Somehow in the past few years the threat of a zombie apocalypse seems to have become a thing again. Where once the undead were relic of 70’s late night TV, high profile hits like The Walking Dead and Brad Pitt’s World War Z movie are now front and center. The same has been happening with motorcycle brands. Like ancient warriors rising up through the mud, many dead motorcycle brand names seem to be staging a comeback, often with horrific results.
Motorcycles are fetish objects. For many dedicated motorcyclists, the brand of bike they ride is akin to a tribal association for which they would gladly prostrate themselves and pay tribute. It may sound like an exaggeration, but there are few other manufactured goods that instill brand loyalty like motorcycles. Thousands have willingly paid lots of money to walk around as human billboards advertising their favourite motorcycle brand on their clothing, while others still have permanently tattooed the Harley-Davidson logo on their bodies. That’s hard core brand love.
Motorcycle brand rallies (sometimes about just a particular model – I’m looking at you, Goldwing) and clubs are organized on all four corners of the earth, wherein the brand faithful congregate to show off, be entertained and educate themselves among others of their tribe. This cult-like behavior, considered mildly disturbing in most normal social circumstances, is just part of motorcycle culture. And it is this tribal magnetism that continuously attracts investors to iconic motorcycle brands, who then try and resurrect them. With motorcycling, it seems, it’s never too late to bring out the dead.
Over the past two decades motorcycle resurrection has become a serious business. Its easy to forget, sitting on the comfortable sidelines as a consumer, that the motorcycle industry is a highly volatile and cyclical one. To a casual observer, it would be hard to believe that in 1990 BMW Motorrad was a brand primarily aimed at pensioners, or that Ducati has been sold four times in the same period since. Triumph actually closed down and ceased motorcycle production for a number of years. Today, these brands are vibrant giants compared to what they once were, rehabilitated into healthy, profitable and growing concerns, in part due to the power of their respective brand (tribal) values.
But sadly, behind every Triumph, every iconic brand success story, there are a staggering number of iconic motorcycle brand corpses. Some cannot be saved, and die a slow and painful death in a fickle marketplace. Some of them barely get going, while others limp along for a few years selling irregular batches of unimpressive motorcycles before they too succumb to market forces.
It’s just business. Or it would be, but when it involves a historic brand, one that still resonates with a proud history and attractive set of values, it becomes particularly sad. The period since 1990 holds an enormous graveyard of iconic motorcycle brands, reading like the bibliography of a “Greatest Ever Motorcycles” coffee table book. MV, Gilera, Laverda, Norton, AJS, Indian, Bultaco, Moto Morini, Crocker, Italjet, Lambretta, MZ, Jawa, Mondial, Horex, Excelsior-Henderson…
The list goes on.
In each case, the myths and legends of these storied brands got woven into the dreams of a few investors and entrepreneurs. They set out to build new motorcycle companies, resurrect and restore icons of the past to greatness, only for the dream to turn into a bad 1970’s horror movie. The brands were zombies, neither living nor dead, but reanimated corpses and cannibalistic in nature. In nearly all cases, the failures were easily attributable to business weakness. Bad products. Ineffective marketing. Distribution and quality problems. Under capitalization.
But just like the undead from zombie flicks, even the few resurrections that were properly managed became monsters, feeding off their healthy parent company until eventually the zombie brand would suck out all the life-giving money, forcing a bankruptcy, then move on to find another healthy investor victim to start the process all over again. It was gruesome to watch, and yet the motorcycle market was unable to make it stop. In our nostalgic hunger we wanted to see more.
Among the zombie brands, some had more staying power than others. Some are finally, mercifully, dead. Others continue to lurk among the living, beside the well heeled motoring enthusiasts in places like the Quail Motorcycle Gathering and Goodwood Festivals, waiting to attack. Some zombie brands are a force of nature, that seemingly cannot be stopped.
Here, for your amusement and horror, is a guided tour through my top five zombie motorcycle brands of all time, ranked by number of resurrections and damage done (estimated in dollars lost, foreclosures, law suits and sometimes even human casualties).
