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Examining the Motorcycle Industry Today

For the last century, motorcycles have been a major influence on international culture. Back in 1885 Gottlieb Daimler created the first gas-powered motorcycle, with the mindset of function over form. It was nothing but a wooden bicycle frame, with a simple four-stroke engine attached (Solomn R. Guggenheim Museum). At that point motorcycles were very experimental.

While in the beginning, they weren’t much to look at, they truly proved their usefulness in both World Wars. For instance, Harley Davidson created motorcycles for the United States in World War I and World War II, BMW for the Axis in World War II and Honda for Japan in World War II (Solomn R. Guggenheim Museum). After playing their parts in the major wars, one at a time each major motorcycle company gradually moved towards racing (that is with the exception of Honda which was originally created with racing in mind) (Solomn R. Guggenheim Museum). They each took their part in different racing categories and were all quite successful.

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In present-day, the motorcycle industry is a broad one. Motorcycles satisfy everyone, from people who like to tour, to off-roaders, to those who like to race. They even play a big part in law enforcement.

The motorcycle industry can easily be split into two main categories: domestics and imports. The domestic market tends to lean more towards big body style bikes or “hogs”, with a lot of power and size. However, non-US countries lead the biggest portion of the industry. Imports encompass all other styles of bikes but are usually stereotyped by “café racers”; bikes with high power to weight ratios.

The domestic market is a small yet powerful portion of the world market for motorcycles. The only well-known player in the domestic market is Harley Davidson. The domestic market of motorcycles has become a major part of American culture. It has created a large and very cult-like following with a “ride or die” mentality.

Harley Davidson

Harley Davidson was started in 1901 by a couple of entrepreneurs named William Harley and Arthur Davidson, who wanted to “take the work out of bicycling.” They started out slow but by 1909 the company produced what later became their trademark engine: a 45degree V-Twin (Bacon 14). This new motorcycle was nearly 800cc, produced 7hp and could reach a top speed of 60mph. Within the next several years, Harley Davidson truly started to boom (Bacon 15). They were manufacturing over 12,000 bikes per year and their products were dominating racing events. After helping the United States in border skirmishes with the Poncho Villa, Harley Davidson was called to duty to create motorcycles for the US during World War I (Harley Davidson).

Before the war’s end, they had created over 20,000 motorcycles for the war effort (Bacon 16). In 1920, Harley Davidson became the worlds largest motorcycle manufacturer (Harley Davidson). This however, did not make them invincible to the stock market crash in 1929. That knocked them down to a production of just fewer than 4,000 motorcycles in a year (Bacon 16). However, Harley built up steam once again; enough to build and ship out 90,000 army-version motorcycles for World War II. After the war the desire for motorcycles skyrocketed and soon after, Harley Davidson’s biggest competitor, Indian, went out of business (Bacon 17).

Following that, Harley Davidson made massive advances in motorcycle performance. Their bikes made land speed records (177.225mph in a 250cc motorcycle), won world championships and one of them was the first to break a 9-second quarter-mile (Bacon 21). Now they are known for their cruisers and Harley Davidson has enveloped the local market for motorcycles and now holds a respectable 20% of the world market (Harley Annual Report 4).

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The import market is much broader than the domestic market and makes up for most of the world market. This market’s major players are Honda, BMW, Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki. Between these five companies, we are presented with everything from café racers to touring bikes to dual-purpose bikes.


BMW originally started as a manufacturer of aircraft engines but because of post World War I restrictions, they were forced to shift their efforts (Prestin 8). Before making BMW brand bikes, the company simply sold engines to other companies. In 1923, when they started making bikes under the BMW name, they started with an air-cooled two-cylinder “boxer” engine whose engine was based on that of an aircraft (Prestin 8). Unfortunately with multiple innovations throughout the years, BMW had a product too expensive for the market. However, BMW continued to better their bikes with bigger engines.

They also started a line of motorcycles with sidecars for use in World War II (BMW Motorcycles). These same bikes won world championship races for nearly two decades in the mid 1900’s (Prestin 9). In the years following BMW’s bikes became more powerful, lighter and more comfortable ride with innovations in engines and suspension. BMW’s bikes continue to be among the fastest and most sought after in the world. They have the bragging rights that ¼ of all its original “boxer” powered motorcycles are still in use today in addition to the fact that they hold 21% of the world market in motorcycle sales (BMW Motorcycles) .


