In 2020, the motorcycle saw extreme lows followed by unexpected highs. Going into the new year, we’re looking pretty good, compared to the future we feared last winter at the start of the pandemic. Still, as 2021 approaches, we can look back on the year that was, and wonder what it’s going to mean for us in the coming months.
Can the motorcycle supply chain recover?
If you were paying attention, you probably knew about the coronavirus pandemic sometime in February of 2020. By mid-March, the disease was spreading through Europe, causing manufacturers in Italy, Austria, Germany and everywhere else to shut down. BMW, Ducati, MV Agusta, KTM, Piaggio Group—everybody’s plants were taken offline. And even if they’d wanted to stay in production, it might have been impossible, because their suppliers were also shut down.
Chinese factories were actually the first motorcycle producers to shut down, but other Asian plants weren’t as badly affected. Everyone was hurt in one way or another, though, even Harley-Davidson and Indian. Along with reduced production, the OEMs also had to deal with other supply chain issues, including constant mayhem with shipments of both parts and motorcycles.
By summer, most manufacturers were back in business at some level, but even now, months later, the supply chain is still hitting snags. It’s not just the motorcycle manufacturers either, it’s everything related to the industry: aftermarket parts, riding gear, you name it.
The major players (the Japanese manufacturers, and the larger Euro OEMs) mostly won’t say exactly how bad the supply chain was hit in 2020. Some of the smaller manufacturers will talk, though. Stephen Howland, the big boss at Betamotors Canada, told me his company only received about 60 percent of its ordered 2020 models.
“The final shipment for March never did get produced and we completely missed production for April,” he said. “No futher MY20 models were received save for a few remaining produced units from March production.”
It doesn’t seem the larger companies were hit as bad. In Europe and North America, sales rebounded at an unbelievable rate for summer and early fall. From that, we can infer that at least some of the supply chain issues were figured out; those companies wouldn’t have seen that sales success if there were no bikes to sell.
There’s no guarantee of anything going into 2021 though. We still have the possibility of new outbreaks, and global transport is still interrupted.
Are dealers going to make it?
At the start of the pandemic, many motorcycle dealers worried they’d go under. Forced to close because of the pandemic, either due to government regulations or lack of business, dealers were missing the busiest sales season, when new motorcycles and gear should have been filling showrooms with customers. Instead, they were shut down for weeks.
But, when they opened back up, many dealers were busier than they’d ever imagined. It turns out that the moto-buying public took the social-distancing/stay-at-home message to heart, and spent money on motorcycles instead of vacation. It wasn’t just new bikes, either; Laura Lenko-Graham of Parts Canada told me there was lots of interest in maintenance products, which also drove traffic to dealership counters.
“It did appear that more riders were preparing their bikes for a solid riding season,” she said. “Consumers were keeping dealers busy and DIY’ers were ordering parts and maintenance products. Standard hard parts (chains, oils, filters, lubricants) were in demand.”
The numbers were a bit wonky, though. Sales of big bikes dropped, while other segments saw growth. The individual numbers obviously vary depending which market you’re in, but generally speaking, dual sports and dirt bikes were the clear winner in 2020. One dealer told me that “COVID saved off-road motorcycling.”
There are some logical reasons for that. With lots of financial uncertainty, buyers were unwilling to drop major coin on a massive touring bike or other big-bore bike, especially if they couldn’t take it on a long road trip. As for small-cc street bikes, these are typically the domain of the beginning rider. With DMVs and road testing centers closed, new riders couldn’t get licenced, so they didn’t buy these small-bore bikes. But with most dirt bikes, you can legally go riding the day you buy them, and you can find a machine for everybody in the family.
Dealers know all this, and they’re glad they survived this past summer. That doesn’t mean it’s all going to be smooth sailing from here on. I talked with a local parts counter jockey about his showroom stock this summer. Sure, the dealership was happy to sell off almost every motorcycle they had in stock, but they’re also thinking long-term, he said. Even when the coronavirus pandemic subsides, its effects will carry on. Will people be able to afford motorcycles next summer? Did the industry just create a generation of brand-new motorcyclists over the summer? Or will we see lots of used bikes up for sale?
What about the used market?
It’s possible we’ll see massive traffic on the used bike sales sites, like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and so on, as people sell their rides to continue their pre-COVID lives. Despite social distancing, some of those sites saw a big uptick in business last summer. Here’s the official line from Cycle Trader:
2020 brought many surprises – many of which were unpleasant and we’d rather not relive them. But, in all the chaos, the cycle industry thrived despite some supply chain challenges at the beginning of the pandemic. Cycle Trader, the online source for motorcycles and other powersport vehicles, shared some exciting year-over-year data that proves the impressive rise of recreation this year. In Q3 2020, the number of interested buyers that reached out to sellers for more information about a bike listed on the marketplace site jumped 73%. More recently, in the first half of November, Traffic to Cycle Trader was up almost 24% compared to the same timeframe in 2019. Without a doubt, more people are interested in browsing for bikes and are taking action to reach out to sellers when they find something they like. This record growth means there’s record interest in one of the great American traditions: hitting the roads and cruising on a motorcycle.
