Gas Prices Won't Save Our Industry

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I subscribe to a Web forum, www.ldrlongdistancerider.com, where recently the following question was asked: "How will rising gas prices influence motorcycle sales?" The responses poured in by the hundreds, maybe more. Most of those who responded believed that the increase in fuel prices would stimulate additional sales. Many of them linked their replies to local newspaper Web sites, as well as articles and interviews with local dealers describing the increased sales of scooters as proof that rising fuel costs will generate more scooter and motorcycle sales.

According to the MIC's first-quarter Retail Sales Report, scooter sales are up 23 percent, but that's only about 1,600 units. It's not exactly a tsunami of sales, and certainly not enough to offset the decline in virtually ever other two-wheeler category. I don't know how many scooters and small bikes the Chinese or Koreans have sold, but we can assume their sales are up.

Sales of two-wheeled vehicles for fuel-related reasons are not going to be the salvation of our industry. There are several reasons for this:

  • The United States has never had a culture (of any significance) of motorcycle and scooter riding — as was experienced in postwar Europe when most people couldn't afford cars, much less the fuel to power them.
  • Unlike many European and Asian countries, the parts of our communities where we do business are spread out over some pretty far distances.
  • The majority of the U.S. population lives in geographical areas where the weather can be pretty uncomfortable for most of the year.
  • There are cars on the market that get mileage equal to most motorcycles.
  • The majority of U.S. residents view motorcycles as being dangerous.
  • And then there's the practicality aspect: Most manufacturers (as my fellow journalist Bill Heald recently noted in the June issue of Backroads) don't provide any kind of hard luggage system for their nontouring bikes.

This is not to say that rising fuel costs can't boost motorcycle and scooter sales; they sure did during the gas crisis of the 1970s, and they may be currently driving the sales of used bikes. Obviously, there are people for whom weather isn't a problem. And there are those who feel that the danger of riding a motorcycle is a situation that can be managed, and that the other benefits of riding a two-wheeler — like ease of parking and the ability to filter through traffic — can offset the negatives. Finally, there are some two-wheelers on the market that far exceed the fuel efficiency of any car available, and their entry price is much lower than an auto.

There are a number of ways to overcome the main objections and get new customers into the dealerships.

  • We've got to let the general public know motorcycles, as a "class" of vehicle, get as good or better mileage than just about any car out there. My 2002 Triumph Tiger, for example, can squeeze out 40 miles per gallon at speeds of 65 to 70 mph, and it wasn't designed with any consideration (as far as I know) for fuel efficiency.
  • And we have to let consumers know that by federal law, a motorcycle can travel in the HOV lanes, so even if you can't split traffic in your state, you can move through it faster by using the least congested lanes.
  • Then there's gear: The current styles keep you warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and fairly dry on rainy days.

TIP: TOP BOXES

So we're left with one main objection: If you're now using a bike to commute or run errands, how do you tote your stuff? I bring up hard luggage as an example.

I used to think top boxes fell into the same category as pocket protectors and slide-rule holsters. My Tiger, which I bought secondhand, came equipped with a top box and two hard saddlebags. I owned a Concours for about eight years; the saddlebags were really practical and I seldom removed them, so I decided to set the top box of the Tiger aside and use just the saddlebags to transport my stuff on a daily basis. At some point, however, perhaps after a longer trip where I used the top box to store items I might need to get to often, I realized how practical this piece of luggage actually was. Now I ride with it all the time, and leave the saddlebags for longer trips.

The industry has buried riders in soft luggage. It sure has its place, but for their security and ability to keep things dry, hard bags can't be beat. I'm surprised that the OEMs or aftermarket companies haven't developed some standard commuting package that might include a small fairing and, at a minimum, a lockable, weatherproof top box that can be bolted onto a variety of motorcycles. Satisfying this need, it seems to me, would make motorcycles more attractive as alternate forms of transportation for many commuters out there.

I still don't think commuters and errand-runners are going to save the industry, but they can sure help keep us on life support until a cure is found — providing all their needs are met.

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