My Shrinking Demographic: A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A message to the automobile manufacturers and motorcycle manufacturers of the world: I am not the man you are looking for. You know it—well. most of you do, anyway—and I know it. I came into this world toward the tail-end of a generation known as Baby Boomers. For decades, we were the only generation that mattered. We were huge! But like the Traditionalist generation before us, we’ve been dying off. Without going too deep into Generation X, the Millennials, or Generation Z—all of whom came after me—the thing of it is, my generation is no longer capable of sustaining, let alone expanding, the automobile and motorcycle industries. Mobility scooters are another story, but let’s not go there today.

I attended two consumer trade shows this month, the Chicago Auto Show and the Chicago Motorcycle Show, each considered major consumer shows in their own right. I have a longer, if less consistent, history with the auto show, but a much more recent history with the cycle show. Both have changed a great deal over the years. Let’s talk about the car show first.

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I began attending the auto show years before I obtained my first driver’s license. I was a bona fide car nut and an aunt of mine would humor my addiction by taking me to the auto show. This was way back when McCormick Place only had one building. Never mind that I was still in grade school at the time. I could identify nearly every automobile made at the time just by looking at its front grille or rear bumper. No exaggeration! I would go from manufacturer to manufacturer, sitting in cars, collecting literature, and dreaming my dreams. Sticker prices meant nothing because money was no object to me at the ripe old age of twelve. See, I already knew what I was going to be when I grew up—I was going to be rich—so in my young mind’s eye, I could eventually have any car I wanted. And believe me, I coveted some good ones.

Today the American car buyer/leaser is interested in big honkin’ trucks and SUV’s. Smaller segments are into sporty little cars, earth-friendly vehicles, and believe it or not, economical transportation choices. Me, I grew up to become a sedan man. Most of the cars I have owned in my adult life have been sedans. My current ride is large, exceptionally comfortable ’08 Chevrolet Impala with a nicely appointed interior, for its age, and a buttery-smooth ride. Nobody buys sedans anymore, so the genre doesn’t get a lot of attention from the manufacturers, neither in R&D nor marketing. At the auto show this year, the “bigger” sedans were not too plentiful. What is available was displayed, but not exactly showcased. Hey, I understood. And on the bright side, I never had to stand in a long line to sit inside one of them.

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So what did I look at? I glanced at the current iteration of my Chevy and walked past the Ford and Buick equivalents. Though I have never owned a foreign car—the closest thing being a 1985 Renault Alliance built in Kenosha, Wisconsin—most of my attention was captured by the Volkswagon Passat, the Subaru Legacy, and the Nissan Maxima, that last one being my current “if money were no object” choice. It just speaks to me.

So much has changed since the last time I attended the Chicago Auto Show a decade or two ago. There’s no denying it’s a smaller show. Numerous marques have gone out of existence since the last time I was there. When I was a kid, the aftermarket/accessory/travel/merchandise vendor booths took up nearly a floor of their own at what is now called the Lakeside Building at McCormick Place. That was a lot of square feet. This year they took up a small fraction of that. To be sure, the new show had some astounding features not found in 1974, such as in-show demo rides and outdoor test drives. But for me, the sheer grandeur of this show has shrunk back a bit.

Capture IMS 2019

To be sure, the Chicago stop of the International Motorcycle Shows (IMS) used to be physically larger, not because so many brands have gone out of existence since I began coming (a few have), but because fewer exhibitors are showing up.  More on that in a bit. But this has always been a very different show than it’s automobile counterpart. Motorcyclists are a smaller segment of the U.S. population at large and perhaps a bit more fragmented as well. I’ve been coming out every year since I became an active motorcyclist in 2003 (I was a late bloomer, but a fanatical one). I have seen a number of changes in the hobby, the industry behind it, and this show, which to a degree represents it.

