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?

Heated grips are nice. The Boeing B-29 was the first pressurized bomber, to keep your whole body nice and warm … also oxygenated.

Heated grips are nice. The Boeing B-29 was the first pressurized bomber, to keep your whole body nice and warm … also oxygenated.

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.

Whatever it takes: BMW Pressesprecher Rudi Probst mans the hose at the R1200R introduction last week.

Whatever it takes: BMW Pressesprecher Rudi Probst mans the hose at the R1200R introduction last week.

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?

Truly, this scene from Glamis is about as all-American as it gets, but the his ’n hers Banshees are another ingenious product from our friends at Yamaha.

Truly, this scene from Glamis is about as all-American as it gets, but the his ’n hers Banshees are another ingenious product from our friends at Yamaha.

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?

Should be enough room in here, square-footage wise ...

Should be enough room in here, square-footage wise …

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!

  • JWaller

    I noticed the same thing about the Axis Powers making the best motorcycles on the road today. It could be argued they made the best stuff during WWII also. Germany had the Me262 jet fighter, the Stg44 assault rifle, the V-2, and some of the best tanks. The Zero could fly rings around the best American fighters at the beginning of the war and suffered mostly because of a lack of durability and poorly trained pilots as the war went on. The Japanese had the biggest, best battleships and the best, most advanced submarines. The Italians had…..well, I don’t know what they had, but I’m sure it was the most stylish thing on the battlefield. I think we had them beat with numbers. I remember reading somewhere a quote from a German armor officer being interrogated by some American armor officers at the end of the war. He told the Americans that a German tank was as good as 10 American tanks. The American officers were getting angry at his apparent smugness and arrogance and then the German officer added, “but you always had 11.”

  • SteveSweetz

    I think Benjamin Voss is right. At the time is wasn’t necessary, and then over time, as with any matured technology, it became pretty much impossible to enter the market. To go from nothing to being able to compete with the established manufactures on their level at this point would take a huge investment.

    You had to get in on the ground floor and no US manufacturer did, thus we’re “stuck” with the present situation.

    It’s the same reason there will never be a new international sized car manufacturer unless they get in at the very start of an emerging market OR technology. Like say, Tesla (though still obviously a long way off from the big boys, they done better than any other US car manufacturer less than 100 years old). To that end, if you look at the emerging technology of electric bikes, you’ll find several of the best manufacturers are in the US; and Zero, Brammo, and Lightning all make sportbikes.

  • I’ve thought about this a lot, as well. I even wrote a post about it not too long ago on my blog. For stupid click-bait purposes I titled the post “Are American motorcyclists retarded because of Harley-Davidson?” This turned out to be a dumb idea on my part because it resulted in people missing the point of my argument and focusing instead on defending H-D.

    Basically, though my point was:
    1) Post WWII, people in those “defeated” countries naturally suffered a cynicism toward domestic politics and domestic products. Patriotism didn’t (and often still doesn’t) sell. This was/is true even in Britain, where the war was so devastating.
    2) As such, people in those countries demanded that their domestic products compete against foreign, because simply being home-grown wasn’t enough.
    3) In the United States, meanwhile, an American product would sell on the merit of being American. This induced laziness on the part of our one major manufacturer. And in turn, that induced laziness on the part of the consumer, retarding the average American’s view of what a motorcycle is and what it should be.
    4) That is exacerbated by the fact that most Americans still see motorcycles as toys. If it’s a toy, if it’s butt jewellery, who cares if it’s high-performance?

    In addition, I think it’s worth noting that Americans have a certain knack for choosing the arenas in which we compete and being content within them. For instance, we’re not great at soccer but we are awesome at (American) football. Does it matter that no one else plays football? Nope. We’re really good at it and we’re happy with that. End of story.

    So, in part because of the reasons listed above, we’ve collectively sort of decided that we don’t care about competing in the sport-bike arena. We’d rather pay attention to NASCAR. Does it matter that no one else on the planet gives a damn about NASCAR? Nope. We’re really good at it and we’re happy with that. End of story.

  • allworld

    I for one, would love to see EBC morph into a bigger company with a full line-up of motorcycles.
    HD…. for get a bout it. Polaris on the other hand has the cash and engineering savvy to reinvent Victory. Why have 2 brands competing for the same buyer when they could design build and sell mopeds, scooters, motorcross, dual sports, adventure bikes, sport bikes, streetfighters, and SPORT-touring bikes.

