For Motorcycles, Small And Simple Are Big

It’s summer, and that means lots of people are ditching cars and other forms of transit for motorcycles. Yesterday, I met a young guy pulling up to a coffee house on a Suzuki 250. "Nice bike," I said, and asked him why he wasn't riding a bigger one; I mean, not for nothing, but a 250 is kind of small. "I just like the simplicity of it," he said. "And I'm getting like 70 miles per gallon. And I don't really need a big motorcycle." Okay, makes sense.

As in cars, apartments, the whole “fear of acquisition” movement thing, the sharing thing, personal appearance, mixed drinks, clunker bicycles, speakeasies, barber shops, old shavers, and vinyl, and even technology, younger people seem to favor less complexity, more efficiency and less size. And there is a definite nostalgia movement happening. And all this is playing out in the motorcycle world, as well. 

Add to this mix — or maybe it is a reflection of it — a return of the Quadrophenia dichotomy : "cafe" racers versus Vespas. It's a raw, stripped-down aesthetic. It’s Harley-Davidson’s '48, with it's "peanut" gas tank and tractor-style seat. It’s Yamaha’s Bolt model under the Star brand of Americana bikes. 

And how about Royal Enfield? The company that owns the famous nameplate is about to make a big push in the U.S. market with press tours and other events (I'll be attending one of these next week here in New York.) The Royal Enfields combine the smaller engine with the retro aesthetic — the motorcycles even have kick starters in addition to the now-standard electric ignition. And Italian brand Moto Guzzi has also come back aggressively with smaller displacement cafe-racer-style motorcycles. 

In a way, it returns to the heyday of motorcycle riding in the U.S., the early 1970s when sales hit their peak and Boomers were happy to ride 350s even on long road trips. Now such motorcycles are considered entry-level, and 750s, once considered really big bikes, are considered about average. 

Manufacturers are giving the people what they (seem to) want: most are introducing a slew of highly versatile bikes that are way smaller than their usual 'grownup fare: there's the Honda CBR-250, the Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS SE, and Yamaha’s new SR400, which is also 70‘s retro, as is Suzuki’s TU250X. And there's even BMW's G 650 GS, a single-cylinder belt-drive bike that I am seeing more and more often in Brooklyn. 

For its part, Harley is about to bow 500cc and 750cc V-twin, liquid-cooled motorcycles for the first time ever, or in at least 50 years.

But do these smaller motorcycles ride like motorcycles or just big minibikes? A couple of weeks ago I rode the Ninja 300 around the city and upstate. Well, it doesn't look like a small motorcycle — it's designed to resemble the larger 600 sport bike, the Ninja ZX-6R — and pretty much rides like a larger bike, too. It even has ABS. And other benefits are obvious after a day of riding. Here’s one: I rode it from New Paltz to Hudson, N.Y., and back again on the highway and with many country road detours, and topped off the tank only once. For $2.50. I thought I was seeing a pump-meter error. Those numbers will appeal to a 22-year-old, cash-strapped graduate. Could you ride it cross country? I don't know, but the only thing that hurt toward the end was the helmet, which was of lousy quality (won't mention the brand). 

"It's going full circle," says a friend of mine in the business. "The industry [like the car business] is looking to bring in younger people with a less-is-more design focus, that reflects how Gen Y actually lives: they wear jeans and a shirt to work, eat simpler food and live a simpler lifestyle if they can." 

Not me. After meeting that guy on the Suzuki, and mulling all of this, I strolled into the cafe. He got an Americano (natch). I got the double mocha, skinny chai frappaccino, venti. 

3 comments about "For Motorcycles, Small And Simple Are Big".
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  1. Jerry Shereshewsky from GrownUpMarketing, July 15, 2014 at 9:53 a.m.

    I read Karl's essay with a big smile on my face. I got started riding bikes in 1964 with a Suzuki 80 which was obviously too small for me and a girl friend. I quickly graduated to a BMW R-50 which was more than enough for cross country trips, daily commutes to class and weekend TT runs (tavern to tavern for those who don't know). I was aghast at the arrival of an ever expanding universe of significantly bigger bikes that seemed to have no use in normal situations. A bike that could dislocate your wrist going from 0 to 120 seemed excessive. Still does. Especially when speed limits eliminate the legal access to the upper range. If this is a reflection of a generational retrenchment or simply people finally learning how to do simple arithmetic, I don't care. Now, if they can only make them quiet again. Especially on a Saturday or Sunday early morning.

  2. Dan Ciccone from MEDIAFICIONADO, July 15, 2014 at 11:51 a.m.

    I have owned several motorcycles and graduated from my Honda CBR600 to a CBR900rr after two years as the 600 is too small for long hauls on the highway. Yes, a 250 is a great city/urban bike. Yes, most people would not mind the occasional cross-state jaunt on a 250, but no-one in their right mind would be comfortable riding a 250 for long jaunts on a regular basis. Understandably, that's not what the bike is built for. Also, motorcycle sales are relatively flat - 1.4% increase YOY. 125-250cc class sales are actually down 4% YOY. I don't disagree that the styles of the bikes are changing to attract younger buyers, but the changing of styles is not leading to an increase in sales. Probably because the motorcycle manufacturers are still focusing on the style of the bike vs. the benefits of riding vs. driving a car.

  3. Karl Greenberg from MediaPost, July 22, 2014 at 12:19 a.m.

    Jerry, back atcha on quiet bikes. And on smaller displacement engines.

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