Is London’s motorcycle industry close to breaking point?
Do motorcycle theft and ULEZ pose a serious threat to London’s motorcycle industry?
The closing of London’s largest independent motorcycle dealer, Metropolis, could be a sign that the capital’s motorcycle industry is in serious trouble. We talk to London’s motorcycle businesses about their future and find theft and legislation are only part of the problem.
This is meant to be a heyday of motorcycling. A huge volume of quality bikes in showrooms, great kit to wear, and better technology and infrastructure giving us access to the greatest roads at home and on the Continent. We should have seen an explosion in new riders and sales. And yet the opposite is true, with dealers struggling to hit targets and many businesses facing an uncertain future.
Although this is a story about London and its struggles to maintain a healthy motorcycling culture, it’s often said that what happens in London soon finds its way to the rest of the country. Worryingly, there are already signs this is happening and if we are not careful we could see the whole of motorcycling in the UK affected by the same disease that is affecting the capital.
Theft is a cancer on motorcycling
London motorcycling is a very sick patient right now. The disease is motorcycle theft, with secondary complications caused by the increasing cost of insurance. To make matters worse, outside factors – over which the motorcycling industry has little to no control – are making the possibility of a full recovery doubtful – unless there are some significant changes.
So let’s start with the death of Metropolis Motorcycles, a once thriving independent motorcycle, London’s largest independent in fact.
In what could be seen as a ‘perfect storm’ the failure of Metropolis is not down to a single cause. Multiple factors led to dealership’s closure, the main one being a huge rent increase by its landlord, Network Rail. Metropolis tried to fight the increase in the courts but ultimately lost, leaving the business with a demand for £250,000. On top of this the Government’s rates revaluation hit the business very hard – an issue that is having a serious impact on many retail businesses, not just motorcycling.
Metropolis also lost its motorcycle training business, a vital supply line of new riders buying bikes and clothing, when licensing inspectors discovered riders were being taught CBT lessons on public roads instead of private property. Having lost access to its regular training facility, the staff running the training business could not find an alternative venue in the crowded streets around the dealership’s Vauxhall base.
Staff and customers are no longer to be seen at Metropolis, as the last of the stock is sold off and workshops cleared out.
But aside from the rent and rates issue, the factor that dealt the fatal blow to Metropolis was the impact of the staggering amount of motorcycle theft in London, at one point over 17,000 vehicles a year. The issue is that sales fall through because customers cannot get insurance because London is considered so high a risk. Only four companies are now prepared to insure riders with a London postcode.
Salespeople we have spoken to across the capital report a serious number of sales that fall through once the customer has had an insurance quote, way more than has been traditional in the past. It has reached the point where one salesman we spoke to knows that certain bikes in the Triumph range are practically uninsurable for some riders, so he doesn’t bother to take a deposit until the buyer confirms they have an affordable insurance quote.
Dealers outside of London are experiencing the problem too – one of our own contributors, nearly 50, with a garage and living 30 miles from London, found it difficult to get quotes for a new BMW S1000R. Given it’s so difficult for customers to get insured, who would be a motorcycle salesperson…
The motorcycle dealer’s tale
Motoden is a chain of four small north London dealerships with Honda, Yamaha, Piaggio and KTM franchises. Owner George Dennison says the past two years have been extremely tough. “Everything was great, in fact, most of 2016 was really awesome, but the past two years has been tough, very tough.”
He’s had to manage the business very carefully, but even then he couldn’t avoid having to close one dealership, that had been trading successfully for 12 years. It closed because of rising rents. “When we took the showroom on the rent was £75,000. Now that same unit is £200,000.” There will also have been the impact of the rates evaluation to contend with, another factor that is a serious issue for all businesses, and was undoubtedly a factor in Metropolis closing.
The explosion in food delivery riders working for companies like Deliveroo has saved Motoden through its Scooterden business. “Without those sales we would really have struggled, but it hasn’t been easy. Finance especially isn’t easy to get for someone doing a ‘gig’ job. We would sell lots of bikes, but only one in three people would get finance. Then you have a battle to get them affordable insurance.” Insurance is, George feels, the single biggest factor affecting sales. “The introduction of Euro 3 and Euro 4 made things tricky, but the real issue is insurance. It’s become astronomical for most London riders and if that industry isn’t careful, it could do for us.”
