Once upon a time the nature of capitalism meant that the large companies that grew rich under its name actually produced products that were cheaper to buy than those manufactured by the one-man and small enterprises that tried to compete with them.
These days, it's all too apparent that the Jap companies producing motorcycles are doing so in such an expensive manner that even mundane middleweights are costing nearly two grand. For sure, the decline of the pound to a record low against the Japanese yen goes some way to explaining these extraordinarily high prices, which, of course, go some way to inflating the prices of recent used Jap bikes. But given that you can go along to someone like MRD Metisse and pick up a Rickman rolling chassis, suitable for any number of engines for around a grand, the actual cost of something like Honda's XBR500 is quite ridiculous.
Why on earth would anyone want to buy a new bike that's immediately going to lose most of its value when they can build a superior quality special? Natch, someone, somewhere has to turn out a strong, reliable and durable engine to give such a chassis its motive power. Although it's even possible to buy a British engine from the remnants of the once great engineering empire, the cost would probably run to something like two grand to put together an engine that wouldn't fly apart at the first hint of a wild right wrist. While many people would be willing to pay three grand for an all British bike - even if they have to dirty their fingers throwing it together - most people will have to be satisfied with robbing an engine from some Jap bike. Perhaps the only real problem in such an exercise is the lack of any suitable engines from modern bikes. I've just seen a new Yamaha XS650 in custom form, a bike I had thought long since dead, but with an engine that - except for carbs and exhausts - looks remarkably unchanged from its sixteen year old predecessor.
Anyone who read last issue's review of the XS650 will be dismayed to learn that the custom looks like the frame has had no changes, one of the useless disc brakes has been dumped and the riding position achieved by using high bars will make any problems suffered by the stock XS (and there's a whole catalogue full) that much more dangerous. The only good thing about this device is that it only costs £100 more than the XBR.
That such an old design has had so little proper deveIopment is just another sign of the little interest the Japs have in developing proper motorcycles. That this is remarkable given the implications of the deepening recession in Great Britain only goes to show that dominance in any particular market leads to complacency and a lack of direction.
Of course, the actual design of a modern motorcycle is so complex and so muddled by enviromental laws and governmental restrictions that it's now almost impossible for someone or some company outside the established industries to get into the motorcycle manufacturing ball game.The time when an enthusiastic motorcyclist could knock up a design in his backyard has long since passed.
Unfortunately, the design of some modern motorcycles lack the evolutionary development that so assisted some British bikes to make running costs so low. I'm not talking about basic engine design which was often quite appalling - but about the small things that took many years to sort out by people who combined enthusiasm for motorcycles with their jobs in the old British industry. The arcane secrets that made it possible for chains, tyres, brakes pads and other consumables to last for as long as possible appear to have been lost in the collapse of the industry. In their hurry to launch the next new model the Japs couldn't give a damn about such minor matters. Cynics will point out that at least most Jap bikes last long enough to wear out the components.
Eventually, it'll be mere mortals like ourselves who suffer from the current spate of modern designs when they find their way onto the used market, and the laughter that greets the launch of certain models will turn to dismay when the huge running costs are noted.
This gets far away from capitalism and the poor performance of the Jap factories in producing useful motorcycles, but the end products reflect the state of health of the so-called capitalists producing them.
Perhaps I should explain that by capitalism I mean a company or person who uses wealth to create a product - a creative capitalist, if you like - rather than the profiteers who make money out of slum property, by moving paper around or even selling motorcycles. It always amazes me that while the companies that produce cars or motorcycles are losing money, the dealers are still in profit - something very wrong here, surely?
The small companies still involved in the British motorcycle industry would do well to consider cutting out the dealers and distributors by selling direct to the public.
This assumes that the kind of bikes they are producing are the kind of devices that enthusiasts would be willing to travel a few hundred miles to purchase. And that they stay together properly...