The past year has been extremely turbulent for the entire motorcycle industry, particularly in Western markets. But there is a silver lining: the rediscovery of the humble Standard, the all-in-one multi-purpose motorcycle. Can this once dominant two wheeled tool help rebuild sales and public interest, or will it commodify the motorcycle, stripping from it the mystique of adventure that attracts so many? Market Watch examines the Standard motorcycle in 2009 - 2010.
The Way We Were
The motorcycle was born from the modest bicycle and the need to move faster and farther than human legs could peddle. Over the century that the motorcycle has existed, it has enjoyed the status as one of the simplest and most efficient forms of motorized transportation available. To hundreds of millions it is nothing more than that, a form of daily transport that allows them to commute, work, visit friends and relatives, conduct business and occasionally ride for sheer enjoyment. This pure functionalism is lost to most Western motorcyclists and industry personnel, because in the developed world the motorcycle has evolved from the transportation alternative to a car in the post war period, to a thrill used almost exclusively for pleasure. As a result, the past 25 years has seen an over-specialization that has split, re-split and regrouped categories into a maze of niche segments that are often difficult to understand, and not always commercially robust.
For nearly a hundred years, the differences between a basic motorcycle and one with a more dedicated purpose were almost invisible to anyone but experts. One look at typical 1960's era examples: a dual purpose Greeves Scrambler, a BMW R60 Tourer, and a street legal Velocette Venom, (see picture below), reveal how slight their respective architectural differences are, even if mechanically they share little. And within their respective segments, technological solutions aside, there too was little diversity. The top selling bikes within any category were largely variations on a theme. For brands to stand out, the products needed to perform better or offer a better value proposition. As a result, the motorcycle consumer had to understand mechanics and performance, or take the word of the dealers and press at face value in order to choose what was best for them. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of sales went to machines that offered the greatest versatility in real world conditions. Any nods toward specialty use were just that, largely superficial add-ons like larger fenders, windscreens and saddlebags for touring; clip on handlebars, larger brakes and hot cams for sport; and so on. Today, we would call these accessories, or platform extensions, but until the 1970's, this product plan was considered a line up.
In the largest volume motorcycle markets today, this is still the case. In India, Brazil and the ASEAN region, the Japanese Big Four market a wide array of 150-300cc models, all based on a few common platforms. In the lucrative developed world markets, platform sharing had all but disappeared from the mid 1980's on, as increased margins on large displacement bikes allowed ever more chassis and engine platforms to develop for specific vehicle types. The vastly divergent market needs -maximum line-up economics vs. maximum model performance-per-segment- lead to the death of the multi-purpose street motorcycle. The so-called standard.
Over Breeding vs. Natural Selection
The strategy of self-defining motorcycle categories has been successfully used as a marketing tool to help differentiate brands and sub-brands from the competition. For example, intentional or not, the first Aprilia Scarabeo ignited a the modern "big wheeled" commuter scooter phenomenon by doing just that to an otherwise stagnant category. Offering a vertical, cute and purely utilitarian experience to the small wheeled, aero-styled scooters that were then fashionable created an instantly recognizable alternative. The Italian commuter class flocked to what was seen as a new, unpretentious un-motorcycle, creating a vogue for large wheel scooters of this type that still dominate the sector, such as the Honda SH "Scoopy" family. Not content to enjoy this success, Aprilia steadily expanded on this theme to create an entire Scarabeo product line, eventually marketing them as a separate sub-brand that reached from 50cc to the expensive 500cc maxi-scooter class. Competitors from Piaggio (prior to their acquisition of Aprilia in 2004), Peugeot, Honda and others all pounced on the sector, each spinning the look and marketing to create sub-sub categories in the hopes of standing out further still. Retro big wheel (Cagiva Cucciolo), sport big wheel (Honda SH300i), premium/luxury big wheel (Piaggio Beverly), utility, sport utility, and so on.
The modern Western consumer is accustomed to and expects this hyper specialization, yet a vast majority of first time buyers and even experienced motorcyclists don't understand the relative merits or weaknesses of these fragmenting categories. The result is a mixed message that often directs people to machines not ideally suited to them or their needs. A disappointing brand or product experience has a multiplicative negative effect on image, as word of mouth advertises what was perceived as the brand's false promise. This has ultimately led to ever more adherence to brand DNA-focused product alignment, that allows for virtually no deviation from a few key elements: a superbike has to be only the most extreme execution of a race track performance tool; a supermotard has to maintain all of its motocross architecture; a cruiser has to reflect chopper culture with no attention to comfort or robust usage. This despite all being primarily road motorcycles. The super-specialized, modern genre-motorcycle has become caricature of itself
The risk of this product planning model is more than alienation, but intimidation. The vast majority of potential motorcyclists admire and even desire the edgy personality projection that riding one suggests, yet secretly they are afraid of injury to themselves, their reputations, and bank accounts. The point of entry for many newcomers inevitably tends toward machines that look outwardly like the aspirational motorcycle they desire, but have the size, price and performance they can handle. When this type of bike is absent from the market, as it largely has in North America for the past two decades, then the consumer wishing to buy new faces a choice: purchase something beyond your capability, or don't do it at all.
