Cruisin' Away The Gas Crunch Blues

Econo-Cruisers Trigger A New Rush On Bike Sales

If you want to see how the mid-cruiser market came to its recent prominence, you need to step back to 2002.

Jesse James and the Teutuls ruled the airwaves with tales of big inch custom motorcycles. They become the next pet rock, or Rubic's Cube, just with a much higher price tag. Between 2001 and 2005, manufacturers like Harley-Davidson, Big Dog, and American Ironhorse cranked out record production to meet demand.

That was then... As more and more people fall victim to rising unemployment, gas prices rise beyond the ridiculous level (gas is in the mid-$3 range and we're cheering about it?!), and the housing market starts its nosedive, discretionary income dries out. People just can't afford a five-figure hobby anymore.

Which isn't to say Americans really fell out of love with motorcycles. Semi-utilitarian "baggers" gained popularity, stealing the spotlight from choppers. There has been another side effect from the boom, too. A lot of Americans who couldn't afford the high displacement iron during the Chrome Boom still wanted to ride. Now, with fuel prices touching the stratosphere, would-be motorcyclists are taking a serious look at lower displacement machines as an economical alternative to cars (and using gas costs as the excuse they need to buy a bike). Other buyers are veteran riders who left motorcycling for one reason or another and are coming back for much the same reasons, albeit with a more experienced eye for what they want in a bike.

Economy bikes: high gas mileage, low sticker price machines. Small and mid-size motorcycles don't make as much power as their larger cousins but they also don't eat as much fuel. The sort of machines best suited for commuting and running around town, as opposed to hitting the open road for a three day tour.

While the new cruiser boom has a few things in common with the custom rush, one of the biggest differences is in the type of riding; recreational versus utilitarian. You don't need a drag race motor and thirty grand in sheetmetal to commute to work and buy groceries. Traffic is another reason small and medium bikes are so popular. It's easier to navigate traffic on something nimble. Scooters and smaller cruisers are enjoying huge sales across the country right now. Whether you live on a coast or somewhere in the middle, it's hard to find a dealership with new cruisers in the 250-800cc range. Ray Didier, sales manager for Honda of Elmhurst, near Chicago, told us,"We sell as many as we can get. We've been out of scooters since the end of May. It's the price of gas. A little 50cc scooter gets 105 mpg, you sell a lot. The 250 and 600cc street bikes go extremely well, too, but more folks want scooters because they've got automatic transmissions. We can't keep the lower displacement cruisers in stock, either. That's a good thing, but now we've got nothing to show people coming in who want them right now. We're waiting for the 2009s. We'll only get a small quantity but not enough."

When we talked to dealers on the East and West Coasts, it was much the same story. Most of them didn't single out any particular model as selling better as far as economical or smaller bikes go but there were two exceptions. The only bike Harley makes in this category is the 883 Sportster and some reported noticeable increased sales of that model. The other? "If you're looking for a smaller 'home run' as far as bike sales go, I guess you could say that about the Kawasaki Ninja 250," Lawrence Hart told us, operator of Los Angeles Honda. "It's got small displacement but it's nicely styled and sporty."

Manufacturers are working to get new products to market but one of the reasons it's tough keeping pace with demand is a lack of variety. There really isn't all that much between 250 and 600cc's in the cruiser market. Honda has its 600; Suzuki's smallest is a 650. If you want a motorcycle on the small end, you're looking at Yamaha's V Star 250 or a Honda Rebel 250. Lawrence Hart had some insight into that. "They (smaller cruisers) were slow movers up until the first gas price spike two years ago." When that happened, sales went up accordingly but dropped off again. He continued: "I think people get used to the higher gas costs. Sales leveled off after that surge. But now that fuel's going higher, we're seeing more demand again. I don't think it's sustainable. Cars are getting closer and closer to motorcycles in terms of fuel efficiency and that's what's going to end the rush. Another spike could trigger a rush, though. It feels like a lot of the guys who're going to buy already have."

