Last week, we saw the death of the Great American Sportbike.
It’s no surprise: although the concept has been around for more than three decades, the Great American Sportbike struggled for vitality throughout most of its existence and spent the last few years on life support.
Although there was talk about future endeavours, it’s time to face the truth: The Great American Sportbike is dead.
Of course, when we’re talking about the Great American Sportbike, we’re talking about an ideal that saw its modern manifestation in the creations of Erik Buell.
A quick summary of Buell’s career: Ex-Harley-Davidson designer starts his own motorcycle company in 1983, building sporty bikes around Harley-Davidson engines. Harley-Davidson buys his company, eventually shutting it down in 2009.
Weeks later, the out-of-work designer founds Erik Buell Racing, which goes into receivership in 2015, is sold and rebooted in 2016, and in the early days of 2017, shuts down once more.
That’s a lot of ups and downs, but through it all, there was one thing, more than any other, that kept Erik Buell’s dream alive: There was demand for a made-in-the-USA sportbike, especially if it offered lots of intangibles such as “soul” and “character.” The offerings from Japan and Europe weren’t enough to keep some American consumers happy. But now, they’ll have to face the fact that their dream is almost certainly never going to happen. Here’s why.
1) Superbikes have gone high-tech
Fifteen years ago, the basics of going fast were simple: Put a high-performance engine in a strong, well-handling chassis, add in good brakes and aerodynamics, cut excess weight, and you had a fast bike.
Now, raw horsepower numbers aren’t enough to impress on the spec sheet or dominate on track. Superbikes from the Big Four and Europe come with traction control, wheelie control, launch control, leaning ABS, and a lot of other electronic rider aids that harness a bike’s power and allow the rider to surpass his or her own natural potential.
That’s good for riders, but bad news for a small start-up. Along with experts to tune all the mechanical bits, the aerodynamics and the chassis, now a start-up has to fund all the research into the electronics. While most of the technology is available from aftermarket suppliers like Bosch, it still must be tuned for individual models, and that costs money. Where’s that budget going to come from? When even multi-national OEMs get things like fuel injection wrong, how can a small company compete?
It’s worth noting EBR’s motorcycles were all conspicuously devoid of modern electronic rider aid systems.
2) Americans are buying fewer new motorcycles
Since the financial crash of 2008, Americans haven’t bought as many motorcycles, and Americans are the only ones really interested in made-in-the-USA sportbikes. Europeans have their own brands, and so do the Japanese. The market isn’t dead in the USA, but it’s hurting badly, so it’s even tougher for a start-up to find financing now. Without that critical mass of bike-buying consumers, fewer people are happening upon the Buell brand and aspiring to ownership. The hard-core Buell fans are there, and probably always will be, but nobody is jumping on the bandwagon.
3) The global roadracing scene is too tough to crack
There’s no better way to advertise a sportbike than to start winning races with it. But for any new manufacturer hoping to win on Sunday, sell on Monday, good luck.
For the past few years, Kawasaki has dominated in production-based World Superbike. The Kawi factory team probably has two of the top three riders, and maybe the best bike in the series, thanks to a huge budget and cunning use of technology.
Then there’s Honda and Ducati, with race-winning MotoGP technology trickling down to WSB-level racing. And as for MotoGP — the idea of an American startup being even remotely competitive at that level is a pipe dream.
Even if a start-up dominated the MotoAmerica series, who’s watching? Not enough people to make that company a worthwhile investment.
4) The American powersports industry is in turmoil
Already this month, we’ve seen Polaris shut down the Victory brand, and in the ATV/snowmobile world, Arctic Cat was just sold to Cessna’s parent company.
But wait, there’s more! At the end of December, powersports giant MAG merged Motorcycle-Superstore into J&P Cycles. And just a couple of weeks before that, the CEO of Revzilla — Anthony Bucci, easily the most-recognizeable man in the powersports parts and accessories business — announced he was stepping aside, effective this month.
Let’s not forget Erik Buell Racing’s own troubled story: after going into receivership in 2015, it took three auctions to sell the company.
American financiers are scared off powersports products, and they’re cautious about making any bold moves. And they’re tired of waiting for the economy to recover. The installation of Donald Trump into the presidency means the future is anyone’s guess. That means it’s not time to gamble on superbikes.
5) No start-up can afford mass-market, low-margin bikes
Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki have fans because they all have budget-friendly beginner bikes, which establish customer loyalty. KTM, BMW and Ducati understand this, and have introduced the 390, G310, and Scrambler lines respectively. Even Triumph had a 250 cc project in the works, although that was nuked some time ago.
Those bikes all use recycled technology, or tech developed in conjunction with manufacturers in developing markets.
EBR knew the need to establish itself at the entry-level segment, which was undoubtedly part of the reason for the deal with Indian manufacturer Hero that supposedly would have seen EBR-badged Hero models in North America.
But that fell through, and depending who you ask, that could have been the source of a lot of EBR’s trouble. We don’t know either way, but we do know it’s unlikely to see a similar deal inked between an established manufacturer and an unknown start-up. And no start-up can rely on warmed-over designs of the past.
Will we see another Great American Sportbike in the future?
There is a very good chance the two big American motorcycle manufacturers (Indian and Harley-Davidson) will focus on street tracker-style bikes. We’ve seen a resurgence in interest in flat track racing in recent years, particularly from these two companies, with much ballyhoo over bikes like Project 156.
You’ll continue to see “performance customs,” like the bikes from Arch Motorcycles. These machines are built around interesting chassis and hot-rod engines, but often incorporate something like forward controls, which completely rule out high-performance riding. And the price tag will rule out the average consumer.
Then there’s Motus; that start-up has lasted longer than many predicted, but its bikes are also far beyond the reach of the average consumer, and besides, those machines are sport tourers, not track-ready rockets.
If all you want is an American sportbike with chiseled bodywork, then you’ll have to look into the world of electric superbikes. While the future of the Empulse TT is in question after Victory’s closure, this is still an arena with room for a newcomer. But if someone wants to create a new battery bike start-up they’d better act fast: sooner or later, the Big Four will introduce an electric sportbike, probably with swappable batteries, and then the game will be over for everyone else.