Despite that pessimism over insurance, George feels if the industry can get over its current crisis there is a good future ahead. “This is a family business. My sons are mad for biking and I want to keep building something for them to take over one day. Do I see an industry here is 20 years? Yes, definitely. But it might be very different. I think we are just about to turn the corner with electric bikes and Sadiq Khan and TfL [Transport for London, the city’s transport authority] can’t do anything about that.”
This is a reference to the introduction of Ultra Low Emission Zone, ULEZ, that will be phased in across the city over the next three years and will mean anyone riding a pre-Euro 3 bike will have to pay £12.50 a day to ride in London. For George, it’s a double-edged sword. “I’ve seen it coming and already I’m getting rid of pre-Euro 3 bikes. I’m hacked off because I had to let go my VFR800, a stunning bike in great condition. But on the other hand, a lot of people will soon realise they are going to need to upgrade so that obviously means more new bike sales.”
ULEZ and the art of motorcycle maintenance
If you are a small independent motorcycle garage in London right now you are almost certainly having to display Zen-like levels of calm in the face of a rising tide of panic.
Servicing and MOT’s for older bikes is the bread & butter of Burwin Motorcycles on London’s Essex Road. Matthew Burwin runs the business set up by his father 40 years ago and until recently it was a great little family business. They could make a fair living providing reasonable rates for bikers who can’t afford new bikes and the workshop rates charged by franchise dealerships. But last year they made a loss. “It’s been bad for two years,” says Matthew, “And I really don’t know what’s going to happen next with ULEZ. A lot of people around here are going to struggle. They can’t buy a new bike because of the insurance – they go to buy one and find out about the insurance and have to cancel.”
It’s a trap many London motorcyclists are going to fall into but even if they buy a bike that is Euro 3, there are no guarantee garages like Matthews can survive and be around to look after them. “Business property rates are now ridiculous,” says Matthew, “But rents are going the same way. I heard about Metropolis’s rent but it’s also happening here.” This is a reference to the increasing gentrification of formerly working class areas – you can see a visible ripple of posh cafes, coffee shops and even dressmakers working their way along Essex Road. Rising rents are forcing less upmarket businesses out. “If the landlord tries to put the rent up I’ll just give him the keys back,” says Matthew before he returns to working on an old Honda NTV.
Matthew is not alone. I spoke to a number of small garages and mechanics, and they all share the same fears about the impact of rising rents and also what will happen after ULEZ is introduced across the whole of inner London in 2021.
The biker cafe’s future
Making sure motorcycling is still accessible to less well-off bikers is a passion of Dutch Van Someren, the boss at The Bike Shed store, restaurant and custom show and also a co-founder of We Ride London, a group of rider activists battling to keep motorcycling safe and affordable in the capital. He is very concerned about the impact of ULEZ.
“Firstly, low-paid workers and those in the public services, especially those who work unsociable hours, often use old motorcycles and scooters to get around. The ULEZ makes their vehicles worthless, so they will have to ditch their machines and upgrade to new bikes. This is wasteful and expensive. Where do these old scooters go? Landfill sites, and think of the wastage in natural resources buying unnecessary new products. This will also hit all the motorcycle and scooter businesses that have serviced all these vehicles for decades.
“Secondly, [Mayor] Khan has ignored that fact that his own research shows motorcycles comprise less than 1% of London’s polluting vehicles, and even then, when you consider the speed at which they move and the minimal footprint they take up on the tarmac, motorcycles and scooters of all emission types are a very green way to get around.”
Given that many of his customers ride to the Bike Shed on retro and customised bikes, does he think there should be special treatment for older motorcycles? “Motorcycles and scooters of all types and ages should be exempt from all charges relating to either congestion or pollution. We must and will keep on demanding this.” He’s fighting against the odds. “Having met people at TfL I believe they are pro-actively against motorcycles and scooters as personal transport and would be happy to see us off the street entirely – but they have forgotten that they serve us, as taxpayers and road users, and that this is not their choice to make on our behalf or on behalf of the rest of London’s population.”
In Van Someren’s view, it’s highly unlikely that London’s governing bodies are going to provide any assistance in turning around the situation for London’s motorcycling industry. He also points out the impact theft and the attendant rise in insurance premiums are having. “The theft issue just adds insult to injury. Along with the fear of theft, often violent, motorcycles are being driven off the streets of London by unaffordable insurance premiums, with many underwriters pulling out of London entirely. While action to improve policing has been taken it’s not nearly enough.”
