The original Royal Star in 1996 heralded Yamaha’s use of labeling its cruisers as Stars, followed by other Star models. With considerable Star power in its lineup, Yamaha launched the Star Motorcycles brand in 2006, a cruiser-oriented marque used in North America to bring Yamaha’s cruiser line under its own tent apart from Yamaha’s other lines.
Then, in April of last year, we discovered that the Star Motorcycles website was no longer functioning but redirecting to Yamaha’s website. When we asked about it, we were told Yamaha Motor USA was in the process of dismantling marketing efforts for its sub-brand and would be bringing the Stars back into Yamaha’s fold.
“As the cruiser motorcycle market in the U.S. continues to evolve and mature,” Yamaha stated, “we feel that the best opportunity for future sales success and growth from each Star cruiser model is to integrate our model line with other Yamaha models that hold the strong brand identity, the heritage and the DNA that define the Yamaha Brand. This means that we will begin to promote our Star models in parallel with other Yamaha models. In order to better integrate synergies with the other key Yamaha models, the establishment of a new Street segment called Sport Heritage will be part of this new positioning and marketing integration.”
Hmm, Sport Heritage you say. What does that mean?
Well, at first it meant returning models: the demon VMax, the back-to-basics SR400 rehash, the cafe-racer’d C-Spec Bolt, and the rabid-but-refined XSR900, which takes inspiration from the silver XS750 pictured above, both sharing three-cylinder powerplants. Then last June I attended the unveiling of Yamaha’s SCR950, a retro scrambler-inspired version of the Bolt, which brought the Sport Heritage line to five.
“It’s not really tied up by genre,” explains Shun Miyazawa, Motorcycle Project Coordinator at Yamaha, to me in a recent interview. “We have a VMax, we have an SR, we have a V-Twin, we have a Triple. Other brands are easier to understand because they all have one type of motor, so it’s very easy: air-cooled Boxer is an R-nine-T; air-cooled L-Twin is Scrambler Ducati; and inline-Twin is Triumph.
“One thing that unifies our lineup is our respect for the fathers we had in Yamaha history,” Miyazawa continues. “I think the possibilities are kind of unlimited, because if you count the number of bikes we produced in the 60 years of company history, there’s a tremendous amount of cool bikes. We are quite flexible and we are not limiting ourselves when it comes to the type of vehicle.”
Miyazawa is a recent import to Yamaha Motor USA, having arrived nine months ago from Yamaha Motor Europe where he was a core member for the XSR900 project, one of our favorite contemporary Yamahas. He says his key role is trying to understand what consumers are looking for in a motorcycle from Yamaha, including market research and working with engineers and designers.
“The approach we took internally, we called it Faster Sons,” he elaborates on the line’s theme. “So those bikes had brothers in the past, but we make them faster, more affordable, reliable and all that.” Miyazawa says the intention is to pay homage to Yamahas from the ’70s and ’80s, yet making sure performance and componentry is up to date.
“It’s like a painting from an impressionist like Van Gogh,” he analogizes. “If you see something, you close your eyes and try to reproduce, you open your eyes, here it is. There’s a certain connection of what’s important to us, not necessarily a link with a particular engine or frame.”
Building motorcycles that entice customers to plunk down their hard-earned money isn’t always as simple as it may seem. It’s important, of course, to appeal to middle-agers/boomers, the group that has for decades propped up the moto industry and continues to do so, but reaching younger riders is key to the long-term survival of two-wheeled transportation.
Building bikes that appeal to Boomers is relatively simple: providing a look and feeling they used to have 20 or 30 years ago on Yamaha bikes but also including modern functionality, says Miyazawa. Hitting a younger demographic is more challenging, as their experiences with bikes from the 1970s and ’80s are mostly limited to movies and legend.
“For some of them it’s the motorbike design how it should be, and thanks to all for some of those retro-inspired lifestyles popping around here in the States as well,” Miyazawa comments. “I’ve been speaking to many of those guys in the market the last few years. Almost 80 to 90% of them are wanting to do something based on used bike, but not having enough time or knowledge or skill to make a proper restoration. They are telling us, ‘Yeah, I like the look, I like the feeling and all that, but I don’t want to spend 100 hours before I can actually get to ride the thing.’”
As for what’s next for Sports Heritage lineup, Miyazawa says he must carefully balance the wants and needs from Yamaha’s designers and engineers with those of its dealers and, of course, a wide variety of potential customers.
“We like to follow our heart to a certain degree, but we also need to follow what consumers are looking for,” Miyazawa says with a furrowed brow that reveals the consternation of trying to please a variety of audiences.
“There is always a kind of momentum in this particular segment. There was a big hype a few years ago for cafe racer, and now it seems like scramblers are equally attracting. And it could also be a neutral Universal Japanese Motorcycle – UJM – which could be taken to any kind of direction. We have so many choices, but it’s up to us to find the best balance between where our hearts go and where our consumer’s needs are coming across.”
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