#5 – Laverda
This one hurts me most because I am a tribe member that owns one. Laverda was started in the late 50’s by the sons of a successful farm tractor manufacturer who decided that they could build Italy’s best motorcycles. A tall order during the heyday of Moto Guzzi, they pulled it off by the early 70’s with Moto Laverda earning a reputation for incredible quality and regular victories in endurance road racing. However, after ten years of modest business success, they began to wither until they shut it down in 1987.
Then, in the mid 90’s, a bunch of businessmen head hunted some R&D people from Aprilia, set up a new Laverda, and began marketing (sort of) modern 650 cc and 750 cc twin cylinder sport bikes. Some interesting prototypes were presented at motorcycle shows in the early 2000’s, and journalists praised the handling and build, but the sales didn’t happen and it all got shut down again.
In 2002, Aprilia, then Europe’s largest motorcycle company, bought Laverda and amid great fanfare announcing its rebirth as the group’s ultra-elite brand. The one prototype they presented was awful, a lightly reworked Aprilia RSV Mille with a hideous fairing that the press dubbed the Laprilia. Within a few months Aprilia was itself in dire financial straights and, horror of horrors, resorted to importing Taiwanese quads and 150 cc scooters under the Laverda brand name.
Mercifully, when longtime rival Piaggio acquired Aprilia in 2004, they immediately killed Laverda and disowned the junk that had been imported under its name. Today, Laverda the agriculture business still thrives, and you can see 2015 Laverda combine harvesters plying the fields of the Po Valley. But rumours of a reborn Laverda Moto continue to surface, including a particularly amateur looking affair from a company calling itself Breganze Motociclette. This zombie brand is clearly ready for its next victim.
#4 – MZ
Originally created in 1922 as DKW, MZ wasn’t born until 1956 when half the company found itself in the Soviet zone of occupation after World War II. Renamed Motorrad Zschopau, MZ had a good thirty year run as a state controlled company selling commuter bikes throughout the communist world, and notable success in small engine grand prix where MZ’s chief engineer would become the center of an international incident that involved KGB agents, and ended up gifting Suzuki with world beating engines. The company collapsed not long after the Berlin wall came down.
Privatized in 1990, the company tried to make a go of it as MuZ, but went bankrupt three years later. Restarted again, they manufactured a number of Rotax powered singles, before that enterprise failed and the company was sold to a Malaysian investor in 1996. Millions were spent to develop all new parallel twin motor powered 1000 cc sport touring bikes, but that fell flat, and the company closed in 2008.
The final stakes were finally driven into this brand zombie when yet another group of investors purchased MZ for €4 million, secured bank loans backed up by the local government, and promised to build (what else?) high performance boutique sport bikes, race in Moto2, while also peddling low cost electric scooters.
Inevitably, various stakeholders got into court battles as bills remain unpaid and products did’t sell. MZ was legally declared insolvent and closed in 2014 after 92 years in (and out of) business. At the very least, this brand zombie could make an interesting story for a Netflix show set during the cold war.
#3 – MV Agusta
The company is alive today, and delivering good new motorcycles to customers, so perhaps it may join Triumph as one of the few successful resurrections. But until recently, it was a zombie brand that ate its young.
Created by Count Agusta in the post war period as an affront to crosstown rival Gilera (from where he poached, some would say stole, the twin cam parallel four cylinder engine that would make it famous), MV Agusta would go on to become one of the most successful motorcycle brands in road racing before shutting down in the early 1980’s.
Resurrected by Italian motorcycle scion Claudio Castiglioni in 1991 and reintroduced to production in 1997, MV stunned everyone with its beautiful and technologically intriguing design. However, costs outweighed revenues and the brand dragged the Castiglionis into a financial abyss, requiring an outside buyer to save it.
In 2004, Malaysian auto giant Proton agreed to buy MV for €70 million, but sold it a year later to an Italian liquidator for a symbolic €1 after being bled dry. MV was so resource heavy that it required Castiglioni to sell his other motorcycle brands to BMW in 2006, only to run out of cash by 2008, when he sold MV to Harley-Davidson for $107 million.
