We are in the middle of a major shift in motorcycle history. Makers are changing out their strategies and coming out with new designs. The 2016 US sales numbers were 371,403, half of what they were a decade before. Don’t be mistaken, this is a good thing for us riders.
Throughout the history of motorcycles, makers have faced challenges. Each time, they innovate and rise above. Those of us born to ride get the benefit with newer and better bikes.
The first motorcycles built were more like steam-powered bicycles. These powered bicycles were like the motorized bicycles we see today. Through the mid to late 1800’s independent builders developed bikes as one-offs. They became so powerful that a bicycle frame was no longer strong enough.
The First Mass Production
The 20th century brought formation of the most iconic motorcycle companies of today. While they have faced challenges, they are all producing motorcycles today.
Royal Enfield was the first to begin mass-producing motorcycles. Triumph began producing motorcycles soon after. Both companies had begun as bicycle builders. Indian and Harley also started production around this time. These first motorcycles had lighter frames than what know today. Their tanks were thin and long. Handlebars were low, wide, and slung back.
War Brought Innovation
Motorcycles, although new technology, took a central role in the war effort. Horses phased out and motorcycles took their place. WWII motorcycles made message communication faster across the battlefields. Military police also found motorcycles as an effective means of transportation.
Triumph benefited during this time. They sold 30,000 units of the Model H. The Model H was 499 cc and air cooled. The single cylinder side valve engine provided all the power. This was the first Triumph without pedals. Military motorcycles were workhorses with larger, longer tanks. The fat nobby tires provided traction in the worst conditions.
During this time Indian came out with a rear suspension system. This added maneuverability and comfort to the ride. Indian dedicated almost its entire production abilities to the war effort. This ultimately hurt the company. After the war, Indian struggled to position itself as a civilian vehicle.
It was during this time the Harley V Solo rose to dominance. Over 50% of Harley’s production abilities went towards the war effort by the end. This popularity only continued to rise after the war as veterans came back home. American veterans coming come wanted to keep riding the Harleys. Motorcycles to replace the excitement, danger, and camaraderie they felt while at war.
The Rise of Clubs
As war veterans came home and began to ride more, they started organizing into clubs. This trend inspired movies like The Wild One starring Marlon Brando.
The Japanese Invasion
By the time the 1960’s came around, Japanese manufacturers had taken over the industry. Honda was now the force to reckon with.
It was around this time that motorcycles went from practical tool to fun toy. Motorcycles were now a carefree recreational vehicle of the youth. The across the frame-four engine setup designed by Honda came to the American market. This paved the way for bigger and faster bikes.
British presence faded away during this time. Harley and BMW had to face Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Yamaha.
Japanese makers were able to build better quality motorcycles faster. They were affordable and stylish. British builders couldn’t keep up. BMW struggled but managed to save themselves with the redesigned Slash-5. Harley survived thanks to a unique product, tariff laws, and a strong sense of customer loyalty.
The Market Shifts
By the 1980’s BMW jumped back in the game with their own innovations. They came out with an “adventure touring” bike. This created a whole new crossover category of bike. They were also the first makers to put anti-lock brakes on their bikes.
Americans and Italians started gaining market share back with their own innovations. This is due to the diversification of motorcycle styles.
Once the Japanese bikes were on the market, the competition for power started heating up. The first superbike hit the market in 1969 from Honda.
The Honda CB750 was their first attempt at making a bike designed for the American market. It was so popular that it remained in production until 2003.
Eventually, a “gentleman’s agreement” among major manufacturers formed in 2000. They agreed to limit their machine’s speed to 186 mph. The agreement came about after the 1999 Hayabusa exploded onto the market. It’s production speed and power beat previous records by leaps and bounds.
Industry folks feared that if the competition continued, people would start dying. They did not want the bad press of 200 mph plus street racing. Superbikes like the Kawasaki zx14 came with a built-in limiter. In 2005 the zx14 could do 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, but wouldn’t go over 186 mph.
Leave it to the Italians in 2007 to decide they were done with the agreement. They came out with the F4 R 312. Following in suit BMW came out with the BMW S1000RR. Ducati was next to break the agreement.
They came out with the 1199 Panigale R where the speedometer simply went blank after 186mph. Today the fastest production bike is not street legal.
The Kawasaki H2R can reach speeds of 206-249 mph. There is a street version with less power than the track version.
Today there are two large distinct motorcycle markets. The speed and handling focused sportbikes and the more laid back cruisers.
Other smaller niches have formed. This includes crossovers, adventure, trikes, and street fighters. These days, there is a bike for every style.
Brands that had previously gone defunct are experiencing new life. Riders of today appreciate the history and look of the older bikes. This is most easily seen with the Indian and Triumph brands. Both companies have gone defunct and come back.
Indian embraces their roots with pastel colors. Their bikes feature tan leather saddlebags with plenty of fringe.
Triumph embraces the hipster movement. Their bikes are for the bowtie-wearing gentleman rider who doesn’t want to get dirty.
Electric & Battery
The future of motorcycles is electric and battery powered. Traditional motorcycle makers like Harley have made attempts at it.
The Zero is the leader in innovation for this technology. While they still face major issues, they are are developing. Battery powered bikes will grow in popularity as price decreases and range increases. For now, they are great for inner city commuting.
Famous People Born to Ride
Today motorcycles hold a special place in Hollywood’s heart. Many celebrities love riding motorcycles like Tom Cruise, Justin Timberlake, and George Clooney riding. Famous for his car collection, Leno has also amassed a large motorcycle collection. His more notable bikes are a 1933 Indian Four and a 1946 Harley WR.
They can say thanks to the rebel movie stars of the 60’s for cementing their popularity. Hollywood’s shift to feature the bad boy rebel brought on a love of motorcycles for youth.
Before Brando was famous, he would take his motorcycle for nighttime rides in New York City. Once he became famous, motorcycles were an outlet for him.
Just like all us enthusiasts, he’d hop on his bike and cruise. He’d often go Southwest. Cruising through the desert with no particular destination was a favorite pastime.
The Rebel Without a Cause star first started riding at the age of 15 on a 1947 CZ 125-cc. His nickname growing up was “one speed Dean” and his one speed was “wide open.” He owned many motorcycles in his life including a Royal Enfield, Indian, and Triumph.
The ultimate king of cool and the first person most people think of when it comes to famous motorcycles. Long before he was famous he was racing his used Harley in weekend tournaments.
He eventually built a collection of over 100 motorcycles. His favorite being Indian. McQueen helped bring motorcycles into modern culture. He was the ultimate symbol of cool.
Throughout the 60’s and 70’s Evel Knievel was famous for daredevil stunts. He attempted more than 75 motorcycle jumps in his career. The use of helmets was greatly influenced by him. He supported the use, crediting them with his life.
Ultimately the state of California used him as the walking example of the importance of helmet laws. In 1999 the Motorcycle Hall of Fame inducted him.
Motorcycles Are Here to Stay
As long as there are people who are born to ride, the motorcycle makers will be there. Today’s riders have a wider variety of power and styles to choose from. The humble beginnings of steam-powered bicycles are no more. Japanese and Italian makers dominate the sportbike industry with superbikes.
American and British makers dominate in the cruising market. Retro military motorcycle styles like the scrambler are coming back in vogue. Just like their long history, the future promises innovation, and power.
The only question that’s left, where will you ride yours? Let us know in the comments below.