Motorcycle culture has always been about customization: the excitement of an aftermarket exhaust, or the prestige of a gold-anodized Öhlins TTX suspension. But many aftermarket performance components actually impede the bike, while styling add-ons often reduce its overall cash value. What is the future for motorcycle customization?
The pages of CMG are filled with strong voices advocating the pros and cons of stage-one engine tuning, smaller rear sprockets, chrome vs matte finishes, and of course, loud exhaust pipes. What many see as an opportunity to set their motorcycles apart, others see as nothing more than ruining a perfectly good stock machine.
For bikers seeking to free more power, lighten the load, or improve comfort, the wide array of aftermarket parts are a godsend. Unlike our forebears who had to mail away for obscure, hand-printed lists of tuning parts from foreign lands, we in our Amazonian world can get just about any kind of aftermarket motorcycle part delivered to our doorstep with the click of a mouse.
By rights, the world motorcycle aftermarket industry should be on fire, with exploding sales and an ever-widening range of brands and sources to choose from. It is growing, but not the way you might expect.
Let us help you help yourself
The aftermarket performance industry found fertile ground back in the 1970s, when Japanese manufacturers were rapidly advancing the state of motorcycle engine technology. Those popular Japanese motorcycles featured weak frames and spongy suspension that couldn’t cope with the power of their engines, so tuners developed and sold bolt-on parts that dramatically improved the handling of their bikes.
The aftermarket champions we think of today, brands such as Yoshimura or Öhlins, grew up largely in that period. They provided much-needed quality in areas where the motorcycle manufacturers were lacking, due to cost or market constraints. These bolt-on companies flourished in racing too, which added shine to their brands while providing lots of free advertising. Some offered so many modifications that their kits eventually evolved into full-fledged independent motorcycle manufacturers themselves, such as Bimota, Moriwaki, and Metrakit.
Later in the 1980s, as the Yamaha-Honda war pushed mass production motorcycle chassis performance to match engine potential, many of the aftermarket frame and suspension brands closed, but there was still the styling and image element. While a stock Honda or Suzuki might be technically capable far beyond the skill of most riders, consumers wanted to make their mounts special. The aftermarket became more about customization for identity and prestige, and less about performance.
In the cruiser boom of the 1990s, the aftermarket reached its apogee. Companies published vast, telephone-book-sized catalogues filled with thousands of bolt-on accessories and replacement parts for a hungry audience. The mechanical and architectural simplicity of the cruiser platform made it easy, because so many of the functional auxiliary components of the motorcycle were easily accessible, and highly visible compared to contemporary faired bikes.
For better or worse
In this age of slick products and demanding consumer expectations, the idea that a small company can develop an accessory that will connect seamlessly with a highly sophisticated vehicle made by a transnational conglomerate is laughable. Even parts as mundane as tires are so proprietary to specific bikes that there’s little choice when replacing them.
It can be agonizing to attempt to install aftermarket heated grips, a slip-on exhaust pipe or luggage rack. Despite promises of easy, painless set-up, almost invariably “hole A” does not line up exactly with “slot B”, or the instructions require you to “cut the wiring harness 3” from the existing connector…” Yes, because butchering the factory wiring always ends well.
Exhausts are a matter unto themselves. Stock pipes are designed to meet stringent noise and particulate emissions, so they tend to muffle a lot of sound and power from the engine. Also, it must be admitted that in the making of motorcycles, the exhaust system simply does not merit that much design capital, so they tend to be a little lackluster in the looks department, as well as cheaply made. But they do function flawlessly, in all conditions and circumstances, something that takes an army of engineers thousands of hours of painstaking calculation and design to accomplish.
The traditional wisdom of aftermarket exhausts is that installing one to replace the stock item will simultaneously reduce a lot of weight while unleashing loads of pent-up power from a restricted engine. This is fundamentally true, but only under some conditions. Listen to any race bike idling (or open-piped Harley) and one immediately appreciates the lack of smooth fuelling. That lumpy, gritty rasp, attractive to some, is actually a sign of terribly inefficient combustion. At some point up the rev range, the engine breathes more freely and produces more power, but broadly speaking, the power and torque bands are uneven and totally inferior for real-world road use. Such “tuning” can also spike fuel consumption, and increases wear and carbon build-up throughout the combustion system.
Aftermarket body kits, designed to deflect air from riders and shield passengers, often do so at the expense of smooth air flow. Large screens appear to work well in steady winds, but large crosswind components, unsteady speeds, or bumpy roads cause eddies in the air flow that create violent buffeting. This exposes the vast complexities of motorcycle aerodynamics. At an OEM level, refining the final design of the body system to prevent buffeting across all reasonable conditions involves supercomputers, wind tunnels and often the cooperation of universities. Fluid dynamics is really, really hard.
What all this means, is that the small motorcycle accessories company of today has a steep mountain to climb if it wants to offer performance-enhancing parts to today’s demanding consumer. Most of the big aftermarket brands of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, names like Vetter fairings, Krauser luggage and Marzocchi suspension have gone, replaced and absorbed by the OEMs themselves.
I embrace you as a brother
Today the aftermarket industry is very different. The return to global strength by European brands BMW, Triumph and Ducati in the early part of this century saw them follow the example pioneered by Harley-Davidson, and take the tuning scene in-house. Carbon-fibre bodies, shiny anodized goodies and performance enhancing parts are developed in parallel to the OEM production vehicle, and by the same professional engineers and designers. When new motorcycle models are launched, a suite of “genuine factory accessories” are made available to consumers directly at the point of purchase.
The result has been an overall shrinking of the traditional aftermarket industry, from one that flourished as a diverse pool of individual companies, into a small core of internationally known brands that have tethered themselves to specific motorcycle OEMs. Yoshimura, for example, makes and sells exhaust kits for many brands of bike, but is so closely related to Suzuki that it gets exclusive access to factory R&D. Similar relationships exists between Italian Termignoni and Ducati, and Touratech and BMW.
The debates that used to echo throughout the motorcycle universe, about which shock or exhaust was best for a given bike, have largely faded into the past. They’ve been replaced by forums run by the motorcycle manufacturers themselves where customers can speak directly with the teams that developed their bike and all its accessories. Where there were once only rare, individual tuning gurus like Hideo Yoshimura or Craig Vetter, who only bequeathed their hard-won knowledge to a few, Grand Prix level motorcycle tuning and optimization is available today to everyone.
It has been a huge, democratizing and profitable transformation of an industry that goes back nearly as far as the motorcycle itself. But when all bikes are locked into proprietary technology that profoundly limits the envelope of customization, have we not lost a big part of what makes the motorcycle ownership experience unique?
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ About the author
Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle designer with over 16 years of experience creating bikes for Yamaha, Aprilia, Piaggio, Derbi and many others. He is a veteran motorcycle industry analyst and part-time industrial design lecturer. He is based in Nova Scotia.