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To its credit, the IMS really does try to have something for everyone, but it’s really up to the exhibitors to deliver. Let me explain. I can recall a period of years during which there seemed to be a bit of one-upmanship going on between the motorcycle manufacturers on at least three different fronts. The heavyweight cruiser class was wide open and several players were vying for the largest displacement engine—separate and apart from Boss Hoss, a specialty manufacturer of motorcycles powered by Chevy V8 engines. Despite a gentlemen’s agreement among the major manufacturers to limit the top speed of their really fast bikes to 300 kilometers per hours (about 186 MPH because more than that would be unsafe), the players in the sportbike class were still vying for fastest production motorcycle, which I assume would be the one to reach 300 KPH the soonest. And on yet another front, several of the major manufacturers were trying to unseat the Honda Gold Wing as the premier touring motorcycle by which all others would be judged.

It was the best of times to attend the IMS. The accessory / aftermarket / merchandise aisles were packed, too. Then the Great Recession hit. Motorcycle dealerships were closing left and right, as were some less-than-major manufacturers and a number of aftermarket companies, too. The terrain of the motorcycle dealership and merchandising networks was forever changed, the IMS scaled back accordingly, and if you ask my opinion, the industry has never been the same since then.

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But the show has gone on and people still attend. If anything, the crowd seems more heterogeneous than before. It may be me, but I seem to recall the “black leather and gray hair” bunch being more dominant ten to fifteen years ago. They’re still present, to be sure—I’m sort of on the fringe of that demographic myself—but they no longer dominate. I’m not sure anybody does. Which brings me to an issue similar to, but not quite the same, as I described while describing the auto show.

I’m a touring rider. I ride big-displacement bikes configured for comfort and overnight travel. These are not entry level bikes, nor are they cheap by any definition. Many people can’t afford them. In point of fact, I can’t afford them—never mind that I have owned three so far. The touring bike class has never been the dominant segment of the motorcycle industry, but it has been significant. I commented earlier that I am sort of on the fringe of the black leather biker demographic. That’s only because I currently ride an American-made, big-inch V-twin and as the result, I tend to dress more like a pirate and less like a spaceman. But only six years ago, I was riding a much faster Japanese sport-touring rig and back then, I dressed more like a spaceman. So you see, it’s all relative.

But no matter how you slice it, my demographic is in decline, along with several others. The generations that follow are for the most part decidedly not marching in line with us older types. Big-inch V-twins don’t excite the later generations. Neither do the full dresser touring rigs or their sport touring subset. Or racer replicas. Surely there will always be technical riders, sport riders, and hooligans, but these will not dominate the hobby.

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What will? In all candor, I don’t know. But neither do most of the major manufacturers, from all outward appearances. Enter the newcomers! The ultra-affordable low displacement, high-mileage bikes. The unconventional three-wheelers. The electrics. And whatever comes next. But here is where it gets tricky. Despite the fact that motorcyclists in total are a minority of vehicle owners and operators in the US, the various segments (fragments?) of the hobby haven’t historically been too tolerant of one another. For the sake of our hobby and the industry that both supports and depends upon it, this must change. Now.

During my visit to the 2019 IMS, I had the pleasure of listening to and speaking with my friend Gina Woods of Open Roan Radio, and a newer acquaintance of mine, Robert Pandya who helped bring the Discover the Ride experience to life at IMS events across the country. I can’t say enough about either of these individuals and the contributions each has made to our hobby and to the motorcycle industry at large. And while each will eagerly acknowledge the heritage of our hobby, they are equally eager to acknowledge and welcome that which is new and exciting. We need more people like this influencing the industry.

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And so here I sit, figuratively speaking, upon Miss Scarlett, my 2012 Victory Vision Tour (did I mention that Robert Pandya worked for Polaris when they brought the Vision to market?), looking forward to the upcoming riding season. I may no longer be the primary demographic target for either the automobile or motorcycle industry, but I still have my eye on certain products of theirs and amusingly enough, they still have their eyes on my spending dollars. Maybe it’s a love/hate thing.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

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My Good Day at the 2018 Chicago IMS

IMG_0496There are relatively few things I look forward to doing in the dead of winter. Going to the International Motorcycle Show when it comes to Chicago is one of them. February may seem like the worst possible time to put on a show like this. What were they thinking?

