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For decades motorcycle enthusiasts have scoffed at the idea of an automatic motorcycle. In fact, when Honda announced in 2007 that they would be building the Honda DN-01 automatic motorcycle, the response from the American motorcycle establishment could have been used as a sit-com laugh track.
However, we have to contextualize that response as being “American”. But before you insinuate that this is going to be an anti-American article, bear with us for just one moment. What can’t be contested is that in the US the vast majority of motorcycle purchases have traditionally been buyers who purchase the motorcycle as a supplement to a car. That is to say, very, very few Americans buy motorcycles as a primary vehicle, and those that do buy a motorcycle as a primary vehicle are for the most part not looking for the cheapest form of transportation possible. Essentially (and we acknowledge that nothing is absolute) the motorcycle in America is a luxury item, much like a toy or a trophy. It’s something to express one’s style and add to one’s pursuit of happiness.
But buying a motorcycle as a primary vehicle, and needing the cheapest form of transportation possible, is exactly the type of buyer that makes up most of the motorcycle market in countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. For many families in those countries, a small cheap motorcycle is the only vehicle the family will ever own, and that vehicle has to have the lowest total cost of ownership possible, as these families (at least by American standards) are poor. In those countries, a cheap motorcycle is the “family mini-van” or “family SUV”.
So what we see is an American motorcycle market that’s dominated by high end, expensive Harley Davidson and Honda motorcycles, which appeal to Americans with money to spend and a desire to show off. And then we have completely different markets in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, that are dominated by low cost China built motorcycles that appeal to the extremely cost conscious commuter.
Did you say China?
Yes, that’s right. We said China. What frequently comes as a surprise to Americans is the fact that according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, China has led the world in Motorcycle production since 1994, and in 2007 50% of the motorcycles in use in the world originated in China. This information is surprising to Americans because for the most part China motorcycles have been non-existent in America until recent years.
And this goes back to the American buyer being a completely different demographic consumer than what exists in many other countries with a lot of poor people who need cheap motorcycles. If there were a significant amount of Americans who needed a motorcycle as a primary vehicle, and demanded the cheapest form of transportation possible, then we’d see a lot more Chinese motorcycles here in the states than we do now, as no one fills that market demographic better than China.
Okay, so China builds a lot of cheap motorcycles for a lot of poor countries. What does that have to do with Automatic Motorcycles?
Because the products China has been building for decades for these poorer countries are basically small displacement motorcycles with automatic transmissions.
Wait! Aren’t those motor scooters?
For the most part yes, they are motor scooters, depending on how you define “motor scooter”. 150cc engines and smaller are for the most part considered to be motor scooters everywhere. However, the 250cc engines and larger are in many states in the US considered by default to be “motorcycle class”. On top of that, China produces many of these “scooters” using motorcycle frames instead of the traditional “step through” scooter frame. Essentially they’ve taken an automatic scooter engine, put it on a motorcycle frame, and TA-DA… we have an automatic motorcycle.
Now, while the established motorcycle elite class laugh at the announcement of the Honda DN-01 automatic motorcycle, and giggle at the Ridley automatic motorcycle that Ridley has been producing for 10 years, there is a significant difference between those automatic motorcycles and what we see coming from China. The Honda has a 680cc engine, and the Ridley has a 750cc engine. These automatic motorcycles coming from China are 250cc engines (although China has plans to start importing bigger engine motorcycles soon).
Conventional wisdom would conclude that if the American motorcycle establishment is laughing at the Honda and the Ridley, they would laugh even harder at an automatic motorcycle with an even smaller engine. But again, China has never been a market player in the American motorcycle establishment, so China couldn’t care less if the American motorcycle establishment laughs. China motorcycles have always been a choice for the consumer needing a motorcycle as a primary vehicle, and at the lowest cost possible, and that has never been an American motorcycle establishment buyer. Let them laugh if they want.
So if China motorcycles don’t appeal to American consumers, then why are China motorcycles showing up in the state?
Because Americans are changing. $4 a gallon gas has put a significant strain on Americans, so much so that the American love of the car is subsiding quickly, and Americans are looking for less expensive primary transportation vehicles. Enter China.
This new American mind set demographic is exactly the type of buyer that China has served well in other countries for many decades. And it’s those types of buyers that have propelled China to the leader in the world in motorcycle production, and why 50% of all scooter and motorcycles in use in the world in 2007 originated in China.
Everyday more and more Americans are realizing just how much their car costs them to drive, and they are looking at motorcycles as an alternative. For many of them, a standard shift motorcycle is a scary thought. The idea of replacing their automatic car with an automatic motorcycle is a lot less fearful for them. But when they look at the sticker price of a new Honda automatic, or a Ridley automatic, they see it could take a decade of driving it before the savings on gas would produce a return on their investment. Saving $0.15 for every mile ridden by spending $6000 or more on a vehicle is essentially being “penny smart, but dollar stupid”. Again, enter China.
Chinese Automatic motorcycles sell for thousands less than a Honda or Ridley. And in addition to the significant difference in sticker price, a smaller 250cc engine gets more gas mileage than a bigger 680cc or 750cc engine. Unless the rider is planning on many miles of freeway travel, a larger engine is going to do nothing more than burn more gas than necessary for basic stop and go travel. So if the whole point of getting a motorcycle is to combat the gas prices, the lower sticker price and higher gas mileage of a Chinese automatic motorcycle makes much more sense.
The smaller engine size is also a better option for new riders when we acknowledge that a bigger engine in the hands of a new motorcycle rider can be dangerous. Inexperienced riders who opted for motorcycles with more power than they were ready to handle has resulted in many (sometimes fatal) accidents. Thus the smaller engine Chinese automatic motorcycle is not only less expensive, it’s also safer for inexperienced motorcycle riders.
And these reasons are why Honda and Ridleys are virtually non-existent in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa where China dominates those markets. Honda and Ridleys are not vehicles conducive to saving money, even in the long term. They are more expensive both in sticker price and in return on investment. The China vehicles do a much better job at filling the unique cost conscious consumer demand, and that type of consumer demand is growing rapidly in the US due to the high gas prices.
So despite the laughter from the motorcycle elitists in America, both the automatic motorcycle, and the China built motorcycle, are poised for a great amount of market growth in the US. In fact, the current motorcycle enthusiast crowd that currently dominates the US motorcycle market may someday become a minority in the overall US motorcycle market, as more and more consumers buy motorcycles as primary cost saving vehicles as opposed to toys and trophies. Perhaps when that day comes all of us automatic motorcycle owners and china built owners can say “look who’s laughing now.”
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