Thursday, April 25, 2024


E letter / Opinion

So how do we turn the current interlude imposed by Covid-19 into future opportunities? Veteran bike sales rep and trade commentator John Featherstone poses the questions. 

To make affordable, stress-free, powered two-wheelers a volume provider of personal travel freedom?  This surely has to be the objective for manufacturers, dealers and all involved in our very unique transport and leisure industry. We need a serious rethink as to what factors are suppressing a stagnant market at present. Some will make it and some will not and the dreadful threat we are experiencing can, in a bizarre way, supply some answers.

I have had the privilege of compiling a quarterly Trade Talk feature in British Dealer News for the past three years. To encourage dealer viewpoints and observations around the UK, I have phoned dealers up and down the country. Some I have never met and others I have known from my time as a Suzuki sales rep. Some were less than forthcoming and declined to offer comment, which was fine, but led me in some instances to think of the “iron triangle” with a hint of franchise designations and restriction.

Originally an American concept of business project management with three objectives referenced as money, power and control, this is a curse in an industry such as ours. We are not white-goods suppliers. Most involved in our supply chain have the same passionate roots as the customer to whom they are selling a bike, and look for continuity and retention. What we don’t need are extra snouts in the trough that rip off and ultimately destroy potential volume within the market, a market that can grow and be sustained when opportunity presents itself — as it surely will later this year and into the future.

The motorcycle trade is unique, featuring the best and worst of the human race.  The especially unique bit is that dealers and customers usually share the same passion. So how should we sell ourselves?

Harold Macmillan told us in 1957 that we’d never had it so good and he was right. It was achievable for many leaving school at 16 then. Myself and mates all went into jobs. And without hire purchase, PCP, bank loans or parental help, we were on the road with sometimes dodgy remnants of the British motorcycle industry, all paid for with cash we earned. Mine was a BSA C11G, nominal third party insurance and road tax an afterthought.

And my life stayed good. After five years as a motorcycle traffic patrolman with Blackpool Police, a great opportunity followed in 1972. I joined Suzuki GB at the same time as Barry Sheene did his industry marketing bit — fantastic years of growth with Peter Agg and Maurice Knight, and most of all a dealer network focused on customers and simple profit margin with up-front retention.

Fast forward to the 1990s and along came Piaggio Group and Giuseppe Tranchina offering automatic scooters priced just right, as Japan took its eyes off the need for affordable personal transport. Simple business ideals that seem to be history now.

But returning to the present, what a wake-up call for the back-to-basics opportunity which will present itself when this virus is seen off. Before it arrived, we were languishing with a fairly miserable number of registrations, based on expensive product aimed at an affluent minority, and a leaderless industry lacking direction. Lip service was paid to here-today and gone-tomorrow politicians, and a Mayor of London who would not recognise a motorcycle if he fell over one.

There are characterful and charismatic personalities out there in our industry such as Philip Youles in Manchester and Martin Marshall in Aberdeen. But we all need to grasp the forthcoming economic downturn and take the fantastic openings it will present. Straight-talking Norwich motorcycle dealer Paul Clarke posted a letter to BDN in April 2019 with this excellent thought-provoker: “The fact is that motorcycles will never sell again in volume until the nation is skint.” By the end of this year, mired under a vast ocean of government debt, that prediction could come true. Bring it on! 



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