Thursday, July 06, 2017

He wore black denim trousers…

I’ve seen a couple of articles of late that have focused on the auto industry, and how it’s been a bit sluggish. Which means plenty of layoffs coming in yet another blue collar, lunch pail industry.

As a non-car owner, happy to Zipcar whenever I need to run a car-type of errand, I have contributed in my own small way to the industry’s decline. Quite amazingly, given that the average American will own a dozen cars in their lifetime, I’ve only had three cars: a used white rustbucket Hondo Civic; a dark red (or was it blue?) Mercury Tracer; and a bright blue New Beetle. It’s conceivable that I will at some point in the next decade own another car – if, say, I decide to return to the Heart of the Commonwealth (Worcester, Mass.) from whence I came. This is an unlikely scenario, but there may be a car in my future.

I haven’t contributed to the motorcycle industry, either. In fact, motorcycles are to me like horses: never been on one. (That is, if you don’t count the motorbike or scooter or whatever it was that I spent a couple of scary hours on in Bermuda many years ago.) And I can 100% guarantee that I’ll never own one.(Horse or motorcycle.)

Despite my non-biker status, it is my demographic – The Baby Boomers – who’ve been carrying the motorcycle industry. In 2014, almost half of all motorcycle riders were over the age of 50.

So the motorcycle producers are counting on the millennials to goose sales, which peaked in 2006 and have been stagnant (at half of peak) since then. I will note that 2006 was the year that the first Baby Boomers -  who’ve been carrying the industry since Easy Rider hit the screens in 1969 – turned 6-0. (While Easy Rider was seminal – and what a soundtrack for all the fine young Boomers: “Born to Be Wild,” “Wasn’t Born to Follow” - the Boomers had their first movie taste of the biker life watching black and white re-runs of Marlon Brando in The Wild One. (Q: What are you rebelling against, Johnny. A: Whadda ya got?)

The problem is that the bikes that are now taking off are lower end: less horsepower, less pricey, less profitable.

With a starting price of $6,000, Honda’s Rebel 500 is aimed at younger, first-time riders.

Honda’s Rebel is the latest entry in a parade of new bikes designed for first-time riders; almost every company in the motorcycle industry has scrambled to make one. They are smaller, lighter, and more affordable than most everything else at a dealership and probably wouldn’t look out of place in the 1960s—back when motorcycling was about the ride, not necessarily the bike. They are also bait for millennials, meant to lure them  into the easy-rider lifestyle. If all goes as planned, these little rigs will help companies like Harley-Davidson coast for another 50 years.

“They’re new motorcycles, but they’re also new thinking,” said Mark Hoyer, editor-in-chief of Cycle World magazine. “They’re selling this perception of lifestyle ... it’s a cultural movement; a rebranding of the whole motorcycle industry.” (Source: Bloomberg)

I do know people who ride/rode/owned bikes, but I must admit that, to me, biking didn’t generally have the best brand image.

My father had been a motorcycle man in his youth, the owner of an Indian Motorcycle at one point in his pre-marriage, pre-kid twenties. But he didn’t like to see motorcyclists on the road when we were out for drives. Hairbreadth Harries, he called them, after a cartoon character of his childhood. What Hairbreadth Harry had to do with motorcycles, I haven’t a clue, and my father’s not around to ask. Anyway, I think a couple of swarming bikers cut us off once, and that was plenty enough for my father. As a family, tootling around on our ice cream drives in our trusty Ford, we didn’t like motorcyclists.

Then there was the mid-fifties hit song, “Black Denim Trousers,” about a dare devil motorcyclist. Needless to say, he met with an untimely ending:

And when they cleared the wreckage, all
They found

Was his black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
But they couldn't find the 'cicle that took off like a gun
And they never found the terror of High way 1-oh-1

A decade or so later, “Leader of the Pack” met with his own nasty demise,

He sort of smiled and kissed me good bye
The tears were beginning to show
As he drove away on that rainy night,
I begged him to go slow, whether he heard,
I'll never know Look out! Look out! Look out!

I felt so helpless, what could I do
Remembering all the things we'd been through?
In school they all stop and stare
I can't hide the tears, but I don't care
I'll never forget him, the leader of the pack

This song, by the way, came with sound effects: we heard the crash!

By the time Altamont rolled around – same year as Easy Rider – it sure didn’t surprise me that the Hell’s Angels who were hired to provide security for the concert ended up killing someone. Or something like that.

So, my image of bikers has never been all that great.

Mostly, I associate them with lots of noise, hogs that I wouldn’t park within a quarter mile of for fear of scratching them, and their annual rip roaring protest against the Massachusetts helmet law. (A few years back, one of the riders was killed because, naturally, he wasn’t wearing a helmet.)

That said, I once had a very sweet and adorable dental hygienist who was an avid biker. All the attendants at her wedding wore leather (groomsmen and bridesmaids alike). And they rode off on their honeymoon on their Harleys.

Anyway, the industry is now turning to the millennials who are apparently not drawn to the bigger-is-better bikes. They of the Tiny House movement want smaller bikes to park in their tiny driveways.

Between 2011 and 2016, sales of motorcycles with engines smaller than 600cc increased by 11.8 percent, while bigger, more powerful bikes managed only a 7.4 percent gain.

Hopefully, these smaller bikes won’t make as much noise when they come barrel-arsing down Beacon Hill – right past my house – when they wage their next anti-helmet protest.

Let the rebranding begin!

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