In warm weather states, the IMS features outdoor activities, like demo rides, in addition to the indoor expo. That isn’t very feasible here in the frigid, snowy Midwest—although every year you will find at least one snow-capped motorcycle parked in the remote lot. We do have our diehard riders. For most of us, though, the IMS is as close to riding as we can get in the dead of winter.

IMG_0522Such was certainly the case this year. Thanks to my unemployed/self-employed status (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), my wife and I were able to attend this year’s show on opening day. The entire area was under a winter storm warning that morning, but that didn’t deter us. I shoveled several inches of snow before we left and off into the storm we went. The drive was slow and visibility poor, but we eventually arrived safely at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. I’m sure the show’s organizers, UK-based UBM, weren’t too choked up about the lighter attendance that afternoon, but Karen and I thoroughly enjoyed the uncrowded aisles and displays.

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I have gone to the IMS every year since 2003 for two reasons. First and foremost, I want to see the new models up close. Sit on a few bikes. Talk to the reps. Dream. Other motorcycle enthusiasts will understand. I am always drawn to “retro” models, that remind me of what motorcycles looked like back when I was a kid, and also new concepts and trends. These days, however, my tastes run heavily toward “full dresser” touring bikes because I enjoy taking road trips on two wheels. Now truly any motorcycle can be utilized for long distance travel. Indeed, people have proven the point by making coast-to-coast journeys on small displacement dual-sport motorcycles, 50cc scooters and even mopeds. Me, I like to travel in comfort, often with a passenger, and do not (intentionally) ride off-road. I like a bike that can be ridden for hours on the interstate, comfortably, but that also handles well on curvy backroads.

I saw a couple of interesting new touring bikes this year, both imports. The all-new Honda Gold Wing Tour packs a lot of technology, power, and comfort into a fairly compact package (relative to the last two iterations of this machine). The unconventional double wishbone front suspension drew a lot of attention, as did all the onboard gadgetry. Compared to the previous GL 1800, which seemed truck-like up front in my eyes, this year’s model looks positively svelte. My greatest concern, apart from the prospect of going back to a Japanese bike from my current American-made mount, is the reduced luggage capacity. The touring model (i.e. with trunk) offers 110 liters total or about 29 gallons of cargo space, 40 liters less than the previous model. That’s a concern for someone like me, who has never been one to pack light.

Yamaha also upped the ante this year with their all-new Star Venture. While no slouch in the technology department, the Venture doesn’t have quite as much high-tech punch as the does the Gold Wing. What it does have is a new air-cooled (!) V-twin powerplant, a comfortably low seat height, and ample luggage capacity—38 gallons, give or take, depending on trim. As with the Honda, I’d have to put this bike through the paces, with and without passenger, before passing any real judgement. But I must say, this bike felt good beneath me. So much so that I went back for one last look before leaving the show that day.

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Ever since I bought my Victory Vision, almost five years and 50,000 miles ago now, I’ve had an ever-growing appreciation for American-made motorcycles. I can say without boasting that my current ride is the biggest, heaviest, sweetest sounding, most comfortable road machine I have yet owned. But following Polaris’ decision last year to cease production of the Victory brand, my domestic choices have been reduced. Although I have never owned or even ridden a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, I have a great deal of respect for the brand as well as for the company behind it. I won’t rule out the possibility of owning one sometime in the future, but I must admit that compared to some other choices, the H-D models feel a bit cramped and just don’t seem to “fit” me well. Then there’s Indian. I’ve never owned one but have ridden their Chief and Chieftain models. Still not as roomy as my Vision (I’m not sure what is), the big Indians have a nice ride and a sweet sound. They are also quite expensive and although the touchscreen display on their Chieftain and Roadmaster models is the largest in the industry, I can’t get over the likeness of that big, boxy dash to a 1950’s television set.

