Trikes go mainstream with new dealer channel, growing customer base

Publish Date: 
May 23, 2012
By Dennis Johnson

TRIKES HAVE LONG BEEN the Rodney Dangerfield of powersports. Three-wheelers transitioned from mainly serving commercial purposes to being the purview of retirees, aging cyclists and the odd sorts attracted to their niche appeal.

But two major changes took place that radically altered the three-wheeled landscape. In 2007 Can-Am launched the Spyder, its own take on what a tri-wheeled vehicle should be. And then, in 2008, Harley-Davidson radically changed the landscape by launching its own production trike, the Tri-Glide. It was this move by the Motor Co. that, many say, legitimized trikes, taking them out of a niche and into the mainstream.

In making the decision, H-D severed ties with Lehman Trikes, the Spearfish, S.D.-based manufacturer that had been making Harley three-wheelers since 2006. The company suspended operations this year not long after the death of founder John Lehman, when a proposed sale of the company failed to attract investors.

At the other end is Motor Trike out of Troup, Texas, a company that manufactures conversion kits for both American-made motorcycles and metrics. For Motor Trike, the market shift has led three years of continuing growth. "We are no longer a stepchild. When we first started in this business, we'd have to get fitted with Kevlar before we did a rally. The comment always was, 'I'll be dead or I'll give up riding before you get me on a trike,'" says Jeff Vey, Motor Trike's owner. "If you'd have had thin skin in the early days, you'd have bled to death."

The introduction of the Tri-Glide buoyed the industry, Vey says: “It was like a blessing from the pope.” Reflecting a trend reported by many aftermarket conversion kit companies contacted by Dealernews, Vey says Motor Trike sales increased 13 percent in 2010 and another 13 percent in 2011, and thus far in 2012 is up 7.5 percent.

The trike market is still dominated by the aging rider demographic, a group of longtime or returning riders who put heavy miles on their machines. In fact, Vey says 93 percent of Motor Trike’s products belong in the touring segment.

Some manufacturers, though, report anecdotal increases in the number of women riders and younger buyers. Vey says his customer age range varies depending on the product in question; for example, Motor Trike's Victory Motorcycle conversion kits with touring trunks attract buyers in the 40- to 45-year-old range.

At Black Hills Harley-Davidson in Rapid City, S.D., owner Terry Rymer says the store does brisk business with Tri-Glide sales -- and about 15 percent of buyers are women. They've even done some modified trikes for handicapped riders, he says. "These are the people who have always ridden, and it gets them back into the wind," Rymer says.

The one constant among all trike owners is that they all can afford the $30,000-plus price tag of the Tri-Glide and the add-on sales of accessories and performance modifications. "If you can afford to buy one of these, you can afford to make it your own," Rymer notes.

Trikes have yet to reach a nationwide audience; yes, the Spyder has captured an international following, but trikes in the U.S. are still largely a regional thing.

Jim Pinto, vice president of Garden Grove, Calif.,-based Champion Trikes, says that about 75 percent of its business is still east of the Rockies. The trike conversion and sidecar manufacturer is starting to see sales pick up on the West Coast, but it's still largely an untapped market, he says. "The trike business is still in its infancy. Most people think the trike business is fad, but it's not a fad," Pinto says. There are 1.5 million baby boomers with licenses who want to keep their dreams alive, women tired of riding behind their husbands, new riders who are uncomfortable on two wheels, and those with disabilities who want to stay on the road. Riders in that last segment, Pinto notes, can write off their trikes on Schedule A of their federal income taxes.

The company sells kits for new bikes and has 54 different models for American-made and metric motorcycles. As the market matures, Champion sees it trending toward a good, better, best approach to sales; Pinto says the company offers products starting with Sportsters and ratcheting upward to models for the Harley FLH and Honda Gold Wing.

"We don't feel the industry has been tapped out," Pinto says. "What we see is, as the population grows older, there are more and more trike kits being sold, and there is a also a group of youthful people buying them."

Champion's dealer network is an eclectic mix of installers — those who convert bikes for customers, Harley-Davidson and metric dealers, and the small independent shops who ship the bikes to Champion's factory to be converted. "We're also the vendor of choice for most of the rental companies," Pinto adds.

For some of the longtime players, this expansion bodes well for sales of conversion kits given there are hundreds of thousands of motorcycles out on the road that can receive the three-wheel treatment.

With a nationwide dealer network of about 100 dealers, Roadsmith Trikes saw its fortunes drop off during the recession, but then pick up in 2011 and continue to grow heading into 2012. The White Bear Lake, Minn.,-based company was founded in 1972 as The Trike Shop, doing Volkswagen-powered trikes.

Roadsmith's general manager, Doug Lindholm, says that the company's audience somewhat reflects the demographic broadening seen across the trike segment, but still trends toward those of retirement age who've spent a lifetime on two wheels.

The one thing he sees as a common thread across all trike customers is that all of them have a solid "reason" for buying a three-wheeler. Often this reason is getting a bike back on the road that's been garaged for some time.

Lindholm is thankful for the newfound acceptance brought on by Harley-Davidson's official entry into the market. It means better business for his company, which can now target new dealer opportunities and new customers.

"The dealers were like, 'Oh, no. We don't sell trikes,'" he says. "Now, they're like, 'We can only carry so many Tri-Glides. Maybe there's another trike we can carry.'"

This is the complete version of a shortened story that recently appeared in the Dealernews June 2012 issue.