Two Industry Selfies, Four Decades Apart: UK Motorcycle Companies Look Back (1975) and US Motorcycle Dealers Look Ahead (2017)

James J. Ward

In 2017, as first and second quarter reports came in, it became apparent that the American motorcycle industry – manufacturers and dealers – was heading toward a second straight year of declining sales and depressed profits. Even before the year ended, industry insiders and market analysts were acknowledging that motorcycling in America faced a clouded, if not altogether dark, future. While the automobile industry had emerged successfully from the financial crash of 2008-2009 and is now setting new records for vehicle sales, motorcycle makers are selling less than one-quarter of the bikes they had retailed ten years earlier. The factors contributing to this fall-off involve not only price and the popularity of particular models, but also larger societal and generational changes. Baby-boomers are aging out of riding, not least for safety reasons, and they are not being replaced by younger riders, especially so-called millennials. The American motorcycle industry may not yet be facing an existential threat, but it is confronted with challenges which, if not addressed, could prove terminal. The more historically-minded enthusiast might recall an earlier industry crisis, one that put an end to the long and proud tradition of motorcycle manufacturing in England more than forty years ago. This article looks at similarities and differences between these two industry watersheds, using as primary texts the 1975 government-commissioned report Strategy alternatives for the British motorcycle Industry and the recently undertaken ad hoc initiative Give a Shift which is trying to develop an action plan to rebuild consumer interest – and with it retail sales and profit margins – in motorcycle riding in the US. How the British example ended is now well-known history; how the American story will end is an open book.

Strategy alternatives for the British motorcycle Industry (1975) and Give a Shift: Roundtable #1 Report (2017). [Fig.1]

Over the last year or so, as readers of this journal are probably aware, Harley-Davidson has been much in the news, and not in a good way.[1] Confirming market analysts’ predictions, Harley sales in the US in 2017 were down by 8.5-percent from the previous year, while foreign sales shrank by 4-percent. This was the fourth straight year of declining sales for the Milwaukee company. Harley also announced that it was shuttering its assembly plant in Kansas City and merging operations with its facility in York, Pennsylvania. Sales for 2018 were projected to fall between 231 and 236,000 vehicles, 10,000 fewer than its sales projections for 2017.[2] Putting the best face it could on these numbers, Harley reported that it had added sixty new foreign dealerships and had retained its number one position in sales of over-600cc motorcycles in Canada, Japan, India, and Australia. The first electric-powered Harley-Davidson will arrive in dealers’ showrooms in 2019, bringing the Milwaukee company into a fast-growing market sector already inhabited by several small US and foreign companies and clearly in the sights of other industry heavyweights like BMW, Honda, and Yamaha.[3] But whatever buoyancy these plans may have provided Harley enthusiasts – and Harley shareholders – was quickly diminished when Donald Trump used his executive authority to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imported into the US in March 2018. At once, the European Union announced that it would reciprocate with equivalent measures against a number of iconic American products, with Harley-Davidson prominently included among them.[4]

Only a year before, fresh into his presidency, Trump had identified Harley-Davidson as one of the companies that would benefit from the “America First” economic and trade policies he intended to enact. In February 2017 Trump invited Harley CEO Matthew Levatich, along with other industry and union representatives, to lunch at the White House so that he could express his gratitude for their support in the election campaign. Trump particularly singled out Levatich for praise, since Wisconsin had played a key part in delivering him a majority of electoral college votes. After promising to help American manufacturers who have had to contend with “unfair” trade practices by countries like India and China, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence posed for photographs standing next to a row of Harleys in the White House driveway.[5] The lunch meeting appeared to be the start of a continuing relationship between the Trump Administration and the motorcycle maker, based on shared economic principles as well an appreciation for the part Harley-Davidson has played in making America great.[6] In embracing Harley-Davidson, if only for public relations purposes, Donald Trump has followed in the footsteps of the presidents who preceded him, or at least the Republican ones. Starting with Ronald Reagan, who regularly professed it a priority to “save” America’s last motorcycle manufacturer and ceremoniously visited a Harley factory in 1987, president after president – together with presidential and vice-presidential candidates – have linked themselves with the values its products claim to embody, individualism, patriotism, and a blue-collar work ethic, ones that have historically resonated with Republican voters.[7] But if thirty years ago Harley executives were receptive to the import duties Reagan imposed on large-displacement Japanese imports, the company’s management today appears less enthusiastic about Donald Trump’s new round of protectionism.[8]

Harley-Davidson is hardly alone in having to confront a sales slump. For 2017, the number two and number three motorcycle sellers in the US, Honda and Yamaha, also saw their numbers decline, although not as steeply. Unlike the automobile industry, whose sales have rebounded strongly from the financial collapse of 2008-2009, motorcycle sales in the US have languished through the Great Recession. In 2016 the bike industry sold about 487,000 vehicles, less than a quarter of its record for sales ten years earlier, at two-and-a-half million vehicles.[9] But because of its status as an American icon, Harley’s woes have attracted disproportionate attention. The company has responded with such well-publicized moves as the announcement that it was moving into the electric-powered sector. Harley remains committed to a long-term strategy which includes releasing new “high impact” models – as many as one hundred over a ten-year period – and increasing foreign sales to more than 50-percent of annual production.[10] To achieve that goal Harley is building a manufacturing plant in Thailand, something that has not gone down well with its unionized US employees, who have seen jobs disappear as sales targets are missed.[11] Here Harley may be seen as taking a page from the Triumph playbook – the “new” Triumph is one of few manufacturers to steadily increase sales in the US over the last few years. The British company now operates three factories in Thailand, and together they produce 80-percent of its annual output of motorcycles. Pursuing an aggressive global strategy, Triumph has also opened plants in India and Brazil, another move that Harley-Davidson has copied.[12]

The mention of Triumph here is not incidental. The most popular, if not most famous, of British motorcycle makes, especially in the US, Triumph was one of the last survivors in an industry which had once commanded the world. When the last Triumph rolled off the assembly line in 1983, it left only one other British firm still manufacturing motorcycles, and those in miniscule numbers. The collapse of the British motorcycle industry has been well covered by both enthusiast and academic writers, including in this journal.[13] Despite its current troubles, there is nothing to suggest that the business of making and selling motorcycles in the US is anywhere close to entering the death spiral that eclipsed its British counterpart four decades ago. But there is a striking parallel between the British and American motorcycling experiences, one that only emerged in the last few months and is the subject of this article. In the British case, what was intended as a strategy to revitalize a failing industry became a kind of industry post-mortem. The American instance is a newly undertaken self-diagnosis, one which looks to have a positive rather than negative outcome. But it can be instructive to compare the two and to identify both similarities and differences.