Honda was originally created by Soichiro Honda, a prominent businessman (Honda History). In October of 1946 Honda had produced its first “makeshift” motorcycle, using a proprietary cycle frame with a two-stroke electric generator for a motor (Honda History).

The first Honda motorcycle was a war transportation machine (Honda History). It was used during World War II in Japan, where public transportation was desperately overcrowded and gasoline severely restricted. Honda’s first bikes were quite successful, and soon Honda Motors was manufacturing its first motorcycle and selling it as a complete motorbike (Honda History).

Honda was established as a major player in the motorcycle industry when they came out with the classic motorcycles the CB72 and the CB77 (Honda History). These bikes fueled the interest in riding and truly opened up the motorcycle industry in America. In 1962 Honda’s breakthrough advertising slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” altered the belief that motorcycles were only for rebels (Honda History).

It reached out and made Honda and motorcycling in general, appealing to a wider array of people. Besides helping the motorcycle industry overall, Honda has also helped itself flourish. Honda Motors now holds 24% of the world market for motorcycles with its wide array of bikes including café racers, cruisers and touring bikes (Honda History).


Possibly one of the least likely companies to end up producing motorcycles is Suzuki. They started out about 65 years ago making spinning looms (Suzuki History); a far cry from motorcycles. Although now best known for their motorcycles, Suzuki also manufactures cars, vans, trucks and outboard boat motors. Suzuki began producing motorcycles in 1952 (Suzuki History). Its first motorcycle was dubbed the “Power Free” for good reason (Suzuki History). The most noteworthy point about this bike is that it could be pedaled not using the motor, pedaled with the assistance of the motor or simply driven by the motor.

Soon after, Suzuki created its first true motorcycle. It became an instant success after winning a national Japanese race within a year of being produced (Suzuki History). In June of 1954, Suzuki changed its name from Suzuki Jidosha Kogyo (Suzuki Automotive Industries) to Suzuki Motor Co. Ltd; (Suzuki History) an obvious move towards the US markets. They continued with advances in power.

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Suzuki was able to do wonders with small-displacement engines. They managed to win many races in Japan and around the world during the 1960’s. After trying and failing to create a rotary-powered motorcycle, Suzuki made an attempt at a four-stroke four-cylinder engine in the 1970’s (Suzuki History). These potent machines went up to 750cc in size; by far the largest engine Suzuki had ever manufactured. After dropping this large street bike line and introducing a turbocharged superbike, Suzuki now mainly deals in on/off road bikes (Suzuki History).


Although not one of the biggest manufactures of motorcycles in Japan, Kawasaki has had its influence on the motorcycle industry. Kawasaki started off as Tsukiji Shipyard in Tokyo Japan, in 1878 (Fallon 9). In the early 1900’s Kawasaki expanded into making motors, thus leading them into the production of small vehicles and airplanes (Fallon 9). At the end of World War II, Japan, like most countries hit hard from the war, had a surplus in spare parts from their airplanes and other war type vehicles(Fallon 10).

With these extra parts Kawasaki thought it would be best to build motorcycles. Because of the fact that the engines put into the bikes were originally made for airplanes, they were far more powerful and speedy thus being superior motorcycles compared to the other Japanese bikes. With the success of the motorcycle industry, Kawasaki decided to bring an end to its old ways of making airplanes and decided to concentrate solely on motorcycles (Fallon 11).

By 1959 the motorcycle industry had exploded. With its expansion, many of the smaller producers of motorcycles folded (Fallon 34). Even though the market for motorcycles had expanded, many of the smaller producers of motorcycles had folded. Kawasaki, however, was one of the handfuls of companies that survived. Now Kawasaki holds a strong place in the sales of café racers (Fallon 37).


Yamaha originally began as a reed organ production company that was founded by Torakusu Yamaha in Japan in 1887 (Yamaha History). Beginning on July 1 1955 Yamaha Motor Corporation LTD was born (Yamaha History); it is now the second-largest manufacture of motorcycles in the world (Yamaha History).

