How it all began

Publish Date: 
Jun 17, 2014
By Don J. Brown

Editor’s Note: If you have been working in the industry for more than five years, you already know Don J. Brown, who was one of the first contributing editors to this magazine. His DJB Composite Index and related reports, and his unparalleled access to manufacturer sales data made him the premier researcher in the business. Dealers could calculate their vehicle sales goals by using his State-by-State Index, and Wall Street regularly quoted Brown when they deigned to cover the market. What many people might not realize is that Don Brown was there at the beginning -- when Bill Bagnall and Larry Hester realized that a nascent motorcycle market could sustain a news service of its own. Brown wrote the following piece for Dealernews’ 40th anniversary, and although he has been gone since 2010, his spirit and wisdom live on.

THE VIRTUE of hindsight is self-evident. Yesterday is as clear as a bell; when you are trying to look ahead, well, that’s another matter. But even if the “story of yesterday” could be rewritten to change the truth of what happened, this is actually a story of the truth, and it would be hard to change this story for the better -- even if you could.

This is the story of a magazine and the two young men who started it in 1965. This is also a story about industry circumstances that helped foster an environment that ensured the two men’s initial success.

When this magazine was founded, some companies were already ensuring the substantial growth of the motorcycle industry for the unforeseeable future. Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha were already operational in the United States, and the Fred Masek family had a franchise in Kearney, Neb., to distribute Kawasaki vehicles in the Midwest. In 1965 Honda’s small-displacement runabouts had suddenly become popular, in large part due to its well-known advertising slogan, “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda!” This ad, run in the general press, all but ensured the popularity and general acceptance of this type of motorcycle among the general public. The ad campaign also helped partially bury the image that Marlon Brando was partly responsible for when he played a rebellious biker in the movie, “The Wild One.”

Even as sales growth was beginning in a big way, the motorcycle industry was still rather, well, quaint in 1965. Most everyone knew everyone else then, and most of us could recite the names of the top executives, owners and managers of the major bike manufacturers and distributors, and most of the aftermarket companies, too. Even the best dealers, many of whom were run by top racers in one category or another, were well known. Consider Aub LeBard, a BSA dealer who had won the famous Big Bear run in California three times in a row. Then there was Bud Elkins, the Gold Medal winner of the ISDT Trials and just about every other major event, including Catalina and Big Bear. Bud was a top Triumph dealer in Southern California.

Jack McCormack, a former field sales manager of Johnson Motors who was sales manager for American Honda at the time, called one day in 1962 to tell me that Mr. Nakamura, the vice president of sales for Honda, wished to meet Bill Johnson, president of Johnson Motors. Johnson Motors was the independent distributor of Triumph motorcycles throughout the 19 western states. At that time I was general sales manager for Johnson.

After the usual amenities, Nakamura, Johnson, my colleague Pete Colman and I shared a Red Label Scotch (which was not an unusual thing to do after hours in those days). Then, Johnson asked Nakamura, “How many motorcycles do you think Honda can sell?” Nakamura replied, “Five thousand units.” Johnson grimaced. After pausing for an uncomfortable amount of time, Nakamura moved forward in his chair, raised his finger, and with a firm smile said, “Five thousand per month.”

Sixty thousand motorcycles being sold per year would be more motorcycles than had ever been sold in the U.S. market. It was a wake-up call. Johnson was taken aback. Up until that time, he had grown accustomed to the fact that Johnson/Triumph was a relatively big fish in a small pond. And he liked it that way.