“This Event Is Like a Split-Second Decision to Gas It over an Obstacle Instead of Hoping Not to Crash.”[14]

The American example comes first, as it is attracting attention in industry circles. Explanations for Harley-Davidson’s slumping sales have not been lacking. One of the most commonly heard is that its motorcycles have lost their appeal to younger riders, effectively anyone under forty. Exactly why this is the case has produced differing opinions, although price, size, and changing attitudes toward motorcycle riding are reasons most everyone agrees on.[15] One seemingly counterintuitive argument is that Harley’s own marketing strategy has backfired. “Image,” or as Harley puts it, “heritage,” has become a turn-off for the emerging demographic majority of Americans. What had worked well in the 1980s and 1990s, when Harley-Davidson resuscitated itself after the discouraging years of AMF ownership, now works to the company’s disadvantage. For every potential buyer with a self-image of rolling into Sturgis astride 1200 or 1500cc of v-twin power, there are dozens more who would prefer to use their non-Harley two-wheeled transport to attend Coachella or Burning Man.[16] A couple of bike manufacturers have prospered – Triumph, for example, or Polaris whose revived Indian brand has now reached a double-digit percentage of the US market – but the majority have had to struggle. Analysts who write about the financial markets have focused on wage stagnation, declining levels of disposable income, and such seemingly tangential factors as the collapse of home equity. These no doubt have played a part in depressing sales of discretionary and recreational products, which represent a majority of the motorcycle market in the US; and they are further reflected in the relative health of demand levels for cheaper used motorcycles as opposed to more expensive new ones.[17] Another interpretation has looked at changes in the function of automobiles as opposed to that of motorcycles, whose inherent limitations have circumscribed the effect of technological advances, styling tweaks, and brand re-imaging. Increasingly, the automobile has become a mobile work and play station, a voice-controlled home away from home, and a self-enclosed environment, functions that will only multiply as the autonomous vehicle option expands.[18] No motorcycle, even the most high-end, option-loaded highway cruiser, can compete in that arena. The transfer of new automotive technologies, for example ABS, electronic traction control, and vehicle stability assistance (“self-balancing”), to motorcycles has had only limited application and at best must be considered a work in progress.[19]

Another analysis of the decline in motorcycle sales also merits attention, even if it is not that new. In 2011 long-time motorcycle enthusiast Frederick Seidel published an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times with the provocative title “Is the Era of the Motorcycle Over?” Here Seidel wondered whether Ducati’s new top-end performance bike, the Panigale, might exercise the same buyer appeal as Apple’s iPhone 4S (today a relic) as the high-tech accessory every young male consumer had to have. His conclusion was implicit in the essay’s title: “It’s as if the recession induced a coma in all the potential new motorcyclists, and in so many of the already experienced motorcyclists, from which they awoke changed, changed utterly, and found themselves standing in line outside an Apple store, patiently waiting to buy the latest greatness.”[20] This bleak prospectus ignited a fierce response from fellow motorcyclists, none more so than Canadian industry design consultant Michael Uhlarik. Writing online, Uhlarik challenged Seidel’s equation of a $500 mass-produced communication device and a $20,000 partially hand-built Italian motorcycle as a “must-have” lifestyle accessory for a broad swath of 20- and 30-year-old North Americans. Seidel’s nostalgia for an imagined motorcycling past, along with his single-brand myopia, Uhlarik wrote, “propagates the underlying attitudes that have nearly destroyed the motorcycle industry in the United States and Canada. Manufacturers, once fat from the fleecing of the upper classes, today have product line-ups that no longer offer anything reasonable and desirable to the beginner, in addition to having completely forgotten what it means to advertise to or lure young aspiring motorcyclists into the bike fold.”[21]

Whether the decline in motorcycle sales owes to changing consumer tastes, especially among the highly sought after younger demographic, or to increasingly anachronistic marketing strategies on the part of the major manufacturers, continues to be debated. Blame can be easily enough traded, even as the overall economy improves and new models, more attuned to potential buyers’ interests, begin showing up in dealerships.[22] One statistic, however, is not subject to debate – the aging of the American motorcycle community. In little more than a decade, since 2004, the percentage of motorcycle owners in the US over the age of fifty has climbed from a quarter to nearly half; and the percentage over forty is well over half.[23] Both Harley-Davidson and Polaris Industries have vowed to reverse this trend, with new models targeted to the 18-to-34-year-old demographic, but sales results so far have been inconclusive.[24] Nor do these industry mainstays have the field entirely to themselves. A cadre of small, but aggressive entrepreneurial outfits, sometimes with foreign buy-ins (e.g., from China), have been building customer appeal with light, quick, and relatively cheap bikes tailored to the market of urban riders.[25]

With so-called millennials – those born from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s – now outnumbering the declining numbers of baby boomers, it’s understandable that motorcycle industry strategists are focusing on attracting this group into the new bike market. Writing in Classic Bike Guide, Paul d’Orléans – best known online as The Vintagent – has argued that this is a misplaced perspective. Although he writes primarily about the classic bike scene, Paul’s ruminations about capturing the interest of younger riders, in this case members of the iGen – those born from the mid-1990s on, when everyone has a smartphone from infancy – bear on the broader question of where the next generation of motorcyclists will come from, if they are to come at all. Paul’s analysis is not confined to motorcycles alone, but addresses societal and sociocultural factors that have already become commonplace. Today’s teenagers are not only glued to their hand-held devices, through which they experience virtually everything in the world around them; they are sedentary, risk adverse, increasingly urban in their choice of lifestyles, more conservative (or simply bored and cynical) in matters of sex and behavior, and completely disinterested in the rites of passage that had defined preceding generations – knowing how to replace a flat tire, to change oil, or do anything that requires more than a key stroke or a thumb tap. “The motorcycle industry is chewing its fingernails over the future,” Paul writes, “wondering who will buy its products in 10 years. The average age of a motorcyclist is the USA is 48, a figure eight years older than in 2001. If that trend continues, only dead people will ride bikes by 2040, when everything goes electric anyway. Among screen-gazers, motorcycles are no longer seen as a badge of identity, or simply even fun. ‘Vintage motorcycle owner’ is a double-edged term, as it now applies to both rider and mount.”[26]

