Cheesecake in the Heartland: 2006 Indianapolis Motorcycle Dealer's Expo

Indianapolis. It's a medium-sized city in the heart of the Midwest, known for the Colts, the Indy 500, and college basketball.  Once a year, thousands and thousands of dealers, distributors and others in the motorcycle industry descend upon the town to meet, deal, and find out what's going on.

For 2006, MO sent me to find out for you, the consumer, what is new in the industry and what kinds of products and trends we can expect from this multi-billion dollar industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people. These trends can affect who is selling you your parts and services in your community, and what might lie in store for them in the future.

If you are reading over somebody's shoulder, he is not looking at porn. The Indianapolis Motorcycle Dealer's Show is an annual trade show presented in conjunction with Dealer News magazine, the industry's main trade journal. The show is now in its eighth year in Indianapolis, a city selected because of its proximity to thousands of Midwestern, Northern, East Coast and Southern suppliers, dealers, service providers and others involved in the USA's thriving Powersports industry.

This year's show may have been one of the biggest ever.

Although attendance figures have not been released by the show's organizers, 21,000 attended last year and over 25,000 pre-registered for the 2006 event. 1,018 booths were rented out, from the multi-storied colossi of giants like Lockhart-Philips and Fox Racing to a tiny card table in a dusty, lightly-trafficked hallway with a lonely Chinese sales rep displaying a selection of fasteners.

What surprised me on my first visit to the show -- this is my second trip to Indy -- was the lack of booths from the major manufacturers. Suzuki, Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha, BMW, Ducati were absent, but manufacturers seeking to gain a market foothold like Piaggio (including Aprilia and Moto Guzzi), Kymco, Daelim, Hyosung and others had big, lavish booths full of brochures, show bikes and eager sales reps.

In fact, there are so many Asian manufacturers at the show that they have a hall all their own. The Chinese Pavilion was packed full of booths. Over 72 Asian importers or manufacturers of scooter, motorcycles, dirtbikes and ATVs were at the show, with many of them showing eerily similar lineups of cheap and cheerful products.

Here it is, the new V-Max. It will be sold at Costco in four-packs. Some of the huge booths in this huge show were hugely packed with huge people. This is Fox Racing.

 I, For One, Welcome Our New Masters: The Chinese Invasion
Meet Cyndee Booker. She's a star sales representative for Chaunl Motorcycles, Limited, a mainland-Chinese maker of scooters, motorcycles, quads and probably anything with a motor. She's one of many Americans working for Chinese and American-owned importers of Chinese-built vehicles that are filling garages and showrooms all over the world with inexpensive vehicles.

Cyndee's ridden some of her products: "they're a ball." Even Booker admits some of these distributors are pretty shady. Quality control issues and parts availability are tremendous problems, causing a "lot of complaints from end-users", according to the attractive young former nurse-recruiter. Vehicles are sold from gas stations, vacant lots, people's garages, mail order via eBay, even from the back of trucks. Often, there is no certificate of compliance with various government regulations, no warranty, no nearby dealers, and the seller disappears or stops carrying the model soon after the sale.

I asked Booker what a prospective dealer should look for in a Chinese importer. She told me they should be very careful; "Dealers should check warehouses for parts and inventory" she said. Many importers just bring in a few containers, sell the vehicles, and then disappear.

I don't know what a "vacae" is, but this bike has four of them. Somebody got the firing squad for this, I'll bet. The show was full of booths like Chaunl's, stocked with what looked like the same 20 models of scooters, motorcycles, toy bikes and ATVs. The build quality of these products was mostly poor, about what you would see on the 99 cent wall of a Toys R Us. Importers try to differentiate their products by adding stickers and --- Vehicles are sold from gas stations, from vacant lots, out of people's garages, on eBay, and even from the back of trucks. chromed plastic baubles, and every sales rep tells you to look out for the other guy, who seems to be selling the exact same thing.

The main thing I picked up with these peddlers of low-quality vehicles was the lack of enthusiasts working in their booths. Cyndee has yet to learn how to ride a motorcycle, although she's tooled around a bit on the scooters she sells; "they're a ball", she said cheerfully. A CEO of another scooter importer also came from another industry, with no motorcycle riding experience. However, some  importers are guys with cycle shops who are just trying to bring inexpensive inventory to their customers.

So we have some shoddy products imported by dozens of small business people. So what? These products are being sold in such numbers that it's becoming impossible to ignore. For example, the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) reported that its members (made up of the established European and Asian manufacturers like Yamaha, Piaggio and Kymco) sold 50,000 scooters in the USA in 2005. Dealer News estimated that the non-MIC members moved something like 80,000, not counting mini-bikes and ATVs.

When the Chinese start making these, I'm moving to We at MO have yet to test any mainland Chinese motor vehicles, although that will doubtless change in the future. Since we don't have any experience with these vehicles, we can't judge them. However, judging by the flimsy appearance of the vehicles and the bewildering array of importers and distributors selling the same models, I would advise readers to be very, very careful about buying Chinese products.

Another trend that is obvious to anybody strolling along the rows of booths is sportbike customizing. Although makers of custom big twin-type parts still dominate, dominating most of the giant RCA Dome, there were plenty of makers of anodized, painted and chromed sportbike bits, including swingarms, wheels, frames and bodywork.