Should the police be charged?
Outside of increasing rents and rates, the real issue in London motorcycling is theft. While police may be getting to grips with headline-grabbing moped muggers, there is no sign that motorcycle theft by organised criminal gangs is abating. Motorcycles are still too easy to steal straight off the streets and there is little to no chance of thieves being caught in the act by a severely depleted stock of patrolling police officers.
But, even when a thief is caught in the act, the police have better things to do. In a recently infamous case, a Londoner spotted thieves trying to steal a KTM RC390. Writing about the incident on Facebook, Charlie Staples told how he managed to pin one of them down, then pulled out his phone and called 999: “Called police at 1.12 and by 1.27 I got phone called back to be told I couldn’t hold them and I had no right to stop him stealing bike! I couldn’t believe my ears! Full blown argument with officer on the phone was told to let them go as they couldn’t send an officer for 2 hours!”
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t take long surfing through the explosion of motorcycle theft-related posts in the multiple social media groups that have sprung up to realise bike theft is not a priority for the Met police. Post after post describes how the most you can expect is often just a crime number read down the phone, so you can make an insurance claim.
The current situation is that under-resourced police forces can’t cope with the level of motorcycle-related crime or they just ignore it to focus on what they consider more serious crimes. Or at least ones that don’t reach the front pages of the Daily Mail or 10 pm news.
Is there a future for London motorcycling?
An entire industry is not going to go down the pan, no matter how much the lycra-clad cycle Nazis at TfL want it to happen.
Ironically, a former salesman at Metropolis told me that there were signs sales were starting to pick up in the last month before the businesses folded, but not enough to save the dealership. Motoden has also seen a pick up in recent months.
It’s arguable that the motorcycle industry itself needs to do more. One story I came across featured a CEO from a major motorcycle brand literally shouting at a dealer principle over his poor sales figures. When the dealership boss pointed out there was a crime epidemic happening in London, the CEO turned to his regional rep who sheepishly told him it was true. The news stunned the motorcycle executive into silence. That someone so senior in the industry was so unaware of the situation in London is worrying, yet attempts by industry to work with the Mayor of London’s office has led to zero action.
Bikers also have a role to play. One of the salespeople I spoke to in a dealership told me most of the people he sells to are unaware of just how easily their bike can be stolen, but that it is still a struggle to get customers to invest in decent security. If you want to reduce theft, increase your security.
There is no doubt that motorcycle businesses in London are currently struggling. Other cities in the UK also struggle with bike theft – and its associated insurance problem – and their local motorcycle industries may be suffering too. There are other issues aside from theft that are affecting the whole industry – the fact that it can cost the best part of £1,000 to pass your motorcycle test being of the most significant problems facing UK motorcycling.
But when, not if we pull through, the future is going to very different. I agree with Motoden’s George Dennison that electric bikes are going to have a big impact – the first bikes with removable rechargeable battery packs are starting to appear, a critical hurdle for people who can’t charge bikes by the side of their home. Electric bikes may be harder to steal – or at least harder to strip down for valuable parts – in the future too. They may not be cheap to buy right now, but prices will come down and they will be cheap to use and will have less of an impact on London’s highly polluted air. If bikers want to ride them.
In the meantime, there is still a local industry and its customers that need more support. This needs to come from Government (it’s rumoured that the 17% increase in high street closures may force the Treasury into rethinking the rating system); from a so-far anti-motorcycle Mayor; from the police; and last-but-not-least the motorcycle and motorcycle insurance industries. This latter industry really needs to get its act together.
Let’s get the thieves off the streets, let’s get a fairer deal over ULEZ and insurance and let’s see a serious effort made to help high street and other retail businesses. Then we can look forward to a better future for the industry that supports our passion.
On a personal note, I want to say how gutted we all are at Biker & Bike for everyone at Metropolis, especially the owner Ian, who we know had been working tirelessly to try and save the business he has built up so successfully over 25 years, only to see it taken away from him and his staff. To Ian and all of the Metropolis staff, some of whom we know personally, we wish you luck in finding new roles at a tough time for London motorcycling.
Get yourself sorted:
We Ride London organises a number of activities and works tirelessly behind the scenes to improve motorcycling in London. They always need your support. The Motorcycle Action Group, MAG also has a very active team working on London’s behalf and hold regular meetings on how to tackle issues affecting motorcyclists in London and the surrounding region.