Starting in 1954 the first bike made by Yamaha was a simple 125cc single-cylinder two-stroke engine (Yamaha History). The design of their first model was a copy of the German DKV (a very popular model in both World Wars) (Yamaha History). Its name was Akatombo, or “Red Dragon”, and soon became known as a well-built, reliable race bike.

The first Yamaha designed bike was a twin-cylinder YDI produced in 1957; it was capable of 20 bhp and won the Mount Asma Race that year (Yamaha History). After three years of exponential growth, Yamaha introduced the first sport model made in a Japanese factory; the twin–cylinder YDSI with a 5-speed gearbox was introduced in 1959 (Yamaha History).

By 1960 production had increased 600% and experienced a big increase in exports occurred (Yamaha History). Exporting had become such a big part of the company that in 1962 exports were at 12, 000 motorcycles, in 1963 it was 36,000 and by 1964 it was at 87,000 (Yamaha History). In 1965 exports became half of their sales. When Yamaha’s first overseas factory opened in Siam in 1966 Yamaha’s production surpassed that of Suzuki’s.

By 1970 Yamaha had 20 different models of bikes ranging from 50cc to 350cc (Yamaha History). At that point Yamaha was exporting 60% of their motorcycles (Yamaha History). In 1970 Yamaha broke out of their original routine and started making four-cylinder motorcycles but still continued to make their original two-stroke bikes (Yamaha History). 1973 marked the year where Yamaha’s production broke 1 million motorcycles made per year (Yamaha History).

Sales Information

Obviously, the main source of money making for motorcycle companies is in the sales of motorcycles, but there are other ways of taking in revenue. Harley Davidson is a good example. Not only do they sell motorcycles, they also sell “cult paraphernalia.” They sell leather jackets, helmets, glasses, t-shirts and other merchandise, sporting their symbolic wings to Harley lovers everywhere. Another way that motorcycle manufacturers make money is through motorcycle rallies. On a regular basis, motorcycle manufacturers as well as manufacturers of aftermarket motorcycle parts and gear get together and put on rallies for motorcycle lovers everywhere. Attending one, you will see more motorcycles than you can imagine and a wider range of personalities than you could perceive.

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The government regulates the motorcycle industry similarly to the way that the automobile industry is regulated. All street bikes must meet safety, emissions and other standards put forth by the DOT such as the requirement of catalytic converters and correct signal lights to name a few (National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety). In addition to the manufacturing of motorcycles, the riding of them is obviously regulated as well. To legally drive a motorcycle you must be at least 16 years of age and meet all other driving regulations and have an M-class license as well (National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety).

Being that motorcycle riding is a recreational thing, its market can easily be teetered by the smallest of changes. For instance: any sort of major increase in gas prices would decrease motorcycle riding and probably stop many people in the market for a bike from going through with it. However, a rise in gas prices can also raise motorcycle sales. The reason behind this is due to the better gas mileage offered through the use of motorcycles. Weather also affects the motorcycle industry; simply put the more it rains/snows/hails/freezes, the less people will ride.

Motorcycles are such diverse machines. If overcrowding occurs, the motorcycle’s small size makes it a superior mode of transportation. If gas prices skyrocket, the motorcycle’s small engine and good gas mileage make it a more economical way to get around. Motorcycles also burn cleaner. On top of that, motorcycles are just plain fun whether off-roading, touring, racing or whatever. The motorcycle industry is and always will be an undying one.


1. Harley Davidson | Company | History:

2. Honda History:

3. Suzuki History:

4. Yamaha History:

5. BMW Motorcycles:

6. National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety: Licensing

7. Solomn R. Guggenheim Museum | The Art of the Motorcycle

8. Harley-Davidson Inc. – 2000 Annual Report, Written by: Annual Reports, pages 24-28

9. The Kawasaki Story: Racing and production models from 1963 to the present day, written by Ian Fallon and forwarded by Scott Russell, published by Haynes publishing, 1999, pages 9-11, 34-37

10. Harley-Davidson, written by: Roy Bacon, Denis Chorlton, Richard Fleury, Ian Kerr, published by Thunder Bay Press., 2001, pages 14-21

11. BMW Motorcycles The Complete Story, written by Bruce Prestin, published by The Crowood Press., 1996, pages 8-9

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Examining the Motorcycle Industry Today. (2021, Jan 29). Retrieved March 22, 2023, from

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