February 1987 – Lore
Written over three decades ago (when RooR had become Lore in MotorCycle International) much here still applies today, which is why I decided to post it here. The only thing that’s really changed is that China has somewhat by default taken up the baton as far as entry-level bikes are concerned which is a bad or a good thing depending where your morals, politics and hopes for motorcycling’s future are concerned.
IN 1976, THE AVERAGE WAGE OF A 17-21 year-old man was £68 per week. That same year, the price of a state-of-the-art Japanese sport bike like Honda’s CB750 F1, was £1145. Something less exotic, the sort of 250cc machine a first-timer could slap a pair of L-plates on, say a Kawasaki KH250 or Suzuki GT250A, cost a mere £540 and £549 respectively. Ten years on, the apogee of hotsy-totsy motorcycling, Honda’s VFR750, will put you back £3649; that’s a rise of 218% in the retail price of Honda’s top 750.
For the poor beleagured learner, nervously assessing the cost, personal discomfort and legislative barriers that face him should he take up the unfashionable pursuit of motorbiking, a Kawasaki AR125LC will add £1389 to his parents’ overdraft, or a Suzuki RG125 Gamma, £1219. These rises in the retail price of decent learner tackle work out at 110% and 122% respectively.
And yet in what seems like a remarkably short decade, the average wage for our 17-21 year old has risen to £115, an increase of 69%.
So there, in a nutshell, is the reason why motorcycle sales have declined so horrendously | in the last few years. Well perhaps not all motorcycle sales. The modest, some would say comparitively agricultural, machines of the Eastern Bloc, have not suffered such grossly inflated price hikes. In 1976 a MZ TS150 Sports | would make you the laughing stock of your KH
and GT mounted mates for a paltry £245. Today, the remarkably similar TS150 Eagle costs £407, a rise of just 66%. Even the prices of more prestigious machines from just this side of the Iron Curtain haven’t risen by anything like as much as the best that Japan is now peddling: BMW’s £4285 K100 costs ‘only’ 61% more than its 1976 superbike, the £2659 R1008.
And thus the fortunes of Britain’s MZ and BMW importers have prospered whilst almost all those around them have watched the dust settle on gaudy rocket-ships that remain rooted to their dealers floors. I find it extraordinary | that the Jap importers make no mention of this, either in the public prints or, as far as I know, to their masters back in Japan. The only serious discussion I ever managed on the subject was with Steve Hackett, then head PR honcho at Mitsui, who was espousing a fearful inevitability that the recently launched XJ900 would breach the psychologically critical £3000 threshold. That was in 1983, and he was bemoaning the irony that as Jap bikes had now overcome their reputation for being cheap and tinny, the punters were becoming less inclined to pay prices for them that approached those of the BMs and Laverdas that hitherto represented ‘quality’ engineering.
Certainly in terms of performance per pound, the Japanese sportsbikes are in fact a steal, but that argument only holds good when you’re talking vis a vis the automobile. It does indeed take in excess of £20,000 to buy the sort of 150mph-plus top whack that several sub £5000 motorcycles can deliver, but for your £20,000 you also get a roof, a heater, a stereo and, if you’re smart, an appreciating asset. Anyway this is entirely academic, as neither the megabike nor supercar owner is really able to exploit his machine’s bum-clenching performance to anywhere near its max on our crowded tarmacadam and, even more to the point, the few motorcar freaks who can afford a Maserati and also appreciate the primordial rush of high-edge motorcycling, probably already own a Ninja or a Bimota…
No, the real point here is whether or not motorcycle performance has increased in relative proportion to cost. Well let’s take what was arguably the swiftest machine of a decade ago, the Laverda Jota. Depending on gearing, here was a machine that could deliver a genuine 144mph and cost just £2100 in 1976. Today, the cheapest bike you can buy that’ll take you that fast on the Mistral Straight of your choice, is Honda’s VFR750, at £3649. A more sophisticated bike for sure, but does that make it worth an extra 74%, and would you be better off buying a used Jota for two grand and enjoying the pleasure of owning an appreciating classic that’s cheaper to maintain?
True, the GSX-Rs and FZs of today do actually handle a lot better and accelerate significantly quicker than the sportbikes of yore, but my contention is that by locking themselves into a ‘performance-is-all’ marketing battle, the Big Four are losing their grip on the fundamental realities of the marketplace. Realities which, again somewhat ironically, allowed them to trash the rest of the world’s manufacturers in the first place.
In 1970, when Honda shocked the world by launching an OHC, four cylinder 750, its obvious rival, the Triumph Trident, cost £614. The faster, more exotic CB750 cost just £690. Three years later, Kawasaki’s (admittedly evil handling) 500cc two-stroke triple rabbit-punched the opposition at just £725, by which time a Norton Commando was eking out its last at £824.
So all other considerations aside, was it any wonder that Japanese machines quickly outsold their European rivals on performance per pound alone? Of course not. And now we’re seeing (he Japanese pricing themselves out of a market they themselves created! Ten years ago the cost of buying a CB750 represented about 32% of a young man’s annual income, Today, the VFR750’s price tag represents a staggering 61% of that same punter’s hard earned dosh. And the cost of developing and marketing these high-profile projectiles is borne not just by the individual models themselves, but by the toy-boy 125cc versions first-time bikers are expected to pin their L-plates to. Plus, there’s the awesome and seemingly unstoppable ascent of the yen.
The differences between 1976 and 1986 are many, but none of them are good for the motorcycle trade. Unemployment amongst this prime 17-21 year-old motorcycle buying age group is higher, and if the Japs have got their marketing-driven manufacturing policies wrong (just like the Euro-manufacturers got it wrong 15 years ago), then there is no major motorcycle building nation waiting around the corner ready to exploit the situation.
Okay, the Italian industry totters on, primarily in the shape of Cagiva and Moto Guzzi, but these two companies are not interested in, or capable of profitably exporting anything but high-priced and largely uncompetitive machines which a few well-heeled folk buy purely for emotional reasons. And BMW, for their part, are just not interested in the sub-500cc, entry-level punter.
But if the Japanese have unwittingly gone upmarket at the expense of broader retail accessibility, then what the hell happens next? The spoiled brat/rich eccentric market is not bi – maybe 5000 units per year tops – and the cost of just reaching it, let alone expanding it by weaning fat wallets away from sailboats and microlights, is massive.
No, if the industry wants to win back a mass market for new motorcycles it should reduce the prices of entry-level bikes by a least 20%, sport-touring and all-round roadsters by 15-20%, and maybe push up the price of the exotic stuff by a similar amount.
And it’s no good the MCA big-wigs complaining that they are at the mercy of hard-nosed manufacturers far across the globe. Nor is there much sense in holding out the begging-bowl for a zillion pounds to mount a glitzy motorcyling PR campaign. You can make the bikes as attractive as hell, and imbue the business of riding them with all the add-on sex appeal and freedom fantasies that advertising bucks will buy (not that they’ve much of a track record in this department), but who’s going to be able to afford to buy these machines? Certainly not the financially strapped young men and women of Thatcher-land.
If you enjoyed this, or even if it infuriated you, why not receive email alerts to future blogs by checking the box in the RH column, and/or add your own comments using the link below?