The recession forced motorcycle manufacturers to go back to the drawing board. While one year does not make a trend, we're at least seeing signs that their efforts may finally be starting to pay off.
Last month, we saw sales figures for Triumph, BMW Motorrad, and Ducati, all of which have continued to show growth over the past few years. As three of the more premium brands, they weren't hit quite as hard by the recession, since their buyers tend to be in a higher socio-economic class.
The Japanese brands, on the other hand, have had far more difficulty in the United States in recent years, and they have responded by adjusting how they attack the market. Honda has taken aim at new riders with bikes like the NC700, CB300 range, CB500 range, and CBR650F, while Yamaha has created very capable bikes like the FZ-07 and FZ-09 that aim to fill holes in the market at entry-level prices.
The motorcycle sales numbers
In the United States, motorcycle sales grew from 465,783 in 2013 to 483,526 in 2014, an increase of 3.8 percent, according to preliminary figures from the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC). These numbers are based on the MIC's Retail Sales Reporting Program. These are actual sales reported by the participating companies, which includes all the major manufacturers doing business in the United States.
By segment, off-highway bikes saw the most growth, moving 81,013 for a 10.9 percent increase over 2013. Sales of dual-purpose bikes were up 3.6 percent with 34,497 units sold, and on-highway motorcycles are up 3 percent with 334,488 units sold. Scooters were the only category to lose ground, down 3.5 percent from 34,742 to 33,528 units sold.
Curious for a little more context, I asked the MIC to send me yearly sales numbers dating back to 2007 (pre-recession). These numbers are a little different, because they combine the RSR program sales numbers with information gathered from polling other small-volume sellers. For that reason, the number for 2014 is the MIC's best estimate of total motorcycle and scooter sales. If these estimates hold up, then 2013 may be the year that sales bottomed in the United States and we have — potentially, at least — started an uptrend.
The biggest surprise for me was just how far these companies fell during the recession, especially the dramatic 40.7 percent decline from 2008 to 2009.
If motorcycle sales can continue to improve, hopefully we'll see numbers like 2009's 655,000 units sold in the next few years. Pre-recession-like numbers still seem a long ways off, especially with gas prices at record lows.
Motorcycle companies have learned to operate a little leaner and are still coming out with new and exciting bikes, despite having literally half the sales they had six years ago. It's exciting to think about the new products they'll bring out if this trend continues.