To adjust to these demographics, the major manufacturers have begun introducing smaller, lighter, and less expensive models. Even Harley-Davidson has taken the uncharacteristic step of offering rebates to clear out dealers’ overstock of slow-selling heavy cruisers. The popularity of so-called naked bikes, sport-oriented models without the plastic shrouding that conceals all a machine’s mechanicals and is a nightmare to every DIY rider, is further testimony that manufacturers are catching on to changing buyer priorities. But the redesign of existing motorcycles or the introduction of entirely new ones are only part of a successful market strategy. “The paradox of the iGen,” Paul d’Orléans writes, “is that the same medium driving teens from wheels is also the best way to reel them in. In the last five years, photos and videos of motorcyclists having a good time (and looking good) on social media have brought more young riders into the fold of vintage motorcycling than any other source.” Again, while Paul’s comments are directed to the old bike scene, they can be extended to motorcycling in general, on the theory that to sell motorcycles dealers must meet the market where it lives – in this case on the hand-held small screen.

The need for a fresh approach to selling motorcycles in the US was the focus of an unusual gathering of industry insiders and long-time owner enthusiasts in Long Beach, California in November 2017. While the occasion was one of a continuing series of bike shows sponsored by Progressive Insurance, the conversation that took place was unsanctioned and, in the subsequent published transcript, anonymous.[27] In a free-wheeling three-hour discussion, twenty-five participants, all involved with motorcycling in one way or another, exchanged ideas and opinions about the depressed condition of the market, at least for new bikes. No one disputed the current discouraging circumstances; terms like “malaise” and “crisis” were used. But this was not just another gripe session. The purpose was to begin to develop a set of proposals, in an initiative called “Give a Shift” (GAS), that could change the way motorcycles are designed, advertised, sold, and used in the US. As the summary report on the meeting states, the point is to “bring together frustrated industry experts, outliers, and experienced enthusiasts to learn and propose some actionable tactics for those who wish to increase interest and sales in motorcycling and who seek a new perspective or do not have access to inside industry information or a chance to speak directly to experienced and educated perspectives.” The stakes could not be higher.

“It will be through a myriad of efforts that motorcycling can be protected within transportation, promoted as a desirable activity, draw in safety-conscious consumers and ultimately sell more units, sustain an aftermarket, and deliver the positive attributes of the motorcycle culture to a larger alternative. There is precious little time before new technology, industry stagnation, and lack of sales and marketing evolution will cause motorcycling to implode into a sideline hobby.”[28]

Many of the observations made at the GAS meeting were familiar ones, for example that manufacturers have been slow in diversifying their offerings to respond to changes in their customer base, or that motorcycle advertising continues to emphasize “independence” and “adventure” when prospective buyers might be more interested in convenience, reliability, and safety. More surprising was the degree of criticism directed at dealerships – the “retail experience” – and at the riding public, or at least certain parts of it. Even as manufacturers have begun to move away from their long-standing reliance on charismatic, large displacement, expensive machines, dealers continue to promote the top end of the product line if for no other reason than that’s where they can score the highest profit margins. The average dealership remains oriented toward the veteran rider who already knows what he wants in his next purchase or, if he’s looking to “trade up,” has already scoped out what his choices are. Aggressive salespeople, eager to meet their quotas or make their commissions, still use of the language of cubic inches, horsepower, and top speed when these, in fact, may be a deterrent for a customer who is more interested in retail price, warranty coverage, and reliability ratings. For those new to motorcycling the array of chrome and leather and metallic paint can be overwhelming, and the range of performance options, accessories, and riding gear, all talked up to increase profits, can have the opposite effect. Taking up motorcycling, whatever the walk-in’s initial inclination, becomes too complicated, too expensive, and too much a turn-off. Some dealerships have turned to offering a more customer-friendly experience, with sales pitches that emphasize recreation, free training videos or back-lot riding instruction, and the assortment of reassuring amenities that automobile showrooms have been providing for decades. But there is still a long way to go.[29]

The motorcycle industry’s failure to redirect its products to the single largest underserved demographic group, and the one that statistics have shown controls an ever greater share of overall consumer spending – women – has been a perennial concern, and complaint. Progress has certainly been made, but old prejudices are resistant to change. So are old archetypes, as the persistence of “start girls” at track events and the labeling of small displacement motorcycles as “chicks’ bikes” demonstrate. Similar retrogressive attitudes influence the slow adoption of electric motors, automatic transmissions, and other transfers of automotive technology that otherwise might already have happened. With growing numbers of baby boomers aging out of motorcycling, in no small part due to safety concerns, too many “real” motorcyclists remain dismissive of the common-sense appeal of three-wheeled vehicles. Whether Harley Tri-Glides or Can-Am Spyders or Polaris Slingshots, the motorcycle press has been receptive and the market for three-wheelers has grown steadily. Still, the disdain for “trikes” inhibits their adoption among the larger motorcycle public.[30] But the biggest problem, according to meeting participants, is that represented by autonomous vehicles, now under development by many car makers and rapidly moving toward the retail market. Neither motorcycle manufacturers nor motorcycle riders have fully grasped the implications of driverless technology. In the words of the GAS report, “As this technology grows, contemporary motorcycles will be even further elevated into higher risk categories in the eyes of traffic system technologies, insurance companies, city planners, and autonomous vehicle manufacturers who currently own and direct the conversation.”

