Australian Motorcycle Industry

There are numerous challenges that the Australian motorcycle industry confronts, here I touch on a few that I feel are perhaps some of the most important.


Fun – Fast – Frugal – Affordable

Most of us, no doubt you included, first got involved in motorcycles because they were fast and offered unbelievable thrills. While remaining practical enough, affordable and frugal enough to be used for mundane day to day tasks like commuting and the like.

Yamaha's MT-09 is one of the few big sellers bucking the trend of being cheap entry level options
Yamaha’s MT-09 is one of the few mainstream bikes not at the lower end of the scale that is actually performing well in the marketplace.

Advertising constraints largely prevent brands from really showcasing the fast and fun aspects of motorcycling. Across my own media channels I do like to portray the fun, the fast, the thrill and the daring-do that first got me interested in motorcycles. No doubt some of this is perhaps frowned upon, but for a lot of us, it remains what motorcycling is predominantly about, and what keeps many of us involved.

I also acknowledge that some people enjoy a casual ride in the country at a slow pace and just enjoy the scenery, with no real interest in the performance aspect of motorcycling. It is a lifestyle decision, largely with a significant social aspect with group rides and the like.

The 2018 Softail Breakout
The 2018 Softail Breakout is one model to be somewhat bucking the negative sales trend, but overall Harley-Davidson is down by over 20 per cent.

It is interesting to note that most of the top selling road motorcycles are relatively low priced. Only the Harley Breakout and Yamaha MT-09 buck that trend in a road bike top ten that is largely populated by affordable learner machines.


Barriers to entry are larger than ever before

The days of cars being much dearer to buy and run than motorcycles are gone. $20k gets you a nice small car that gets comparable fuel economy to most motorcycles, while keeping you dry and cool or warm, depending on where you set the climate control, and generally also cost a lot less to service. However, people interested in 20k cars as their sole mode of transport are probably not going to be those most predisposed towards motorcycling.

The barriers to getting a motorcycle license and the costs incurred today are frightening. In many states new riders have to wear ridiculous high-vis vests for a number of years (which have proven to be of no help), and just how cool is that… New riders in some states are not allowed to carry passengers for their first three years on two wheels. My mother was taken to hospital on a motorcycle while in labour, and brought home from the hospital with bub in a motorcycle sidecar! Times have certainly changed, rules, rules and more rules. 

No need to scare yourself to have fun on the MT-03, whether you're a learner or experienced rider
Yamaha’s MT-03 learner bike, based on the YZF-R3

It is a four-figure exercise these days to become fully licensed in many states, and things are being made harder every year.

A case in point is the new regulations in Queensland that further restrict the training of new riders, and are causing problems for training providers who are incensed at new restrictions.

When most of us started out riding registration costs for motorcycles were a fraction of what it cost to register a car, that is no longer the case. The likes of MUARC and nanny-state governments have truly cut the industry off at the knees. But it is a death by a thousand cuts rather than a necking.

The fact that despite the barriers to entry, the sales of beginner motorcycles have been strong in recent years is immensely encouraging. However, I do believe the barriers to entry are keeping many more away from motorcycling than otherwise would be involved, and loving it.

Honda CBE
Gone are the days of motorcycling being a cheap alternative, unless you’ll settle for something like Honda’s best selling CB125

Right now you would have to be very determined to get on a motorcycle for the first time, and also be doing pretty well financially. Those taking the plunge and joining our ranks, I salute you! 


Do we give up on the toe-the-line attitude?

Do we need to harness the rebellious aspect of motorcycling again somehow?

Despite the capitulation of the populace to these truly preposterous regulations, if governments are going to put more and more restrictions on us, do we start putting two fingers up at them, and be seen to be doing so publicly….?

Dave McKenna wearing a Shark Spartan Carbon while stunting on his MT-09.
Doing shit like this is a victimless ‘crime’ yet the courts treat you worse than a rapist

They hate us and want rid of us anyway, thus in my eyes we have nothing to lose by poking the bear, and perhaps even something to gain by bringing a bit of the rebel aspect back to motorcycling.

Unfortunately, with Australia now perhaps the most wowser country in the world, they will just make more rules, and make life on two wheels harder again… 


Electric Motorcycles – Could they be a saviour?

Will we have to wait until the first influx of genuinely good and practical electric motorcycles to really excite the public with something new that they want to be part of? Or will government departments do their best to cut that new direction off at the knees via yet more draconian barriers to entry?

Harley Davidson LiveWire
Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire electric motorcycle represents the future of motorcycling in many ways

Police harassment is most certainly an issue

Police harassment of motorcyclists is also most certainly an issue, along with the now borderline insane penalties for minor traffic offences. Guilty until proven innocent, the penalties are beyond my comprehension when compared to what people get for bashing innocent people senseless… For the real few menaces to society that just don’t get off completely scot-free that is. 

