Mark Zimmerman - Where Do We Go From Here? - Cruisers

Tech Matters

Cruisers have been around for nearly four decades now. Since their inception they've gone from little more than a novelty to the most popular type of motorcycle sold in this country. The question is: How much longer will the cruiser as we know it remain on the scene?

Cruisers got off to a slow start. Early on, few "serious riders" thought they'd be much more than a footnote in motorcycling's history. Mainstream magazines panned them. Most dealers didn't particularly like selling them. And many industry insiders thought they'd be gone and forgotten within a few years.

Fortunately a few of the industry's brighter sparks-particularly those who had been tracking Harley-Davidson's climb back from the abyss-realized there might be a future in selling what was then called a factory custom and decided to shake the tree just a little harder to see what fell out. Obviously it was a good call; by 1993 the cruiser had become the number one-selling motorcycle in the U.S., a position it still holds as I write this. So why do I suspect that's about to change?

Since the beginning the cruiser market has been fueled by the baby boomers. For a number of reasons, the traditional V-twin cruiser struck just the right chord with them/us/me, and the rest, as they say, is history.

However, the youngest of the boomer riders are now approaching their mid-40s, and the oldest are in their early 60s. While I'll make no guesses as to the percentage of them that are drifting away from motorcycling, the hard fact is that some attrition is always taking place, especially among the ranks of older riders. Some folks simply lose interest, some suffer from health problems and are forced to stop riding and some sadly go the way of all flesh. In any event their numbers are dwindling.

Obviously as the boomers fade from the scene they'll be replaced by the next generation of riders. This group, the majority of whom are between about 18 and 34 years old, are what currently drive the sportbike market. As a broad generalization I'll call them the "technology generation." Right now they're all hot for sportbikes: They thrive on the razor-sharp handling, the explosive power and, yes, the ever-changing technology. But I don't think that'll last forever. My bet is that as they age they'll tire of the sportbikes' radical riding position and knife-edge focus on performance and gravitate toward bikes that are broader in scope.

But I don't think they're going to be all that interested in their father's Buick, so to speak.

Let's be honest: Although the traditional cruiser has evolved into a pretty good motorcycle, as a type it's compromised by certain design characteristics some riders find undesirable. Primarily these are a lack of ground clearance, limited power output and what some consider to be dated styling. I'm just guessing here, but I doubt any of the tech-gen-ers are going to get terribly excited about motorcycles that to them represent a triumph of form over function. What they're going to want are bikes that are functional, versatile, comfortable, and above all employ cutting-edge technology.

My thinking is that the manufacturers will respond to this group's demands (a group that should approach 70 million or so by 2015) with motorcycles that move them the way cruisers move us.

Some of the manufacturers are already headed in that direction. Consider the Suzuki B-King: While the bike doesn't fit neatly into any particular category-being neither sportbike, standard or cruiser-it does owe something to each. Like the early customs, it has its share of supporters (mostly younger guys) and detractors (who seem to be older and more curmudgeonly). Maybe it's not dj vu, but I definitely feel like I've been here before.

On the other side of the coin we have the Victory Vision. Yeah, it's got a somewhat dated powerplant and the styling is over the top, but it certainly illustrates what can happen when your design team gets tired of the same-old-same-old. And for the record, I happen to like it.

Imagine a motorcycle with the performance characteristics of the B-King melded with the Vision's ergonomics and weather protection. OK, maybe not quite that radical, but I think you catch my drift. I think it'd be pretty cool, and I suspect there's a fair number of guys trolling around on sportbikes with stiff necks and backaches who are just waiting for a bike like that to call their own.

Maybe I'm wrong about all this; it certainly wouldn't be the first time. I don't think so, though. While I doubt the traditional V-twin cruiser will vanish entirely from the scene, chances are even better that 10 years from now the term "cruiser," if it's still used, will be describing a bike a whole lot different from what we're used to. But I think that's as it should be.