Born-again bikers reignite flagging motorcycle market

An influx of affluent executives has kick-started the 1bn motorbike sector. But it’s not only men – women are jumping aboard too.

The days of buying motorbikes because you can’t afford a car are gone. No longer the sole preserve of leather-clad bikers, the motorcycle has become the ultimate icon of youth rebellion – for middle-aged men in comfortable jobs.

One of the biggest growth areas in bike sales comes from born-again bikers, well-off men returning to biking later in life.

This group has attracted negative publicity following an increase in motorcycle accidents, probably the result of some very rusty licence holders going back on the road with a new, powerful machine.

The motorcycle’s heyday in the UK was in the late Seventies, when sales reached up to 300,000 a year. Although that figure will be well below 100,000 for 1997, the market is currently worth about 1bn, including accessories.

Despite a damp June this year, registration of motorcycles is up by 39 per cent compared with the same month last year. The same comparison for scooters shows a 61 per cent increase.

Over the past five years, there has been a steady increase in sales of bikes, but in 1996 sales boomed and the pattern looks likely to continue. Some argue that the surge was down to a rush to take the bike test before changes introduced last year made it more difficult. But the industry is optimistic that this growth will continue, as fashion gives way to pragmatism in the face of worsening urban congestion.

The Japanese manufacturers, which account for 73 per cent of the market, led by Honda then Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha, produce most sizes of moped and motorcycle. Having the range means that the company can build loyalty – catching first-time bikers, who might initially go for a slightly less powerful bike and then come back to upgrade a couple of years later, as well as the returners to the market.

At Kawasaki, where the range of bikes is spread between 1,500 and 11,500, marketing manager Martin Lambert says that the age profile is widening and superbikes, especially, are in great demand. “The new breed of bikers are able for the first time to have the type of bike they dreamed of but couldn’t afford.” Two-thirds of all sales in 1996 were in the large capacity (over 500cc) market.

At Triumph, which is one of the niche players making bikes only in the 6,000 to 10,000 bracket, UK sales manager Bruno Tagliaferri is keenly aware that he doesn’t have the same foothold. But his upmarket brand is targeting the more experienced leisure biker. “Once they get into their 30s and 40s they become quite discerning and very model-led,” he maintains.

Triumph’s sales have increased sixfold since 1991. But the range is limited by the height and bulk of the models, which means that it can’t compete in one area of the market which is seen by many as having great potential: the woman biker. The Driving Standards Agency and CSM Motorcycle Training reckon that one in six people taking motorcycle tests are now women and in 1996 they accounted for one in four taking lessons.

BMW is making the most of its “ergonomic” advantages in attempting to appeal to this sector: handlebars are slimmer, seats are adjustable and models such as its Cruiser bike are now designed with both sexes in mind.

BMW recently launched a brochure targeted specifically at the new woman rider. Long relegated to featuring as a pillion to the male rider, women are now put squarely in the saddle, with the line: “Motorcycling is far too great a pleasure to be left to men alone.”

Given the growth in new markets, promotional activity is still aimed at the specialist consumer. Although the market leaders do some consumer advertising, notably BMW through agency WCRS and Kawasaki through McCann-Erickson, budgets are small and a lot of activity comes through the dealers.

Since the Sixties, however, there has always been a generic motorcycle marketing campaign, using revenue collected by a levy on bike sales.

In 1985, there was a 1.5m television and poster campaign through Saatchi & Saatchi, using the strapline “Free with every motorcycle – you.” But there was no noticeable impact on sales and the previous PR and promotional activity resumed.

Since 1995, the levy has been dropped and industry body the Motor Cycle Industry Associat ion has taken charge of the marketing campaign, using Westminster Public Relations.

Advertising in the specialist press tends to be spearheaded by the dealers, using traditional retail advertising. But with Halfords recently getting in on the act and test-selling motorbikes in five main stores from May, this is likely to change. The MCI itself has shifted the promotional balance towards a wider market in the past few years, targeting the style press in a successful attempt to improve the image of biking.

A lot of the change in perception and in consumer profile has come at the lower end of the market. The latest in motoring fashion is the moped or the scooter, which now accounts for about 20 per cent of all motorcycle registrations.

Piaggio, which makes the Vespa, entered the UK market five years ago. It offers 13 different models, from 50ccs to 200ccs, and 1,199 to 2,999. Sales in the UK have gone from 500 units in 1992 to nearly 6,000 last year.

“The potential is massive,” enthuses Piaggio spokeswoman Shirley Pattison. “Everyone over the age of 16 who has a sense of balance can ride a scooter.”

And with green issues firmly on the Government’s agenda, manufacturers reckon two wheels will be the obvious option.

MCI executive director Tom Waterer says: “We believe motorcycles will be regarded as one way to ease urban congestion.” The third age of the motorcycle may yet be part of the worldwide environmental solution.

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