Police media units craft every single piece of news relating to motorcyclists into a jaundiced story and negative headline. Even where there is a positive to be found, there will be no strong mention of it, every single thing ever related to motorcycles has to have a negative connotation reinforced by the police. This then translates into headlines in the mainstream press regarding motorcycles to overwhelmingly always remain negative. 

A middle-aged female friend moved to Victoria from NSW a few years ago. She is short of stature and rides a professionally lowered ZX-6R, so she can get her feet on the ground to provide her with a little more confidence and security. The following story is so ridiculous you would think it fiction, but I assure you it is fact.

On her very first ride in Victoria she was pulled up in Healesville with a number of other motorcyclists for a licence check and vehicle examinations. She was given a defect notice for worn hand-grips, despite the fact that the grips on a ZX-6R, like most modern motorcycles, have no real grooves but are instead smooth from new.

Harassment for the sake of it, pure and simple. But it gets better. With that behind her, the next ride again took her out of the city for a coffee in Myrtleford. A passing policeman noticed her bike looked a little low, questioned her on it and was told it was professionally lowered by a motorcycle suspension specialist to cater for her very short stature.

The 2013 Kawasaki ZX-6R 636cc version

She was then told that she needs to carry an engineers certification with the motorcycle to prove her machine was legal. So on her second ride in Victoria she had her second defect notice. A soul destroying experience and enough for many to give it away for good.

25 km/h over the limit in some states now incurs an automatic three-month suspension of your licence. It is certainly much harder to stay closer to speed limits on a motorcycle than in a car, especially now that so many of the limits on favoured motorcycle routes have been lowered.

The risks of accidental licence loss are always present. This has led to many riders electing to ride enduro bikes in the bush as an alternative to suffocating from the strain of trying to never stray over the limit on the road. Which really can take the enjoyment out of road riding in this day and age. 


How do we combat the regulation and harassment that motorcyclists face

I myself have had meetings with ministers over the years when lobbying for access to off-road riding areas, and have been invited to, and spoken at, motorcycle safety conferences. I have a very basic understanding of how to deal with government, but the time and effort it takes to achieve any real progress is astounding. You also quickly learn that political staffers are the gate-keepers, and are the ones that really run the country. 

It is very hard to successfully deal with government agencies, thus why ex-politicians and their staffers are tapped for their knowledge of how to walk the halls of power and gain influence by large industries. This knowledge and access costs money, serious money. 

Industry campaigning resources within the FCAI are limited and the industry is hurting financially, but perhaps there is a case to be made for increased funding to facilitate the use of people who lobby government as a full-time career, and are smart as to how they go about it. But then, achieving consensus as to what issues to fund could prove difficult among FCAI members.

Trev on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R
Trev on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R off road – Even getting off-road access can involve paperwork these days

Without further efforts in these areas though things are only going to get worse for us in regards to barriers to entry. Not only that, it may see many seasoned riders give up, deeming it just all too hard.

The fact that 2.1-million Australians hold a motorcycle licence, yet there are only around 870,000 registered motorcycles in Australia suggests that many out there have already found it all too hard and hung up their helmets.

Many of us still riding have many registered motorcycles in their garage, thus that 870,000 registered motorcycles could realistically extrapolate to a figure of 400,000 or less people actually currently owning motorcycles. With more then 2.1-million licence holders that makes the current participation rate, by my reckoning, at around 20 per cent…


Finances

Of course current political instability and debt burdens also play their part in restricting motorcycle purchasing activity. Recently, obtaining motorcycle finance at good interest rates has never been easier, but it does not seem to have helped sales numbers all that much. Or perhaps it has, and if not for the ease of finance in recent years things would be even more dire.

However, while credit has been easy of late, lending restrictions have now got much tighter in this space also, and this is already having a significant flow-on effect. Some would even say that finance is the real crux of the matter right now, and the factor primarily responsible for this most recent downturn. 

Royal Enfield Interceptor Scene
High living expenses are also a weight on everyone’s shoulders, explaining the popularity of competitively priced machines, especially in the LAMS segment

Young people having student loans to pay back, when earlier generations had no such swords hanging over their heads, or the truly insane property prices to worry about if youngsters actually hold a distant vision of hope to get on the real estate merry-go-round.

Those going to trade school and/or starting apprenticeships are also more likely to need a reliable work vehicle that can carry the tools of their trade. However, these days young tradies do relatively well, and are quite likely to have a dirt-bike in the shed for some weekend fun rather than owning a road bike. Particularly as riding on the road can be so hazardous to ones licence.


Fewer reasons than ever to upgrade

Sports-bike sales are in the toilet, no doubt about it. These days there is no need to buy a sports-bike to have amazing power, powerful brakes, and excellent suspension.

15 years ago you could only get big power, awesome brakes and excellent suspension by buying a sports-bike, nowadays that is simply not the case. Even ten years ago, who would have imagined that we could buy 170 horse-power adventure bikes with massive Brembo brakes and awesome suspension, or 200 horsepower naked-bikes for that matter..?