Avid motorcyclists themselves, the discussants in Long Beach did not defer from criticizing their fellow riders. If anything, the judgement here was even harsher than that aimed at manufacturers and dealers. Not that the likely suspects were ignored – outlaws and would-be outlaws whose sensibilities are still stuck in the 1960s and who take their inspiration from half-century-old AIP movies starring Adam Roarke, Jeremy Slate, and William Smith. Equally culpable are the daredevil “stunters” who exploit the abundant horsepower of their sport bikes to perform high speed front-enders to the consternation of everyone else sharing the same stretch of road surface. Here the contentious issue of lane-splitting rears its head. Welcomed wherever it has been legalized – or it goes under the police radar – by bikers for obvious reasons, the effect on motorists taken by surprise or caught in traffic jams does nothing to improve the public image of motorcycling. The same holds for exhaust noise, one of the motorcycle’s most compelling features and sacrosanct, for example among Harley owners, but held in less esteem by suburban moms and dads transporting their kids to little league games or soccer camps. It is way past time, the GAS report concludes, to stop “weaponizing” motorcycles. Mandatory instruction courses, helmet laws, tiered licensing, a universally accepted code of road best practices – these are not infringements on the legendary “freedom” that motorcycles promise, they are guarantees that motorcycling can have a future in the urban transportation, recreation, and innovation web that is already here.

“The British Industry’s Performance along Each of These Dimensions Has Been Disappointing.”[31]

Historically-minded readers may recall another industry-wide analysis, forty years ago and amid much direr circumstances. The subject was the British motorcycle industry, or what was left of it after a decade of declining sales, mergers, and company shut-downs. In 1975 the Secretary of State for Industry commissioned the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) – which today is one of the most successful management advisory companies in the world – to develop a set of strategy alternatives that could secure a future for motorcycle manufacturing in the UK.

By this time the British industry had contracted to a single company, Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT), offering two makes, Norton and Triumph, with a combined annual volume of just over 20,000 bikes, compared to 170,000 in 1950 and 85,000 as recently as 1968.[32] In 1973 NVT’s directors had shut down the BSA plant in Birmingham and had announced that the Triumph factory in Meriden would suffer the same fate, thereby confining the manufacture of motorcycles to sites in Wolverhampton and Andover where the popular Norton Commandos were assembled. The Triumph labor force resisted the factory’s closure and, with subsidies from the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, had kept the works going. The story of the workers’ co-operative at Meriden has been told elsewhere.[33] What is relevant here is that the BCG’s task was to find a way to keep these two famous British makes alive.

The BCG submitted its 120-page report in July 1975. The most striking difference with the GAS report four decades later is the focus, in the British case, on factors internal to the domestic motorcycle industry as opposed to the external factors that almost entirely preoccupy its American equivalent.[34] The British companies’ fundamental failing, the BCG concluded, was their focus, since the 1950s when the UK dominated global motorcycle sales, on short-term profitability, at the expense of new product development and investment in tools and facilities that dated back decades if not longer. Bikes were sold at the highest possible profit margins, dividends were paid out to shareholders, and managers received healthy bonuses as long as the market held up. Even as competition from European, and then Japanese, companies began to erode manufacturers’ profits, hide-bound production practices were perpetuated, not least at the insistence of industry unions dedicated to the preservation of jobs. The result was an industry model that could not withstand the extraordinary expansion of sales by the Japanese motorcycle companies, first in the small- and mid-displacement ranges and then, from the late 1960s on, in the 650 and 750cc categories in which BSA, Triumph, and Norton had exercised a near monopoly. Since their production numbers were so low, compared with those of their Japanese competitors, the British manufacturers could not rationalize their assembly lines – not that the trade unions would have complied – and achieve efficiencies across different model ranges. Forced to retreat to the large displacement category where their products – the Bonneville and the Commando – could still attract buyers, especially in the US, Britain’s motorcycle makers were even here losing ground to the high-performance, low-maintenance machines the Japanese were producing in ever greater numbers.

With the limitations of existing production facilities, dwindling domestic and export trade, and recurrent negative balance sheets, the BCG report concluded, there was no way NVT could rebuild market share that had been lost in preceding decades. The most promising course ahead, the report recommended, in the toss-up between volume of production, costs and prices, and customer appeal, was a “mid-range” strategy that aimed to sell 40 to 50,000 motorcycles a year, with only two models in the superbike (750 to 1000cc) class, and made in a single plant. Even achieving that target, and setting prices 10- to 15-percent above comparable Japanese models, NVT would incur deficits for at least the next three years, and more likely longer than that. Continued government underwriting had to be assumed, and the current labor force would have to be reduced by one-third, or approximately 700 to 800 jobs. British bikes could never compete with their Japanese counterparts on price alone, given the large differential in their cost efficiencies. What they did have going for them were the “classic” attributes of the British motorcycle – “premium quality finish, elegant styling, superior handling, and high performance.” These had to be maximized, while other less attractive features of British bikes – unreliability, resistance to honoring warranty claims, and poor availability of replacement parts – had to be minimized if not eliminated. None of NVT’s current line-up of models were particularly new. The Bonneville and the Commando used an engine design that dated to the pre-World War II years, and the three-cylinder Trident, styling aside, was perceived as an “old model with modifications.” All three models would have to be replaced, no later than by the 1979-80 selling year.[35] In the UK and the US, NVT could still count on established dealer networks, although they were plagued with warranty claims and starved of new models; the number of American dealerships had dropped sharply in the last few years and those still in business were burdened with an overstock of unsold machines. Nor had the oil crisis and recession of the early 1970s helped spur sales. Multi-franchise dealers who sold and serviced Triumphs or Nortons alongside other imported makes were holding up better than the smaller marque-exclusive shops; but across the board everyone was pleading for new and more attractive models.

None of the strategies evaluated by the BCG were without significant risk of failure, and all prolonged motorcycle manufacture in the UK only by absorbing continued indebtedness and experimenting with various approaches that might bring new models to the marketplace. Where the investment was to come from, other than the British government which had already committed over £5 million to amalgamate the surviving companies and was now subsidizing the workers’ cooperative at Triumph at £100,000 a month, was left unstated. The more utopian suggestions, such as partnering with Honda to parcel out UK market shares or using existing factory and dealer space to sell and service motorcycles imported from Europe or Japan, were dismissed out of hand either as unrealizable or unacceptable. If nothing else, more labor strife was guaranteed. Reading through all the statistics and projections in the BCG report makes it clear that any strategy that might be adopted would consign NVT to a fractional market share of the superbike category, with the emphasis on sport, performance, and looks, plus greater reliability and more generous warranty coverage to complete the package. Motorcycle making in Britain would become, at best, a “niche industry,” returning modest profits for its shareholders and creditors – and not for the next several years.

