Performance, comfort, and function are all major considerations in the purchase of a motorcycle. But these are outweighed by a fourth factor. Lifestyle.
In an interview with Forbes magazine in 1999, then Ducati Motor SpA managing director Federico Minoli described the world’s motorcycle market by drawing a map: a very simple map.
He drew two perpendicular lines, one north-south, the other east-west. At the north “pole,” he wrote Performance; at the south, Comfort; east was Lifestyle; and west, Function. Around the centre he drew a large Rising Sun emblem and wrote “Japanese”—the implication being that Japanese manufacturers covered all these bases, but without total commitment to any of them.
Then in the bottom right quadrant (Comfort/Lifestyle), Minoli wrote “Harley-Davidson” and in the top left quadrant (Performance/Function), he wrote “Ducati.”
“In some ways, we couldn’t care less about your comfort,” Minoli was quoted saying. “That’s for Harley-Davidson. With us, the more you suffer, the better you are.”
Minoli no longer heads Ducati (he left in 2008 after caretaking the company through its then acquisition by Investindustrial Holdings), but he did set the foundations of the modern company. And since becoming part of the Audi-VW Group, Ducati’s annual output has increased (from 12,500 units in 1996) to over 50,000 in 2015. So where does the company fit on Minoli’s map in 2016?
While the Ducatis of the early 1990s, like the 900SS and 916 were certainly short on comfort, Minoli would admit, I’m sure, that they also projected a lifestyle. With its street-cred firmly in place thanks to a virtual lock on World Superbike titles, Ducati set about producing motorcycles that were less hard-edged, but still rooted in performance: the cutesy Monster, the touring ST2 and the first Multistrada. Emphasizing the lifestyle angle, Minoli established Ducati “concept stores,” selling brand merchandise, and placed fashion ads in glossy magazines. The lifestyle was of the rich and famous—but it was still “lifestyle.”
So how does Minoli’s somewhat simplistic view of the motorcycle market stand up now? Well, it’s probably become a lot busier—and more heavily weighted toward the “east.”
For the first decade of the millennium, Japanese manufacturers fell over themselves chasing Harley-Davidson’s “comfort and lifestyle” slice of the pie, which grew considerably through the early years of the new millennium, fueled mainly by baby boom demographics. But as their target customers aged out, or already had their trophy cruiser parked in the garage, the market softened. Harley-Davidson is getting some traction with younger buyers, and its Street range looks promising, but it’s no replacement for the grey-hair gang, either in numbers or spending power.
Then Ewan and Charley happened: the default motorcycle stopped being a cruiser and morphed into a two-wheeled SUV. BMW would like you to think that’s “function” but just like most SUV drivers, most adventure bike riders are hoping to project a lifestyle. So while BMW outsells everyone else in this category, the market is flooded with me-too round-the-world machines, many of which are just street bikes with attitude accessories.
The street vibe now, though, has shifted again. Millennial buyers eschew showroom motorcycles for custom-built café racers, street trackers and scramblers—even if they aren’t quite clear what distinguishes each type or why. So many innocent ‘70s streetbikes have suffered ignominiously at the hands of esthetically challenged, torch-wielding artisan fabricators.
The resulting mashups are just lifestyle accessories for the hipster crowd. But manufacturers chasing the zeitgeist now offer their bikes with knobby tires, high pipes and wide handlebars; or clip-ons and bum-stop seats.
Ducati itself has embraced both the cruiser field with the Diavel (tentatively moving the footpegs further forward this year…) and is diving into chop-shop territory with a Scrambler—or rather, three of them. The lifestyle demands choices!
It seems that motorcycle manufacturers have all drunk the Kool-aid and are relentlessly pursuing a lifestyle market wherever it takes them. But this is dangerous territory.
Over the decades, European and American bike makers have hacked, sliced and gouged out niches in the marketplace based on their own “Unique Selling Proposition.” Triumph dropped its four cylinder bikes so it could become the builder of triples and parallel twins; Ducati “owned” the superbike business based on its race-based L-twins and their distinctive exhaust note; BMW built sophisticated, long-range mile-eaters while all the time trying to shake off its image of teutonic stodginess; and Harley-Davidson was…well, Harley-Davidson.
Now, with every maker chasing the “lifestyle” buyer, so many of their offerings start to look the same. For example, without looking at the tank badge, could you confidently tell at a glance a Tiger Explorer from a Super Ténéré or an Aprilia Caponord? I’m not sure I could. And on paper, their performance results would be almost interchangeable.
I think Minoli could probably manage a wry smile.