Ducati Multistrada Enduro
Ducati sales are down 22 per cent

Nowadays, pretty much every large capacity motorcycle on the market offers outstanding performance in every area, there really is no need to buy a sportsbike unless track days are your bag.

I believe that is the seconday reason behind the downturn in this space, closely followed by the increasing penalties for accidental speeding. The penalties these days are truly outrageous. 

The fact that the state can potentially take ownership of your vehicle for what once would be a relatively minor speeding offence, makes me want to set government buildings on fire and smash windows. 

Thus, unlike earlier decades, performance is hardly a criteria for many to upgrade, as the level of performance of most motorcycles made in the last ten years is already brilliant. What really is there to gain by upgrading to something newer… ?

New machines are offering ever more amazing technology, but is upgrading getting harder to justify for many riders?
New machines are offering ever more amazing technology, but is upgrading getting harder to justify for many riders?

The move by some brands to increase their warranty periods out to three years is, I believe, a good move that will help shift new motorcycles. Still, it is a long way from the almost normal five or even six-year warranty periods now offered on new cars.

New technology such as the latest TFT dashes with integrated navigation prompts and Bluetooth etc certainly appeals to many, myself included. 

The fixed price servicing package recently introduced by BMW, for example, could also help encourage riders to trade up to something newer. 


On the dirt

Dirt-bike sales are also suffering, but currently the off-road market is faring a little better than the road segment. Sales of kids starter bikes like the PW50 and CRF50F are still very strong and are now the backbone of the off-road market.

Honda's CRF Kids/Juniors range - The CRF50F, CRF110F, CRF125F and CRF125FB
Entry level options for the kids off road remain popular, like the CRF50F, CRF110F, CRF125F and CRF125FB

It seems consumers have been burnt by the cheap Chinese crap that hit the market years ago, and have now returned to trusted brands that deliver a much higher quality product. The competition between the bikes in this space though is fierce and profit margins tiny, which isn’t going to help keep dealers doors open.

It is also interesting to note than in an enduro segment, which in recent years has got more and more hard-core, and much more expensive, numbers are actually still pretty strong. 

While sales of motocross bikes do ebb and flow a little, the trend is downward. The racing scene seems to be in trouble in most states, and finding somewhere to ride your motocross bike, legally, is certainly problematic. Theft problems are also rife, and yet add more hassle to the ownership experience for many. 

We have had some wins, such as the Recreational Registration Scheme used in Victoria now expanding to other jurisdictions. It remains though that for younger riders the only place to legally partake is on private land, which is a huge impost for regular folk.


Summary

There are no easy answers but I do believe that the barriers to entry are much larger than ever before, and are the biggest challenge in getting people on two wheels. If you think motorcycles are fast, fun and cool, then having to wear a poxy high-vis vest everywhere can certainly put a dampener on things. Nobody could ever convince me this preposterous affront has been mandated due to safety reasons.

The affordability and frugality of modern cars and their convenience can also not be overstated.

For seasoned riders the reasons to upgrade to a new motorcycle are also fewer than ever before. Wearing all that depreciation on your current mount to gain something of nothing by going to a newer motorcycle, particularly if again purchasing a mount in the same genre of motorcycling, along with the upgrade costs which are then also subject to the accompanying government charges that go with it, means you really have to want that new bike…

In my opinion, the pandering to social media ‘influencers’ and the ‘hipsters’ has only brought motorcycling down in status. It also seems that the brands that have invested the most in this route, instead of looking after their core customers, are the brands that are currently hurting the most in regards to declining sales.

That said though, it was worth a try as the motorcycling demographic shows few signs of getting any younger… I am just not sure ‘influencers’ are ever going to have much real impact with young Australians, especially when virtually all their apparent social media ‘followers’, even the likes that weren’t just bought fakes, and are actually real people, are not even in Australia…

One thing is clear though, waiting out the downturn and doing nothing is not really an option. One less motorcycle sale equals one less finance or insurance sale. The knock on effects of someone actually getting out of riding altogether also leads to less consumables such as tyres, oils, pads, chains etc. and a lesser need to visit a motorcycle workshop.

Ten years ago a previous downturn caused many motorcycle dealers to close their doors. We are again on a precipice where many more dealers, many of whom are good, honest retailers, could be forced to shut up once and for all.

Yes, almost all workplaces and industry have to evolve, and adapt to changes in Australian society, and some dealers can also be their own worst enemy. But if you know a good one that does deserve your support, now might be a good time to show them a little custom, as every little bit helps.

Trying to retain good staff in trying times is another massive problem that dealers face. Excellent staff is perhaps the best investment a dealer will ever make. 

TeamMoto Sale Yamaha
More motorcycle dealers will go to the wall

Please air your thoughts on the subjects I have raised in the comments section below, even if you vehemently disagree with me, as I know I certainly don’t have all the answers… Bring forth your own pearls of wisdom….

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