The appeal of bicycles of yesteryear is almost irresistible. Bikers, I think, are romantic by nature anyway, so the mystique of big names like Norton, Vincent or Matchless is only heightened by the decades that separate them from us. We love a good sad story, but the only thing better than a tragic story of demise is one of ultimate resurrection and triumph (pardon the choice of word). Reviving an old brand of motorcycles has never been more popular, but in an already fractured and confused motorcycle market, it’s a perilous business. While some revived brands are enjoying a shiny new life, others are staggering in search of their brains.
The same thing has been happening in the automotive space for quite some time, of course, sometimes successfully (the Mini Cooper), sometimes not (the Thunderbird), sometimes just inexplicably (the Dodge Dart). Think of all the resurrected muscle car models, most of which are pretty cool and popular. It’s the era of the reboot.
Triumph, of course, is the big achievement of the motorcycle revival. From receivership 30 years ago, today they are a major global full-range player. Indian is back and better than ever under Polaris management. Meanwhile, others seem to continue to struggle. Here are some common sense thoughts on what separates these groups.
The brand still needs to have a motto. Do you remember Excelsior? Horex? Bite? No? Even if you’ve heard of them, they probably don’t resonate personally with most people. Penton is probably more valuable as a pure brand than those names. If part of what you exchange is the emotional connection with the brand, it should always be warm in people’s hearts.
The bikes have to be competitive. The market for motorcycles over $30,000 is extremely small, and producing modern machines at a marketable price requires serious engineering and manufacturing power. It was a challenge for the new Vincent, the new Norton and for the pre-Polaris Indian, and it will be a challenge for anyone starting out.
The pilot’s experience is essential. Triumph primarily rebuilt its brand around the Speed Triple, a hot, forward-looking bike that pushed the naked sector forward, not just around the new Bonnevilles. No matter how revered a name may be or no matter how many mentions of deceased celebrities, it will only bring the customer to the store; the ride will make the sale.
Offer something unique. The quality and variety of bikes available today is unparalleled, and the market is tight, so the consumer is in the pilot’s seat. We need more than just a performance roadster or clone cruiser to get excited enough to walk away from the many excellent options already available.
“Glory Days, well, they’ll pass you by.” Bruce Springsteen knew that nostalgia is a trap. Yesterday’s wine is today’s rotten liquor. “Boring Stories from the Glory Days.” Our love of motorcycle history and heritage must be more than nostalgia, because those days are also glory days. I’d love to see all of these brand revivals succeed, but they can’t do it on legacy alone. They need to expand the market with innovative, reasonably priced bikes that are fun to ride.
Now if I can just find some investors to help me buy DKW…
Carter A. Edman teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” at Case Western Reserve University and has taught a variety of creative culture courses. He rides a modified 2008 Triumph Bonneville and restores a 1970 BSA. As the founder of Moto Sapiens, he explores the ever-changing motorcycle culture that is unapologetic, unpredictable and sometimes strange.
Follow Carter on Twitter: @Moto_Sapiens
This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.