While the Labour Government made good on its commitment to “industrial democracy” by underwriting the workers’ cooperative at Triumph, it had lost patience with NVT’s directors, whose underperformance left them few friends in Parliament. In budget debates in the House of Commons, the BCG report was cited as justification for discontinuing support for an industry with such limited prospects. In July the outstanding loan of £4 million was recalled, sending NVT into receivership. At Meriden, the workers’ cooperative continued to produce the venerable 750cc twin in small numbers until 1983, when the last assets were sold off, most notably the Triumph name which was purchased by real estate developer John Bloor whose “new” Triumph company, with its multi-range mix of contemporary and classic models now outsells the BCG’s most optimistic scenarios.[36] At Andover, the last Commandos were rolled out in 1979, although the Norton name would be continued in the 1980s in the form of the rotary-engined Commander, first as police vehicles and then as a road bike. Despite substantial success on the race track, less than 300 Commanders were made before production ceased in 1992. Inevitably, the cut-off of funding to NVT led to a backlash against the BCG report, which was perceived in some quarters as a “hit-job” intended to rationalize a decision the government had already made to abandon motorcycle manufacturing in the UK. Surveying the whole sorry spectacle, the industry-friendly and Conservative Party-close Spectator commented, “[O]nce the Boston Consulting Group had delivered its oracular pronouncements, the Civil Service swung into action against NVT with an alacrity and vengeance matched only by its lack of commercial good sense.”[37]

“We Do Not Have a Product Problem. We Have a Desirability Problem.”[38]

However correct the BCG’s conclusion that management decisions were primarily responsible for the problems the British motorcycle industry faced may have been, one thing was clear: the bikes the companies were making had lost their appeal to all but a small segment of the riding public. That situation was echoed, if softly, when the figures for motorcycle sales in the UK for 2017 were reported. Overall, bike sales fell by 18.5-percent from the year before, with the sharpest declines setting in during the second half of the year (December sales in 2017 were half those in December 2016). Much of this had to do with the newest set of European Union emissions restrictions, causing customers to “pre-buy” bikes at the end of 2016 and thereby depressing sales in 2017. Presumably this will become a non-factor in the UK at some point in the future, as the Brexit process is completed. The only major British manufacturer included in these figures, of course, is Triumph, and in all other markets the company’s sales exceeded previous totals.[39]

The GAS analysis of the American motorcycle industry reads very differently from what the BCG reported four decades ago for its British counterpart. The range of motorcycles US dealers are offering – street-sport and dual-sport bikes, cruisers, off-road and competition machines, scooters – has never been more attractive. The issue that confronts the American industry is a general lack of interest in riding. As the report states, “Motorcycles still deliver freedom and adventure, mobility, and a unique version of economy. However, at the millennial end of the transportation spectrum, benefits are overshadowed by student debt, safety concerns, and unsupportive or disinterested peers. Less expensive motorcycles may help draw in some riders, however MSRP is not the only issue. Until there is a significant shift in the acceptance of motorcycling risk vs. reward, there will be a slim chance to change the trajectory of millennial interest.”[40] According to the GAS’s organizer, Robert Pandya, publication of the group’s report has attracted considerable attention, with over 2,500 downloads and 5,000 unique readers within its first month. Neither the Motorcycle Industry Council nor the American Motorcyclist Association, however, have contacted him.[41] In a subsequent online interview, Pandya struck an optimistic note in discussing motorcycling’s future: “Some people think it’s all doom and gloom out there. Our point, and something we’ll hold on to, it’s a fantastic opportunity to change our perspective about motorcycling. And frankly, if we don’t we’re going to be in some trouble. But there’s a lot of energy out there, and I’m really excited about doing our project over the course of the next year.”[42]

Lest anyone doubt the Give a Shift group’s forward-looking approach to motorcycling, Robert Pandya has made it plain by paying a visit to the Zero Motorcycle Company headquarters in Santa Cruz, California to spend some time trying out its 100-percent electric-powered vehicles. While to some dedicated petrol heads an electric motorcycle may represent a novelty at best, Pandya gave a resounding vote of confidence to this dimension of motorcycling’s future. Technical problems remain, but every one of them is potentially within reach of a solution, especially as the growing number of easily accessed charging stations designed for cars serve equally well for two-wheelers. And the enthusiasm to be working a frontier of automotive design and engineering, palpable at the Zero plant, goes a long way.[43] Clearly Harley-Davidson is onto something with its planned entry into motorcycling’s electric future.[44]

Harley-Davidson’s fortunes will be tested in the years, perhaps even the months, ahead. So too, presumably, will be the future of the motorcycle industry in America. Looking back forty years to the clouded prospects of the British motorcycle industry, the most striking difference with its American counterpart today is the sense of confidence and the degree of resourcefulness expressed in the GAS initiative and, for that matter, in Harley-Davidson’s plans for the future. In 1973, upon the formation of Norton-Villiers-Triumph, long-time industry veteran Bert Hopwood was present at a meeting called by the new company’s chairman. Hopwood’s description of the meeting speaks for itself: “I remember the opening statement from the chair in which we were told ‘Our new company had great responsibilities and we were now very much in the public eye’ and he, the chairman, was ‘now entrusted with the task of creating a viable British industry’ and although I suppose that I more than most should have been unmoved, I must confess that I was shocked to hear him say ‘I do not know how this is going to be done.’ This may have been purely a figure of speech but I could not resist the comment ‘We had better find out pretty damn quick.'”[45] It’s next to impossible to imagine that measure of cluelessness being heard, or felt, in Long Beach or Santa Cruz or even Milwaukee.


Notes
[1] As just one of many examples, see Rich Duprey, “2017 Was Bad for Harley-Davidson. 2018 Is Going to Be Worse,” The Motley Fool, February 5, 2018, at https://www.fool.com/investing/2018/02/05/2017-was-bad-for-harley-davidson-2018-is-going-to.aspx.

