#298 Displacement: Small is Beautiful

Harley-Davidson’s new family of street motorcycles signals a course correction for the powerful company, but there may be unintended consequences as well.

A couple of years back, I collected a brand new Victory Cross Country for a tour of the Colorado Rockies. My bike came with a full load of choice doo-dads, including cruise control, stereo radio with CD player and dual speakers, all stuffed into a massive handlebar fairing. There was also a hookup for my smartphone, and an optional top box mounted behind the passenger seat. Fully loaded, and with my camera bag in the trunk, I figured the motorcycle weighed over 900 lbs., not much less than one of my first cars, an Austin Mini.
Overall, like its big brother the Vision, it had that latterly desirable characteristic “presence.” But I’ll confess to being intimidated by the X-C’s sheer bulk, especially tippy-toeing it around at low speeds. Righting it from the kickstand also took a mighty heave, while if I’d dropped it, it would probably still be there.
I’ve been riding motorcycles for 47 years. During that time, I’ve seen the fastest bikes grow from 650cc displacement and around 45 horsepower to a litre or more in capacity and around 200 hp. Top speeds have gone from an optimistic 100 mph to twice that. At the same time, a typical cruising bike has added at least 50 per cent of avoirdupois, arriving at the X-C.
Meanwhile, the average motorcycle rider (in the US, anyway) has aged from 24 in 1980, to 33 in 1998, to 40 in 2003, and 48 in 2010. Extrapolating for 2014 would make that average age at least 50. Likewise, the percentage of motorcycles owned by those aged over 40 was close to 50, as far back as 2004, and presumably continues to rise.
Are we heading for a perfect storm where ever-older and frailer owners ride bigger, faster and heavier motorcycles? No question that the recent increase in the number of trikes on the road is an indicator.
So is this trend also responsible for a revival of interest in smaller-capacity motorcycles, I wonder?
When Honda introduced the CBR125R in 2004 at under $4,000 (often including a set of riding gear and some lessons), it was an instant hit. Suddenly they seemed to be all over cities. Then the step-up 250cc version arrived in 2010, with a complementary 500 last year. Over at the green team, the Ninja 250 has been a best seller for a while, and the new 300 seems set to continue that success.
Honda’s strategy makes sound business sense. The 125cc displacement is a perfect first bike in many ways. But if your riding takes you out of town, you’ll want something bigger. So back you go to your Honda dealer for a trade-up. Until the CBR250 arrived, that next step would have been a 100-plus hp CBR600—probably a bridge too far.
Motorcycle training schools often start new riders with 125cc-size bikes on the training ground before stepping students up to something bigger, like a 500, for their street classes.
When I taught the Canadian Safety Council course, we mostly used Honda CG125s for slow speed training, but struggled to find suitable mid-size bikes for street use. We needed bikes with moderate weight and seat height that wouldn’t cost a fortune to fix after the inevitable drop.
Naked bikes like the pre-2004 Suzuki GS500 proved to be almost ideal but its successor, the faired GS500F, ruled itself out because of bodywork repair costs—as did the Ninja. A couple of Buell Blasts were donated to the fleet, but a too-tall first gear and a heavy clutch made these unpopular with students. Many schools now use 250cc dualsport bikes, but these can be a challenge for shorter riders.
All of which brings me to a press release from The Motor Company, which landed on my virtual desk a month or so ago, announcing the new Street 500 and 750. Aside from revealing a significant course-correction for the company, these new bikes could redefine the entry-level motorcycle market. The Big Four, who have had this arena pretty much to themselves, should be very afraid. The competitively priced Street 500 could easily become the default second-level learner bike and a riding school favourite—assuming it lives up to expectations.
There are downsides to building smaller bikes, though. They’re typically less profitable—which is presumably why Streets for overseas markets will be built in lower-wage India. And Harley is gambling that the Streets will create new markets rather than steal sales from the 883 Sportster line.
Harley has tried many diversification strategies over the year (the Buells and VRSCs, for example) but has never really succeeded in breaking into new niches. The Streets could change that.
And in the Pandora’s box of unintended consequences, the Street 500 may open the way for a European-style graduated licencing program based on horsepower or engine capacity. It’s something motorcycle safety advocates have long recommended, but failed to get traction on in North America. Until now, it would have been a pretty unattractive idea in Juneau Avenue. But a new American-built 500 could change all that.
In the 1960s, a 500ss displacement bike was a serious rider’s machine, and a 750 was a superbike. Now they’re seen as entry-level. How are the mighty fallen!