Has the Motorcycle Industry Lost its Way? A Rant

As you can see from the Title, today is a bit of a rant.

Anyone who knows me knows I am never short of a rant or two. However, they do seem to be getting more common in recent years. Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old man now, but I think it is more than that.

Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t just apply to the motorcycle industry. Every industry is similar, but as bikers we do seem to suffer in quite a specific way. Despite all the great bikes on the market, there is distinct lack of variety outside of certain industry parameters.

This rant was actually sparked by a interview with the great Casey Stoner. In it he talked about the problems he had with Ducati and what he sees as the problem with Ducati to this day. He isn’t alone either. Alvarro Bautista has also said similar in the past, as have other riders about the manufacturers they were riding for. It goes back to the days of Kenny Roberts and Agostini in the Yamaha War years that I know of and I’m sure it happened before that.

In short, Casey Stoner talks about Ducati not listening to the riders. Concentrating too much on electronics rather than what makes the motorcycle work well in the first place. That no amount of electronic sensors or adjustments can ever replace the feeling a rider gets from a bike he feels in tune with.

I think this has become an all too common problem that is plaguing the industry. I do see some hopeful signs though. People have become so obsessed by advancements in electronic control systems that basic mechanical improvements somehow take a back seat.

The Rule of ‘MORE’

We live in a day of bells and whistles I know, but do we really need them? What do we, as bikers really want? And do we want what the marketing teams of the various manufacturers want us to want? Or are we being fooled? By the industry and its influencers.

Did I really ride around for years thinking ‘oh my wrist aches so much, I wish I had a cruise control button’.

In the real world of riding on normal roads, did I ever think ‘This changing gear is such hard work I wish the gearbox would operate itself’.

The easy answer is no, I didn’t, That wasn’t ever my priority. I have thought ‘A bit more power would be good’ or ‘I wish the steering was a bit sharper’ or ‘I wish it wasn’t so heavy’ and plenty of other things, but not once did I feel like I wanted to loose that connection betweenhand, foot, throttle, gearbox and rear wheel. It wasn’t something I ever thought and it still isn’t.

What do the Manufacturers want?

As a manufacturer the focus always has to be on profit, but as we all know that can be achieved in various ways. Furthermore, it isn’t always the obvious route that gives the best results.

In the not so distant past, many French cars were renowned for being poor quality with a low price tag making the manufacturers less initial profit. However, they did this, knowing that the profits from servicing and spares would make up the difference. They made a financial success out of the model too.

What this profit generation has led to, is a climate of ‘MORE’, which brings us more electronic’s, more rider aids, more farkles, lists of endless extras and bigger, heavier, more powerful bikes. A ‘Mines bigger than yours’ game which shows no signs of stopping.

What point really is 150HP (except for track days) when most people can’t even use 100HP properly or safely?

Can I get just as many smiles per mile with just 70HP?

Now don’t get me wrong more power is always nice, but at what cost?

Both financially and mechanically?

Remember, it is in the manufacturers interest to get you to spend as much as possible as often as

possible.

That creates their profits.

Shawn Plumber

What do the Marketing teams want?

The different marketing teams of all manufacturers are in an arms race. They live on headlines and sound bytes. The more ammunition they have the better they like it. If they can talk about multiple electronic tricks the bike has that haven’t been available before they can ‘one up’ the opposition, so that is what they are always looking for.

Saying you have improved the steering geometry of the bike to improve handling or stability just doesn’t sound as impressive as ‘it has an all new quick-shifter for faster gear changes’.

Do you see the problem? Making minor improvements to the way a bike rides mechanically also takes a lot of time and effort compared to adding on new bits, different bodywork or creating new software.

This makes mechanical developments much less appealing for the marketing staff.

Cutting Corners and Making Improvements

Now, while all these conversations are happening there is also another conversation taking place. This involves those wonderful people we so lovingly call ‘Bean Counters’. These are the people that spend all their time looking at the existing designs and trying to work out a way to either make them cheaper, or generate extra profit another way. They will sit and calculate the minutiae of every cost on the motorcycle, as well as the cost and profit generated from repair or replacement.

One classic example of this in action is with the Triumph Tiger 800, but every manufacturer does it. With the Tiger 800 it was recognised early on that it had a vulnerability. Even small accidents could cause the rear foot-peg hangers to bend. These hangers were welded directly to the rear subframe, which was welded directly to the main chassis.

