Motorcycles Goin’ Global
I remember when “Made in Japan” meant cheap, shoddy goods guaranteed to fall apart in short order, made by funny looking slave labor who ate cats for dinner. Or something. It was several years post WWII, the mid-50’s, and war stereotypes were hard to kill.
It’s interesting how generations create an alternate mind-space, because when a young person says “It’s made in Japan” he means a seriously quality good, like a Lexus, Infiniti or Sony: not a budget items, for sure, but top quality at a fair price. High on the “value proposition” which is quality divided by price.
As a kid, I had small items, transistor radios, toys, and gadgets made in Japan. I was fascinated at the Japanese type when poking around inside, the very definition of “foreign.” And as usual, most fell apart. But they didn’t cost much, so not much harm done.
(“Made in Japan”)
(As a child, this was my contact to the outside world, a rocket crystal radio. Clip it to my bedframe—a ground—put the bud in my ear, the move the rocket antenna up and down to find radio stations, especially at night, locating those 50,000w “flamethrower” AM signals.)
Try to tell a young person about cheap items being made in Japan, and he’ll look at you like a space alien.
I mentioned in a prior blog post “My Trail of Motorcycle Addiction” about my first encounter with a paradigm-busting motorcycle, a Honda 50, known around the world as a Honda Cub, the most manufactured vehicle in world history: a staggering 87 million Cubs have been produced since 1957 in 15 countries. Think Soichiro Honda has worked out the bugs?
(Honda C90 Super Cub)
Honda single-handedly killed the British motorcycle industry when they brought the world’s first super bike, the CB750, to America in 1969. Before that, the Triumph Bonevilles, BSA Lightnings and Norton Commando’s ruled the motorcycle roost.
(1969 CB750, the world’s first SuperBike)
And it wasn’t just the incredible performance or price that won hearts and minds, it was also the quality of these machines: they just didn’t break down as Brit iron was prone to do. And they didn’t leak oil like Harley’s.
The Brits never recovered. The Americans, with their Harley-Davidson brand, suffered mightily. In a nutshell, the Japanese brands out ran the Brit & American bikes, had few quality issues and sold for a much lower price. In 1972, Harley had 100% of the US market over 1000cc. By 1982, they has 15%. Where I come from we call that a country boy ass-whoopin’. It was so bad Harley begged politicians to add high import duties to Japanese motorcycles to help level the playing field.
Ditto Japanese cars coming to America. I remember the first funny looking Honda Civics first arrival, then the Accord. It couldn’t have been even 5 years before Honda was on top of American car sale for the same reason as Japanese motorcycles: incredible performance and quality at a very modest price. Consumers loved them and the American car industry suffered mightily.
(In just 5 years, the Little Honda Civic CVCC drove a stake into the heart of the American automobile industry.)
Out of 2.5 million registered vehicles in the Dominican Republic, roughly 1.8 million are motorcycles, with 99% under 200cc. When I first moved to the DR 9 years ago, the Chinese motorcycle invasion had been underway with Honda Cub and Yamaha Crypton clones everywhere. But closer examination shows serious flaws: poor quality components, fit and finish, guaranteed to fall apart as soon as the warranty expired. And they did. But they were very inexpensive, an important consumer element in a poor country, so hundreds of thousands got sold.
But a funny thing has been happening since I’ve been living in the DR: Chinese quality has made enormous strides, the fit and finish are nearly First-World standards, parts became standardized and much better quality and the bikes, in general, began lasting a lot longer. And they’ve sold like crazy.
We live in a global economy where capitalism is no longer the domain of just a few countries. Consumers in the Third World want the exact same metrics that North Americans and Europeans want: the best quality product at the most modest price possible. Competition has been fierce, and likely to become even more fierce.
This competition has definitely burbled over to the Chinese brands of motorcycles. And while some are slow to accept the “New Age” of Chinese quality, motorcycle addicts like myself see quality of these machines increasing faster than price—with consumers getting the Win.
While some may continue to lament “cheap Chinese junk”, these same people are loathe to admit that some of the worlds top-quality brands, like Apple, Lenovo, Huawei and Haier are “made in China.”
Maybe it’s time we took off the blinders and judged products on their merits and not our biases.
The Case for “Less is More”
Over the years my riding style has changed. I’ve never had any real dirt experience, like motocross, and pretty much stuck to the tarmac when possible.
And like most Americans I admit to getting caught up in the “Bigger is Better” updraft where displacement and hp/torque numbers were like medals on your chest, a testament to manliness…or something.
Succumbing, to a lesser degree, to peer pressure. The perfect example is how Harley riders refer to the 1200cc Sportster, a really sound machine, possibly Harley’s best (along with Buell’s) as a “girl’s bike.”