"The guys" being new and ex-riders looking to score an economical machine. All of the dealers told us that the biggest blind spot new customers have is in finding what's best suited to them. First timers looking to commute on the freeway walk in thinking a scooter is going to give them enough power to be safe at highway speeds; good dealers know to ask what sort of riding the person plans to do and go from there, recommending models to match. Ex-motorcyclists are a bit different though. They tend to come in with a good idea of what they want but may not be familiar with today's models. If the last thing you rode was an `83 V65 Magna or a Shovelhead, you're in for a bit of a shock when you see today's cruisers. Bruce Rossmeyer told us, "They always want the nicest and the coolest. Then we ask what they're going to do with it. Slow 'em down, figure out what they really want. Touring with the wife? You'll need something with a good passenger seat. If you don't, two weeks later they'll come back saying they should've gotten this other model instead." In the case of imported iron, Ray Didier said, "We've been a dealership for over 40 years, so we get a lot of turn around, repeats, next generation riders. Folks have raised a family, so they get a bike. It's mainly 1100 to 1300cc or 1800cc cruisers for our return riders. They've got a good idea what they want." Lawrence Hart added, "The vets come in looking for mid-size cruisers but they tend to go bigger once they see how much more comfortable and easier it is on the big bikes when you have a passenger."

These frugal riders keep those accessories pretty basic, too. There aren't a whole lot of orders for bling; they're customizing theme is "practical." Windshields, back rests, and saddlebags are the big sellers.

One of the biggest accessories is something that should be a necessity: rider-training courses. All of the dealers with whom we spoke cited it as the number one thing they recommend to all their new clientele. It seems they've been listening, too. Rider training classes are enjoying record attendance across the board.

It's been seven years since Jesse James opened mainstream America's eyes to choppers and, subsequently, big cruisers. Gas prices may have killed the fad but riding a bike in today's economy still makes sense. Econo cruiser sales and increased rider training show that the American public, while not always bright, still knows a good deal when they see it.

Happiness Is High MPG
The motivation for this story came from you. We see you out there, hoofin' it on whatever pile you can find, with a big smile plastered on, saving some bones and laughing about it. The bikes are low-end, high-end, and no end, and we're hoping that a few of you stick around when the fuel prices and temperatures start to drop.

Andrea Bordelon, a 38-year-old massage therapist living in Prescott, AZ was not too happy with her 450-mile per week commute. Three times per week she'd climb into her 16-mpg Jeep Grand Cherokee and drive 150 miles roundtrip to a Sedona, AZ spa.

"It was killing me," she said. "With what I spent on gas it was hardly worth the trip." Bordelon began thinking about a more economical way to travel. After owning several Sportsters over the years, Bordelon stopped riding for nearly a decade. "When I left Massachusetts some years ago, I left the biker life. I moved to Zurich in 2001, got married and began a new life and motorcycling wasn't a part of it."

Bordelon divorced and returned to the States in 2005, but money was tight. Another re-start, another biker-less biker needing a ride. "Things slowly came together. I became a massage therapist, saved some money and bought an SUV, which was fun and came in handy in Arizona, but I always missed riding. Then came the gas explosion. "Suddenly, I was spending about 150 bucks on gasoline every week; I figured that money could go to a better cause."

That cause became a 2007 Harley Softail Deluxe. "She gets 45 mpg and saves me about $100 a week in gas. That's $400 a month, more than my bike payment. So, yeah, biking pays, and is a helluva lot more fun than being stuck in a truck."

Alfonso Freeman is a Los Angeles-based actor who was paying through the nose to burn fuel while sitting on the freeway driving from his house in the suburbs to auditions and acting classes in Hollywood and Downtown. He did a little riding in his youth, but this 2007 Honda Spirit 750 is basically his first bike.

Before settling on the Spirit, he also sized up a few other bikes like the V-Star 650, but the bigger motor and more svelte lines of the Spirit moved him. Plus the dealer made him an offer he couldn't refuse to move a leftover '07 ($5200 out the door). He opines, "It's a small bike, but big enough to get some respect."

Alfonso's big motivation to start riding was avoiding LA's infamous gridlock; getting a minimum 40 mph was just a nice perk. He took the obligatory rider safety course and was very smart about beginning his foray into the fine California art of "lane sharing."

"At first I just went to the front of the line at lights, and I talked myself out of doing it in traffic on the freeway. Then one day I hit a stopped patch and just eased it on out there carefully... I've never looked back."

Speaking of never looking back, "I'm having fun riding everywhere. I ride up Pacific Coast Highway, or out to Chino to visit relatives. I want to move up to a Harley or a Goldwing in a year or two, so I can bring a passenger. I'm sold. I'm a biker now."