This meant that in many even small accidents the bike was simply a write off. It was calculated that to redesign the fault would cost more than accepting the impact of the flaw on sales, so for years, until the Rally 900, it was simply ignored. Riders often got a new bike out of it so they didn’t complain, but it is one of the many reasons we all pay more now for insurance.

Small Changes Can Make Big Money

Another example of how this works is the amount of what I will call true bearings that have been replaced by simple bushings on every motorcycle. The simple fact is that bearings are better and will last longer, but the ‘Bean Counters’ say they cost too much and the repair of worn bushes will also generate profit for the dealers. So we end up with bushes anywhere they can reasonably be used, despite the fact they just don’t work as well. Bearings can also be changed relatively easily. Replacing bushes can be a much bigger job and many are almost impossible to replace for the average home mechanic. So the manufacturer sells more parts and the dealers get to generate more profit.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

That point actually brings us to something else entirely. As motorcycles have got more complicated they are also more difficult to understand and maintain. For me, working on and understanding my bike has always been part of the charm of motorcycling.

The more you understand the bike, the more you can get out of it, and the more ‘at one with the bike’ you will feel. That is a feeling that is priceless. To understand most modern bikes I need to be a software engineer, a computer operator, an electronics engineer and a mechanical genius last it seems.

So I Ask, What is Progress?

This might seem a silly question, but think about it. In basic terms progress should make something better. This usually comes at some cost, but if it is brought back to basics without adding more, the basic premiss is to me as follows. If the bike is the same weight and quality but more powerful, that is progress. If the bike is the same power and quality but lighter, that is also progress. Having both would be even more progress, but we all know there are limits.

So, if the motorcycling industry is progressing, why are many bikes of today bigger, heavier, and with bigger engines than they used to be?

Here I have to say sorry to Triumph, I am a Triumph owner, but this is the closest example of an equivalent old versus new bike comparison I could think of, but Triumph are far from alone. There are plenty of others that are the same thing.

A 1974 T120 Bonneville had a 650cc engine, produced 50HP and weighed in at 160kg wet with a 16 litre fuel tank. A 2023 T100 Bonneville has a 900cc engine, produces just 64HP and weighs in at 228kg wet with a 14 litre fuel tank.

Take the minor fuel weight out of the equation and we get 50HP from 144kg, or 64HP from 214kg. Is that progress? Should almost 50 years of research and development have given us a bigger bike with a lower power to weight ratio?

What the manufacturers are effectively saying, is that to get 14HP more it will need a 50% bigger engine and will increase the weight by 50%.

So I Ask, What Do You Want?

If you were given the choice of having a 50HP bike that weighed 144kg or a 64HP bike that weighed 70kg more, which would you choose? And before anyone starts, yes, I know, regulations and emissions etc., but a catalytic converter and fuel injection system don’t weigh 70 kg more than a set of carbs and other equivalent parts.

There is Good News

The good news is that there are exceptions to the rule of ‘MORE’. The most successful in recent years is the Yamaha Tenere 700. Since its release in 2019 it really has been a runaway success, even causing major supply shortfalls in some countries. As supply of new bikes was short the prices increased too which made the manufacturer and dealers happy.

This was a case of Yamaha listening to the Adventure bike market and supplying a lighter, simpler version of what was available at the time. It worked as a motorcycle and also as a profit generator which Yamaha desperately needed at the time. It is not without it’s flaws, but it is definitely a case of less being more. Customers loved it and it has now become the benchmark by which other Adventure Bikes are judged.

All the Royal Enfield’s (post the Siddhartha takeover) prove this point again. Love them or hate them, there is a loyal following that now will hardly even consider riding any other brand of motorcycle. Their simplicity seems to be at least a part of what makes them so endearing.

Neil Foster

The Bad News

Is complicated…….

Every other manufacturer has seen what Yamaha did with the Tenere 700 and has now tried to replicate that success. This has led to the release of the Aprilia Tuareg, Honda Transalp, Suzuki DE800 and more, BUT, the marketing men seem to have taken over instead of the riders and engineers.

What we get with them all is a Tenere 700 with extra something, when the success of the Tenere was actually about it having less. Not one of the others is lighter.

Aprilia rely of the fact their bike has more electronic wizardry, Honda are content that the Transalp has more power and Suzuki seem too scared to take sales away from the 650 and 1050 Vstrom to make anything significantly better than either.

Final Words

Again I ask, Is this really progress? Are the manufacturers really listening to what bikers want?

Leave your answers in the comments below to let me know.

Do you think things are actually improving your riding experience?

What do you want from your motorcycle?

Which bikes that you think draw the right balance?

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Enjoy the ride everyone.

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