Sunday, 26 November 2017

Loose Lines: Running out of Customers [Issue 1]


The huge decline of the UK motorcycle market continues to leave observers gasping for breath. Each year the dealers hope there will be an upturn, but they are continually disappointed. Large dealerships shrink, while others go bust or relocate to damp sheds in back lanes. The reasons for this decline are complex, ranging from the ridiculous learner laws, the prohibitive cost of new motorcycles, the awful weather to the economic recession. 

With little income to spend youths are just not able to buy new bikes, and anyone over twenty is confronted by the strange situation where a rapidly declining country inflicts horrendous rises on the cost of housing to the tune of four times the inflation rate. Given the choice of spending their lives in a grotty bedsit and riding a flash motorcycle, or mortgaging their lives for 25 years and riding to work on a five year old Honda 90, it's obvious which one is paramount in Thatcher's Britain. The few remaining motorcyclists have opted for a few machines that represent the ultimate development of the multi-cylinder motorcycle - Kawasaki and BMW's share of the market has actually increased in face of overwhelming odds .

To sell a new motorcycle,these days, the maker needs a cast iron reputation for reliability and longevity, as well as motorcycles that excel in their particular field. Get it just slightly wrong and the bikes begin to pile up in the warehouses.

Because so few new learners have taken up motorcycling since '79, fewer and fewer people are available to buy the bigger machines. With little by the way of home industry to worry over, the government is free to impose increasing taxes and stupid laws, further restricting the number of punters. Because of this, the relatively buoyant second hand market has begun to suffer and 1986 will see many dealers who have depended on used bike sales in 1985 going bust. Indeed, last year, it often occurred that dealers were selling used bikes for less than people were asking in private sales. As the situation becomes more desperate for dealers, they will increasingly have to resort to more and more nasty activities in order to survive.

The few decent dealers with proper mechanics will be forced to drastically cut back on both overheads and hourly charges , but they will stay in business on the hope of an upturn in the 1990s. The antics of the cowboys, who if they had the cash would doubtless be happy slum landlords or used car dealers, are not restricted to the backlane boys. Dubious practices are becoming the norm for long established dealers. A tale of one North London dealer aptly illustrates this point. This dealer was recommended by various acquaintances as being both honest and reputable. Selling a 1981 BMW R65 for £799, they assured me that the 23000 miles on the clock was correct, and that the rattling head on the one cylinder merely required a service. 

I didn't buy the bike because the alloy on the engine casings was very corroded as if the bike had been standing for a long time,and the paint on the tank was worn through, something I figured would take a lot more than 20000 miles. I later learned that the bike had nearly 100000 miles on the original clock and was seized. This dealer ran a breakers as a sideline and had swapped over the cylinder from a crashed bike, and used that bike's clock to con some poor sucker into parting with their cash. The odds are pretty good that the other cylinder would have given trouble within a few thousand miles. Just for the fun of it I rang the breakers to ask about the used R65 engine they were advertising. Naturally, it was a low mileage job out of a crashed bike that they assured should be in perfect condition. And, no, there wasn't a guarantee...

The above is probably a fairly mild example, after all it's unlikely to actually endanger anyone's life, just lose them a lot of cash. The more lucrative and dangerous activity of repairing crashed bikes has become a minor industry over the past few years. It's impossible to buy crashed bikes directly from an insurance company on a one off basis, but the cost of the bikes is so low for breakers that there are large margins for profit. Many are the badly repaired bikes that find their way into the classified adverts masquerading as private adverts, so that there's no comeback when things go wrong.

Buying used motorcycles, then, has become a bad scene. With dealers unlikely to pay more than £400 for a bike they can sell for £1000, unwilling to back up their sales with cheap and efficient after-sales service, and often trying to sell machines that should have been scrapped, there seems little reason to ever enter a dealers showroom again. This is especially true, because dealers have become rather short tempered and non communicative as their profits disappear and overheads keep on increasing. Until they mend their ways they will just keep on going bust. 

Of course, there is another side to the motorcycle market that is very exciting for motorcyclists who want to find a bargain. With few new riders and large quantities of unsold motorcycles on the used market, it is a buyers market. It's a market where a new middleweight bike can be discounted by 20% to shift it out of the showroom, and then immediately lose another quarter of its value. Little wonder that so few new bikes are sold.

The problem with used bikes is knowing how well they have been maintained, and how long they are likely to last. There are some motorcycle engines that will just keep on running, regardless of how ill treated they are, while there are others, especially those rushed onto the market recently, that have inherent faults that will do nasty things to bank balances. Also, many of the new design innovations, such as monoshock suspension, do not last very well when subjected to English winters and, unlike conventional suspension systems, require constant maintenance - maintenance that is often, not possible because the designer didn't bother with grease nipples. In trying to figure out the merits of various designs, simplicity and lack of excess are often the only criteria to fall back upon. 

The Used Motorcycle Guide covers most of the motorcycles (over 100cc) of the past twenty years, a period when there have been a vast array of designs and models. This makes life both interesting and confusing. In this issue we survey most of the bikes on offer, in future issues we'll look at some of the bikes in greater detail and at ways of running motorcycles on the minimum of cash. 

Covering Jap, European and British bikes, we intend to concentrate on bikes that are both fun and practical, rather than be sidetracked into the classic bike ball game, where, anyway, most British classics are far from practical when used hard and neglected.

Bill Fowler

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