    • Steven Holmes

      I’m with you and would love to see offerings from American manufacturers in these segments.

  • asra’el

    I think you don’t have good taste on this. Like the french. They also have a huge market but almost no bike manufacturers. Your bikes are what they are because you bs your selves they are great. They are not. Sorry if this sounds blunt.

    • john burns

      Say, that is a little blunt… would you happen to have your grid coordinates handy?

  • asra’el

    I think you don’t have good taste on this. Like the french. They also have a huge market but almost no bike manufacturers. Your bikes are what they are because you bs your selves they are great. They are not. Sorry if this sounds blunt.

  • JMDonald

    There is an old saying that……..
    May your engineers be German
    Your chefs be French
    Your administrators be English
    Your designers be Italian
    Or something along those lines. We live at a point in time that benefits from advanced technology incorporating lessons learned over centuries. It is a great time for motorcycling. Individual markets will be catered to. They are dynamic in every sense of the word. I grew up in a fairly rural township with tight twisty back roads. Something like the roads in England. Those roads are more amenable to nimble powerful torquey bikes and cars. The experience driving/riding those roads shaped my motorcycle/sports car taste. When you are not trying to create the boy racer or biker dude personna we tend to gravitate to a bike or car that is more in tune with the type of riding/driving we do. For me at least. I think this is why bikes like the Multistrada have such an appeal. From my perspective that is. Well done. As usual Mr. Burns.

    • artist_formally_known_as_cWj

      … And your sales/advertising team American

  • Craig Hoffman

    Fun article. There are no answers of course, but here is my blather in response to JB’s most excellent blather.

    America has an innovative economy that produces world class products in a variety of markets, many of them esoteric stuff and of course technology, but not in motorcycles. Why is that?

    Motorcycles have an image problem in America. We have cheap gas compared to most countries in the world. In other countries, small bikes are a viable and economic means of transportation. Such bikes can be high tech and cool, which leads to larger high tech and cool bikes. In America, motorcycles are a caricature of rebellion. I say caricature because American “bikers” are so conformant in our non conformity. We care greatly about the “image” our rides portray. More enlightened riders in other countries care about the bike’s merits and the actual experience of motorcycling.

    America does not have the expensive gas issue, so we go straight to full sized bikes. To it’s credit, Harley is opening doors into medium sized “intro” bikes. It is a tough nut form them to crack though, as the average American who last rode a Japanese dirt bike in the late 70’s who wants a “motorcycle” to satiate their mid life crisis, goes to the big twins. We are the country of NASCAR. We think big. Guys on little plastic bikes in tight leathers look faggy to Americans.

    Super standards are the answer of course. Bikes like the KTM 1290R, the new BMW 1200R featured in your story, the new Buell, etc. That kind of bike (and a good hard hitting 450cc dirt bike) is my idea of a motorcycle.

    The fact that I am seemingly alone in this sort of thinking matters not. Like the Euro riders I relate to, I do not care about “image”, just the ride. I have ridden some late model Harleys and even enjoyed the relaxed vibe, but the image baggage does not fit. I do not want to feel like a fraud while riding my motorcycle. No big twin cruisers for me…

  • john burns

    What I left out, because our template won’t let us have a caption on the lead foto, is that that EBR 1190 SX is sooooo close… it’s a really great motorcycle, but produced in such tiny quantities it doesn’t really apply to what I’m talking about here. At his current trajectory, though, who knows, maybe EBR will rival the big players in 20 years…

  • roma258

    Gotta take back and look at history and geography a little bit. Up until the 1920s and 30s, there were dozens American motorcycle companies on the market. Many were sporty and innovative. Harley and Indian competed in time trials, board track racing, etc… What killed most of those companies was the Model T and Great Depression. Then after the WWII, you had a long period of prosperity and suburbanization. People could afford cars and had a place to park them. Bikes were moved squarely to the margins where they’ve remained since. The only American motorcycle that appealed to those margins was HD. It became more about the image then about functionality.

    Meanwhile, Japan, Italy, Germany and England were literally rebuilding out of the rubble. People were poor and needed basic transportation. They were literally sticking tiny motors into bicycle frames and building up from there (ok maybe not the Brits and Germans, but you get the idea). While American greasers could go out and buy a Mustang, a Rocker in England got a motorcycle since that’s all he could afford. What we see now is just the extrapolation of those trends. And America is friggin big, lots of open spaces. Our manufacturers are historically based in the Midwest. You build bikes/cars for the roads in your home market. Sometimes that translates abroad (Germany with its BMWs). Someone else mentioned Zero and Brammo, it’s no surprise they’re based in the West coast and can handle a twisty road.

