely get you laid” variety.

Yeah, this means H-D, and to almost the same degree, Indian Motorcycle find themselves particularly vulnerable to this shift. The big, tour bikes and comfortable cruisers have long depended on the Boomers, and of course, we all knew as time passed more of those riders would be replaced by Gen-Xers, but nobody counted on our apathy for the whole thing. Consider this: according to a study by the Motorcycle Industry Council, back on 1990 only 10-percent of U.S. riders were aged 50 or more, while over 40-percent were under 30. Fast forward to 2014 and we see a reversal where less than 20-percent are under 30 and the 50-plus crowd takes 45-percent of the market. This is a problem since the Boomers are rapidly leaving the riding ranks and the young guns aren’t feeling the old-style machines. Neither are they willing to pay through the nose for that brand power.

Smaller Is Better In Price And Size

Motorcycle Manufacturers Are Scrambling For New Riders
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Automotive manufacturers and boat builders are both adjusting with smaller, but more technologically advanced products for the market as their power base shifts to the new consumers on the block.

That’s right, I’m talking to you, Harley. The youngers don’t care about the old days, and they care even less about paying for stickers that are ridiculously bloated by all that union labor that goes into building one. In short, you’re going to have to get off your laurels if you want to survive. Credit where it’s due, the Street 500 does bring something new to the young-person’s table, but the prices on the “proper Harleys” are way out of control, and the entry-level buyers know it. Need more proof? Automotive manufacturers and boat builders are both adjusting with smaller, but more technologically advanced products for the market as their power base shifts to the new consumers on the block.

Boats and bikes are both considered luxury items, and as such, they took a serious hit during the recession. Unlike the bike sector, which has remained stagnant, the boat market is back within 20-percent of where it was pre-recession, partly due to efforts to get Millennials on the water through ownership-sharing programs and such, just to bait the table and maybe instill some brand loyalty for future purchases.

That’s not enough to account for the recovery by itself, and nobody is quite sure why bike sales fell to 370,000-units and some change in 2016 from 716,000 in 2006 then never recovered, but them’s the facts, folks. So far, Victory Motorcycles has completely folded (though I’m not sure the looks of those machines weren’t what killed it) and H-D is cutting some of its overpaid union jobs to try and adjust before it gets hosed too badly. Indian is still enjoying its initial upswing though and only time will tell if the Scout line is enough to keep the Polaris-owned brand afloat since the rest of the lineup could well have been torn from Harley’s playbook.

I can already hear the hate-Harley crowd salivating over there, but ya know what cupcakes? Every brand relies on sales with high profit margins, and since the youngers don’t seem to be very interested in five-digit price tags, that’s going to cut into everyone’s pocket: Euro, Asian and the rest. So, take a minute from congratulating yourself on the doom of the American cruisers to recognize that we are, in fact, all frogs in the slowly-warming pot.

The Rise Of The Small CCs

2015 - 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 300
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It's a full-blown race to the bottom in displacement, price, and rider experience level, I tell ya'.

I think most manufacturers get it, though, as evidenced by the growing number of less-than-500 cc bikes hitting the market, and the young/fresh or classy-retro designs meant to appeal to the entry-level sector. It’s a full-blown race to the bottom in displacement, price, and rider experience level, I tell ya’, and I don’t imagine it will take very long before we see how it all plays out.

It’s a fight for survival in an unusual situation that didn’t allow for the usual evolution of design, but instead is jumping an entire generation — and evolutionary step — in the process. This puts extra risk and uncertainty into an already-fraught situation. As an observer from the sidelines (my bike is paid for), I look forward to seeing how this all shakes out, but I have to admit that some of the doomsayers are starting to look less-crazy than before. If only by a little bit.

She Said

2015 - 2018 Yamaha YZF-R3 Exterior
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Some of the big cruisers and touring bikes have engines as big as my car has. Now the trend is to go smaller; like playing limbo, how low can you go?

My wife and fellow motorcycle writer, Allyn Hinton, says, "You know, I’ve commented before about the race to the bottom, as it were, in the smaller cc engine market over the last few years and I didn’t put it all together until recently. For a long time, motorcycle manufacturers were trying to outdo each other getting bigger and bigger engines. It was the battle of the epeens; who has the biggest? Heck, some of the big cruisers and touring bikes have engines as big as my car has. Now the trend is to go smaller; like playing limbo, how low can you go?

Let’s look at what some of the manufacturers are doing. Honda has updated the long-running Rebel to include a 286 cc and a 471 cc version as well as adding a 300 cc version of its CB and CBR family. Then there’s the big neon "new-rider friendly" arrow pointing at their DCT bikes like the NC750.

The push used to be on speed and style; now the emphasis is on commuter-friendly and budget-mindedness. Kawasaki is putting out Ninjas in the 300 cc market and expanding the "Z" stable in the 125 cc market. They want you to know you can have a sportbike that is commuter friendly and you can still have fun on it.

Suzuki brought back its GW250 with sporty styling and a 248 cc engine for folks that want a budget-minded bike that they can have fun riding as well as trotting out the VanVan and TU250X for folks to take another look at with fresh eyes. Yamaha rolled out the YZF-R3 for sportbike performance in a 300 cc bike. There’s more, but you get the idea."

It’s A New Market

Motorcycle Manufacturers Are Scrambling For New Riders
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Go small and inexpensive or go home. That's what the new market is telling the manufacturers.

Go small and inexpensive or go home. That’s what the new market is telling the manufacturers. Any of them that don’t listen won’t survive, and that would be a shame. Will the 18-34 age group get on board with commuter-friendly, affordably-priced motorcycles? I know a large part of the country can’t ride year-round, but in places that do, folks can get a nice bike for the same money or less than a crappy second-hand car would cost.

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References

Harley-Davidson Street 500/750

2016 - 2019 Harley-Davidson Street 500 / Street 750
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See our review of the Harley-Davidson Street 500/750.

Indian Motorcycle Scout/ Scout Sixty

2016 - 2019 Indian Motorcycle Scout / Scout Sixty
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See our review of the Indian Motorcycle Scout/ Scout Sixty.

Honda Rebel 300/500

2017 - 2019 Honda Rebel 300 / Rebel 500
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See our review of the Honda Rebel 300/500.

Honda CB300R

2019 Honda CB300R
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See our review of the Honda CB300R.

Honda CBR300R

2015 - 2018 Honda CBR300R
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See our review of the Honda CBR300R.

Honda NC750X

2018 Honda NC750X
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See our review of the Honda NC750X.

Kawasaki Ninja 300

2015 - 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 300
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See our review of the Kawasaki Ninja 300.

Kawasaki Z125 PRO

2017 - 2018 Kawasaki Z125 PRO
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See our review of the Kawasaki Z125 PRO.

Suzuki GW250

2013 - 2017 Suzuki GW250
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See our review of the Suzuki GW250.

Suzuki VanVan

2017 - 2018 Suzuki VanVan 200
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See our review of the Suzuki VanVan.

Suzuki TU250X

2009 - 2018 Suzuki TU250X
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See our review of the Suzuki TU250X.

Yamaha YZF-R3

2015 - 2018 Yamaha YZF-R3
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See our review of the Yamaha YZF-R3.

Honda’s Triple-Threat Automatic Transmission Program

Honda's Triple-Threat Automatic Transmission Program
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See our article on Honda’s DCT transmission.

All images featured on this website are copyrighted to their respective rightful owners. No infringement is intended. Image Source: powersports.honda.com, harley-davidson.com, kawasaki.com, yamaha-motor.com, suzukicycles.com, indianmotorcycles

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