Gazing at the bike manufacturers’ crystal balls
It seems the motorcycle industry has an uncanny knack for predicting the future. Marc looks some of the ways motorcycle prototypes and economic predictions influence the bikes we ride today.
In 2005 Suzuki showed off the rather amazing Stratosphere concept bike. The 1100cc six-cylinder engine was, incredibly, slightly narrower than the existing four-cylinder Hayabusa engine. Performance would have been gargantuan. The Stratosphere also had built-in GPS and anti-theft electronics as well as a ton of other innovative stuff.
So where is it? Why hasn’t this beast hit the showrooms?
The usual answer is that concept bikes are more development platforms than intended products. All the features the company is working on get rolled into one model as a showcase of what might be coming, to gauge press and public response. Depending on the feedback, those features might or might not filter through to different models in one form or another.
But the real reason we’re not hooning around on beasts like this is that it would have been too expensive to build and sell. Another way of saying that is, when Suzuki was crystal ball gazing, the global economy wasn’t going to pay enough people to afford prestige items like that. The company couldn’t justify the risk of producing such monsters, just to have them gathering dust in showrooms.
It costs an absolute fortune to develop a new engine, test it, get it approved then tool up the factories to get it into production. It seems a damn shame to go through the initial stages of that process and then not manufacture them.
Did bike manufacturers spot the downturn coming?
Like all manufacturers, Suzuki has departments that research global economies and try to forecast how much disposable income average Joe Citizen might have to spend on their products in the future. In the case of the Stratosphere, that department said NO. People aren’t going to be earning enough to buy that. And they were dead right. Maybe Suzuki’s economic PreCogs caught wind of the looming Credit Crunch of 2008/9.
Thinking back to the brief boomtime of the 80s, Straight four-cylinder engines were the norm from 400 to 1300cc. I can’t think of many twins over 400cc from then (that weren’t already in production). Honda developed its V4s, Yamaha it’s V Max. There were new prestige bikes for affluent times.
While there are still four-cylinder engines about, they’re either at the top end of the scale or ‘legacy’ engines that have been quietly evolving over the past 20 years or more.
If you look at recently developed mass-market bikes in the showrooms, there are a lot of naked/partly clothed singles and v twins from KTM, inline triples from Benelli, MV Agusta Triumph. Parallel twins from pretty much every manufacturer (those retro-looking Triumph Bonny engines might look the same as ever, but they’re entirely new, hot off the drawing board). These engines have slightly fewer parts than four-cylinder lumps, so they’re a tiny little bit quicker and cheaper to manufacture. Multiply that up over the thousands of units sold, and the economy of design shows up in the company’s profit margins. Imagine the difference in cost of materials and labour that goes into producing a parallel twin compared to an extravagant six-cylinder unit.
It’s not a bad thing either. The harsh economy has produced a generation of bikes that are light, lean, quick and efficient. The same thing has been going on in the car industry. But we don’t care about those people here at B&B.
Add into the mix the ‘distributed manufacturing model’ where companies do the design work in one country and farm out the manufacturing to places where labour is cheap, and working conditions are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We can see how harsh of the current climate really is. Everything has been cut as close to the bone as possible to save costs.
BMW is building bikes in India, Triumph and Yamaha in Thailand. Some Hondas are made in China. Even Harley Davidson is threatening to move production out of the US of A. If they do, I’ll be moving to the states to start a chain of cut-price tattoo removal parlours.
The rise of the pre-apocalyptic machines
In the same way that prestige shops are gradually disappearing from our High Streets to be replaced by Poundland, CEX and Cash Converters, premium bikes seem to be slowly giving way to brutally deconstructed, industrial looking naked bikes that are very efficient, both in design and to a lesser degree, purchase/running costs.
There’s also been the related trend toward adventure bikes. People do occasionally go out to crazy places on them. Lightness, ruggedness and slim engines are the core of the design brief. But for many, the real appeal of an AB is that it can cope with decaying potholed roads and harsh urban environment better than a Cruiser or Supersport. Was this another factor foreseen by the manufacturers?
New bike fashion is all about ruggedness, angles and aggression. Alongside a lot of matt black and grey colour schemes, I’ve heard The Kids use ‘Stealth’ to describe a style of bike. It’s as though there’s been a change in mood toward simplifying the design of new bikes, losing the fat to confront a tougher physical and economic environment.
I’m not saying that there aren’t prestige bikes being made, there are. Leaked patent images of a new straight six from Honda might be real and might mean the economy’s picking up.
But in a world where working people are relying on food banks, the utilitarian naked hooligan models are more appropriate for the current environment and, although still expensive, they’re closer to what most people can afford. Manufacturers are building simpler, cheaper products for consumers who are poorer than in the past.
Does any of this mean that we can deduce something about the state of the economy, transport, working life and society from the kind of bikes being designed? Well, that’s a bit of a stretch. But, possibly.
If manufacturers are accurately forecasting the future then perhaps we ought to pay more attention.
Haven’t we met somewhere before?
Read more about the Ducati TerraCorsa
Is the bike above so crazy…?
I doubt we’re heading for a warring apocalyptic wasteland, but if we are, it looks like we’ll be well equipped. I’m keeping an eye out for the first models to appear with gun mounts or crossbow bolt storage clips.
If a rider on a Suzuki Stratosphere slipped through to our world from some utopian parallel dimension where that kind of bike was a viable option, I think they’d have a tough time coping with our gridlocked, bombed out roads, speed bumps, speed cameras, raised mini roundabouts and congestion charges.
Not to mention the bike jackings and kids chucking acid around. The Stratosphere was never going to make it in our world.
Get yourself sorted:
If you’re interested in the future of motorcycling, here’s some further reading: