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.

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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.

Victory No More: My Thoughts Concerning the Polaris Decision

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The photo you see above was taken on May 4, 2013, the day I left home with my 2007 Honda ST1300 sport touring rig and returned with my slightly used 2012 Victory Vision Tour. This was indeed a pivotal moment in my life. This was my first motorcycle that wasn’t a Honda, my first American motorcycle, and my first Victory. Since that fateful day, Miss Scarlett and I have logged roughly forty thousand relatively trouble-free miles

But this post isn’t about my love affair of the past four riding seasons with this motorcycle. Rather, this is about the recent announcement by Polaris Industries to wind down production of the Victory over the next eighteen months. I promise to be brief.

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Was I happy to hear the news? No. While no motorcycle is perfect for every rider’s needs, I have been so pleased with the performance and comfort of my Vision Tour, I was already fairly certain that when the time came for Miss Scarlett and me to part ways, my next motorcycle would be another Victory. Over the past four riding seasons, we have run nearly 40,000 miles, 4,800 of which involved an epic journey from Chicago, Illinois to Portland, Oregon and back—a journey so great, it left me wanting to take another.

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But with Victory Motorcycles now being phased out, my next bike will likely not be a Victory. So now what? Well, I am pleased to report that despite the Polaris announcement, Miss Scarlett did not burst into flames or disappear from sight. In addition, Randy Weaver, owner of Randy’s Cycle, the best Victory dealership in all of northern Illinois and beyond, almost immediately went online and assured his customers (me among them) that his shop would continue to service the Victory marque for years to come. Comforting words indeed! (See Randy’s video here.)

Bottom line, I still have a damned good motorcycle sitting in my garage, just waiting for the next decent riding day. Polaris’ decision to cease production of Victory Motorcycles will not immediately affect my decision to continue riding Miss Scarlett for some time to come.

Surely the day will come for me to pick another motorcycle to ride.  But you’ll have to take my word for it, this isn’t that day. In the meantime, I’m chomping at the bit to take Miss Scarlett out again, just as soon as the weather turns in our favor. And when that happens, I’ll be here to share more ride stories with you, hopefully with my beloved pillion Ann to continue sharing her awesome photos and videos.

Until then, peace and ride on. Thank you for hanging with me.