The cycle became a familiar one to product planners and marketing in the industry. There were no strong sales of entry-level, middle displacement motorcycles, therefor there must be no demand. Dealers and enthusiasts complained that the only choices were 20 year old designs like the Suzuki GS500 (start of production 1987) or the Kawasaki GpZ/EX 500 (1987), or the Yamaha XJ600 "Diversion" (1991). Of course these machines with their outdated styling and technology made little sense in a marketplace that offered astonishingly superior hardware for only 20% more in price, so many brave new entrants purchased much larger and heavier models to save their pride. Today in the US a beginner motorcyclist is likely to consider a sport model of at least 600cc and weighing more than 175kgs, or cruisers of 1100cc weighing considerably more.
The sad truth is that they needn't have worried about their pride. Hundreds of world class motorcycle racers and a fair few World Champions began spectacular careers on humble Honda Cubs, Yamaha FS1s and Kawasaki AR50s, practicing riding techniques as they trundled to school, work, home or scrambled across fields on these accessible and forgiving machines. But the motorcycle is an irrational vehicle often sold for irrational reasons. It would take a standard with sex appeal and good performance to turn around the moribund image of the all-rounder.
The New Breed
Since the late 1990's the Standard has been making slow inroads back into OEM planning lists, dealer showroom floors and the motorcycle market's heart. Helped in no small part by the introduction of desirable aspirational models like the original Ducati Monster and 1998 Honda Hornet, the everyday motorcyclist in the Western markets has begun to enjoy an increasing variety of modern standards that performed as well as the more extreme sport models but offered everyday practicality and versatility. Of course, old and obsolete warhorses like Suzuki's venerable GS500, the Kawasaki EX500 / GpZ500, and Honda CB500 soldiered on in the bottom end, but the Suzuki Bandit series, Yamaha Fazer, and Kawasaki ZR7 and ZX12R plus numerous others highlighted the new era of attractive, performance all-rounders and reasonable prices.
Since 1996, these machines and their successors have earned the respect of the hard core sport enthusiasts, incubated and bred thousands of new comers to the sport, and widened the appeal of modern motorcycling to not only the young and adventurous, but to previously reluctant Baby Boomers and Born Agains (riders returning to the sport after many years hiatus). There is no doubt that if a consumer has to choose only one street machine to do everything, irrational brand perceptions and social pressures aside, a modern standard will fulfill that role admirably.
In 2008 the most important debuts were not the niche hyper performance motorcycles but a surprising array of modern standards. Suzuki's much publicized Gladius was easily the most impressive. Heir to the SV dynasty, a family of attractive, high quality V-twin road bikes that stormed the sales charts since 1999, the Gladius presented the consumer with a contemporary equivalent to the UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle- a slang term for Japanese all-rounders from the 1970's). Honda unveiled a pair of low displacement standards imported from Brazil and China, and Kawasaki continued to impress journalists and test riders with the all new ZX250R "baby Ninja". Late last year, Honda revealed that it would introduce the pretty CB300 Twister to European and possibly North American markets, billing it as an entry-level Hornet, while premium standards came from BMW with the versatile F800, and Ducati with an all new Monster. All are good looking, with low seat heights, reasonable prices, and performance that could at once be handled by a novice but satisfactorily pushed by an expert.
Borrowing the automotive "crossover" argument that something can truly be mutli-purpose and still desirable has also been successful. The Yamaha T-Max maxiscooter, by delivering sport performance and looks, finally made it acceptable to fashion conscious, but hardened European motorcyclists to ride a "mere" scooter to work each day with ego intact. It has enjoyed a position of sales leader not only in the maxiscooter category, but has been one of the best selling bikes in the Italian market overall for nearly ten years. Similarly, the Kawasaki Versys and BMW GS800 have allowed point-of-entry all day riders something that does not look nor feel like a crude enduro, but have largely the same versatility. This "SUV" approach is beginning to spiral into the realm of hyper-specialization as the premium brands try to out-do each other to create a two wheeled Hummer (Yamaha Super Tenere 2011, KTM LC8R, Ducati Mutlistrada 2010), but the original intent -a multi-purpose, multi-road motorcycle- is still there.