In my area (Atlantic Canada), there seemed to be fewer decent used bikes for sale than normal, but a lot of increased activity in the market. Speaking from personal experience, I listed two used motorcycles for sale this summer, a 1990 Suzuki DR350 that mostly ran, and a 1984 Honda VT750C basket case. I had overwhelming interest in both bikes, even though they were in rough shape. Both sold quickly.
Will we see the used market come back for 2021? Will a lot of the bikes sold this year end up on the sales block for next year? Could be.
What’s next for Harley-Davidson?
Not to pick on the Motor Company, but, Harley-Davidson is the biggest player in North America’s 600 cc-and-larger market. For that reason, when CEO Matt Levatich left the company in February, everybody sat up and took notice.
That was only the start of the story. Later, it came out that some investors had been unhappy with Levatich, and his departure was painted as more of a firing than an amicable parting of ways. Other bigwigs also left the company, and eventually Jochen Zeitz took over the CEO position (previously, he’d been on the board of directors). Zeitz, best-known as the man who re-booted German sneaker-maker Puma, announced a two-part plan to revitalize Harley-Davidson.
Instead of Levatich’s plan to build dozens of new models and aggressively expand into new markets, Zeitz instead axed the Bronx streetfighter project, and started withdrawing from lesser-performing markets. To a certain extent, that went unnoticed, as many dealers were experiencing issues related to COVID-19 anyway. Harley-Davidson drastically cut its production mid-season, meaning many dealers never got a summer re-supply of machines. But, as 2020 nears a close, it seems some of those dealers aren’t coming back anyway—Zeitz’s plan leaves them on the outs.
Nobody in the journalism industry is saying much about this right now, especially because there’s so much confusion around the story, but expect Harley-Davidson’s dealer lineup to look leaner in 2021. There will be fewer H-D dealers, and it’s possible they’ll have fewer new bikes to sell, as Zeitz seems intent on cutting back.
While Harley-Davidson isn’t traditionally thought of as an adventure bike company, all of this can still affect the ADV community. First, Harley-Davidson plans to enter the adventure riding scene in a big way with the Pan American ADV bike, soon. Second, Harley-Davidson’s products also keep dealers afloat. A dealer might sell Kawasaki and Harley-Davidson; what do you think makes more profit—a Versys-X 300, or a Fat Boy? Changes with America’s favourite motorcycle manufacturer are going to impact everyone else in the US motorcycle scene, whether or not they realize it.
Euro5 pushes model updates—what next?
With Europe moving to the Euro5 emissions standard, most manufacturers had no choice but to update their motorcycles to keep them on the market. That’s partly why we saw the new Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin in late 2019; now, in late 2020, the KTM 790 Adventure is now the KTM 890 Adventure. The Husqvarna Norden 901, based on the 890 platform, should be just around the corner.
The other big adventure bike release in late 2020 was the Ducati Multistrada V4. This bike definitely isn’t intended for serious off-road flogging. However, Ducati will likely introduce a more hard-core, ruggedized version down the road. Or maybe not, there’s still the 950 Multi for that role.
In the small-bore segment, Honda’s up-sizing its CRF250L and CRF250 Rally to the same engine as its CBR300 (a liquid-cooled 286cc single). Kawasaki updated the KLX250, too; now it’s the KLX300, with a liquid-cooled 292cc single. We’re even seeing the small-bore bikes getting larger displacement.
This is a sensible move for both manufacturers, and it should have been done years ago, but the OEMs dragged their feet. But, with Euro5, they had to update the bikes, and most likely there would have been a power loss. These little 250s couldn’t handle losing much more power, so they get a larger engine.
It’s interesting to note Yamaha’s canceled the WR250R for 2021. Yamaha didn’t explain why; maybe Euro5 pushed it out, or maybe it just couldn’t justify selling the quarter-litre machine at high prices when the competition was bringing out lower-priced machines with larger engines. Either way, that’s a big disappointment to fans of the Yamaha’s Little Bike That Could.
Yamaha also cancelled the R6 supersport, announcing there’d only be a race version for 2021. Honda did basically the same thing with its CBR600, which means Kawasaki’s basically alone in that segment right now. Yamaha also canceled the V-Max, after a 30+-year run. Nothing is safe, in the world of increasing crackdowns.
Elsewhere in the world of street bikes; there were roughly 35 new or updated street-legal models for the North American market between late summer and fall of 2020. COVID-19 might have hit the industry hard, but it didn’t cripple it.
The question is, what’s next? If everyone is scrambling to meet Euro5, with some models axed, what happens when Euro6 comes along? Don’t be surprised if emissions regulations are the biggest factor in motorcycle design over the coming years. Big bore singles seem to have disappeared from Europe already; how long until they also vanish from North America?