[2] Andrew Tangel, “Harley-Davidson Sales Decline Continues,” MarketWatch, January 30, 2018, at https://www.marketwatch.com/story/harley-davidson-sales-decline-continues-2018-01-30.

[3] Patrick Leary, “Harley-Davidson to Launch First Electric Motorcycle within 18 Months, But KC Plant to Close,” Milwaukee Business Journal, January 30, 2018, at https://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/news/2018/01/30/harley-on-track-to-launch-first-electric.html?s=print.

[4] Edward Helmore, “Harley-Davidson: Trump’s Tariffs Pose Grave Threat to Famous American Name,” The Guardian, March 10, 2018, at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/10/harley-davidson-tariffs-trump-motorcycles.

[5] John Lippert and John McCormick, “Trump Welcomes Harley-Davidson in Latest White House Session,” Bloomberg News, February 2, 2017, at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-02/trump-welcomes-harley-davidson-ceo-in-latest-white-house-session.

[6] Dan Schafer, “Harley-Davidson Will ‘Continue to Be Involved’ with Trump Administration,” Milwaukee Business Journal, May 2, 2017, at https://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/news/2017/05/02/harley-davidson-will-continue-to-be-involved-with.html.

[7] Randy D. McBee, Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 178-91.

[8] See, e.g., Jamie Butters, “Harley Braces for More Trump Trade Harm after His Pledge to Help,” Bloomberg News, March 6, 2018, at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-06/harley-braces-for-more-trump-trade-harm-after-his-pledge-to-help.

[9] Automobile sales (all categories) in the US in 2015 and 2016 exceeded 17.5 million, setting all-time records. Sales in 2017 fell slightly, to 17.25 million, with Fiat-Chrysler registering the sharpest decline among American producers. GM and Ford were down by little more than one percent, while Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen-Audi, and Porsche all registered increases. See Todd Lasa, “U.S. Auto Sales Totaled 17.25 Million in 2017,” Motor City Blogman, January 4, 2018, at http://www.automobilemag.com/news/u-s-auto-sales-totaled-17-25-million-calendar-2017.

[10] Arthur Thomas, “Harley-Davidson Launches 2018 Model Year with Largest Product Development Project,” Milwaukee Business Journal, August 23, 2017, at https://www.biztimes.com/2017/industries/manufacturing-logistics/harley-davidson-launches-2018-model-year-with-largest-product-development-project; Patrick Leary, “Harley-Davidson Execs Remain Confident in Face of Hurricane Headwinds, Skid in Global Sales,” Milwaukee Business Journal, October 17, 2017, at https://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/news/2017/10/17/harley-davidson-execs-remain-confident-in-face-of.html.

[11] Neil Gough, “Even Harley-Davidson Can’t Resist the Tug of Overseas Factories,” The New York Times, May 24, 2017, p. B1.

[12] Alan Cathcart, “Triumph in Thailand,” Motorcycle Sport & Leisure, November 2017, pp. 52-56. See also the interview with Steve Sargent, Triumph’s chief product officer, “Where Was Your Triumph Motorcycle Made?” (May 2017), at https://www.bennetts.co.uk/bikesocial/news-and-views/features/bikes/where-was-your-triumph-motorcycle-made.

[13] See especially Steve Koerner, The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry (Lancaster: Crucible Books, 2012). See also James J. Ward, “Rethinking the Whole British Bike Thing: An Essay Bump-Started by Steve Koerner’s Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry,” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, vol. 8, no. 2 (2012), at http://ijms.nova.edu/Fall2012/IJMS_Artcl.Ward.html.

[14] Robert Pandya, “Announcing the ‘Give a Shift’ Round Table and Report,” October 26, 2017, at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/announcing-give-shift-motorcycle-round-table-report-robert-pandya.

[15] E.g., Mary Hanbury, “Millennials Could Be a Problem for America’s Most Iconic Motorcycle Brand,” Business Insider, July 13, 2017, at http://www.businessinsider.com/millennials-are-hurting-harley-davidson-sales-2017-7; Robert Reed, “Harley-Davidson on a Bumpy Ride with Motorcycle-Adverse Millennials,” Chicago Tribune, July 20, 2017, at http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/columnists/ct-motorcycles-millennials-sales-decline-robert-reed-0720-biz-20170718-column.html.

[16] See Eric Brandt, “Analysts Are Wrong about Why Millennials Aren’t Buying Harleys,” The Drive, July 15, 2017, at http://www.thedrive.com/opinion/12489/analysts-are-wrong-about-why-millenials-arent-buying-harleys. Harley’s “image” problem is further explored by Misao Dean, “Harley Culture from the Outside: Cowboys, Guns, and Patriotism,” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, vol. 13 (2017), at http://motorcyclestudies.org/volume-13-2017/harley-culture-from-the-outside-cowboys-guns-and-patriotism-misao-dean.

[17] Andy Brennan, “Not So Easy Riders,” Motorized Vehicle Manufacturing Yearbook, November 13, 2013, at http://www.sme.org/MEMagazine/Article.aspx?id=78845&taxid=1429.

[18] McKinsey & Company, How the Auto Industry Is Preparing for the Car of the Future (December 2017), at https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/how-the-auto-industry-is-preparing-for-the-car-of-the-future.

[19] E.g., Bruno de Patro, “Do Motorcycles Have a Future Amid Driverless Cars?” Cycle World, October 25, 2017, at https://www.cycleworld.com/do-motorcycles-have-future-amid-driverless-cars. See also the report by the EU-sponsored International Transport Forum, Improving Safety for Motorcycle, Scooter, and Moped Riders (2015), at https://www.itf-oecd.org/improving-safety-motorcycle-scooter-and-moped-riders.

[20] Frederick Seidel, “Is the Era of the Motorcycle Over?” The New York Times, November 6, 2011, p. SR4.

[21] Michael Uhlarik, “A Rebuttal to Frederick Seidel,” RideApart, November 17, 2011 (with almost 150 follow-up comments) at https://rideapart.com/articles/a-rebuttal-to-frederick-seidel.

