A decade of wheelin’ and dealin’

Austerity meets the American aftermarket

Cincinnati, Feb. 6–8—The annual V-Twin Expo, now in its tenth year, is the pre-eminent industry trade show for the American motorcycle aftermarket. This is the place where those who have a stake in the American V-twin aftermarket make an appearance. It’s where deals are made and partnerships are formed; where the latest and greatest gizmos are unveiled to the most discerning of critics—the motorcycle dealer. And it’s the place where manufacturers gauge the responses of their clients—the parts distributors and motorcycle shop owners—to their new product offerings. In turn, shop owners, dealers and distributors try to predict the trends that will set the tone for the upcoming riding season. The Expo represents a microcosm of the American V-twin motorcycle business, and as such, gives a fairly accurate reading of the industry’s health.

The show was held in the main exhibit hall of Cincinnati’s Duke Energy Center, and not surprisingly, vendor and dealer attendance was somewhat down from last year (and 2009 showed a big drop from the 2008 numbers), although this was, in part, attributed to blizzards sweeping the northern part of the U.S. and affecting air travel all over the country. The total square footage of the show was also down from the last few years. In 2007, the Expo’s biggest year, when 500 vendors stretched across two floors, it was nearly impossible to see everything. This year’s show was more relaxed because you knew you could easily visit every booth during the three days of the show.

Rather than decrying the drop in numbers, it may serve us better to understand that the show captures the current state of the motorcycle industry. Much as tech stocks soared sky-high through most of the ’90s, dropped like a 10-ton bomb when the bubble burst, and then began inching back toward a healthy balance, the motorcycle industry (albeit 10 years later), is doing the same. The “bike bubble” that burst a few years ago took some marginal (and even a few solid) players with it, resulting in a long-overdue consolidation.

Conventional wisdom says that the bike business won’t magically shoot back up to its dizzying heights of five years ago. This is the new baseline, and as such, the V-Twin Expo reflects the zeitgeist of the motorcycle market. And although there was still an overabundance of components such as exhaust systems and wheels, you could pretty much guess which companies will remain—those businesses with high-quality products priced for today’s market.

This year, however, we did see a re-emergence of innovative and imaginative customs. To showcase Wizards’ cleaning products, Ballistic Cycles built a bagger with a 30-inch front wheel constructed by Doug Magoon, formerly of Metalsport, with Vee Rubber making the tire to fit the rim. Ballistic Cycles’ owner Tim McNamer says that next year, Magoon will make them a 36-inch wheel! S&S also created a real head-turner—a ’90s FXD with the frame cut (courtesy of DougZ) to accommodate an X-Wedge motor. It wasn’t the normal production engine, but was modified to house 4 3/8″ pistons, bringing it up to 132 c.i. It also sports a new concept component—a dual-carbureted intake. As Scott Sjovall, S&S vice president of product development says, “This is gonna be a fun motorcycle!”

Speaking of fun, ever-inventive motorcycle builder/artist Ron Finch displayed his Captivator bike, so named because of all the bottle caps used in the design (they match the heads of the Crazy Horse engine). Complementing this creation, Ron also displayed the new Outsider, his first sidecar-equipped motorcycle. The frame and intricate bodywork was constructed of wrenches, gears, chains, rods—just about any metal part you can find in a garage. And the wonderfully whimsical machine is fully functional.

That’s hot
Baggers are still the hot ticket, with loads of new components like the KlockWerks Billboard Flare windshield. Vee Rubber, in another departure from its history of hugely fat tires like the 360/30×18, introduced a whitewall tire for baggers at much more practical widths.

There were plenty of products to make the riding experience easier and more enjoyable. The new S&S EasyStart Cams for high-performance motors are purported to make hard starting obsolete. BAKER Drivetrain featured their five-speed reverse transmission, hitting the pre-six-speed Harley market (1990–2006), the hot points of reasonable price, and aging bikers in one fell swoop. There were also numerous exhibits featuring sound systems for your motorcycle. V-Twin Expo producer Jim Betlach told Thunder Press, “We have probably 15 to 20 companies that are very much in audio; so much so that next year I think we’ll have an audio section and for sure an audio seminar.”

