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The issue isn't really about the various bikes that are for sale, it's about the way Americans perceive motorcycles. As a former GM for a dealer and a long observer of the industry, I realize that the difficulty is that we, as Americans, do not see motorcycles as transportation. We see them as recreation. There was an article some time back (I think it was in Dealer News) that made much the same point, so my thoughts on this issue are not original, though I do have my own interpretation of it.

In Europe, motorcycles are transportation. They get better mileage (and with gas $4.00 or more a gallon, that's critical). They're easy to handle on narrow streets (some dating back centuries). They're easier to maintain and cost less to begin with (another important factor, especially in the poorer countries). As a further example, the British industry fell on hard times as the British economy recovered from WWII. Small cars replaced motorcycles, and they were more marginalized than in tougher times. But the U.S. has long had cheap gas, cheap cars, and wide roads. Here it's perceived as strange to arrive at an upscale destination on a bike. But the bellmen at four star resorts in Switzerland all seem to know how to detach the saddlebags from a BMW bike.

As a nation, we are comfort seekers. It's a lot easier to hop in a car than don a helmet, riding gear, and gloves. Our drivers are not accustomed to seeing bikes. Motorcycling ends up being more dangerous. Our drivers are less skilled than in Europe, where driving is considerred a priviledge, not a right. (If you doubt that, take a look at German licensing requirements or their drunk driving laws.)

The only time that motorcycling stood on the threshold of becoming considered transportation in the last fifty years was during the oil embargo. For a brief time, people bought motorcycles as transpotation. True, there weren't many, but there were enough to make a strong upward blip in sales. But it didn't last long. Americans got used to gas over a dollar a gallon, and the cars became more efficient.

So, as a dealer, you are not often in the position of selling efficient and exciting transportation. You're selling recreation. It is our society's perceptions of the car and the general availability of cheap gas that stymie motorcycle sales and keep us on the margins. So your question is a "change the world" question. The only real answer is for our gas prices to rise to where they should be, to about $4.00 a gallon. The side benefits would be immense. The environment would improve, traffic would no longer be a nightmare, our nation's balance of payments would change, our roads would last longer, and our drivers might just become polite.

Then again, even expensive gas might not be enough to overcome our society's general aversion to physical effort. And we shouldn't forget how healthy our own motorcycle industry was before our nation became so wealthy that a car was within everyone's reach. We had a host of manufacturers back in the twenties and thirties. All except Harley died, though a few of them have been reborn. Compare that to Italy, where a new scooter manufacturer (Aprilia) can come out of nowhere to be a large and profitable corporation. Now they are extending into motorcycles. In the U.S. that would be impossible. For a real revelation, visit Naples. There the scooter is a main form of transportation. It's cheap, it works, and just about everybody seems to ride one. It's about as common to see a scooter in Naples as it is to see a Ford Explorer here.

Francis Clark (vlad)
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