[22] See, e.g., Dallas Hageman, “Millennials and Motorcycles – Motorcycles May Be Dying Out, But Who’s to Blame?” Wild Ride Radio, October 5, 2017, at http://wildrideradio.com/millennials-and-motorcycles-motorcycles-may-be-dying-out-but-whos-to-blame; Seth Richards, “I’m a Millennial and I Ride Motorcycles,” Motorcyclist, December 28, 2017, at https://www.motorcyclistonline.com/im-millennial-and-i-ride-motorcycles.

[23] Buche, quoted in William Hoffman, “Lack of Millennials, Disposable Income Causing Lag in Motorcycle Sales,” PowerSports Finance, November 1, 2017, at https://powersportsfinance.com/lack-of-millennials-disposable-income-causing-lag-in-motorcycle-sales.

[24] Rich Dupree, “Can Harley-Davidson and Indian Succeed in Reviving the Motorcycle Industry?” The Motley Fool, October 9, 2017, at http://www.nasdaq.com/article/can-harley-davidson-and-indian-succeed-in-reviving-the-motorcycle-industry-cm856869; David Marino-Nachison, “Motorcycles: Why Millennials Aren’t Buying, and What to Do about It,” Barron’s Next, April 13, 2018, at https://www.barrons.com/articles/motorcycles-why-millennials-arent-buying-and-what-to-do-about-it-1523632340.

[25] See, e.g., “A Motorcycle’s Journey from Cleveland to Asia and Back Again,” NBC News Dateline, August 27, 2017, at https://www.nbcnews.com/dateline/video/a-motorcycle-business-looks-to-go-full-throttle-in-the-u-s-1032344643914.

[26] Paul d’Orléans, “The iGen Meets the Filthy Motor,” Classic Bike Guide, December 2017, p. 64.

[27] Charles Fleming, “Secret Motorcycle Industry Panel Looks for Ways to Reverse Sagging Sales,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2017, at http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-secret-motorcycle-summit-20171117-story.html.

[28] Robert Pandya and Guido Ebert, GAS Report and Summary: An Anonymous and Public Discourse on the Future of Motorcycling, December 5, 2017, at http://smarter-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/GAS-Report-1-FINAL.pdf. Robert Pandya is a public relations and marketing consultant who has worked with Piaggio (Aprilia and Moto-Guzzi) and Polaris (Victory and Indian); Guido Ebert is a motorcycle and powersport communications expert who has also worked with Polaris Industries.

[29] Visits to some local dealerships make for interesting comparisons. The Indian dealership (replacing what had been a H-D dealership) displays its models in a showroom not unlike what a customer would find were he or she in the market for a Mercedes or a Lexus. Just down the road, the Triumph (also Ducati and Aprilia) dealership seems a throwback to older days, with new bikes jammed together in rows, customers’ bikes in for service leaned against outside walls, and an overall smell of oil and gasoline. Further down the road, the dealership for Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and KTM lies somewhere between the two, but offers a greater inventory of choices.

[30] See, e.g., Steven L. Thompson, “Fear of Falling and the 3-Wheel Motorcycle,” Cycle World, January 27, 2012, at https://www.cycleworld.com/2012/01/27/fear-of-falling-and-the-three-wheel-deal-steve-thompson; Rich Duprey, “The Polaris Slingshot Could Be in Real Trouble,” The Motley Fool, November 22, 2016, at https://www.fool.com/investing/2016/11/22/the-polaris-slingshot-could-be-in-real-trouble.aspx.

[31] Boston Consulting Group Limited, Strategy alternatives for the British motorcycle Industry (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1975), p. xii, at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/strategy-alternatives-for-the-british-motorcycle-industry.

[32] In comparison, the compression of new motorcycle sales in the US between 2006 and 2016, from roughly 1,000,000 machines to 485,000, while substantial hardly matches up with what the British companies experienced.

[33] See Chris Hemming, “The Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative: An Unconventional End to the Decline of a British Industry?” undated, but post-2002, at http://www.labour-history.org.uk/support_files/Meriden1.PDF.

[34] For a 12-page summary of this report, see Jan W. Rivkin, “The British Motorcycle Industry at a Crossroads,” Harvard Business School Case 703-031, January 2003, rev. January 2008, at https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=29538.

[35] The next-to-impossible task of persuading management to authorize a new design to go into production is famously described in Bert Hopwood’s Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry? The Classic Inside Story of Its Rise and Fall (Sparkford: Haynes, 1998), along with details on the promising new models that never made it to the assembly line. It is not coincidental that the BCG report identifies research and development of new models as “the most significant bottleneck” in any strategy to rehabilitate the British industry.

[36] In 2017 Triumph sales worldwide exceeded 63,000 – an 11-percent increase over 2016 – and in North America Triumph was the top selling European manufacturer. See Ron Lieback. “Triumph Sales up 11.1% during Challenging Conditions,” Ultimate Motorcycling, December 27, 2017, at https://ultimatemotorcycling.com/2017/12/27/2017-triumph-motorcycle-sales-11-1-challenging-conditions.

[37] Geoffrey Robinson, “The Lessons of Meriden,” The Spectator, July 5, 1978, pp. 13-14, at http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/15th-july-1978/13/the-lessons-of-meriden.

[38] GAS Report and Summary, p. 3.

[39] Tim Huber, “UK Motorcycle Sales Down in 2017,” RideApart, January 17, 2018, at https://rideapart.com/articles/uk-motorcycles-sales-2017.

[40] GAS Report and Summary, p. 3.

[41] Chris Cope, “How to Save Motorcycling in 5 Easy Steps,” RideApart, December 13, 2017, at https://rideapart.com/articles/save-motorcycling-5-easy-steps; Charles Fleming, “Give a Shift Summit Revs up Massive Motorcycle Conversation,” Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2017, at http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-motorcycle-summit-follow-20171219-story.html.

[42] Interview with Robert Pandya, former public relations executive with Victory and Indian, Pit Pass Moto, January 16, 2018, at https://player.fm/series/pit-pass-moto-motorcycle-racing-supercross-road-racing-motocross/robert-pandya-founder-of-give-a-shift-01-16-18.

