Naked Came the Motorbike


As the much-anticipated new "naked bike" rotated slowly on its elevated platform, eager motorcyclists leaned over the railing to catch a closer look at the exposed workings of this newest entry in the uphill battle to win American fans for a class of motorcycle long popular overseas.

The air was charged with excitement, even though the production model of Yamaha's new FZ-1 motorcycle wouldn't hit dealership floors for several months after the prototype's unveiling.

"Naked bikes" is a popular term for standard motorcycles with less bodywork and a more upright seating position than racer-replica sport bikes clad in aerodynamic body pieces called fairings.

And past efforts to persuade speed- and performance-focused U.S. motorcycle buyers to consider the more pedestrian-looking naked bikes have failed.

But as the buzz at December's Cycle World International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach illustrated, the aging of the baby boom crowd and a healthy market that lets dealers take a flier on something new could do the trick.

"As soon as I read about the FZ-1 on a British Internet site, I knew I had to have one," said Brin Gladstone. The 52-year-old Palm Springs resident previously owned sport bikes whose low handlebars and high foot pegs often require riders to bend forward and hug the gas tank.

"I already had five bikes, but I ride a lot of long days and wanted performance and handling in a bike with a more upright seating position," Gladstone said. "I was one of the first in California to get one, and it's marvelous. I put 450 miles on it the first day I had it and was very comfortable."

Gladstone isn't the only one eager to put an FZ-1 in the garage. Although sales numbers are not yet available, the bikes, which were well-received by the motorcycle enthusiast press, are moving quickly, said Brad Banister, a spokesman for Cypress-based Yamaha Motor Corp.

"Before the FZ-1 was released, our dealers told us it was generating more interest from more customers than any other bike in recent memory," he said. "This interest has translated to sales--lots of them. Dealers are asking for more, and we are sold out at the wholesale level."

Although few are willing to call it a trend, industry insiders remain cautiously optimistic that naked bikes finally will catch on.

They've seen the American motorcycling public clamor for standard machines before, only to let them languish on showroom floors. Kawasaki Motors Corp.'s Zephyr 750 and Honda's CB-1 and Hawk NT 650 are notable examples of standards that didn't garner sufficient sales to continue being brought to these shores.

But Kawasaki says sales of its naked ZRX1100 model were healthy last year, so much so that the Irvine-based company reintroduced the model as the ZRX1200R for 2001. And American Suzuki Motor Corp., which made a big splash last year after upgrading its popular half-faired Bandit 1200 model, brought over the fully naked version of the bike for 2001. Other naked bikes selling well in the U.S. are British manufacturer Triumph's Speed Triple and the Monster from Italy's Ducati.

Of the big four Japanese motorcycle makers, only Torrance-based American Honda Motor Co. remains on the fence in this segment.

Still, last year the company said it intended to be the industry leader in every motorcycle category, so it is unlikely to ignore naked bikes for long.

Indeed, Honda is looking at a number of designs that would do well in the U.S. market, said spokesman Pete ter Horst . He suggested that a U.S. variation of the naked Honda Hornet that's done well in Europe could be among the new models to be announced for the U.S. in September, and said the company is considering engine sizes "from 600 cubic centimeters to 1200."

Ter Horst points to a strong overall U.S. motorcycle market as one explanation of growth of naked bikes. Models that bombed in the early '90s did so in part because the market was just coming out of a major downturn and the industry wanted to stick to the tried and true, he said.

But things are looking up, with sales of on-highway motorcycle models up 6.5% for the first quarter this year. Sales of racy sport bikes soared 22.1% over the first quarter of 2000, and standard bike sales were up 8.8%. The only dip was in the ever-popular cruiser category, which accounts for about 90% of the on-highway segment. Cruiser sales fell 2%.

"Designs that were compelling and interesting 10 or 15 years ago but didn't make economic sense because the market was soft can make sense now," Ter Horst said. "You can probably look at an updated version of the same design" that didn't sell in the early '90s and figure on two or three times the volume now because that many more people are buying motorcycles, he said.

Another factor that has held back the naked bike is how Americans use motorcycles. In Europe and Asia, they are viewed as basic transportation; here, they're largely considered recreational.

"You have to be really spot-on to come up with a design that the U.S. market will buy because we're not using them so much to commute to work as to go out and have fun," Ter Horst said. But as more riders hit their 40s and 50s, style may be starting to bow to comfort.

Also helping sales is the fact that beyond their comfortable ergonomics--such as higher handlebars and lower foot pegs--almost all of the new standard bikes are big-displacement models. That's critical because motorcycle makers are vying for buyers from a pool of riders who may value comfort but aren't ready to give up the power they've become attached to, said John Hoover, director of motorcycle product management at Kawasaki.

Yamaha's 998-cubic-centimeter, 140-horsepower FZ-1, for example, packs nearly as much punch as its 150-horsepower sport bike sibling, the R1.

In the early '90s, said Ter Horst, naked bikes failed because the importers took designs that were doing well in Europe and adapted them for the U.S. market without boosting their power to meet American tastes. The bikes looked good, but because of a horsepower limitation agreement in Europe they didn't go fast enough for American buyers.

"The lesson from that in the American market is that we like the way [naked bikes] look, but don't think they have enough oomph," Ter Horst said. "We want comfort but won't give up power."

Yamaha is betting on being able to provide both with the FZ-1, and so far the newest player in the naked-bike market appears to be winning the wager.

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