Back From the Ash Heap

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I've always liked Euro bikes — well, except during that period between the late '70s and mid-'90s when they seemed to lose the plot. The bikes were usually flawed in several ways. Euro dealers also suffered because the importers distributed poorly, offered poor parts support and had sketchy reliability. Most of the Euro OEMs, in fact, dropped out of the U.S. market during that time.

By comparison, the Japanese products were flawless and had refrigerator-like reliability. They were sold by lots of dealerships that got good parts support and tech backup.

As an industry player, the Euros were pretty much off the map during this period. Their sales figures, with the exception of BMW, weren't reported to the Motorcycle Industry Council. When their competitors spoke of them (if they spoke of them at all), they did so as you would of a departed friend — with some sadness tinged with fond remembrance of who they once were.

Back to the Future

Fast-forward to the 2000s. Triumph, Ducati, Moto Guzzi, Aprilia and KTM are back. They may not be at their former levels, but all are up in a down market, some more than others. This is while most other OEMs are posting sales that are somewhat less than last year's.

I recently attended a press intro of the new Moto Guzzi Breva 1200S and Aprilia Shiver 750. According to our hosts, sales for their motorcycles were up a bit more than 40 percent over the previous year. Sure, the Piaggio Group has had some major ground to make up, but the number is still impressive. When you consider that Piaggio's European brethren are enjoying similar sales successes, you've got to ask yourself, "Why, when everyone else is down?"

After going through a shopping list of items that can influence the sales of bikes, I've concluded that price is the main reason Euros are up. At first I thought it couldn't be price. Almost across the board the Euro bikes are more expensive than their Japanese counterparts. In one way this obviously limits sales, but on the other hand, price also makes the bikes less common on the street and more a statement of individualism. Plus, the folks who like them are typically older and have more disposable income than younger buyers.

Unlike many Harley-Davidson and Japanese sportbike riders, most people riding Euro bikes didn't get involved because they were following a trend. Most Euro bikers I know have been riding for a very long time. Whey they were younger they rode Bultacos, Greeves, Triumphs, Montesas, DKWs, Honda Scramblers, DT1s and Nortons. Most of them never dropped out of riding. They might have ridden less, but they always had a bike of some sort. When the European brands emerged from their malaise, these guys were affluent enough to buy the new offerings.

Your Next Brand?

I don't think that any one of the Euro brands is ever going to knock the Big 5 off their pedestals, but I can see a future where they each grab a more significant share of the market (collectively, they now compose less than 10 percent). Demographics are in their favor — aging boomers, and perhaps a Gen X/Gen Y element that doesn't want to follow in their parents' Harley-Davidson or Japanese footsteps.

If I were a dealer looking to shore up my bottom line, I'd sure be looking hard at the Euros. In the past five or six years these brands have improved their dealer standards, training, tech support and parts supply, along with the entire infrastructure that makes a brand viable within a dealership. If you're looking at expanding your dealership, now is a good time to consider a Euro brand. The customer requires more care and feeding, but the reward can be well worth it.

Mike Vaughan is the former publisher of Dealernews. You can reach him at mvaughan@mikevaughan.com or via editors@dealernews.com.