The other reason I enjoy attending the IMS every year is to walk the merchant aisles. This year had a better mix of vendors and promoters than I’d seen in a while. For one thing, there were more “destination” exhibitors—tourism departments, event promoters, etc. I love those because their maps and brochures give me something to look over and ponder while I wait for the snow to melt. The apparel and accessory booths are always fun to browse, too. There is one vendor in particular called Cyphen Sportswear that Karen and I look forward to seeing each year. We have been buying T-shirts from Steve and Ronnie for many, many years now. They watched our children grow up, back when we used to take them along. We’ve gotten to know each other well enough that we no longer just shop, but actually stay at their booth and visit for a while.

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Custom builds have become a big part of the IMS in recent years. I have no mechanical aptitude to speak of—I break things—but I have an eye for aesthetics and a deep appreciation for custom bike builders who know their craft. Of particular note this year was “Porterfield,” a board tracker custom by a group called Motorcycle Missions, “a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Corporation helping individuals who deal with PTS(D) and suicidal ideation find hope and healing through motorcycles.” I am intrigued by this organization, which deserves more attention from the media as well as the public at large. Motorcycle Missions in fact won the J&P Cycles Ultimate Biker Build Off Championship and was declared the 2018 “King of the Builders” at the Chicago show.

And so we drove home with our souvenir bags filled with literature, freebies, and whatever merchandise we’d purchased at the show. The snow had stopped and, presumably due to the storm having kept so many people at home, the roads were wide open at what should have been the height of Chicagoland’s afternoon/evening rush.

I know motorcycling isn’t for everybody, but it’s clearly a thing for me. There is nothing else quite like it. Thanks for hanging with me.

On a Summer Day in February

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Sounds like a good title for an article about global warming, right? I assure you I have no such lofty ambition. But it was an unusually warm, sunny day here in Chicagoland today and with very little residual salt visible on the roads to deter me, I decided to take Miss Scarlett out for a run.

First I had to clean her up a bit, as I have yet to put my dust cover on the bike this winter. I use a product called Plexus on my windshield. It’s a very effective cleaner, leaves a protective coating behind, and does not have a yellowing effect on clear plastics.  For all the bodywork, my favorite product for years has been Original Bike Spirits Spray Cleaner and Polish. As waterless detailing goes, these two products have given me very satisfactory results.

After a quick check of my tires and air suspension pressure, I disconnected my smart charger and fired up the bike. Sweet music indeed! I suited up and took a shakedown cruise through the neighborhood—always a good idea after spending more than a few weeks off the bike—before heading southwest toward Starved Rock State Park, a major attraction in the state of Illinois.


Major attraction indeed! The large parking lot by the Visitor Center was packed, with cars illegally parked along the outer drive lane. Later on I discovered, on my way out of the park, that the overflow parking lots had gotten pretty full as well. Ah, but what would one expect on such a beautiful day?

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I don’t consider myself a good “alone” person, but today, following a rather trying week at work, I was in serious need of this wind therapy and personal down time. As I rolled along Illinois 71, between Yorkville and Ottawa, I left all the stresses of the past week behind me. Once I had gotten to the state park and began my ascent to the top of Starved Rock, I had let go even more. By the time I’d reached the summit huffing and puffing, I’d forgotten  what I was so stressed out about.

 

 


I walked around the top of Starved Rock for a while and then walked to the end of the paved walking path before returning to my bike to head home. Under other circumstances, I might have been less than pleased about the number of attendees present. Instead, every time I passed a squirming rug rat or an errant dog,  I smiled from within, only too happy to have walked amongst all this humanity.

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I’ve been coming to this park since I was five, maybe longer. It’s beautiful. If you live in the region and you want to see something cool, please check this place out.

Thanks for hanging with me.

