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Motorcycles ride to new heights

August 12, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

No children at home. No jobs to restrain them. Matching 1999 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classics in the garage and gear in their closets.

Mary Ann and Warren "Ike" Eichelberger Sr. are typical of the growing segment of Baby Boomers who have been fueling the motorcycling industry's resurgence in recent years.

Motorcycle sales, membership in motorcycle organizations and participation in motorcycle safety courses all reflect a growing interest in the pastime.

The motorcycle business is booming, nationally and in the Tri-State area, according to owners of area dealerships, related businesses and industry statistics.

New, on-street motorcycle sales have increased every year since 1992, said Nancy Kumamoto, of Discover Today's Motorcycling, the communications arm of the Irvine, Calif.-based Motorcycle Industry Council.

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In 1997, an estimated 356,000 new street bikes were sold nationally, generating $2.9 billion in sales, according to the national trade association's 1997 retail sales report.

Riders tend to be older than they used to be and in a higher income bracket, a comparison of the council's owner surveys from 1990 and 1998 shows.

Median age is 38, compared to 30 in 1990.

Median income is $44,300.

The gender gap among riders, while still wide, is lessening, council surveys show.

Since 1960, the share of women riders has increased from about one in 100 riders to about one in 12 nationally.

Coming back

Many of the "new" buyers are actually returning to a hobby of their youth, after a hiatus to build careers and raise children, for the adventure and stress relief, say the trend watchers.

But many others are first-timers, including women tired of riding on the back of a man's bike and people emboldened by the greater accessibility of formal training, they say.

A lot of people started riding motorcycles during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" ad campaign helped changed motorcycling's image, said Tom Barlow, membership development director for the American Motorcyclist Association in Pickerington, Ohio.

"What seems to be happening now is that empty-nesters with a lot of disposable income still have a thirst for excitement and are getting back into it," Barlow said.

While motorcycle sales aren't at the levels they were during the motorcycle boom of the 1960s and '70s, the price per sale has risen dramatically, reflecting the more expensive motorcycles the returning riders can afford, he said.

"Now, instead of buying a $1,500 off-road or small scooter, they're buying $15,000 Honda Gold Wings," Barlow said.

Booming business

Tri-State motorcycle dealers and related businesses say they've seen the same trends locally and have been benefiting by them.

An economic downturn in the late 1970s ended motorcyclings' heyday, making the late 1970s and early 1980s a difficult time for dealers like Twigg Cycles in Hagerstown, which has been in business since the 1930s, said general manager Jeff Davis.

Business started to pick up in the late 1980s, Davis said.

Though he doesn't sell Harley-Davidsons, Davis credits the company's successful revamp and marketing campaign for kick-starting the industry.

"Harley-Davidson really made it fashionable again to ride a motorcycle," he said.

Before the baby boomers starting jumping back in to the market with both feet in the early 1990s, they were selling mostly sport bikes to younger people looking for cheap performance, Davis said.

In contrast, most of the older buyers weren't looking for sport bikes, which go fast but aren't comfortable, but were willing to sacrifice some performance for comfort and style, he said.

"It just kind of gelled. The cruiser market just went wild," Davis said.

Wanting to cash in on the trend, the Japanese manufacturers developed products to compete with pricier Harley-Davidson models, he said.

It's been a success story for those companies and the dealership, which sells Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki motorcycles, Davis said.

Last year, the business moved to a huge, new showroom on Edgewood Drive.

Manufacturers haven't been sitting on their laurels, Davis said.

They've been introducing new models to meet current tastes for simple, retro-looking designs and lower-riding models to better appeal to new women riders, he said.

Manufacturers see women as an untapped market and are designing bikes and ad campaigns to try to tap them, Davis said.

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