2009 Chinese Motorcycle Show - Part 1

Coming Soon: Motorcycles from China

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It's no secret that China has an enormous population. But did you know that, of the 50 million motorcycles sold globally in 2008, about half – 27 million – were produced in China?

With more than 1.3 billion people living in China, there is a huge domestic market to serve, so many of the current motorcycles produced in China are small-displacement and low-tech bikes that won't appeal to many North American riders. But with an upwardly mobile local market and an ever-larger manufacturing and R&D base, it's only a matter of time until the Sino-moto industry begins a determined push into Europe and America.

That's why we flew halfway across the world to Chongqing, China, for the 2009 CIMA Motor Show. The Chinese motorcycle industry is shrouded in a bit of mystery, as it's sometimes difficult to figure out which company is actually manufacturing the bikes from the companies that simply rebadge an existing bike with their own brand. We took on the task of illuminating this complex and difficult-to-decipher market so our readers will be on the leading edge.

Motorcycles in China have typically been quite utilitarian. Note the accessory on this Lifan that can pump water for agricultural use.

"The Chinese motorcycle industry is shrouded in a bit of mystery."

Chongqing (pronounced Chong-ching) is an industrial city near the center of China growing at a rapid rate – about 10 million people live there, and nearly every direction you look there is another crane topping another new high-rise under construction. Chongqing is also the center of motorcycle production in China, representing 50% of the country's motorcycle manufacturing capability.

Officially known as the China International Motorcycle Trade Exhibition, CIMA Motor is developing into the sole national-level motorcycle exhibition in China. This year's event is the eighth annual, and it was four times bigger than the year previous. Somewhere near 50,000 people attended over the September 17-20 exhibition. The show's organizers proclaimed the event's mission statement as: “Enhance the Value of Chinese Motorcycle Brands.”

This sporty looking XGJAO is powered by an air-cooled 150cc engine.

Among the 333 exhibitors on hand were 27 motorcycle companies which displayed nearly 1,000 motorcycles. About 100 new models were shown, but it was impossible for my Western eyes to notice if what I was looking at was actually new or not – they were pretty much all unfamiliar to me. 

By our standards, motorcycles built in China are predominantly what we'd call primitive. Most are single-cylinder air-cooled machines with rudimentary suspension and brakes, as the massive domestic market traditionally requires nothing more.

Unlike the moto culture in Europe and America in which we treat motorcycles as a recreational hobby, bikes in China are most often inexpensive workhorses for humble locals. But that's slowly evolving. Bikes with larger engines are being developed in China, and high-end companies like Harley and Ducati are setting up shop in Shanghai and Hong Kong and were at the show, along with displays from brands familiar to us like the Piaggio Group products (Aprilia, Vespa), Yamaha and Suzuki. In fact, the latter two companies have joint-venture operations with Chinese companies.

Top 10 China Motorcycle Industry Factoids

What's Happening in China?
1. There are more than 130 motorcycle manufacturers in China
2. Chongqing-based manufacturers produced 10 million units
3. Twenty-three Chinese OEMs each produce more than 100,000 units annually
4. Twelve manufacturers produce more than 500,000 units a year
5. At least five manufacturers produce more than 1 million units a year (four are based in Chongqing)
6. China produced 27.5 million bikes in 2008, nearly half the world's production
7. China has passed Japan as the number-one motorcycle producer
8. More than 15 million motorcycles are sold annually in China
9. Less than 20% of China's production goes to foreign markets
10. Chinese bikes sold in export markets like America are often marketed by independent companies operating under different names

China is beginning to recognize motorcycles as a form of recreation instead of simple utility. This motocross race was held at a track next door to the Shineray factory, the premier manufacturer of off-road bikes in China.

Wang Wei, the director of United Nations Industrial Development Organization, one of the exhibition's organizers, explained that Chinese riders are beginning to demand more from their motorcycles than just plain transportation. As an example of the development of the motorcycle as a form of recreation in China, Mr. Wang referenced a motocross event run in conjunction with the show that attracted 100 teams.

“As a kind of sport use, as entertainment, the big-displacement motorcycle will have very fast development,” Mr. Wang predicted, adding that future Chinese technology will have a “great improvement” to meet the demands of the world market.

As of this moment, one of the biggest hurdles facing the Chinese motorcycle industry is achieving European and American requirements for vehicle emissions. Clean-burning fuel-injection systems in China are as rare as Republicans voting for a public healthcare option. The open roads of America will also demand more power than is currently offered by the Chinese OEMs – a 600cc single-cylinder engine ranks among the elite powerplants available from China.

This prototype Zongshen Cyclone is an example of the ongoing evolution of the Chinese motorcycle industry and market.

But it is inevitable at least a couple of the bolder Chinese companies will step forward to meet the desires of American riders, inexpensively offering contemporary styling along with increased power. In many ways, China is in a position similar to the 1960s-era Japanese motorcycle industry, with low-cost and simple machines paving the way toward a more exciting future.

In our next installment from China, we'll bring you mini features on the biggest and most interesting motorcycle manufacturers in the country and show you the brightest stars from each. It's a compilation you won't find anywhere else.

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