Staying the course in Cincinnati

Taking stock and feeling out the future

Cincinnati, Feb. 2–4—Now in its eighth year, the V-Twin Expo has cemented its reputation as the main trade event of the American motorcycle industry, and pretty much anyone who’s an industry player—or aspires to be one—puts in an appearance. It’s at the Expo that the temperature of the industry is taken and that major styling and tech trends are debuted, and in the past there have reliably been major buzzworthy developments, be it fatter and fatter tires, or the ushering in of the latest chopper, bobber, board tracker or bagger fads.

That proved not to be the case this year, as the rubber has apparently finally reached its outer limits and the bagger is proving stubbornly entrenched as the darling of the customizers. This year was notable for its absence of bold moves away from the norm and, in fact, the general trend in the industry this year, with few exceptions, is that manufacturers are refocusing on the 2.5 million Harleys already out on the road rather than coming up with the next big thing. There is no next big thing, or if there is, it wasn’t at the show. The good news is that pretty much everything we saw was designed with the mainstream everyday Harley rider in mind. Incremental improvements over current technology, more options for customization, and accommodating the governmental restrictions that the EPA put into law a few years back were the order of the day.

Although there’s plenty of socializing and no shortage of parties, the V-Twin Expo is serious business to the thousands of folks who look to the motorcycle industry for their livelihoods. Aftermarket parts manufacturers spend months, and sometimes the better part of a year, perfecting their motorcycle widgets and doodads for those all-important new product introductions to the thousands of bike shop dealers, parts distributor reps, and other potential business partners in attendance.

The Duke Energy Center serves as the hub of activity, with other Expo-related events taking place at nearby hotels, bars, and restaurants. The show took up the entire 200,000-square-foot main exhibit hall with even more booths spilling out into the lobby and up to a third-floor ballroom. With over 500 exhibitors in attendance, this is the place where we find out in which directions motorcycle customizing trends are going, what new parts are available, and how the industry is facing challenges on multiple fronts. And just as important as checking out all the new parts from the hundreds of vendors is the undercurrent of gossip, rumor, and innuendo that flows as strong and sure as the nearby Ohio River. This is where we find out who got taken over by whom, what manufacturer is about to go out of business, and what company has risen like a phoenix out of the ashes, reinventing itself to better fit into this new motorcycle economy.

A number of seminars were held during show hours, as has been the case annually. This year, though, some of the sessions diverged from the usual technical presentations and performance round tables, and focused more on the immediate exigencies of the motorcycle business. One of the more noteworthy seminars, Survival of the Fittest, played to a crowd of concerned dealers who had watched their business fall off in the past few years. Folks representing various parts of the industry—small shop owners, motorcycle dealerships, parts distributor executives—fielded questions and gave suggestions on topics like generating business with events and promotions during winter, advertising with a limited budget, and developing a loyal customer base. Rather than a depressing hour of gloom and doom, the message was that shop owners and dealerships needed to come up with creative ways to keep their business going and hopefully growing.

This philosophy was reflected in a similar session presented by Metzeler Tires during its annual breakfast round table on Friday morning. This year, the seminar was standing room only with at least 200 attendees, testifying to dealers’ interest in the state of the motorcycle industry. Custom builder and dealership proprietor Eddie Trotta observed that he now sells more used Harleys than any type of new motorcycle, including his own customs. S&S Cycle President Brett Smith noted that Harley is reaching out specifically to both young and old riders—witness the H-D sponsorship of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the partnership with Lehman to build Harley trikes—emphasizing that other manufacturers and builders need to market across all generations, as well.

As part of the Metzeler round table discussion, Paul Cox of Indian Larry Legacy fame announced the creation of the Custom Bike Association which, according to its website, will “establish a standardized education and certification process based on universally accepted specifications and standards.” Why might this be important to you, dear reader? Well, one might liken it to the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) organization whereby motorists can be assured of some level of competency when taking their four-wheeled vehicles to ASE-certified technicians for service and repair. Another comparison might be Harley-Davidson’s PHD education and certification program where you know that a technician who’s earned a PHD has had the formal training to work on your motorcycle. We’ll have to wait and see whether the CBA gains a foothold and becomes a truly useful industry standard.

