The Motorcycle Industry Needs Young Blood to Stay Alive

As the average rider age goes up, new young riders are needed to keep selling motorcycles.

Harley-Davidson

Today's motorcyclists are older than ever. The Los Angeles Times reports that the median age of California motorcycle owners was 45 years old in 2012, having risen from 33 years in 1990, 38 years in 1998 and 41 years in 2009, according to a survey by the Motorcycle Industry Council. This trend is true all over the US, as gray-haired men on Harley-Davidsons has replaced Tom Cruise on a Kawasaki GPZ900R in Top Gun as the image most people associate with the modern motorcycle rider. This has caused a great deal of concern for motorcycle manufacturers planning for their future as fewer and fewer young people are buying new motorcycles.

The Detroit News describes a major shift that manufacturers have made in their marketing, as well as their products, toward millennials, now outnumber both Baby Boomers and Gen-X. Millennials have a "longer expected lifetime value," which is a fancy way of saying they'll be able to buy and ride bikes for a long time. Younger riders are more interested in speed, performance, and style than chrome, noise, and huge V-twins. Contrary to the automotive world, where bigger and more powerful always seems better these days, motorcycle manufacturers are adding smaller, less expensive models to their offerings to entice the less affluent millennials to give riding a try. Honda recently completely revamped the Rebel, changing it from a small cruiser to sleek modern look to appeal to that younger demographic. Harley-Davidson recently introduced the Street 500, which bears little resemblance to the bikes they are known for aside from its V-twin engine. And Ducati's Scrambler has inspired several manufacturers to offer their own retro pseudo-off-road bikes to appeal to the hipster crowd.

But there is one significant problem with marketing new motorcycles to a group without much disposable income: they can't afford to buy them. As a result, a well used Suzuki SV650 is a far more likely choice. I found a few in the $2,000 to $3,000 range on my local Craigslist. Someone willing to get their hands dirty could pick up an older Universal Japanese Motorcycle for a few hundred bucks and fix it themselves. This is how I came by all of my bikes until the last few years. 

Harley-Davidson's director of U.S. marketing, Anoop Prakash, told The Detroit News that people can buy one of their nine motorcycles that cost less than $12,000 for under $6 a day. But $12,000 is still more than many people can afford. And manufacturers can't make a profit from cheap motorcycles built in the Seventies and Eighties, or a lifestyle revolving around them. Manufacturers rely on new motorcycle sales, and sales continue to be a problem as fewer people are able to afford them.