When I backed into the motojournalism biz all those years ago, I pretty much just wanted to tear around on motorcycles without giving much thought to the hows and whys. Now that I’ve matured, and have had the amazingly good fortune to spend time with the brilliant people who design and build the things (and read a lot of Kevin Cameron columns), the really fascinating part is how organizations of people come together to produce (or not) such complex assemblages. It really does take a village.
It’s impolitic to say one is a fan of war, so what you have to say instead is that you’re a fan of history, though they’re almost the same thing. Millions of deaths, what can you say? Sorry ’bout that? Words can’t console the victims and the killing continues apace. Apparently it’s the human condition. People like to fight, or at least a big enough vocal majority to always drag the rest of us along.
War, as the famous guy said, is politics by other means, and the cause of war is greed. You’ve got what we want. What motorcycle manufacturers want is marketshare. The same boys in the backroom who might at other times have been building swords are the ones who are now beating out a better plowshare or fork tube. It often occurs to my simple mind, most recently as I sat listening to the press briefing for a new BMW in German (translated in real time into English), that the people we Allies defeated in the most recent big conflagration seem to be the only ones who can build a really good modern motorcycle. The Germans, the Japanese, the Italians. (The Brits do alright too, even though they were on our side.)
Why the hell is that? Modern war is largely about who’s got the best machines, and the good old U.S.A., arsenal of democracy, used to build the best ones. Splitting the atom was clever, but the B-29s that were finally able to deliver the end product to the ahhh, consumer, were a way more impressive engineering feat, to us gearheads anyway. What the heck happened to us?
I hope it’s okay to talk about these things, even though it’s of course a sensitive subject, since it’s just us chickens. Things we share within our groups usually stay within, but I remember another BMW bike launch some years ago, when people were younger and drank more, before our tongues had traction control. A British (ex) journalist was giving the Germans a hard time about the War, which was highly uncomfortable even un-sober. Finally, a BMW bigwig slammed his beer down, stood up angrily from the table and said to the guy, “I’ll have you know my father died at Auschwitz.”
The room went dead silent.
“He fell from ze guard tower drunk!” AHAHAHAHAHAAA! Big joke. Prost! The tension drained from the room, the rest of the night was big fun. They have to laugh about it, too, just not usually with us.
None of this is meant to diss Harley-Davidson, who really do build world-class motorcycles, but they’re world-class motorcycles cut from a pattern laid down in the middle of the last century. Where’s the American sportbike? Erik Buell, bless his heart, keeps trying, but after 20 years he’s still a small fish. Why haven’t we been producing sportbikes alongside our cruisers at least ever since the Japanese struck paydirt there in the 1970s?
BMW’s Benjamin Voss, who I posed the question to recently since he was unfortunate enough to be standing next to me, said it’s because we didn’t have to. Harley-Davidson has been hugely profitable for many years giving American motorcyclists exactly what they want. It’s down to the wide-open spaces, he conjectured, Americans don’t need sportbikes. True, but it overlooks that we’ve always been the biggest market for imported sportbikes. And the biggest market within the U.S. for sportbikes is California, which may have the most, best, curviest roads in the world I’d almost bet. It also overlooks the fact that H-D very nearly went tits-up only 30 years ago. The only thing that saved it was Big Government. Which is a thing they also have in Germany, Japan and Austria, along with strict regulations and labor unions.
The U.S. West, along with many other chunks of the country, is also one of the biggest off-road playgrounds in the world, and what got me on this topic years ago was trying to figure out why all the motorcycles (and ATVs) we play with out there are imported from a small island country, Japan, and lately from Austria, both of which have no huge desert and very few places to even ride off-road. Japan’s sent over some impressive baseball players, but I don’t remember ever seeing a single Japanese Supercross rider. WTF? Polaris has struck a rich vein with its Razor four-wheelers, but they don’t make an off-road motorcycle. Too small a market segment to be profitable? Apparently not to the Japanese and KTM. I count 27 models of off-road bikes on KTM’s U.S. website.
Is it survivor’s guilt? The knowledge that they lost the Big One drives the defeated to become even smarter and more creative in order to win the next one? Is it winner’s remorse on the part of the U.S.? We will fight no more forever but will sit here on the couch watching football and cultivating diabetes? That doesn’t really seem to be the case, since we keep on building awesome WW3 machines that we never get to deploy in the primitive guerilla wars we keep waging to stay in shape. Maybe our brightest engineering minds are all still being sucked into the military-industrial complex, and there’s an awesome nuclear stealth motorcycle waiting in the wings?
Yes, we did help them all rebuild after the Big One with the Marshall Plan, an unimaginable act of generosity in today’s see-ya diplomatic climate, but we also had tons of industrial capacity after the war that didn’t even need to be rebuilt. Why didn’t somebody in Long Beach start cranking out a motorcycle when we were done building B-17s, based on an English motorcycle some dashing officer brought back, like what happened with English sports cars, which gave rise to the Corvette, and possibly the whole Detroit muscle car boom?
I don’t know the answer (like I usually always do). I’m truly curious, but I suspect it has something to do with competition, and scarcity and poverty, and fading collective memory. We really have had it easy in the land of the big drive-thru for a long time, no matter how hard we try to screw it up. Now that our home-grown Polaris is tasting some success with its Victory and Indian motorcycles, after already having had plenty with its snowmobiles and Razors and military vehicles and now the new Slingshot, things could get interesting again in the U.S. marketplace.
Meanwhile, maybe it’s better I compare us to our other old allies, the Russians, whose T-34 tank was another of the machines without which the world would be a vastly different place today. I’ve only got one word to say about their motorcycle industry: Ural.
America! Heck Yeah!