The Night My Plastic Snowman Attacked Me

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We’ve had this plastic snowman since the kids were little, which means it’s been a while. He stands on our front porch from sometime after Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. He lights up after dark by means of an incandescent light fixture glowing from within his hollow body. Some of his painted features are now worn and faded. I no longer recall where we bought him, but he hadn’t cost a lot. Our snowman used to have a pipe in his mouth, but it broke off. That might have happened the night he attacked me, but I don’t think so.

Oh, haven’t I told you about that? Yes, it’s true. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the little bugger came at me one night, when I wasn’t expecting it. The whole ordeal was rather violent and caught me completely off guard. I mean look at him; he’s a four-foot tall molded plastic snowman and they are generally considered to be a benevolent sort. I don’t believe anybody else would have anticipated his violent outburst any more than I did.

The incident happened four or five years ago on a cold, winter night. A winter storm had passed through our area, dropping four or five inches of new snow. Once the snowfall had stopped, as the temperature began to fall, I suited up and went outside to clear our driveway and sidewalks. I rolled my trusty two-stroke snowblower out of the garage, threw the choke lever over, turned the key, yanked the starter cord and stood up with a look of great satisfaction as my machine roared to life. I squinted slightly as I leaned forward into a cloud of blue smoke to push the choke lever back over. The engine settled into a stable growl, which escalated to a controlled roar as I began to clear rows of snow.

I remember adjusting the directional chute as I moved along the curved sidewalk leading to my front porch, which was well lit, not only by the usual area lighting but also by the strands of Christmas lights, which my beloved wife and teenage daughter had strung up across the porch roof and front rail, and of course from our plastic snowman. He stood at the edge of the concrete porch, smiling at the world around him and glowing brightly from within.But an instant later, as I approached, his demeanor changed.

As the snowblower and I moved ever closer toward the snowman, he grew agitated, literally. First the little guy began shuddering and then rapidly shook from side to side as if having some sort of seizure. I stared at this amazing site for an instant, not yet comprehending the situation at hand.

Suddenly and without further warning, the snowman lept from his place on the porch, sailing through the air, straight for me and my snowblower as his pleasant glow from within changed to a brilliant white flash before going out completely. Startled, I released the engagement lever on my snowblower as the snowman crashed into us and then lay on the ground before us in total, dark silence. My heart beat like a triphammer as I stood there, piecing together what had happened.

My eyes traced the remnants of a slender electrical cord leading from the snowman’s backside not toward an electrical outlet up on the porch, but toward the intake of my snowblower. For whatever reason, instead of plugging the snowman directly into the outlet behind him, my decorating team had run his little cord out to a four-outlet temporary fixture on a stake in the front flower bed, which in turn was plugged into the outlet just outside our front door. Somehow, perhaps during the course of the snowstorm, a portion of the snowman’s electrical cord had strayed onto the sidewalk, only to be spooled up by the paddles of my snowblower. Good heavens, I’d all but disemboweled the little guy!

I did my best to hide my shocked, sorrowful state by laughing uncontrollably at the memory of being attacked by our plastic snowman. I spent no small amount of time freeing the stripped, stretched and broken electrical cord from the snowblower’s intake. And in the days that followed, I spent more time acquiring and installing another incandescent light fixture inside of my little friend.

Before long he was back out on our porch, glowing from within as usual, and he has done so ever since. We tend to be a little more careful these days about where we run the electrical cords when we put up Christmas decorations. I can’t help but smile whenever I think back on that incident. This usually happens while I’m removing snow from the front walks during the holiday season.

Just last weekend, for example, I was clearing several inches of snow for the first time this season. As I came along the front walk toward our house, I glanced at the little snowman and smiled. A moment later, as I turned to pass in front of him, I was certain I heard him utter a derogatory remark about the legitimacy of my birth. I can’t imagine he would still bear a grudge against me after so many years, especially after I took such care to restore his innards, but one never knows.