  • Andrew Capone

    Great food for thought. One key difference, is that post-war, Europe was decimated, and dozens of manufacturers cranked out smaller, lighter, sportier motorbikes to sate the demand for basic transportation over rubbled roads and towns. The small bore European motorcycle, or a bigger twin with a sidecar, was a family car for many, and a commuter/business device for millions. Completely different market and situation here, of course.

    Also, there was virtually no sharing of technology between nations back then, so each country/ region developed their own products, with indigenous flair. In automobiles, that explains how a Saab or a Tatra can come to exist. In Europe, the proximity and nationalism created competition for consumers and in racing to enhance the breed. In the US, there was Harley, period.

    My sense is that manufacturers in post- war America ran the numbers, saw little reason to take H-D on once the arsenal of democracy returned to cranking out millions of in-demand cars. Plus, boatloads of British bikes, driven by the UK govt export-at-all-costs post- war mandate made it real easy for a newly-affluent or youthful American bike enthusiast to find something exotic and different from American iron.Toss in a few thousand German and Italian bikes a year, and the US market was covered.

    As for the dirt bike thing, Harley tried (sorta) with their Aermacchi- sourced tiddlers, but really, once the Yamaha DT-1 landed, it was game over. I do love that we are seeing an American bike renaissance, but not certain we’ll ever see a full- on assault on the sport and off road category by US manufacturers. But why the hell shouldn’t we be able to design and build the best ADV bike? Where is the American GS?

    • john burns

      Another thing you reminded me of is that when the Japanese invasion happened, they were really cheap, and there was no way H-D could design and build anything like a CB750 at anywhere near what Honda was charging. So they didn’t try. The global economy is a fairly recent thing. Now that Japanese bikes cost just as much to produce as American and Euro ones, it’s game on, no?

      • Andrew Capone

        I’m not sure H-D could have built a CB750 fighter at any cost. They did not have the engineering, culture or vision for such a thing. And they were heading down the AMF wormhole, with only the 700 cc tariff saving them years later from being the American equivalent of BSA.

        Can the US compete in sport, off road and other segments today? Definitely. Will we? Dunno. Maybe we take the lead in electric bikes. Maybe Polaris buys or creates a third brand. Maybe EBR grows with Hero’s help. But I’d love to see an American manufacturer deliver the motorcycle equivalent of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. A uniquely American all- roader ADV that would slot in the garages next to the Road Kings of those who wouldn’t consider a European or Japanese bike, but would be well -served by a competent adventure bike.

  • Great column, John! I think a lot of it has to do with the structure of American industry when it comes to building complex and expensive products. H-D killed or outlasted its domestic competition (scant as it was) and since it was the last man standing, didn’t need to make high-performance products to make big profits. In fact, its customers don’t really want high-performance products.

    Americans will pay a premium for American-built sportscars or American-built cruisers, but sportbikes have to have price parity with the foreign-built competition. The analogy to military hardware stands (read my Veteran’s Day column)–the B-17, the Sherman, the T-34 were just good enough to beat the German-built stuff, but most importantly, they were cheap enough to overwhelm with sheer numbers. Sportbikes are kind of the same. It’s not enough to be good–they also have to be cheap.

  • dbc105

    There used to be a US made dirt bike, 2 really, the ATK and the Cannondale. ATK is still in business but they war assembling Korean made motorcycles. Cannondale, the high dollar bicycle maker built a bike for a few years and then sold it to ATK who improved and then quit building it. I’m sure profit and competition were the issues of continuing but they were very good bikes and well built. I live in Alabama and you seldom see an ATK here but I have been out West in the past and they are still quite common. To find them used now they still bring good money and they hold up well. I would love to see ATK get to a point to where they can go back to building a true American Made dirt bike. If ATK would go back to building a good woods/enduro bike in the style of the KTM 300XCW I have now, count me in. Fact is, Americans do everything better and dirt bikes would be no exception if someone will step up to the plate.

  • Dale B.

    Fabulous column John. Once again food for thought (Whatever…). However with that being said, I bet you would not have needed to write this column had H-D not given up on Buell and pulled the plug. A reported $100MM to shut him down during the recession coupled with another $100MM + in MV Agusta… Just think what a capital infusion like that would have done for an American sport bike line. Real money, that could have been spent for real engineering and real manufacturing. Surely had they kept investing in Buell, it would have resulted in a broader line and real American sales and profit.

