It’s easy to look right past it, but there’s more happening to the motorcycle business than a recession. The economy plays a part, no doubt, but there’s something else missing, … it's the excitement, that feeling of being on the cutting edge of a technology where big things are happening.
I’ve been fascinated by technology all of my life, not only with engines and machinery, but, as the years went by, electronics and computers, too. I often wonder, though, if computers had been available during my formative years, as they are to every child now, which technology would have won the competition for my attention?
We’re a product of our time, in my teens, personal computers were yet to appear, drag racers Don Garlits and Grumpy Jenkins were huge, Carroll Shelby began building his Cobras and the Triumph Bonneville and Harley Sportster were high performers. Popular songs on the radio were often about cars, motorcycles and racing. When the Beach Boys sang their Little Honda "climbed hills like a Matchless," the kids knew what they meant and a young guy wanted a girl, a car and a motorcycle and he wanted them all to go fast.
What does a young guy want today? A girl, an Xbox and an iPhone. Well, some things never change, but motorcycles? They fight for attention against an overwhelming sea of choices, bikes don't seem as necessary or cool as they once were and combined with a recession, an entire generation is passing the prime years of buying their first bike without ever learning how to ride or wanting to.
The increasing age of the average rider isn't just a problem for Harley, as many often claim, the shrinking attendance at races and industry events, may instead be the front edge of a demographic shift and technological change. The young don’t flock to the drag strips and race tracks, they don’t strive to emulate the big name racers, if they show up at all they are there to be entertained and it could as easily have been something else entirely. Staring at the screens of their phones, texting and talking, they don’t clamor to get close to pit crews feverishly preparing for the next race, instead they wander with friends, looking bored.
I had been thinking about this for a while when an article appeared a few months ago that addressed the same issue, taking a rather pessimistic view of things, asking, "Is the Era of the Motorcycle Over?" That author seemed to think so, but I'm just not a pessimistic kinda guy, and oddly enough, the same things contributing to the lack of interest in motorcycles among the young could breathe new life into the industry, but it may require some fresh thinking.
Current motorcycle owners and riders may know what they like and want more of it, even though there's more than enough of "it" to keep them satisfied for years to come, but if you're going to attract the 18 year old, the physical excitement motorcycles are so good at providing isn't enough, you need to bring in the high tech.
The appearance of smartphone apps specifically designed for motorcycles could be one small step, but maybe the electric motorcycle is another. It doesn't matter if the baby boomers want them, they offer opportunities for tweaking and hacking tailor made for the hands on geek ready to get more performance from anything controlled by computer. The announcement last week that Honda is going electric motorcycle racing through tuning house Mugen, could payoff in this direction, attracting a younger enthusiast than another Superbike or MotoGP sponsorship.
The point is that anyone planning on staying in the motorcycle business long term, beyond the time when all of us boomers have taken our last ride, is going to have to find something to pull in more of the young, something that latches onto the rapidly evolving technology that already has their interest and combines it with two wheels, speed and the feeling of freedom motorcycles so readily provide. They can't ignore the market they already have, but the young don't respond to the same cues that brought many of us into dealerships years ago. I don't know exactly where this will lead or who will do it best, but it's going to take some out of the box thinking. If you hear any company digging in and saying we're doing it this way because we always have, that's not a good sign.
UPDATE: Just to be clear, because writing sometimes does not convey tone, I am NOT implying motorcycles are somehow over and done and I'm not, as one comment suggests, "feeling the weight of accumulating years." Anyone who has been around for a few years knows the only way to deal with any problem is to face it head on, define it, identify potential solutions and then implement the chosen solution. If that doesn't work, try something else. Not talking about it or hoping it will go away on its own is a recipe for disaster. This post was my attempt at defining the problem.
Perhaps the best thing is to ask you the question, what can we do, individually, or what can the motorcycle industry do to bring new young riders into motorcycling?