The Insider

By Michael UhlarikPosted on

Millennials, millennials. All anyone wants to talk about is how to sell motorcycles to millennials. A recent working group called Give A Shift was assembled to tackle the problem of declining motorcycle sales in North America and the misfirings of our beloved industry in its vain attempt to woo millennials onto bikes.

Baby boomers are to blame, the report said. Millennial attitudes as well. The former demanded too much attention at the expense of other demographic groups, and the latter are supposedly indifferent to physical pursuits like motorcycling and broke with too much student debt.

There is, I think, another explanation. Motorcyclists refuse to adapt to new ideas. The industry only builds what the market shows demand for, and if you look at the best selling motorcycles of the past 20 years you see nothing but reactionary products reflecting what was popular the year or two previous. And whenever a new concept or technology arrives that stands out a little too much, it is soundly rejected.

Canada is a unique market. Canada is used by most major global motorcycle manufacturers as a litmus test for new products before setting them loose further south. Their reasoning is that culturally Canadians are similar to Americans, and our weather and geography in summer approximates the riding experience of most U.S. bikers. Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Piaggio have all let loose radical new models in Canada to test market reaction, before allowing sales to commence south of the border if at all.
In the decades that I have been a motorcyclist I’ve watched while many unique and potentially revolutionary bikes came into the market in Canada only to be rejected wholeheartedly. As a former member of Yamaha’s R&D staff I can confirm the dismal sales of amazing machines like the TDR250 enduro, SRX 660 cafe racer, and of course the GTS1000 sports tourer. All three were concepts ahead of their time, offering superlative engineering and performance.

The TDR was a lightweight adventure bike that was inexpensive and could outrun many big bore sport models on a twisty road, but as a two-stroke at a time when bar-room wisdom claimed “the two-stroke is obsolete” it failed to capture sales. The SRX was a factory designed cafe racer with all-metal bodywork and a super compact chassis powered by the most reliable single-cylinder four stroke motor ever put in a motorcycle. Again, few takers. And the GTS is the most tragic story in motorcycle product planning of the last quarter century, one where designers and engineers solve every pain point ever put forward by sport touring consumers with magnificent technologies only to be told off by a market that just wanted a superbike with a taller windscreen.

These and other bikes by the big global manufacturers failed not because there was anything wrong with them or because the public hated the styling, but because they were just too far outside the established motorcycling bubble. We claim to be outlaws, rebels, and risk takers to our non-motorcycling friends but in truth we are fetishists with little taste for expanding our boundaries. A cafe racer from some half-dead Italian brand is okay, even if it is a terrible motorcycle, but one from a Japanese factory is unacceptable to most. Similarly, adventure bikes must be large and tall or risk being considered “entry-level” or worse, pejoratively labelled “a women’s motorcycle.”

These are not personal opinions regarding the aforementioned failures, they are actual statements and sentiments from consumer groups and magazines. The GTS was “too heavy and too expensive” for a sport touring bike according to detractors, but was in fact much lighter and less expensive that BMW and Kawasaki contemporaries in the same class. People rejected the GTS because it was “weird,” as Motorcyclist magazine put it. Its revolutionary Omega frame and RADD single-sided front fork looked too different and out came the long knives. The result? It’s back to mushy telescopic forks and all their associated stiction and dive characteristics for us, then.

BMW tried for many decades to show us the wisdom of Telelever front suspension and anti-squat, zero maintenance Paralever shaft drive on all their street bikes, to no avail. They too gave up on common sense and fact-based engineering and gave the market what it really wanted, namely loud, dirty chain drives and more low rent, bending telescopic forks. Aprilia made revolutionary modern two-stroke motors that were actually cleaner than any four-strokes using Orbital Technologies Di-tec. But the wise people of the scootering world decreed that no, they preferred less power and more expensive motors, thank you very much.

I am complicit in these crimes, as are we all. We ride motorcycles simply because we like them, and no amount of rationalization will change our minds. How else does one explain the enormous success of completely absurd products like raked-out choppers or 200-horsepower, street legal superbikes? We want what we want. And more often than not, what we want is what is already out there, and has been accepted by our fellow tribesmen. A new thing may be empirically better in function and form, but if it strays too far from our accepted norms most of the motorcycle market will reject it because it will face peer backlash.

The Canadian motorcycle market continues to allow for testing and experimentation, something that as a Canadian and enthusiast of motorcycle innovation I am extremely grateful for. All of the motorcycles I listed above as examples of market failures made their North American debut here, and it should be noted, have ravenous cult followings to this day. Some Canadians, it seems, like life outside the motorcycle echo chamber after all. 


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