Vanson has been making leathers since the days of Ben-Hur. I wonder who this "Jay" guy was?Another category I noticed was vehicle electronics. The big makers of GPS systems like Lowrance and TomTom showed new, motorcycle-specific GPS units, but there were other manufacturers and distributors showing wiring solutions and gadget mounts for touring riders. How do you wire your GPS unit, radar detector, CB radio, satellite radio, CD player, cell phone and intercom into your bike and helmet so you can use them all at the same time? I would answer that question by asking another question: are you completely insane? However, it seems there is a huge demand from gadget junkies for neat, simple solutions to mount devices and wire all this stuff together, and companies like RAM, Powerlet and Techmount are filling that demand. Look for future articles about mounting and wiring gadgets up to your bike.

The Chinese influence isn't just limited to scooters and ATVs.

Almost all of the apparel we wear while riding our bikes is now made in an Asian country. Leather is almost all made in Korea and Pakistan, and countries like China and Vietnam make textile jackets, pants, gloves and luggage. Even companies like Held and Vanson, long known for quality European and American craftsmanship, are now taking advantage of the cheaper labor to keep them competitive.

Vanson's booth was redolent with the heady scent of made-in-USA steerhide, but there was something new there, too. The "Vanson World" line of apparel uses the same patterns and strict quality control as the standard, domestically-made clothing, but is priced significantly lower. Vanson knew it would have to have a line of jackets priced around the $300 mark to compete, so they have started to make some of their products overseas, all marked with a special label. For those purists who know $400-600 for a genuine Vanson product is really a bargain--their jackets are pretty much indestructible and have a totally unique look and feel--the Fall River, Mass. Factory is still cranking out jackets, pants and gloves with that unique Vanson-ness.

One interesting and overlooked corner of the show was a little ghetto of Italian manufacturers and organizations in a corner of the main Expo hall. There, stylish-looking Italians sat in their booths showing helmets, apparel and components.

This is the smallest part of a Buell Ulysses.An interesting booth was staffed by Steffano Vaccari, director of operations for Verlicchi Nino e Figli. Verlicchi manufactures frames and other components for the motorcycle and bicycle industry. You might be riding a Verlicchi-equipped motorcycle right now; they make frames for Ducati, Buell, BMW and even Honda (European-made bikes like scooters and the 599). They had a Buell Ulysses frame on display; I was impressed by the lightness of the exquisitely-crafted aluminum component.

What was Verlicchi hoping to achieve at the show? Vacari told me he was in the US to attend a meeting with Buell motorcycles, and decided to get a booth there to get a feel for the US market and see what kind of response there was to the Verlicchi name. I asked what the meeting with Buell was about, and Vacari responded that they "have a new project, and we hope we are chosen [to manufacture components]." I hit him with a few questions; was it a liquid-cooled motor-ed Buell? An inline-four? A dirtbike? He just kind of smiled at me. I thought Italians were supposed to be talkative.

Some of you might remember my comparison test last year between the Hyosung GT650R and the Suzuki SV650S. Although the Suzuki is definitely the more refined machine, Hyosung makes a very nice product that is definitely ready for prime time. To prove their commitment, Hyosung has finally gotten serious about the USA market, taking over distribution from the old importer. Their booth in the RCA dome was one of the larger ones, with a full product line-up, a squad of sales reps, and even an attractive woman dressed in traditional Korean costume to answer questions from potential Hyosung dealers.

OK, I see a lot of V-Rod. I still think it's a pretty fresh and exciting-looking bike.Hyosung has some interesting new products (for the USA) that might occupy a new niche in the American market. The first one is the GV650 Avitar.

It uses the suspiciously SV 650-like motor from the GT 650 in a beautifully styled power cruiser chassis. It's long, low, has plenty of chrome, but it also has lots of ground clearance, radial rubber and inverted front forks for what looks like a pretty good time. Expect it to be priced around $6200.

Another new-for-America machine is the slick-looking little GT 250 comet. This bike has been on the market in other countries for several years now and has been a hit with its peppy, eight-valve 250cc oil-cooled V-twin motor. With a full-sized frame, 17-inch radial tires and an inverted front fork, it should prove a match for the Methuselah-like Kawasaki 250 Ninja. For an extra $300 over the GT 250's $3,199 MSRP (pricing subject to change), you can get the fully-clothed GT 250 R, with clip-ons and digital instruments. While the Comet will kill the Ninja on looks and handling, it's probably not much faster (and a whole lot heavier), but we will have to wait until we do MO's first-ever 250cc sportbike comparison to find out for sure. Expect a Hyosung shop to be near you; the booth was positively jammed with prospective dealers.

At the end of the weekend, I was happy I went to the Expo. Not just because I got to spend two days looking at thousands of new motorcycle products, but because of being surrounded by the positive energy of tens of thousands of people making a living doing something they love.

There were plenty of folks with their inventions and dreams out on display, from all kinds of polishes and wheel-balancing compounds to clever luggage and riding gear. I especially relished meeting Mark Jagger, a slightly-unhinged Brit pursuing his dream of selling his helmet-mounted Mohawks. The brightly-colored combs of fake hair use suction cups to stick onto a rider's helmet. He claimed they were good up to at least 175 mph. How did he know? Did he test it?

"Yeah, I've tested it, but I can't do it any more. I can't keep my license."

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