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Motorcycle makers downshift at Long Beach show

Only 450 bikes will be on display at the 30th annual International Motorcycle Shows, compared with 725 in 2008, as the industry's struggles continue.

By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times
December 17, 2010

Motorcycles just can't catch a break. While retail sales overall are finally recovering from the worst recession in decades, the motorcycle industry hasn't yet hit bottom.

In decline since late 2008, new motorcycle sales are down 15.3% through the first three quarters of 2010 compared with 2009. Last year, annual sales dropped almost in half to 655,000 after six straight years of 1-million-plus sales.

Nathan Verdugo, 31, of Costa Mesa is an off-road racer who had gotten used to buying a new bike every year. That changed in 2009, when he was laid off from his job with an apparel manufacturer. Now he works for a competitor, making half the money he used to.

"I'm an avid rider, but more recently I'm a poor rider," he said. "The economy's taken its toll. I've gone from making good money to just being happy to be employed somewhere."

He said he'd love to buy a new KTM 350 SX but is instead contenting himself with a new helmet.

This weekend, the nation's motorcycle industry is bringing its latest hopes for recovery to the Long Beach Convention Center.

When the 30th annual International Motorcycle Showsopen Friday, 450 motorcycles will be parked on the carpet, including the new BMW K 1600 and Mission R electric race bike. Seven manufacturers will be offering test drives. In 2008, 725 bikes dotted the Long Beach Convention Center floor.

"There has been so much uncertainty with the economy, the consumer is just sitting back and trying to determine, 'Am I safe in my job?'" said Greg Heichelbech, chief executive of Triumph Motorcycles, North America, in Newnan, Ga. Triumph has seen U.S. sales drop to about 7,500 bikes in 2010 from 10,000 in 2008.

After a five-year absence from the shows, Triumph is returning this year to display the largest new product lineup in the company's 109-year history, including the Tiger 800 adventure models. It will also offer test rides.

"Butts on seats is the best way to demonstrate and prove that our product is everything we say it is," he said. "It was time for Triumph to get back into the show to reach a broader swath of motorcycle enthusiasts."

Not every manufacturer feels the same way. Piaggio — which owns the Aprilia, Vespa, Moto Guzzi and Piaggio brands — isn't participating this year, even though it's introducing nine new models to the U.S. market in 2011.

The shows, which travel to 12 cities around the country, are "an excellent platform for launching new models … but for the near term, we're very focused on supporting our dealers," said Paolo Timoni, president and CEO of Piaggio Group Americas in New York.

Piaggio first dropped out of the show last year, as did Austrian dirt bike maker KTM.

What has hurt motorcycle sales so significantly is, of course, the economy, experts say. Consumers haven't had the discretionary income to spend the $13,000 it takes, on average, to buy a new machine, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, an trade group in Irvine.

The credit crunch has also had a severe effect, because 1 in 3 bikes is at least partially financed.

"Before the economy hit and I lost a job three years ago, I was buying two new motorcycles every year," said Tom Monroe, 52, a motorcyclist who lives in Orange and who would like to buy either a Ducati Hypermotard or Harley-Davidson Nightster but can't afford either one.

Like a lot of bikers, Monroe used his home equity line of credit to buy motorcycles when the housing market was flying high. When his home equity dropped, "that all went away," Monroe said.

Sport bikes, which have a median rider age of 28, and cruisers, with a median rider age of 46, have both seen steep declines. Younger buyers are having difficulty finding credit, industry experts say, and older buyers are simply leery, having seen the values of their retirement plans plummet.

It doesn't help that men have been harder hit than women by the downturn, and that 90% of motorcyclists are male, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Industry leader Harley-Davidson is showing 24 bikes this weekend. Its U.S. sales were off 13.4% through the first nine months of 2010 from the year-ago period; 2009 U.S. sales were down 25.8% from 2008.

Still, the company is No. 1 in market share among women and other minorities, which is where the 107-year-old manufacturer is focusing its sales efforts, along with emerging markets. To help counter U.S. sales declines, Harley-Davidson is adding dealers in Russia, Brazil, India and Jordan.

The problem isn't Harley-Davidson, it's the economy, said industry expert Michael Millman, managing member of Millman Research Associates in New Jersey.

"We should be seeing some improvements in the economy. That should help the sector and help Harley-Davidson," Millman said. "If consumer discretionary spending increases, people are likely to start investing in the names they think of first. Harley-Davidson is a name that's broadly known."

Data from the Motorcycle Industry Council support Millman's point. Several statistics indicate motorcycle ridership is increasing, even if new motorcycle sales have declined. From 2008 to 2009, vehicle miles traveled by motorcyclists increased an estimated 5% and the riding population increased 9%, according to the council.

Motorcycle tire sales have increased 6.6% in 2010 compared with 2009, according to the U.S. Motorcycle Tire Sales Report, indicating people are still riding. They're just riding used bikes.

"We think we're beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Bob Starr, corporate communications manager for Yamaha Motor Corp. USA in Cypress, which is introducing three new models for 2011, all on view this weekend.

As the year ends, there seems to be "a little bit of renewed interest," he said. "I'm not going to say the industry is going to come back to where it was … but there are many people in this country that are passionate about motorcycling that will sustain the industry and bring about growth, hopefully in the near future."


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