    Now it seems that Kawasaki is really stepping up to the plate. Look at the H2 and all the resulting publicity. Will they will be reaping some of the reward? Even if they only sell a handful of bikes, we all know who is trying to lead the pack. Great publicity for the guy riding the Ninja 300. I look at how broad Kawasaki’s line up is now, and wonder if H-D could ever do the same thing – Cruisers, entry level Sportbikes, Supersports, ATV’s, JetSki’s, and that holy grail that H-D just absolutely, positively, refuses to build, a first class long distance Sport Touring bike.. Polaris could do it, but one has to wonder if they too are in the “Cruiser” rut, never to get out? Can they branch out with the new Scout motor, or will it go the way of the V-Rod? The big American manufacturers laugh at us when we tell them to move the pegs back and raise the seat. Where is a person to go when they want a different seating position but to Japan or Europe?

    My Thunderbolt S3T is far more comfortable and easier to ride than any of the big H-D’s or Victories, but they don’t care. Why should they? Apparently H-D makes more money off baby spoons, bibs, and coffee mugs than Buell ever made them.

    I did vote with my wallet this year and picked up a new Thruxton. Nice seating position, solid as a rock, nice to look at, and somewhat sporty to boot. Made in Thailand? I used to care, but not any more. If H-D could build a Thruxton, I might have stayed at home. My 54 year old brother just bought one of your modern motorcycles – a 2014 FJR with electric suspension, adjustable windscreen, traction control, heated grips, shaft drive, and ABS. Modern indeed.

    I hope EBR makes it, because when it comes to your American made “Modern Motorcyles” , they are the only ones. Guess I need to buy another Buell (EBR) to help the cause.

    • john burns

      Yup, in answer to Mr Capone, I was gonna say a lot of people including Peter Egan thought we had a great American ADV bike in the Buell Ulysses. I was a big fan of all the XBs.
      Some people have conjectured we have H-D to blame, I mean thank, for all the new MVs of late, especially all of them with the new 800 Triple. Mule Motorcycles also thanks them for all the great brake calipers and things he picked up cheap in the fire sale.

      • Dale B.

        Hey John, I gotta ask…, do the folks that work at H-D or Polaris ever ride any of their competitors bikes? Do they know what an YZF-R1 is? Or a Griso 8V, or an Interceptor, or an FJR, or a Ninja 1000 ABS? Or a Daytona 675? In other words, the John Burns “Modern Motorcycles”?

        • john burns

          For certain the engineers and designers do. Question is, do their opinions percolate upward?

  • Kirk Harrington

    EBR is in a very interesting position. Their success may hinge on the 2015 WSBK SEASON. People look a single season and think that it’s a failure based on 1st year elete superbike racing. It took BMW years to get their groove when they returned. Larry Pegram has his hands full but I believe he’s got the ability to manage a two rider team better than the previous team and I like Yates and May. Nicco knows the tracks. Larry is smart and will put more points up for sponsors. If Larry runs a good season, EBR has a good season. That traction in WSBK is that important for EBR in my guestimation.

  • mog

    EBR…. is the name and HERO is the near term power plant (manufacturing Millions of bike per year). Erik and Pawan are engineering/business soul mates. Unstoppable.

  • victor victor bravo

    Uh because 2/3 of america is fat and has developed emotional issues linked with obesity that it has affected society as a whole with even previously rational people now finding motorcycles and what they term as behavior related to motorcyclists inherently offensive, with sport bikes being the extremes.

    America will make a great sportbike when your grades in PE count.

  • mudgun

    Motus? Never seen one on the road but I love that motor and how they look. Can’t afford one, but I can’t afford a Harley either. I ride an FZ-1, which I’d trade for a Motus in a heartbeat, except the fz is paid for.

  • 1/2Nelson

    Not only was that an interesting, thought provoking article but it also generated interesting, thought provoking comments. Maybe if more of the american motorcycling public got to read more articles like this, the american motorcycle problem would take care of itself. I think national pride or the desire to conform to the nonconformists blinds the consumer to the reality of “modern” american motorcycle design. I, for one, am a fan of Erik Buell and company. Hopefully more american sportbike consumers will start seriously considering these bikes when it comes time to buying their next motorcycle. At the very least they should be given a test ride. Thanks to the author for a great article and all who responded to it.