Paul Johnson emailed us from Tucson, AZ. Paul reports that when he moved to town four years ago from Alaska, he saw the booming street bike scene and was fascinated. When gas prices shot skyward he joined up!

"I'd been commuting in a GMC K2500 Sierra Duramax Diesel 4x4, which was gross overkill most days, so along with the increase in fuel prices (as well as putting too many miles on the truck) it made sense to ride a motorcycle."

A street rider for a few years back in the 1970's, he'd also ridden ATVs, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles in his 27 years in Alaska, as well as competing with a dog sled team! However, street riding just didn't hold much appeal in the frozen (and frequently unpaved) North.

With his wife's blessing, he purchased a friend's cherry 1998 Honda Magna for $2600. He reports that, "It's a nice ride, with good handling. Not a cookie cutter twin like most cruisers."

Sheldon Rodricks checks in from Canterbury, New South Wales, Australia. He's a regulatory services officer (if you know what that is you've got one on us) who was simply sick of spending $50 a tank filling up his car. In his own words, "I have been driving to work for the last four years. Now that gas prices have jumped, I managed to get a 1982 Yamaha XV750 Special from a bloke who obviously has enough money to tank up his V8. Anyway I picked it up for next to nothing and spent about three weeks getting it up to spec-also for next to nothing! She's got loud pipes and is all black, engine included. She has never been dropped but by the looks of it, she never really had any TLC either.

"Now that it's cleaned up for the road, it costs me about $9 (Aussie) to tank up and I get an average of 260km (161 miles) per tankful. Besides it's bloody fast and loads of fun."

Apparently NSW recently repealed its anti-lane-splitting law, so now Sheldon is saving time and money on his bike. In fact, between the constant grin on his face and the extra money in his pocket, he's converted a couple of his colleagues over to two wheels. He brags, "At this rate we could have our own club by December!"

Re-Entry Riders For MPG
Fun At $4 Per Gallon

As gas prices continue to climb with no one actually believing they will ever again significantly decline, motorcycle dealers nationwide are reporting record sales of highly fuel-efficient scooters, with some spillover to larger displacement machines. A large part of this new wave of interest comes from previously dormant riders who haven't ridden in years, and another large part from those who have never biked before. Manufacturers have long scratched their balding corporate heads wondering how to bring entry or re-entry riders into the fold when the solution was elegantly simple: do nothing. Just wait for the fuel crisis.

It couldn't come at a better time. Although motorcycling experienced unprecedented double-digit growth for more than a decade, sales had flattened out in the last couple of years, sending panic waves rumbling through the boardrooms of major makers. Most analysts thought it was a serious overreaction, but OEMs still slashed advertising budgets at a time when they needed to do more promotional work, not less.

Without spending an ad dollar, motorcycle manufacturers are now serendipitously bathing in the national spotlight. Everyone from old grannies to college kids are seeking ways to squeeze more mileage out of their gas money and have turned to the mini rebel machine to do it: the scooter. Demand is exceeding production this season for the trendy fuel-sippers. But this refreshed interest in motorcycles is not limited to anemically powered machines; big bike sales have also perked up. Mark Barnett, owner of perhaps the largest Harley dealership on the planet, said, "We had two record months this year out of seven. Great year. Why buy the 70 mpg scooter when you can ride the 60 mpg Sportster?"

While life aboard the wee 75- to 125-mpg machines is probably not going to inspire another The Wild One film, where fat Baby Boomers menace a small town with their expandable waistband wearin', oat bran eatin', Viagra-poppin', rampagin' scooter gangs, it definitely is inspiring a little freedom-the freedom to blow your money on rent and food.

Motorcycling has long been demonized as the domain for leather-clad thugs and ne'er-do-wells of a savage street ilk. But we know we're very nice people and nothing could be further from the truth, usually. There are other wholesome benefits to motorcycling's resurgence. When you get people up on two wheels they tend to want to stay there, forever, like some unknown law of physics. They then begin buying bigger and faster bikes until they're shoehorning behemoth Chevy V8 motors into bicycle frames. This is just natural.