Metzeler wrapped up the breakfast with a presentation of its ME880 line expansion, the new ME880 Alphanumeric. This nomenclature means that the ME880 line of tires now comes in original equipment fitment sizes for Harleys. The tires are available in black wall, narrow white stripe, and wide whitewall in 16″ and 21″ sizes. The Metzeler crew also threw out some teasers about a Pirelli announcement to be made during another seminar the next day.

When Metzeler and Pirelli joined forces over 20 years ago (actually, Metzeler became part of the Pirelli Tyre group), conventional wisdom indicated that Metzeler would address the street custom and cruiser category while Pirelli would continue to market to the sport, or street performance, rider. The anticipated announcement was rumored to shake up those assumptions with the introduction of a new street performance tire for V-Twins. Sure enough, when I arrived at the Pirelli seminar on Saturday afternoon, the company had the Night Dragon, its entry into the V-Twin market, on display. This new Pirelli line is, as rumored, constructed for Harley and metric cruiser riders, and is intended to meet increased engine sizes, torque and horsepower requirements, and upgraded suspensions of late-model V-Twins. The Night Dragon is touted as offering a perfect combination of high mileage (falling just short of the Metzeler ME880s), extreme grip at full lean and full throttle, and excellent handling performance. The Night Dragon will be offered in 16″, 18″, 19″, and 21″ front sizes and 16″ and 18″ for the rear. Some sizes will be available in the second quarter of 2008, while others won’t hit the street until the fourth quarter.

Not to be outdone, Avon launched its new street tire on Sunday. The Cobra line, derived from Avon’s sportbike tires that are known for their performance and handling capabilities, is replacing the popular Venom-R tires. If I had to guess why Avon’s radial line is being renamed, I’d have to point at the next-generation technology upgrade rather than the incremental improvements that the Venom line has implemented over the years. The Cobra is meant for power cruisers, high-load touring bikes, and big-inch customs. The Cobra is still visually identifiable as an Avon tire even with the revised tread pattern and the signature Cobra logo and snakeskin sidewalls. The Cobra line also includes two bias-ply tires—the 120/71-21 (custom-only tire) and the MH90-21 that will also remain in the Venom line because of the desire to keep matched front and rear tire sets for OEM replacements. Some of the Cobra sizes are available now, and the remainder should be available by the end of April. According to an Avon representative, the mileage of the Cobra tires will be roughly equivalent to the Venom line.

In a surprise move (well, at least we were surprised), Baker Drivetrain introduced its DD7, a direct-drive seven-speed transmission intended as a drop-in replacement for H-D Cruise Drive six-speeds. So why do we need a new seven-speed? According to company chief Bert Baker, first gear on stock 2007s and 2008s is too tall for a lot of riders, and the DD7 has a shorter first gear for easier launches. The factory six-speed also has an audible shift clunk that the DD7 nearly eliminates due to a different mainshaft design. Shifting is smoother because of a new linear roller ball detent, and BAKER’s helical gears provide quieter operation in every gear. The DD7 is available in left- or right-side-drive versions, and will cost about $200 more than the company’s current DD6.

Another product, the RideMaxx by American Micro Fuel Device Corporation, is intended to make your EFI system more user-friendly and easier to adjust. The completely wireless RideMaxx is a plug-and-play fuel management system that consists of a wireless remote handlebar mount enabling the rider to switch between one of three fuel injection control settings with just a touch of the thumb, and an ECU module plugged into the ECU under the seat that communicates with the handlebar module. Configured maps come preinstalled in the FuelMaxx component of the RideMaxx system, and the RideTuner allows several tuning options. It’s even Bluetooth-compatible, allowing maps and charts to be displayed on your Bluetooth-enabled phone, PDA, or laptop.