[43] Robert Pandya, “Zero Interest(ing),” parts 1 and 2, Give a Shift, February 14 and 19, 2018, at https://miles-by-motorcycle.com/give-a-shift/blog.

[44] For early reactions to Harley’s announcement, see Jake Bright, “Harley-Davidson’s EV Debut Could Electrify the Motorcycle Industry,” TechCrunch, February 22, 2018, at https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/22/harley-davidsons-ev-debut-could-electrify-the-motorcycle-industry; Rich Duprey, “Harley-Davidson Going All-In on Electric Motorcycles,” The Motley Fool,” March 14, 2018, at https://www.fool.com/investing/2018/03/14/harley-davidson-going-all-in-on-electric-motorcycl.aspx.

[45] Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry, p. 298.


Image Attributions
[Fig.1] Image composition by Tim Fransen, IJMS. Sources: Strategy alternatives for the British motorcycle Industry (1975) | Give a Shift: Roundtable #1 Report (2017)


James J. Ward is Professor of History at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA. His degrees are from Middlebury College and New York University. His enthusiasm for British motorcycles began when he over-wintered in a fraternity house room with a DBD34 Gold Star and became permanent with the subsequent acquisition of a Velocette Thruxton (in the days when British singles were being given away). Both were relinquished many years ago, at prices that are painful to contemplate given what these classics now command in the marketplace. The old adage once more, “if I only knew then…”

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4 Comments

  1. I am an engineering innovator working on Powered Two wheelers for the last thirty years. I believe your paper misses the problem entirely. It’s the motorcycle dummy! Here is a piece I wrote for Electric Motorcycle News recently. We can, and must, produce a better product.

    https://electricmotorcycles.news/royce-creasey-opens-a-new-perspective-on-two-wheeler-dynamics/

    I am the leading English proponent of this vehicle type.

    • This man is not shy to demonstrate his bad-manners by calling Professor James J. Ward a ‘dummy’. He might be an innovator, but the solutions that he puts forward are little to do with what the professor is discussing, and if the bikes that he shows are anything to go by, I certainly would not want to ride one in our traffic. He refers to ‘Feet First’ in his link, and that unfortunate title is maybe how the rider of the bike he shows finishes up, in a box, feet first. Electric bikes will definitely have a future, but they are significantly not made in England, where the writer claims that he is ‘the leading proponent of this vehicle type’, nor in the USA, but the Far East lead again.

  2. Presumably the points raised in this comment, and in the referenced paper, will be addressed in The Current: New Wheels for the Post-Petrol Age (Gestalten, November 2018), edited by Paul d’Orleans. Writing as The Vintagent, Paul has been a proponent of the development of electric-powered motorcycles, not always to the delight of some of his readers.

    Here’s the Gestalten link: https://us.gestalten.com/products/the-current.

    • I worked in the British motorcycle industry, and there is little similarity with the situation that Harley Davidson faces today. The British motorcycle industry grew out of the pedal cycle industry, and the need for personal transport. As people became a little better off, they graduated to Motorcycles, and neither product was ever cheap in terms of income, especially the masses. Bikes were rare and precious, at first, then motorcycles, too. The industry could sell whatever it could make, for many years, and for instance Triumph sold about 85% of what it made to the USA for many years, and of course made good profits. Much is said about the demise of the British industry, but the generalisations presented were not from people with an engineering background, or those who worked there, and knew what was going on, and how it all worked, or did not work. Steve Koerner in his, ‘The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry’ must have been in every library and filing cabinet within 100 miles of Birmingham, home of BSA, so what was strange that it failed (his title) after all that research? Maybe he didn’t notice that the bikes were made in small numbers by massively labour intensive methods on worn out old machines, whilst being run by directors who thought that their income would be automatic. For a long time, there was little choice, and bikes were made the same by most manufacturers. There was dominant designer who was also shareholder, Edward Turner, sometimes referred to as a ‘genius’. He did not design using engineering principles, and he led most original engine designs for both BSA and Triumph, and very likely the overall concept, too. He held Triumph on to the ‘sprung hub’ (his very inferior version of a design used on aircraft undercarriages) until 1954, when most manufacturers were on swinging arm rear suspension. BSA group tried to enter small bike markets with new products that had not really been prototyped, or tested first, with resulting early and repeated breakdowns. Typically their ‘bikes were guaranteed for only three months, but even this was not honored, every time. The design staff was tiny, but operated at a hysterical pace. There were capable people, enough to make a good and reliable product to succeed in the market place, but they were ignored. The 750 ‘threes’ were really difficult to make, and ‘cost effectiveness’ was never an element to be considered in any design, it was more that it could be made ‘at all’, which might have been good in the old days when customers would buy anything. They did not look at the competition, nor did they believe that there was any. The Honda 750 came on the scene in 1968/9, and their whole bike probably cost less than the ‘Triple’s’ engine. There was no chance that BSA/Triumph could ever get near it. Edward Turner’s prototype 350 with twin overhead camshafts was panned by Bert Hopwood, but neither he, nor the assistance of Doug Hele made it good enough to produce, when they took the opportunity to modify it. Bert Hopwood’s book, ‘Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle industry’ made sure to state that its failure was not down to him, but he was in a high managerial position, and it was on his watch that so many failures were turned out. Each of the models were introduced into a market where there was demand, but only for bikes that worked. Bert Hopwood’s so called solutions for the motorcycle industry’s future would have been no better than anything else that had been made amongst the failures of the previous 20 years. His so-called ‘modular’ engines were only downstream of designs made in Umberslade Hall, in 1967 – knocked out by the seeming attraction of a ‘ready to produce’ 350 twin, with vertically split crankcase, and two bearing crankshaft….Except it wasn’t. A new Triumph twin cost the same as a new Austin or Morris Minivan (360 pounds). A new 750 ‘triple’ cost 40% the price of a semi-detached house. Back to mobility, look at what is carried on a motorcycle in India or the Far East – they are in the same position as were some 60 years ago, with a need for powered transport. It is not a life-style choice, but necessity. They make every penny count: I wonder if they have ever heard of ‘disposable income’. The big, world market is in small bikes for minimal transport. Does anyone think that Harley Davidson could enter the world of the Honda 50 ‘Cub’, with 100 million sold?

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