The motorcycle business, traditionally driven by enthusiasts who ride for fun, is experiencing a dramatic shift as big, expensive cruisers give way to cheaper, commuter-oriented models and more women hit the road on two wheels, a new survey shows.
Though fun is still the No. 1 reason motorcyclists cite for riding, according to preliminary results of the Motorcycle Industry Council's 2008 owner survey, "utility/business/chores" has increased 42% in importance since the last survey, in 2003. And 12.6% of motorcyclists and scooterists are now women, a 29% increase from 2003.
The average age of motorcyclists, 42, seems to be leveling off after rising for the last two decades. Experts say it may even decline as baby boomers age and more younger people take up riding.
The last time the survey was conducted, motorcycle sales were in their 11th consecutive year of growth and gas prices averaged $1.63 per gallon. Cruisers reigned supreme, as Harley-Davidson celebrated its 100th anniversary, Jesse James' "Monster Garage" grew a cult following on TV, and baby boomers cashed out their home equity to buy big, pricey V-twin bikes.
"We're seeing some benchmark shifts occurring," said Cycle World magazine publisher Larry Little. Europe, he added, can serve as "an example of what we need to aspire to from the standpoint of transportation."
Motorcycles and scooters have long been more popular overseas than in the United States. In 2006, they accounted for 2.5% of vehicles on the road and just 0.4% of vehicle miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Britain, meanwhile, motorcycles made up 4.3% of the vehicle mix.
But a spike in gas prices during peak riding season this summer and, more recently, the tightening of credit have made U.S. roads look a lot more European. Sales of cruisers, sport bikes, tourers and off-highway or dirt models are all down in 2008 compared with last year, but scooters and dual sports (bikes that can be ridden on the street or off-road) have seen 50% and 30% gains, respectively. Overall sales are expected to be down this year. Through the third quarter they were off 2.2% compared with the first nine months of 2007.
Though consumers have been embracing smaller and more fuel-efficient bikes, the percentage of motorcycles that were financed, at least in part, had steadily risen over the last 10 years, the preliminary results of the survey showed. In 1998, 1 in 4 bikes was financed; for the first nine months of 2008, it was 1 in 3. An industry council spokeswoman said the trends were likely to hold up in the fourth quarter, which is expected to account for just 15% of the year's sales.
The council, a nonprofit trade association supported by motorcycle manufacturers and dealers, has conducted its survey roughly every five years since 1975, polling 2,000 motorcycle owners and 1,500 non-owners.
Although the survey forms the basis of much of the publicly available data about motorcycles, its infrequency has made it problematic. Going forward, the survey will be conducted online and updated continuously. Final results of this year's survey will be available in early 2009.