STEALING FROM THE BEST
FACTORIES ARE PEEKING OVER CUSTOM BUILDERS' SHOULDERS
Among the curious anomalies of the moment we live in, bikewise, is the outreach of OEM factories to small "alternative custom” shops for inspiration. Observers with a negative bent call it poaching. Factories call it market research. Let’s call it externalized R&D. It’s a desperate attempt to find a hook into youth culture, a necessary job at which motomanagement has been failing spectacularly for years: discovering styles and trends to which aspiring riders will respond. It seems when young people no longer find motorcycles sexy or socially dangerous or edgy, they no longer want to become motorcyclists. As a consequence, the average age of riders goes up. A typical Sturgis Rally participant is fiftysomething, which I reckon is the same for every traditional motorcycle event. I just finished a weeklong Velocette rally, and at 52,1 was the youngest thumper in the Oregon woods. “Vintage” is supposed to refer to the bikes!
By contrast, the Alt.Custom scene seems to have snagged a generation of screen-gazers and spawned events like Wheels & Waves, Dirt Quake, and the Handbuilt Show, which have an average attendee age of 30-ish. To the industry, the freakbikes are beside the point; what matters is that young people, and most importantly non-riders, are hanging out at motorcycle events. Independent shops and shows have succeeded in making motorcycling look fun, cool, and hip again, and the industry knows it needs to get involved. Thus the Leviathan shakes off its slumber, and corporate sponsorship of the Alt.Custom scene is growing exponentially, as factories attempt to lasso this youth-culture comet. The OEMs are smart enough to cast a fuzzy-eyed gaze over this scene and note the big picture; what do the kids want? Street scramblers! Café racers! Customizable bikes! No plastic wrapping! Light and fun and cheerful, not high-tech and hyperfast and specialized. A couple of years ago, I sat for dinner beside Stephan Schalier, head of BMW Motorrad, who asked my opinion on what BMW should do next. My answer was brief: “Less R&D, more RSD.” Roland Sands had just completed the Concept 90 prototype of the R nineT, which was and remains a very exciting machine. Now BMW casts RnineTs and even six-cylinders on custom shores, scattering them like seeds to small, quirky shops to see what grows. By these steps onto custom turf, the Bavarian is seen as stodgy no more. Other factories have taken note, repeating the formula. Yamaha recently teased the debut of the retro-theme FZ-07 variant in Europe— the XSR700—with a custom called “Faster Son” by Shinya Kimura.
Don’t be fooled thinking this is a sidebar to their regular business of designing boring bikes for old dudes; the new Ducati Scrambler and BMW R nineT would not exist without Bike EXIF et al, and they’re the hottest sellers. After discussions with a few factory designers, it’s clear more custom-inspired bikes are coming, as there’s big money at stake— perhaps the future of motorcycling itself. Nobody since 1950 has required a bike in the First World, which makes every one of them a luxury item, a source of pleasure, and a toy for the relatively affluent. That’s not a bad thing, as life without pleasurable pursuits is hardly worth living, and while the best things may be free, some pretty excellent ones cost money and have wheels.
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