Need we mention the continuation in retro products; both bikes and parts? The Limpnickie Lot, a conflation of old-style bike builders, had a Shovelhead build-in-progress on display. Wimmer Performance, which has always made modern, edgy air flow products, displayed a performance kit for the classic S&S teardrop air cleaner. BAKER also presented its four-speed transmission with variations for 1936–1984 Knuckles, Pans and Shovels.

In keeping with the economy, manufacturers are dropping their prices on some of their products, such as Pirelli did with its street performance tires. Russ Wernimont Designs has taken a different tack, selling lower-priced but still high-quality cast aluminum alloy wheels. In general, show specials (price reductions offered for dealers who order products at the show) were the best we’ve seen.

Reasonably-priced quality clothing was quite popular at the show, as well. Hot Leathers has an extensive line of mid-priced motorcycle accessories and apparel, and the price point seems to fit today’s market, evidenced by the company’s growth. The business is licensed to produce official merchandise for Laconia Motorcycle Week and the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis as well the Sturgis Rally itself. And this year at the show, Bryan Fuller of Fuller Hot Rods in conjunction with Hot Leathers launched a new apparel line.

American gospel
At this year’s show, there were few cheaply-made, poor-quality overseas-manufactured products to be found. The culling of the herd, for both American and overseas parts, began last year in earnest, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Many American companies have, since their inception, chanted the “Buy American” mantra to dealers and distributors. These same manufacturers have begun preaching the American gospel to Europeans. Companies that started selling to European customers years ago are stepping up their efforts. I spoke with a few manufacturers’ representatives who are visiting European countries to establish or augment their distribution channels.

You might not have seen any European distributors with booths set up at the V-Twin Expo, but they were there, walking the exhibit hall and looking for parts and accessories to bring into their product pipeline. According to a few American companies I spoke with, these are the same distributors that weren’t interested in their products last year. The European Union has a global hunger for American products, and a number of the companies at the show are attributing their growth to this rising market.

Back to school
Free seminars are presented throughout the weekend, with experts sharing technical and business knowledge. Tech seminars included the Power Commander V given by Dynojet Research, supercharging basics given by ProCharger, ThunderMax training by Zipper’s Performance, and S&S Cycle discussion of new products. Business presentations included Auction 123’s best practices and National Powersports Auction’s topic of pre-owned motorcycles; Don Emde leading a panel on selling successfully to women and another on today’s effective marketing; the Henry Ham Agency’s talk on motorcycle shop insurance; and Attorney Earl LeVere’s discussion of product patenting.

One of the best-attended seminars was Eternal Combustion: Opportunity in the Wind, with a panel representing a variety of motorcycle-related businesses. Dave Perewitz described how he had to change and diversify for his business to survive, including working on old-style bikes like he built decades ago. He’s now building $15,000–$25,000 customs with only a few high-end builds in the mix. Brian Klock attributes the phenomenal growth of his business to excellent customer service. And Paul Yaffe declared that effective, consistent marketing is one of the most important elements of keeping his business alive.

Kevin Baas and Matt Olsen talked about how to pass the motorcycle legacy on. Kevin teaches high school students and encourages people in the industry to not look at how much money these kids can spend, but rather to teach them and share their passion. Matt learned that there is no silver bullet to passing along the knowledge and skills. He believes that everyone in the industry needs to do whatever they can, including one-on-one mentoring.

Recognizing excellence
A significant amount of business is conducted in bars, restaurants and unofficial after-parties once the exhibit hall closes for the day. And the Expo-sponsored V-Twin Industry Reception and Industry Leader Awards is one of these places where exhibitors and show attendees can relax and socialize after the close of the show early Saturday evening. But more importantly, it’s an opportunity for the motorcycle business to honor its own; those innovative products—and people—that have made a positive impact on the industry.

