At this stage of the year, most businesses have a pretty clear picture of their annual sales figures. Motorcycle manufacturers are no different, so its time for either a) one last draw on the oxygen of publicity, or b) a chance to bury bad news in the Christmas wrapping paper.
Commercially, there are some interesting things going on in motorcycling. And dont dismiss it as business news of no interest to real bikers. Because everything from what you might be riding next year to the cost and availability of parts for your old knocker all proceed from business realities.
Superficially, it seems like a jolly old time to be in the bike business. The Stygian gloom of the GFC is clearing. If not to sunlit uplands then at least to a hazy view of a more promising time ahead.
Your view, of course, depends on where you sit. For us Down Under, the worst of the GFC never really hit and NZ has been growing steadily for a few years. Its a different picture elsewhere.
Southern Europe is in a protracted economic mess. The UK is finally doing better and so is the US. But emerging markets are the hot ticket, especially China and India.
All of this influences how the motorcycle manufacturers play their hand.
Triumph, KTM and BMW have all trumpeted record sales in 2013 (even if Triumph recorded a £100,000 loss on the back of expansion into Brazil and India). So, are corks popping at all the European manufacturers? Not at Aprilia, where staff have been laid off since September; nor Ducati, struggling to sell as many units as in (an admittedly bumper) 2012. And minnows like MV and Moto Guzzi are no great indicators of trends.
In North America, Harley Davidson had a good year with global sales up 6.5% to around 264,000 units. Clearly the market for V-twin cruisers is in rebound because Polaris, makers of Harley-rival Victory, have resurrected the Indian brand this year.
On the face of it, the Japanese big four are all enjoying booming sales too. Sales are up, revenue is up and all four remain well ahead of their positions two or three years ago. The numbers are impressive. Suzukis motorcycle division revenue was up 22.9% in 2013, to ¥138.6 billion; Kawasaki moved 127,000 units, up from 115,000, and forecast ¥34 billion in income for FY13/14; Honda were looking at nearly 30% sales growth by half way through the year, and Yamaha bounced back from a tame first quarter to hit 3 million sales and ¥466.9 billion yen in revenue.
But the figures only tell half the story. Its where these increased sales have been coming from that point the way to the future.
Hard times on Struggle Strada
Once upon a time, the European Union, and especially the Eurozone, was sold as an economic colossus in the making. A huge grouping of some of the worlds most advanced economies would be shackled together, freed from the burden of different national regulations and currencies, and empowered by the free movement of labour and capital. This was the coming force, one to rival and perhaps eclipse the United States.
It hasnt quite worked out that way.
Some economies in Europe are doing just fine: chiefly those outside the EU, outside the Euro and in the north. But southern Europe remains a basket case.
So what are the effects on motorcycling? In developed countries, motorcycling has become a leisure pursuit dependent on disposable income. As south Europes disposable income dried up, so did demand for the kind of bikes they buy. Mid to large capacity street bikes, muscle bikes, motards and super motards with a smattering of sportsbikes were the PIIGS staple fare. Focusing on these machines doesnt have the allure it used to.
A change of target
In the UK, North America and northern Europe, the profile of riders has been steadily aging. Twenty years ago, these markets were mad for race replicas. Now, you can hardly move for Adventure bikes.
While satisfying creaky-jointed but well-heeled baby boomers in Britain and Germany represents a reasonable market opportunity, the smart money is looking elsewhere. India and China, mainly, with Brazil next and other emerging markets also on the radar.
Honda sold 319,000 two-wheelers in India this November. Thats just one month. And it was an increase of 43% on the year before. With numbers like that, you can see why everyone is hastily amending their product plans to suit emerging markets.
Thats why Harley Davidsons first truly all-new bike in 13 years is the just-launched Street 750 and 500, purpose-designed for the Indian market. And why Triumph has been spotted testing a small-capacity single.
Its also why the most important new model from Honda is not the SP version of the Fireblade (a cutting edge Superbike thats largely unchanged since it came out in 2008) but the CG110 built in Nigeria. It looks like something from the 1970s but it cost less than $800.
Back to the future
There are some pretty unsettling implications in all this. Motorcyclings centre of gravity is shifting. Away from satisfying the desires of wealthy westerners and towards satisfying the, shall we say, less refined tastes of the third world. And who can blame the manufacturers? These are markets with billions of consumers desperate for cheap, reliable transport. They may not be rich but they are getting richer quickly.
If you follow the logic through, its not hard to work out whats coming. Sportsbike development, which took a hit from the GFC anyway, will not be a huge priority. These machines, and the race series that inevitably surround them, have always been the crucible of engineering development. But that wont make so much sense any more. Expect a languid, incremental approach to improvement.
In western markets, Adventure bikes will play a starring role. And the opportunity is ripe to put a bit of engineering nous into the tourer segment. Nostalgia will be tapped into, so expect some retro theming and a nod to customs (like BMWs NineT).
What we will see in abundance, though, will be cheap, light machines. These will become the development base: bikes aimed at less experienced riders, with thin wallets and slight statures.
This might not seem a very bright future, but there will be compensations and plenty of opportunities. For example, a base bike might be aimed at the Indian market but a development of it could be draped with Ohlins and fancy forks for richer markets. Modularity could see twins and singles used in China incorporated into triples and fours for us.
Another couple of possibilities are even brighter. Western economies could once again hit their straps and, if emerging markets taper off, the focus will shift back to European and North American desires. Plus technology is always making development and production more flexible, so satisfying our specific demands can only get easier.
Keep calm and party on.