Heartland USA’s tagline is “The cure for the common Softail.” The company has always taken great pride in helping riders transform their Softails into individualized customs, but this year, they’ve taken a new tack. One of Heartland USA’s latest offerings is a kit to customize the seating arrangement on Harley’s new Rocker into something that customers have presumably been asking for. With the help of the kit’s leather solo seat, 11″ fender, billet struts, a steel rock guard, and all the hardware you’ll need, you can transform your Softail into a bike that looks like the Softails of yore. It’s back to the future, y’all.

Other manufacturers are expanding their parts lines to include even more customizing options for Harleys. For instance, Badlands Motorcycle Products now offers nifty custom mirrors that provide functions like extra lighting, turn signal indicator lights, and digital gauges in addition to their extensive line of bolt-on parts.

Of course, not everyone exhibiting at the V-Twin Expo stuck to customizing stock Harleys. There were a few new motorcycle launches—some from well-established companies like Big Dog Motorcycles, and others from relatively new manufacturers like OCC Motorcycles. In their first V-Twin Expo appearance in several years, the boys from Orange County unveiled two new production bikes during a gala press launch on Friday night. The Sweet Amber is a sleek-looking Pro Street that uses Rolling Thunder’s Sweet Amber frame (all other OCC Motorcycle models employ Rolling Thunder frames, as well) and rear fender with a Metzeler 300 rear tire, S&S 124″ motor and a BAKER six-speed RSD transmission. OCC designed the gas tank, handlebars, wheels, and oil tank, with other components manufactured by various high-profile companies. The OCC SR Cruiser is constructed using a Rolling Thunder 250 RSD bagger frame designed specially for the X-Wedge and sports a Perse Performance front end. This comely bagger houses the S&S X-Wedge engine with the help of a BAKER six-speed, and sports a Metzeler 240 rear tire. OCC designed the controls, handlebars, mirrors, oil tank, and exhaust, but some of this model’s major components were manufactured by industry leaders Russ Wernimont (front fender, gas tank, and taillight) and Corbin (rear fender, seat, saddlebags, and fairing). Will these six models be successful in the coming months? As Paul Jr. stated, “We’re going into this slow.” And as evidenced by the Limited Edition status of the entire line, OCC isn’t expecting their sales numbers to reach the thousands (or even the hundreds) anytime soon.

The timing of OCC’s recent foray into the world of production motorcycles is interesting, considering that several of the smaller production motorcycle companies have gone out of business, and the rumor buzzing round the Expo has it that at least one major player is about to shut its doors. Even so, other companies are also testing the waters. For instance, Apollo Choppers, a shop that’s been building customs for several years, showcased its new line of production choppers at the show. The fame factor hasn’t completely disappeared, either. Tattoo artist Ami James of TLC’s Miami Ink has partnered with Marlowe B Choppers to form Love Hate Choppers, and the duo will produce one-of-a-kind old-school and classic choppers. Vinnie DeMartino and Cody Connelly, formerly with OCC, are opening a new bike shop called V-Force Customs. Ami, Vinnie and Cody were all seen circulating at the Expo, quietly promoting their new ventures.

The media hoopla surrounding televised biker build-offs and motorcycle reality shows has fallen off considerably in the past two years. History has proven that no segment of the economy can sustain double-digit growth every year without undergoing a market correction. Just like the dizzying ascent of tech stocks in the ’90s followed by their rapid downward spiral, the process of natural selection comes into play. Many of the opportunistic newcomers who rode the media wave hoping to make some quick bucks have, willingly or unwillingly, taken leave of the motorcycle business. Most won’t be missed because they entered the industry out of avarice, not ardor.

A thinning of the herd is not necessarily a negative, as it tends to strengthen those who remain. The number of exhibitors at this year’s V-Twin Expo exceeded last year’s, and attendance held steady—within 4 percent of that in 2007. Although future growth of the motorcycle market may not be as rapid and dramatic as it’s been in the recent past, the success of this year’s V-Twin Expo only served to illustrate the industry’s faith in itself.


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