And there is the attitude coming from some brand cultists, a bias against “Jap crap” and “rice burners,” and the Tuetonic chest-thumping.
I’m not a Harley guy, but admit that when I bought my Honda VTX 1800C, I did so because at the time I wanted the Biggest Bike out there. And it was, an 800+lb. beast with pistons the size of coffee cans banging right below your crotch and a rumble that sets off car alarms.
Then came MotoCaribe and the move to the Dominican Republic to start a motorcycle touring company with a fleet of Suzuki V-Strom DL650s, one of the first reasonably priced “adventure” motorcycles, bikes that could carry its rider anywhere, paved or dirt roads. The DL650 is an excellent bike for the DR, even though small by North American standards where “size matters.” We got many comments from future guests about the bikes being “small,” even though physically they are quite large, tall with a long wheelbase.
The DL650s can really scoot. They love riding between 4000-7000rpm, and are bulletproof, truly outstanding machines, like a sport bike with a straight-up riding style that you can ride on some hard-packed dirt or gravel.
They are also my first real entry into “adventure” riding where handling a bike off the tarmac is common. New skills had to be learned and taught to some guests. And part of acquiring knowledge is voraciously reading everything possible on “adv” riding.
There are a lot of hardcore adv riders out there. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Ewan McGregor’s and Charlie Borman’s exploits in the “Long Way Round” and “Long Way Down” series, where semi-average guys ride massive motorcycles across continents falling, crashing, fording raging cold rivers and getting bogged down in mud on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes not so much.
I won’t pretend to ever want to be hardcore. I like some creature comforts, but I also want to know I *could* if I wanted to. So I pay a lot of attention to the hardcore adv riders out there, blogging like mad men so we pedestrian plebes can live a vicarious life through their exploits, and learn from their experience.
One thing is for sure; the bikes used in the Long Way series, huge BMW GS1200s (or the then equivalent) were the wrong tool for the job when the tarmac ended. Don’t get me wrong, the big Beemers are awesome machines. Just not how Ewan & Charlie used them.
I came across this article a couple of years ago about “which bike should I buy for adv riding,” Adv Bike Selection 1. It’s an excellent article written by a serious rider, one who has learned his lessons the hard way. I’m left with his summary:
A single cylinder bike below 165 kg dry weight should be your starting point. If you are heading to Mongolia or the Sibirsky Extreme Zone north of the Trans Siberian Highway on anything else, you are either kidding yourself that you are going to enjoy it, or you are a rally standard rider. It may sound harsh, but anytime I see a 1200GSA or Super Tenere in Mongolia, I know straight away it’s a naive adventurer struggling on his first proper offroad adventure, and I can be sure of at least one thing – he will never go back there on the same bike ever again. If only he knew that before he went there …
(This is about as close as you can get to driving a freight truck on two wheels.)
Interesting: he advocates a smaller bike for true adv riding. In other words, the best bike for the worst conditions. Certainly the examples he uses are “dual sport” machines that, by nature, are more of a dirt bike that can also be ridden on the tarmac, 60% dirt/40% tarmac.
But what about us “regular” riders who see ourselves on a 30% dirt/70% tarmac adventure? I can still see how “size matters”—in this case, smaller is better. Heck, even a DL650 is 215kg, a hefty ride.
I also came across this article about a young lady who wanted to do a serious adv ride with her boyfriend. She makes some excellent points: Why I chose a “beginner bike” as an adventure bike.
Put aesthetics aside and imagine the perfect adventure bike for your height, weight, strength, agility and most importantly, your true needs. What would it be? Would it be the 900-pound road warrior fully equipped for high-speed pavement travel and ill-equipped for off-road or even bad-road use? Or perhaps the 600-pound monster promising adventure and glory, but also getting stuck in the sand? Or would it be a simple, lightweight, slim, small-displacement dual-sport that will fit in with the locals in adventurous locales around the world?
OK, this all sounds a bit biased, but you already know my choice. So, before your next adventure, ask yourself: How much stuff do you need, how much money do you want to spend, how many times can you pick up your bike, and how much fun will you have?
(Toes on the ground, but comfortably in control.)
And that got me thinking: exactly what smaller adv bikes are manufactured? Not a dual-sport, but like a smaller displacement bike along the lines of a DL650, KLR or BMW650—except much, much smaller, but still packing a rugged punch.
So I started looking (thanks Google & Al Gore)…
My Trail of Motorcycle Addiction
My name is Robert Cooper, and I’m a motorcycle addict.
There. I said it.
