When folks ask me how I got into motorcycles, the answer is some variation of:
“After watching a movie with a sweet motorcycle, I used $4 a gallon gas to justify buying a scooter.”
For whatever it’s worth, the movie was Tron: Legacy, but the scooter was a Tomos Nitro 150 (SYM GY6 clone). I kept $4 in quarters in a Ziploc bag under the seat which was enough to ride about 85 miles on a tank. I rode that scooter to work every day possible as I desperately milked the last bit of life out of my “college car”. Needless to say, I’ve evolved from urban scooter life (for now), but there’s no denying that the money-saving motivation is still alive and well.
The reminiscence of my scooter days was caused by the sudden appearance of the dreaded “R-word” in the latest news headlines. As everyone that’s reading this already knows, the current financial climate is making many of us question our spending decisions. Considering the rumors of imminent economic contraction, I can’t help debating the stereotypical behaviors of the motorcycle community coupled with the business strategies of the larger franchises. Even in good conditions, I can’t help asking myself, “what’s a motorcycle really worth?”
More specifically, I had a recent back in forth with my buddy Ted (Host of the Motorcycle Men Podcast). I took the Pan America for a test ride a few weeks back and I really like it; so much so, I would say it’s in hot competition with the Africa Twin and the V85TT as my number one pick for a (new) sport touring motorcycle. That said, at $17,400 for the base model, there’s some pretty stiff competition in the 1000cc+ adventure touring class. Considering Honda’s base model Africa Twin retails for $14,500, what are you getting from Harley-Davidson for the extra three grand?
This same question can be applied to a number of “premium” motorcycle brands and models. I’d like to extend this idea a little bit further; I can understand someone suggesting that comparing a Harley-Davidson cruiser to a Japanese sport bike is unfair because the buyers likely have two very different metrics that influence choice. So for argument’s sake, let’s take a closer look at the “adventure touring segment”. While there’s no question that American motorcycle buyers simply “like what they like”, so they buy a motorcycle that strikes their fancy. An honest assessment of the stereotypical American motorcyclist will likely reveal they most riders are casual commuters and social creatures. I often call motorcycles “pontoon boats with wheels”, as most owners ride from one place to another for food, drink, and comradery. We can argue until the cows come home about the intended use case for a given “class” of motorcycle and what customer it fits, but the cold hard truth is that virtually any motorcycle for sale today is capable of doing what 90% of American riders choose to do with their bikes.
Under that premise, and even debating motorcycles among the ADV touring category, I can’t help asking, how would one treat a new Kawasaki Versys 650 any differently than the target customer for the Pan America? Considering the price of current heavyweight ADV bikes, you could feasibly purchase two brand new motorcycles for the same price; i.e. a Tenere 700 and a Himalayan, a Versys 650 and a KLR, and the list goes on.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I get it, there’s no metric for taste. We can talk about horsepower differences, comfort on the highway, and all kinds of subjective wants and needs that dictate the rationalized decisions of discretionary spending. We can argue about annual long-distance vacations versus daily commuting and all sorts of nuanced differences that drive the need for more displacement and factory farkles. So beyond horsepower and displacement, I’d be remiss to not point out the price creep and the coincidence of electronic doodads.
In my mind, the Tenere 700 was a cold bucket of water on the ADV marketing folks, considering it arrived as the “no-frills” ADV machine in a world more and more dominated by throttle by wire, rider modes, and a host of other electronic “rider aides”. Old school LCD dash, cable throttle, ABS, but no cruise control or other electronic assistance, all for the low, low price of $10,300. Meanwhile, Triumph offers their off-road-oriented Tiger 900 Rally for $15,400, fitted with TFT display, ABS, traction control, rider modes, and of course, cruise control. For 50 Benjamin’s, the British are offering you an extra 200cc, slipper clutch, 22 horsepower, and an electronics suite. You get more features for more money on the Triumph, hell, you even get an extra cylinder on the Tiger. That said, how much does the riding experience change from the Tenere to the Tiger?
Mark Gardiner likes to use the metric “smiles per mile”. I love that metric, considering how I endlessly debate about motorcycles. Being the budget-conscious rider, “miles per dollar” for tires, and “smiles per dollar” for motorcycles is definitely the metric of choice for the frugal motorcyclist. I admit and acknowledge that a motorcycle purchase is primarily emotionally motivated; people like what they like. If it’s possible to set that aside, if you think about the riding experience from an objective perspective, how much does a TFT display impact the practical use of a motorcycle? How much “better” does the motorcycle “feel” in sport mode versus “normal” mode? Is 1 horsepower worth $100?
There are no wrong answers here. I don’t begrudge anyone for their financial success or purchase of premium goods, more power to you. I don’t judge people for borrowing money to have the motorcycle of their dreams before their health precludes such a life experience. Simultaneously, as the threat of constricting budgets encroaches on the dinner table, I question the direction of the motorcycle market as it relates to cost and technology. More “stuff” is currently associated with more money. For the last decade, money has been “cheap” (i.e. low-interest financing), but there are threats to that business plan on the horizon. Considering the discretionary nature of motorcycle purchases, I expect that more and more buyers will take a closer look at “what am I getting for my money?” If you’re riding your motorcycle exactly how you like to ride it, on your absolutely favorite road or trail, how much time is actually spent looking at that TFT dash?
My history is a little fuzzy, but I believe the café racer craze emerged as a result of “recession budgets” and a surplus of 80’s era motorcycles. As our economic future comes into question, I suggest we as motorcyclists assess the value of our current market offerings, and how they will impact the growth of our sport. When times are tough, is a more affordable machine 90% as fun as a premium alternative? Will the techno-wiz-bangery become difficult to maintain when I don’t have the cash to pay a dealer? How much are rider aides worth, and do they make the riding experience more valuable?