Dealing With Motorcycle Dealers

Tips for figuring out where you can get the best support as well as the best motorcycle

Dealing with motorcycle dealers
Know where to find the best dealer that would be the most helpful in the purchasing process.Illustration by John Breakey

When I was still new to motorcycling, my favorite places in the world were motorcycle dealers. There were three good dealers in my area, and I probably visited each one of them at least once a week. I wanted a chance to talk about motorcycles with someone who knew more about them than I did, and pick up news. Sometimes I’d buy a bolt or something else I didn’t need, just for a chance to BS with one of the parts guys. Or I’d just stand around in the service shop and ask annoying questions.

There were more than a half-dozen other motorcycle shops in the area, but I didn’t go into them unless they had something that the others didn’t. They were either staffed by non-enthusiasts or brand-bigots. A couple dealt in lower prices, but even in my impoverished youth, I had sense enough to see the folly of spending your money at a dealer who offered nothing except cheap prices. So when I had enough money to buy a new bike, I didn’t go to the cheapest dealer, I went where I knew I’d get support.

Of the dozen dealers in my local area 30 years ago, only one remains, and it has been for sale. The other 11 succumbed to the difficulties of doing business in the motorcycle industry. Besides the one remaining dealer, there are three new dealers which have grown up. One of those, a Harley dealer, seems solidly prosperous. Another, a one-line Suzuki dealer, is comfortable. There are also two accessory stores which work on bikes and sell used bikes.

The one multi-brand Japanese bike dealership seems to do a good job. The parts department is staffed by knowledgeable enthusiasts, and has an impressive selection of accessories. The service people are well trained and professional, and the shop is relatively clean, nicely organized, and well equipped. The store is attractive and has a good location. I like going in to talk to the people who work at the shop. Yet I hear that they sometimes have trouble making ends meet.

A good dealership is a great resource for a motorcycle enthusiast. It's a source of technical advice, a window on the newest motorcycles and gear, and a haven, where repairs and maintenance beyond our own means can be addressed. It's a pipeline for parts, a place to meet like-minded enthusiasts, and a wellspring of information on everything motorcycling—what's new, what works, local events, or where to find a painter. Most motorcyclists are delighted to have that good dealer available, but too many are unwilling to support it with the big-money purchases. They'll drive to the next county to save $50 when they buy a new bike, mail-order a new helmet or jacket after trying on samples at the dealer, and complain when they have to put down a deposit and wait two days for an odd part.

One guy I met a few years ago even asked the dealer to order another size to try on so he knew what to mail-order. He thought the parts guy didn’t know what he was doing. The same guy complained later that the parts manager wouldn’t rush a part for him—after he went in wearing his mail-ordered hat. He’d bought his bike somewhere else too, even though it was the same brand sold by that dealer. He got defensive at first when I opined that he was taking advantage of what the shop gave to customers, but failing to pay his share to support it. He felt that you naturally looked around to find what you want, then bought it where the price was best. I pointed out that he wasn’t dealing with a mass-merchandise item like a stereo or even a car, and that he wasn’t dealing with a business with the resources of a big chain department store. I told him that I thought he was asking for the courtesies paid to a customer without really being one.

I hear from his friend that he has come around and now buys everything from that shop, even offering up front to put a deposit on anything they order for him, and to pay shipping both ways when he doesn’t buy it. In the last two years, he has bought two bikes from them—without haggling about price—and he has actually been invited along on the shop rides after work.

Not every dealer is as good as that one, nor is every customer such a good match. If your "local" shop is two hours away, mail-order makes sense. If the level of enthusiasm makes a pawn shop look energetic, you probably aren't getting much added value. If the shop is into dirt bikes and just sells the occasional cruiser because they have them, you won't be getting the same level of support that you would from a shop that thinks cruisers are neat, customizes them, organizes cruise nights, seeks out new accessories, and has technicians who pay attention to your model.

But if you do have one of those energized, full-service dealers, count your blessings—and maintain them.

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