Intermot shows where the industry is at

The R1250 GS moves BMW's adventure lineup boldly into the future, with the new Shiftcam engine.

Motorcycle show season used to be like Christmas. Well, sort of — even if you couldn’t actually take the motorcycles home with you, it was exciting to see the reveal of the unexpected. Real motorcycle nerds would scan photos of the concept bikes and new models, salivating over the technology and radical designs and wondering just how much money they could scrape together for the machines when they hit market.

The motorcycle show was the great interface between the consumer and the industry: the place where the OEMs presented their plans and products and the buyers greedily eyed it all over. But as Intermot showed this year, that’s all changing.

For example, look at BMW. The German manufacturer traditionally makes a big splash at the every-two-years Intermot show; it’s on BMW’s home turf (held in the city of Cologne), and the biennial schedule tends to line up with the development of BMW’s iconic flat-twin platform. If anyone is going to drop a bombshell at Intermot, it’s BMW.

But this year, nothing earth-shattering. And why? Because BMW’s new R1250 GS and R1250 RT, both very important models in the company’s future, are already all over the Internet. First, documents filed with the California Air Resources Board were published online and tipped off everyone that BMW was building a new engine for 2019. Then, somehow, details of that new R1250 platform, including information about the new variable valve timing system (aka the Shiftcam), were leaked mid-September, almost assuredly weeks ahead of schedule.

Normally, a bike like the BMW R1250 RT would be huge news at a bike show, but this year is different.

A few days later, there was what appeared to be a subdued press intro to the new R1250 RT and R1250 GS, and at Intermot, no major celebration of the bold technological step forward.

BMW isn’t the only manufacturer in this boat. We didn’t see much from the Japanese that we didn’t already know was coming, and the same goes for the Euro brands.

It’s as if the kids got a peek into the Christmas presents ahead of the big day, and a bit of the fun was taken out of it for everyone. But it’s no wonder: it’s getting harder and harder to keep a secret, thanks to the Internet, and more and more, manufacturers just aren’t bothering to try. Why let an emissions regulation board steal your thunder? We’re seeing motorcycles announced earlier in the season now, because if the OEM doesn’t give out the news, it’s only a matter of time before someone else does.

So, that’s good news for people who want the excitement of seeing new bikes all season long, but it’s definitely a change from the way we used to do things.

Fear not, superbike fans. We’re still expecting more exciting superbikes this year, likely at EICMA.

It’s also true that the EICMA show (in Milan, November 6-11) is just around the corner, and we are sure to see more there. The Intermot show is typically smaller than EICMA, and we’re still expecting some new superbikes and cutting-edge electric bikes this year. If they haven’t shown up by now, then we’re expecting them at EICMA.

A closer look at the show

As for the bikes on display this year, almost everything new was either an evolution of a previous model, or a repackaging of existing technology.

The Yamaha Tracer 700GT, maybe the only unexpected model from Japan, is new and exciting, but really just a mash-up of existing tech. The new Triumph Street Twin and Street Scrambler are almost the same bike as the outgoing models, but with the engine bits refined to make extra horsepower. It’s the same for the Aprilia Tuono V4 1100 Factory, the KTM 1290 Super Duke GT, the Suzuki GSX-R1000R and GSXR-1000, the Kawasaki H2 and ZX-10R and the Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer, Full Throttle and Desert Sled. Even Suzuki’s much-publicized Katana is a repackaging of the GSX-S1000 naked bike.

The Yamaha Tracer 700GT was unexpected, but is basically the same idea as the 900 version, just scaled down to fit the parallel twin. Not that that’s a bad thing!

The only mass market machines that appeared to be mostly new were Kawasaki’s Z125 and Ninja 125, and Moto Guzzi’s V85 TT. The first two are learner bikes that won’t rock the socks of most experienced riders; the other is a beautiful machine that calls back to the days of cigarette-sponsored desert racing, but actually features technology that’s so old (air-cooled V-twin, without even an oil cooler) that it’s novel now.

So is this a bad thing? Have the motorcycle manufacturers lost their mojo? I think that mostly, the answer is no. I think it’s the buyers that have lost their mojo, and the industry is just responding.

The reality is that younger buyers still haven’t got the cash or interest to buy the machines that sold so well in the past, and manufacturers won’t build what they can’t sell. Why introduce a new concept, when the existing lineups aren’t seeing the success they used to?

Why build a new platform when the existing Scrambler sells well? Bringing incremental change to this line makes perfect sense for Ducati, even if it isn’t the radical reboot that ever-demanding motorcyclists might want. Ducati knows it will sell well, so why take a chance?

The lower-priced lines that do see success (like Ducati’s Scramblers, Triumph’s Street twins or Yamaha’s 700 series) were brought forward this year. But otherwise, the machines are aimed at the well-heeled buyers, mostly middle-aged riders who can appreciate the features of a BMW R1250 GS or a Kawasaki H2 or a Super Duke GT — and can afford them. These riders aren’t begging for something revolutionary; they’re happy with improvements on existing designs.

The conservatism in the motorcycle lineups is emphasized even further when you see the importance placed on retro models this year. Suzuki was very keen to promote its new Katana, which doesn’t bring anything new to the game at all, either mechanically or stylistically. That’s not a bad thing; it’s Suzuki’s counterpart to Kawasaki’s super-successful Z900 retro model from last year, that brought neither new technology nor new design, but instead an interesting mash-up of modern components with vintage style.

That right there is likely the most important takeaway from Intermot. Sure, we’ll see some hot new designs at EICMA (Ducati’s V4 homologation special, maybe a new S1000RR from BMW), but what most of the public will actually pay for is the refinement of trustworthy designs that I mentioned earlier, or the beauty of older style mixed with the reliability and performance of modern engineering — and not cutting edge engineering, but an emphasis on street-friendly power and budget-friendly mechanics. Why risk building the next NM4 when you know a scrambler will sell well?

Here’s a trend I called years ago: a recollection of the wonder years of the Japanese inline four. Bikes like the Suzuki Katana allow the Big Four to capitalize on their heritage and sell reasonably up-to-date machines with a twist of nostalgia. It’s better than the American approach, which restricts the manufacturers to outdated tech at the expense of alienating the customer base.

It might not be the most exciting way forward, but it allows for manufacturers to still build good bikes while keeping costs down. Unless the global economy starts to boom again, or electric motorcycling takes a quantum leap forward, this is probably the foreseeable future.

And is that really a bad thing? I don’t think so. It means affordable and attractive bikes, and that’s something we can get behind, even if we’re not seeing technology progressing as fast as some motorcyclists might want. We live in a world where even beginner bikes have ABS and EFI now, and modern reliability meets classic styling—sounds good to me.


  1. Bikes have become obscenely expensive. What is needed is solid , well made, simple bikes with a price point that mellenials and others can afford. When the Japanese brought bikes to market in the 60s, they were cheap and reliable. They made Harley-Davidsons which were unreliable, look expensive. Sounds like the Chinese have a large market opening now.

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