Friday, April 9, 2010

What constitutes a flop?

I know I said wouldn't talk (much) more about Erik Buell and Buell Motorcycles, but there is some speculation going on that Buell Motorcycles failed because the 1125 series was a flop. While I'm not aware of the people saying things like that actually working for Harley-Davidson or Buell, the speculation game is fun and I'm sure lots of people have their own opinions on the matter. That's cool...

But it got me to thinking about what really constitutes a flop in the motorcycling market place.

Is a discontinued bike a flop?

Fair question. The entire industry and manufacturers on every continent and in every country where bikes are produced have a long... very, very long... list of motorcycles that are no longer manufactured or sold. The venerable, game-changing CB750 from Honda is a shining and prime example of this. To date one of the most recognized, most achieved, and most sought after bikes, the CB750(pick your suffix) is considered something of a landmark on the motorcycling landscape. The CB750 helped to usher in a new era of powerful, lightweight and technology laden machines available at real-world, working man's prices. Honda's modern CBR motorcycles, and nearly every other manufacturer's 4 cylinder sport and naked street bike owe more than a little nod to Honda and the CB bikes of the 70s.

There are still a large number of these bikes operating on the roads and they were sold in large numbers for a long time (speaking in relative terms, mind you). These bikes' descendants are found in every Japanese bike-based dealership and on race tracks around the world. Yet the CB of yesteryear is gone. Gone is the steel tube frame, the solid brake discs with single-pot calipers. Gone, or nearly gone are the air-cooled four cylinder engines with inspection caps in the heads and screw-type valve adjusters. Gone are the 4-rack of carburetors and the chain and sprockets made of what now seems like concrete wrapped in lead.

The CB we all grew up on and fell in love with, clearly, is gone and has been relegated to history; notable history, to be sure, yet history just the same. Clearly that bike was a flop, right?

Do poor sales numbers define a bike as a flop?

I think I can walk into about 6 dealerships that I'm familiar with and with reasonable effort, I can scare up a leftover 2006, 2007 or 2008 Honda VFR 800 Interceptor. These machines are surely among the most beloved and fiercely appreciated cult-favorite bikes of all time. They can still be found as brand new leftovers, with zero miles in show rooms. Sometimes they can be found still crated, not having seen daylight in years. The same holds true for Suzuki's SV and DL series bikes and their flagship line of street sport bikes, the GSXR; a modern offshoot of the GSX and GS models of years gone by.

Surely we can say the famed Gixxer and the beloved VFR are flops, right? Sales numbers prove this assertion.

Are technological "issues" in a model what define a flop?

When you twist the throttle on some new, cutting edge, modern fuel injected motorcycles, there's often an issue with off-idle abruptness, "twitchy" throttle response and a general feel of "on/off" throttle response. This can be annoying and it can be dangerous. Surely such a gross oversight in design, implementation and testing means these bikes are destined to be flops, right?

What about the Hondas with certain charging system issues, or perhaps the Moto Guzzis that have miscellaneous "electrical gremlins". Aprilia surely has a flop on its hands with the RSV4 and the engines that are blowing up, right?

Maybe there are no flops... just evolution.

So, no, I don't believe Harley canceled Buell because of sales flops. Nor do I believe that with products as diverse and passionately owned and crafted as motorcycles that the conventional idea of a 'flop' really applies. Indian motorcycles is delivering new Chief models, completely hand built and assembled from their North Carolina facility to the tune of 2 per day. At that volume, it's IMPOSSIBLE to have large sales numbers. Similarly, Norton is delivering new Commandos to buyers who have already provided deposits. They're producing at a low volume but they are in a position to - literally - sell every machine they make. If that's only a few hundred units compared to, say, Honda's or Harley's numbers, sure it's a small volume. But 100% sales rate... who else has that?

Maybe the notion of a flop is justification for attrition of design and demand, and the evolution of the industry. Maybe?



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