That marriage lasted just into the recession, about a year and half, when Harley announced it was selling MV back to Castiglioni after absorbing all the company’s debts. Last year, Daimler-Benz purchased a 25% stake in MV, where the Italian brand will hopefully find stability. Or, it might continue to suck millions more into the black hole at the center of MV’s Varese factory.
#2 – Indian
This brand should be classified as a vampire rather than a zombie since it’s the ultimate blood sucker, inhaling bank accounts and ending companies with brutal efficiency. After the original closed its doors in 1953, the Indian brand has been resurrected no less than seven times, with mostly disastrous results.
At various times, motorcycles, mopeds, clothing and cocktails have been sold under the “official” Indian brand, many of which were imported from questionable outside suppliers. In addition to losing tens of millions, some former investors have even been jailed for fraud and tax evasion, while warring groups have spent years in litigation over name rights. In the mid 1990’s a Toronto group even owned and operated a short lived bar called the Indian Motorcycle Cafe on Richmond street (I drank there once), which claimed to be the start of a new motorcycle company. It never got past the drinks.
The number of actual bikes that were made by Indians II through VI numbered a few thousand, most of which were appalling in quality and ride. British private equity firm Stellican Ltd. was the last to be attacked by this vampire-zombie hybrid, devoting seven years and untold fortunes to it before finally selling Indian to Polaris Industries in 2011, after failing to find market traction.
Today Polaris is actually manufacturing good looking, modern motorcycles under the Indian brand and looks like it will be around for a while. A happy ending for Indian V.7.0?
#1 – Norton
Like Indian, this one took on all comers and continues to suck capital into its gaping maw. Unlike Indian there appears to be no happy ending.
Norton, never a healthy company, closed its original factory in 1953 when it merged with AMC (not related to the AMC of Gremlin fame), a company it promptly helped destroy through its expensive and futile racing program. By 1966, when absorbed by Villiers, later Norton-Villiers-Triumph, the Norton Commando would continue the proud tradition of costing the manufacturer more money than it brought in revenue, causing NVT to enter the world of the undead.
The 1980’s saw more reincarnations, one with a novel Wankel rotary engine that saw some degree of racing success (winning the 1992 Isle of Man Senior TT) as well as limited production. This success was short lived however, as the British government jumped in to investigate impropriety in the business, which caused the chief executive to resign. To manage £7 million in debt, a new CEO sent in by the banks approved a name sale to a Canadian company for £500,000. Called Wildrose Ventures, that iteration briefly traded on the Alberta Stock Exchange. At this time trademark ownership splintered, and a company in Germany manufactured Rotax powered singles under the Norton name which could not be legally sold outside continental Europe.
In 1999 Norton officially became the laughing stock of the motorcycle universe when another resurrection, initiated by the Aquillini Group from Vancouver, presented a 1500 cc, V8 hyperbike called the Nemesis, which promised to develop 235 hp and feature push button gear shifting. Years went by and unsurprisingly not one was ever publicly tested to prove these wild claims, while suppliers and staff were eventually left holding the bag for millions in unpaid work.
Simultaneously in Oregon an American named Kenny Dreer designed and vowed to manufacture a modern Commando. Again, 15 years of prototypes failed to produce a single sellable motorcycle, but in came British entrepreneur Stuart Garner, who in 2008 purchased all the global rights to the Norton name and set out to make the Dreer Commandos available to everyone.
The Norton saga continues to court controversy, consume vast sums of capital but yield few results. Since the new Norton restarted in the UK, the company has allegedly been unable to fill orders or refund deposits; spent money on an aborted return to racing; gone hat in hand to the British government for a £7.5 million loan; while high profile hires like famed ex Ducati design director Pierre Terblanche and engineers critical the rotary program left after only brief stints within.
Finally, and inexplicably, in 2013 Norton purchased Donington Hall, a 300 year old, 26 acre country mansion, perhaps so that this zombie brand can haunt its neo-gothic stone corridors as it continues to eat money and destroy people’s dreams.
A regional importer I spoke to last year still had not been given one unit to sell in several years as a representative. The motorcycle Zombie apocalypse appears to be alive and well, or rather dead, but very active.