Once you experience how fun and economical a bike is, it spills into your veins and you become one of us, a biker for life, addicted to the wind and rush of hammering through the gears. And if all the bad black T-shirts are accurate-and why wouldn't they be?-you stay a motorcyclist in the afterlife, too. That's how powerful the pull is. Cool, eh? Now get on your bike and go save the ozone layer.

Tips For Rollin' On The Cheap
With gas prices at nose bleed heights, resurrecting that old CB350 you've left languishing in the barn since high school or picking up some old beater to flog is looking more attractive by the moment. Unfortunately old isn't always gold, be it a barn-fresh non-runner you plan on fixing up or the ubiquitous rat bike that can be had on the cheap, knowing what to look for before you commit to buying will prevent you from getting burned.

Engines
1) Should turn freely, even if it won't start. If it doesn't-pass.
2) If there's no oil (or water) in the engine find out why, it may have leaked out when the engine grenaded.
3) A compression test won't you tell everything, but it's a good start.
4) Scrapes, cracks and dents mean some serious pavement surfing occurred.
5) Any leaks? Small ones are manageable. Gushers are deal breakers.
6) If the thing sounds like a threshing machine, it may be ready to blow-pass
7) Some smoke on start up is okay, lots of it after the engine's warm means it's rebuild time.
8) Anything in current use should start, idle and run down the road reasonably well. If it doesn't-move on.

Fuel system/carbs
1) Stale fuel will need to be drained and disposed of.
2) Rusty tanks will need to be thoroughly cleaned and possibly sealed.
3) Carburetors on non-runners-expect to strip, clean and possibly rebuild.
4) Carburetors on runners-check for leaks; the rest depends on how it runs.
5) Check fuel lines and clamps; replace as needed.
6) Petcocks should operate smoothly. Replace or rebuild leakers.

Chains/sprockets
1) Shot chains are obvious, make sure to check for wear.
2) Check the sprockets for hooked teeth, physical damage.

Exhaust
1) Check mufflers for holes and rot, particularly on old two-strokes; replacements can be difficult to find should you need one.

Tires
1) Check sidewalls for cracks.
2) Check the tread depth-any wear bars showing?
3) Any cupping or flat spotting?
4) Do the tires hold pressure?
If there's the slightest question, then replace the tires and tubes before riding the thing.

Wheels (all)
1) Look for loose or broken spokes.
2) Check the wheel bearings for adjustment and condition.

Electrics
1) Batteries-a barn-found bike will probably need a new one.
2) All lights should work, lenses should be intact.
3) Switches should move freely, operate properly.
4) Wiring-look for obvious signs of damage.
5) Testing the charging system without a voltmeter is difficult. If the lights brighten when the engine is revved and the engine starts reliably with the electric starter, you can assume the charging system is probably okay.

Clutch/tranny
1) Sticking or slipping clutches mean some parts and labor are required.
2) The transmission gears should stay engaged under load and all gears should be present and accounted for. Be forewarned that gearbox problems are always expensive.
3) Check for leaks-big ones get expensive.

Frame/forks
1) Rusty or pitted fork tubes need to be replaced, as will leaking forking seals.
2) Make sure the forks move smoothly-sticking means they may be badly misaligned or bent.
3) Check the steering head bearings for dents and binding.
4) Check the swing arm and any shock linkage bushings and bearings for play.
5) Check the wheel alignment. If it's grossly out of whack something may be bent.
6) Check the rear shocks for leaks and action. Replace damaged shocks ASAP.

All The Rest
1) Frayed or damaged cables should be replaced before they snap and strand you. Look at the end nipples for signs of damage.
2) Bent levers and handlebars can be replaced with generic aftermarket items, normally at a considerable savings compared to OEM stuff. Torn seats can be recovered by your local auto upholstery guy.
3) Before purchasing anything, especially a bike that's not in current use, make sure the frame numbers jibe with the title. If they don't, then registering the thing may be impossible.

If LA Honda's showroom looks a little rugged, that's because it used to be a paintball arena. The dealership bought it when they needed room to expand a few years ago. That gives them plenty of space for the cruiser rush.
Andrea Bordelon and her 2007 H-D Softail Deluxe.
Alfonso Freeman and his 2007 Honda Spirit 750.
Paul Johnson's 1998 Honda Magna.
Sheldon Rodrick's 1982 Yamaha XV 750 Special.