I remember well the first “hit” of motorcycle and the profound impact it had on my central nervous system: the flushed skin, heightened level of awareness, the sense that all was well and good with the world.
I needed more. I developed “motorcycle seeking behavior.” Yes, adults said it would kill me but I didn’t care. Motorcycle made me feel alive. I became hooked.
Motorcyclists always remember their “first.” I certainly do. I was 12, and my neighbor Andy, a 14 y.o. I looked up to, came tooling up our long 150′ driveway on his brand new step-through Honda 50 on Christmas Day. You know the one of “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” fame. So he was there to woo my older sister. I didn’t care, because there was a brand-new red DreamCycle right there.
I touched it. It was like electricity. My fate was sealed…and I knew it even back then.
Andy gave me a ride on that beautiful machine, up and down and up and down the driveway on the Beast. I didn’t know what 50cc was and didn’t care. It was a MOTORCYCLE and I was RIDING on it, the wind mussing my hair. Life changer.
Honda began running TV ads. If TIVO had existed back them, I’d have played those ads over and over again.
That summer of ’64 the local AM Rock-and-Roll radio station played “Little Honda” by the Beach Boys a bazillion times a day. I know the words by heart to this day, the refrain tattooed to the inside of my eyelids:
“First gear (Honda Honda) it’s alright (faster faster)
Second gear (little Honda Honda) I lean right (faster faster)
Third gear (Honda Honda) hang on tight (faster faster)
Faster it’s alright”
Andy gave me many rides on the back of that Honda 50, all around the neighborhood. And Christmas Day ’64, just like the year before, he rode up the driveway…on a brand new Honda 90 step through, a horsepower beast of monster proportions. But Andy was more focused on girls than he was feeding a 13 y.o. budding two-wheeled addiction, so the rides dwindled, and I had to feed the addiction vicariously.
Years passed, I was about to graduate high school and one day my dad took me for a ride to a local BSA/Triumph dealer where he had bought a used ’67 Yamaha YDS3 Catalina Cruiser for me, by first owned vehicle. The YDS3 was a 250cc 2-stroke cruiser that didn’t have much power until around 6000rpm, and then it was like being shot out of a cannon. It smoked like a mosquito fogger, fouled its plugs and didn’t have what one would consider strong brakes. But it was MINE. It had two wheels and took me wherever I wanted to go. I felt like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider in my bell bottom jeans, paisley shirt & zip-up boots, humming Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” while I terrorized the roads around Atlanta GA.
More than once it would just bog and blurb down to a *stop*, cool off after much tinkering, then run again, the invisible Gremlins haunting its innards never asking for permission or offering reason. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, a diode probably overheated and shut down the electrical system, but I knew nothing back then.
I have to say I should have been killed on that thing because I knew next to nothing about riding a motorcycle. I dropped it twice in the middle of town—in traffic— great embarrassments. But the girls dug it, my hair flapped outside the helmet in the wind and it was a real Honest-to-God bike. MY bike. An addict’s obsession.
I went off to play college football and did a bad thing. The coaches wanted me to not ride it, to sell it, and I didn’t. I lied to them. I never sold it, and would sneak rides when no one was watching, weekends in the off season. Addicts are known to lie. What did they expect?
One day I was buying new piston rings at a Yamaha dealer (I had badly butchered them while tinkering), and sitting on their showroom floor was a used ’69 Honda CB350 with under 5000mi. Blue. Oh my God! Gorgeous! It took some finagling but by the end of the week that 350 was mine, and I rode it all through college. Never let me down. I never crashed. I even lent it to frat brothers and teammates, and none of them crashed it either. Lucky, I guess. That, or Motorcyclists’ Karma. We all loved that thing like a sister.
I kept that CB350 for years.
And over the years I moved into much larger and more complex machines, multiple Triumphs, BSAs, Royal Enfields, Honda 4-cylinder bikes, a Kawasaki H1 Mach III Death Machine (seriously, I should be dead), up to a Honda VTX 1800C, a massive 1800cc cruiser with monster power and heft. I now have 9 Suzuki V-Strom DL650s for my motorcycle touring company in the Dominican Republic. The DL650 is fantastic bike and the right tool for the job here, even though really large by local standards.
But when I look back on all the bikes I’ve owned and fun I had on them for the last 45 years, my fondest memories are not of the Big Bikes. Not at all. They are on the small bikes that I could just get on and scoot with no real muscle or preparation or planning, quick and nimble, cheap on gas and big on fun.
Maybe life is coming full circle. Maybe I’m gravitating back to my youth when smaller bikes ruled the day and big fun on two wheels was not dependant on displacement.