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Common Tread

How hipster Millennials and scramblers might save motorcycling in the United States

Jan 30, 2017

I believe that today’s Millennial hipsters and the flood of scramblers and retros could be the salvation of motorcycling in America. How could these skinny-jeans-wearing, man-bun-wearing and artisan-whiskey-sipping youngsters save motorcycling? By taking the bike by the clip-ons and doing the same thing previous generations have done.

I have been following the hipster bike movement for the last five years as my own hipster son (who just turned 22) became interested in café racers. There are three criteria I have found consistent on a hipster bike:

  • Must be cheap
  • Must be easy to work on
  • Parts must be plentiful

So what is unique about the hipster motorcycle culture? Aside from their choice of motorcycle starting points and, in my observation, a better tolerance of diversity than previous generations, not much. In fact, what drives them to modify motorcycles is a lack of cash and cheap, easily modified vehicles. This is consistent with the emergence of the bobber, chopper and the most American of automotive genres, the hot rod. Millennials have merely picked up the baton from previous generations, continuing the trend in their own way.

OEMs understand this. They also understand that the vehicle tastes you develop in your youth tend to follow you the remainder of your life. This is why the Detroit Three auto manufacturers continue to build muscle cars, albeit with power seats and tilting steering wheels to clear Baby Boomer paunch.

cafe racer
Some day, the supply of 1970s Hondas available for cafe racer and other customization projects will finally dry up and Millennials will buy new motorcycles. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

At first, the OEMs tried to capture the café racer craze. However, as with radical choppers, café racers can be less than optimal for a daily rider. However, the upright nature of scramblers, with burly dirt-bike-style handlebars, practical amounts of suspension travel and classic looks just might appeal to Millennial riders who are finally getting out from under loads of student debt. The scrambler or standard/scrambler could be the 21st century version of the cruiser. Unlike the race replica sport bike, which has seen sales plunge as its core customer group has aged to the point of less anatomical flexibility, the scrambler faces no such demographic challenge.

By and large, the scrambler is a very practical style of bike, as far as styling exercises go. The upright position lends itself well to many hours in the saddle. Suspensions that may leave some riders wanting on rougher trails are at home on the pothole and broken-pavement environments of many urban centers, while still displaying handling competency on twisty two-lanes.

At first glance, these knobby-tired standards would appear to be aimed at aging Steve McQueen wannabes, but a closer look shows that the target market was born after the great actor’s passing in 1980. Manufacturers have caught on to the fact that the scrambler, brat bike and street tracker have captured the imagination of younger riders.

Ducati Scrambler line
Ducati built the Scrambler line from the ground up to appeal to young buyers, while other manufacturers just changed the styling of existing models. Ducati photo.

Why Ducati was first and best

In my opinion, the Ducati Scrambler is responsible for the scrambler’s reemergence. It was Ducati that specifically went after the youth culture with a variety of Scrambler flavors. This has led to other retro-scrambler-themed bikes from competing manufacturers. The situation reminds me of the muscle car era, when following the release of the Pontiac GTO, competing manufacturers scrambled to release high performance versions of their intermediate platforms. That led to some truly odd “muscle cars.” Dodge dropped higher performance V8s in the grocery-getter Dart. AMC took its mundane Rambler coupe, dropped in a high performance V8, and came up with the SC/Rambler. In many ways, the initial responses to the GTO were stop-gap measures to buy time while more purpose-built muscle cars were created. This is what has happened in the scrambler market today.

The Ducati Scrambler is truly purpose-built to appeal to Millennials, with a relatively low entry cost and a catalog of parts that buyers can mix and match to create something unique. The competition is mostly just paint and trim. Triumph’s new Street Scrambler is more expensive, less easy to customize and still leans toward the McQueen style. Yamaha’s XSR900 is a capable (and in some ways improved) derivative of the FZ-09 and the SCR950 is yet another iteration of the Bolt designed to appeal to Millennials, after the café racer-themed Bolt C-Spec met with a tepid response in the market. BMW has the Scrambler version of the R nineT and then there’s the Moto Guzzi V7 II Stornello, like the Triumph Scrambler, a classically styled scrambler based on a retro-standard platform.

Yamaha Bolt C-Spec
Yamaha tried to cash in on the cafe racer trend with the Bolt C-Spec, a cruiser with clip-ons and styling touches. Then it used the same bike with different styling cues to create the SCR950, a scrambler-style machine. Yamaha photo.

Manufacturers are probably right to base their first forays into the scrambler segment by tarting up existing bikes. With research and development money as scarce as clean air in China, most OEMs are reluctant to stick out their necks too far when betting on a trend. However, if the trend turns out to be durable, the scrambler could be the bike of a new generation. It could also bring about changes in the public perception of motorcycling not seen since the 1970s.

A return to "the nicest people"

Prior to World War II, motorcycles were generally accepted as economical transportation and a fun motorized hobby. However, amid post-war prosperity, the motorcycle fell by the wayside as practical transportation. Most consumers who wanted or needed a car could afford to purchase one, new or used. Motorcycles became niche vehicles, often owned by club members. Some of these clubs had less-than-sociable intentions. Movies, such as The Wild One, cemented the image of the outlaw biker in the minds of American consumers.

In Europe, which took decades to recover from the war, there was no such stigma as motorcycles provided daily transportation for millions of people. The same was true of Japan. Thus, motorcycling took a dramatically different course overseas compared to the United States. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Honda told us we would “meet the nicest people” while riding their bikes. Later on, Kawasaki urged us to “let the good times roll.”

Big Dog chopper
Easy money during the housing bubble a decade ago led to a burst of motorcycle sales, including expensive choppers like this Big Dog. Today, sales remain roughly half what they were at the peak and neither the chopper craze nor million-unit sales years are coming back. Big Dog Motorcycles photo.

Although I do not envision another 1970s-like or housing-bubble-like surge in U.S. motorcycle sales, the scrambler- and retro-loving hipster Millennials could keep U.S. motorcycle sales at or near current levels. As hipsters become more affluent, or at least self-sufficient, retros and scramblers could be just what they ordered when the supply of Honda CB450s and Yamaha XS650s dries up and they look at new motorcycles.

I am sure many readers will not agree with my outlook for American motorcycling, but you must look beyond your own motorcycling circle. The prime cruiser demographic is beginning to leave the market. The prime sport bike demographic is moving into naked bikes, sport-tourers and ADV bikes. These changes are mainly due to the aging of these customer bases. Sure, there will probably always be a significant number of riders who prefer cruisers and race replicas, but I think they will continue to shrink in number.

If we want our sport to survive, if not thrive, we should not care how or why butts are getting onto seats. Instead of belittling hipsters’ choices, we should be glad they will keep motorcycling going in the United States when the rest of us can’t.

I believe motorcycling will once again become a world of the “nicest people,” and a child, or children, shall lead it.