The appeal of bygone bikes is almost irresistible. Bikers, I think, are romantic by nature anyway, so the mystique of great names like Norton, Vincent, or Matchless is only enhanced by the decades that separate them from us. We love a good sad story, but the only thing that’s better than a tragic tale of demise is one of ultimate resurrection and triumph (pardon the word choice). Reviving an old motorcycle brand has never been more popular, but in a motorcycle marketplace that is already fractured and confused, it is a perilous business. While some revived brands are enjoying a bright new life, others are staggering around looking for their brains.
The same thing has been happening in the automotive space for a while, of course, sometimes successfully (the Mini Cooper), sometimes not (the Thunderbird), sometimes just inexplicably (the Dodge Dart). Think of all the revived muscle car models, most of which are quite cool and popular. It’s the Age of Reboot.
Triumph, of course, is the great motorcycle revival success story. From receivership 30 years ago, they’re now a major full-range world player. Indian is back and better than ever under Polaris' guidance. Meanwhile, others look like they will continue to struggle. Here are some common-sense thoughts on what separates those groups.
The brand must still have currency. Remember Excelsior? Horex? Crocker? No? Even if you have heard of them, they probably don’t have any personal resonance with most people. Penton is probably more valuable as a pure brand than these names. If part of what you’re trading on is the emotional connection to the brand, it has to still be warm in people’s hearts.
The bikes must be cost competitive. The market for $30,000+ motorcycles is extremely small, and putting out modern machinery at a marketable price takes serious engineering and manufacturing horsepower. This was a challenge for the new Vincent, the new Norton, and for pre-Polaris Indian, and it will be a challenge for anyone starting out.
Rider experience is everything. Triumph mainly rebuilt their brand around the Speed Triple, a hot, forward-looking bike that advanced the naked sector, not just around new Bonnevilles. No matter how venerated a name might be, or what dead celebrity endorsements you have, it will only get the customer to the shop; the ride will make the sale.
Offer something unique. The quality and variety of bikes available today are unprecedented, and the market is tight, so the consumer is in the rider’s seat. We need more than just another performance roadster or clone cruiser to get excited enough to pull us away from the many great options already out there.
“Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by.” Bruce Springsteen knew nostalgia is a trap. Yesterday’s wine is today’s rotgut liquor. “Boring Stories of Glory Days.” Our love of motorcycle history and heritage has to be more than just nostalgia, because these days are glory days, too. I would love to see all these brand revivals succeed, but they can’t do it on legacy alone. They need to expand the market with reasonably priced, innovative bikes that are a blast to ride.
Now if I can just find some investors to help me buy DKW…
Carter A. Edman teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” at Case Western Reserve University and has taught a variety of courses on creative culture. He rides a modified 2008 Triumph Bonneville and is restoring a 1970 BSA. As the founder of Moto Sapiens he explores the constant evolution of motorcycle culture that is unapologetic, unpredictable and sometimes strange.
Follow Carter on Twitter: @Moto_Sapiens
This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.