Even though the show is oriented primarily toward the aftermarket, Harley-Davidson consistently wins at least one award every year. This year, Harley was a three-time winner. The MoCo was awarded motor manufacturer of the year for its engine remanufacturing program (an interesting deviation from prior years, where actual motors were selected), followed by the company receiving cruiser of the year for the Dyna Wide Glide. Watching Harley-Davidson then win the custom production bike of the year award for their CVO Street Glide was like seeing a billboard proclaiming the eclipse of the American aftermarket motorcycle. Just in the past five years, Sucker Punch Sallys, Intrepid Cycle, OCC Motorcycles, Big Dog Motorcycles, Proper Chopper, American Ironhorse, Big Bear Choppers and Brass Ball Bobbers won awards for categories such as custom production, production bobber, production chopper, bike of the year and the like. All but one of these companies, and a good part of the rest of the middle tier of motorcycle manufacturers, were virtually absent from the Expo. Although a few aftermarket motorcycle manufacturers have produced 2010 models, some of the others have gone out of business, filed for bankruptcy protection or are struggling to stay afloat. The hobbyists and self-proclaimed master builders who jumped on the bike-building bandwagon over past decade are mostly gone, as there’s little demand today for overpriced, over-the-top customs, some of questionable quality and practicality.

The other repeat winners were industry mainstays S&S Cycle, which won tech product of the year with its Easy Start compression release cams; BAKER Drivetrain, which took new product of the year (this was a new category) for its four-speed transmission; and RC Components’ RCX-haust slip-on muffler, awarded the Teresi prize for innovative product of the year. Rolling Thunder Manufacturing was named frame designer of the year for its rubber-mounted series, and Roland Sands named wheel designer of the year for the Mission wheel. The accessory of the year was Hogtunes HF-1 Hog Pod Tweeter Bar. Lehman Trikes won motorcycle design of the year for its PitBoss for the Victory Kingpin, and Victory itself won V-twin bike of the year for its Cross Roads tourer. Metric of the year was won by Honda for its Fury model, although, once again, none of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers exhibited at the expo. Honda didn’t even bother to send a rep to receive the prize.

The production bobber category was dropped this year only two years after its introduction, but another new category was added—value product of the year, won by Vance & Hines for their VO2 air filter kit.

In a surprise move, Holger Mohr, president and CEO of parts distributor Custom Chrome, was named industry leader of the year. Mohr is a native of Germany and while still in college, he began working for one of Germany’s top distributors. At 21 years old, he became an intern at Custom Chrome, and after rising up the corporate ladder, he was named president of Custom Chrome Europe, leading the company in its rise to the top of the European market. In 2008, Mohr moved to Custom Chrome’s global headquarters in Morgan Hill, California, where he oversees the company’s global operations. He has led CCI through its latest restructuring and is poised to lead the company’s return to its dominant position in the U.S., commenting that, “I have only been here a year and a half… My biggest accomplishment is yet to come.”

The lifetime achievement award, granted posthumously to Bruce Rossmeyer, was accepted by his daughters Shelly and Mandy. Rossmeyer owned over a dozen Harley-Davidson dealerships in five states, including Destination Daytona, the mega-dealership he built in Ormond Beach, Florida. He served on the board of directors and raised funds for several organizations such as Camp Boggy Creek, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Volusia/Flagler Counties and Broward County, the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, as well as being involved with fundraising activities for numerous other charities.

Who’s who
V-Twin Expo producer Jim Betlach commented that, “There were over 330 vendors this year, and over 50 companies have been with us from the start. At one point, there were over 500 companies exhibiting. I can honestly say that maybe 60 or 70 of them were borderline, and there really wasn’t a need for them in the business. We have the who’s who in the industry.” He went on to say about the dealers, “There’s not as big a crowd, but the people that are here are more sincere—more legitimate buyers. I always say, if you want a huge crowd, put up a booth at the state fair. Out of 1,000 people that walk by your booth, only a small percentage are interested in what you have. Here, everyone in the show has what everyone attending this show wants to see—V-twin-specific merchandise.”

Even top builders like Dave Perewitz, Arlen Ness and Donnie Smith come to the show every year; sometimes as exhibitors and sometimes just as shop owners. Dave said, “One of the reasons I love the show is that all the people important in the industry are here. It’s a great show to come and see new products and make deals, and there are a lot of deals to be made. I see old friends, discuss what’s going on, and see new trends here. There are a lot of guys that are doing really cool stuff with new products. It’s extremely important if you’re in the industry and you have a true passion for this industry, you need to be here.”


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