An Open Letter to Motorcycle Manufacturers

Out for a fall motorcycle ride recently I stopped in at an old general store in a tiny town out in the country for some fuel and refreshment. Taking a seat near a window, I noticed in a stack of magazines an old issue of LIFE, dated July 20, 1967. Intrigued, I perused the pages, and immediately found something unexpected- two large ads for motorcycle manufacturers, one a full page Honda ad, and the other a half page Harley-Davidson ad. The common denominator, besides the obvious motorcycles, was the demographic these ads were clearly targeting. Both contained young people, enjoying life and astride their bikes which also, by the way, were small displacement, affordable, and visually appealing. The Hondas were 50cc scooters in two different configurations, while the Harley was an approachable 125cc. Both were surrounded by young people, enjoying/employing motorcycles in their carefree lives. By the way, that looks like a young Cheryl Tiegs in the Honda ad…

I remember as a kid watching television and seeing motorcycle commercials for Harley-Davidson, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki and of course Honda, frequently in prime time viewing. They always arrested my attention, partly due to the fact that we were already a motorbike family (Dad’s Triumphs, our mini and dirt bikes), but also because the spots were cool, exciting, with young people having a blast while riding. Manufacturers built national campaigns, local dealerships and shops took out newspaper ads and television commercials, and motorcycling thrived in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Case in point. Anybody remember this one?

In movies and television shows, actors and actresses frequently rode motorcycles. From Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” to the popular series “CHiPs”, motorcycling was part of American culture. I miss that age. We grew up around motorcycles, in society, among my friends, in our neighborhood, and definitely in our own family.

My all time favorite motorcycle scene in a movie. McQueen could seriously ride!

It seems to me that our sport, our pastime, our passion, has been in a slow slide since the 90s, with a slight rebound in the early 2000s, then another drop since the mid-2000s. Few Millennials are interested in riding, the older gens who grew up riding are aging out of the sport, and the manufacturers have been feeling the pinch. They appear to have withdrawn to just “preaching to the choir” so to speak, pitching their bikes to the ever shrinking pool of existing riders, and the declining numbers entering or reentering motorcycling. I enjoy seeing motorcycles being utilized in many movies today, but I don’t see the manufacturers’ efforts to attract riders like in the ads and commercials of old.

More cases in point:

Yet I see hope on the horizon.

As a part time high school history teacher, I’m noticing a trend among the “Generation Z” young folks I teach. They are showing signs of being hard working, self-reliant, adventurous, and are rediscovering the wide world of outdoors. Sure, they’re incredibly connected in our high tech Information Age, but it appears their Gen-X parents are getting them back out of the house, pushing them to experience the world around them, and they are accepting the challenge. I find that very encouraging.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love Millennials. Heck, my wife and I raised two of them. They always loved riding with their dad, by the way. But I see the future of our passion in the hands of the upcoming Gen-Z, those elementary to high school age young people. That was the age I first became captivated by motorcycles, and I see that reflected in their eyes, boys and girls alike, every time I pull up to the school on one of my bikes.

I see the future of our passion in the hands of the upcoming Gen-Z

So manufacturers, maybe it’s time to take some marketing risks. Time to remember how you reached wide audiences back a few decades ago. Time to leverage all the modern media at your disposal to reach a new generation of motorcyclists. Time to reach those potential young riders, with appealing, exciting, youthful campaigns. Like you reached a little kid in north Georgia, several decades ago. And I’m still here. What you did back then worked. With some modern touches, it can work again.

Offered for the love of motorcycling,

Rob

*Ok, just a few more. You know you love these!

5 Comments

  1. Dean A Phelps

    Great article with a great perspective!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thanks Dean! Seeing those old ads brought back memories, got me thinking.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Your admonition to manufacturers is lost in the trend away from individualism and freedom of choice to extreme protectionism and security. Also notice the audience they pinpointed was the male gender. None of these things “fly” in our brave new world. Thanks for the walk down memory lane where I was brought up!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Yeah, it might be a pipe dream Steve, but a guy can hope! Even in this “brave new world”, maybe the brands can figure out, take some risks, and leverage the new avenues of media to reach new riders like they once did.
      Here’s hoping,

      Reply
    • Avatar

      Agreed Steve. With so many great bikes out there, this seems like it could be a new golden age of motorcycling that we will describe to a future, sheltered youth.

      Reply

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