All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1985

The Two-Wheeler Lesson

The Reverend Mr. Watkins edits and publishes The Printed Preacher, a monthly gospel message, 303 North Third, Dayton, Washington 99328.

The first major Japanese motorcycle company, Yamaha, came to the United States in 1958. At that time Harley-Davidson was the only American manufacturer left on the scene, and that year they made 12,676 motorcycles. Today Harley-Davidson has only a small fraction of the market in this country, but they sold about 35,000 last year. That’s 22,000 more than they sold in 1958. In twenty-seven years H-D has nearly tripled their production.

Most of the people riding motorcycles today certainly would not be doing so—and probably would not even give the idea second thought—if it were not for the Japanese bikes. The image of the bike rider has changed. Middle-class, Yuppies (young urban professionals), and senior citizens are cruising the freeways and vacationlands on two-wheeled “Winnebagos.” The Hell’s Angels types are a definite minority and continuing to fade from the scene.

The quality of all the motorcycles has been vastly improved. Twenty-seven years ago the best available to Americans was a noisy, vibrating, two-cylinder, oil-leaker that would rarely start on the first kick of the crank. Thanks to the “Oriental Express” we can now enjoy a cycle symphony that starts with one press of the button. Even the Harley-Davidson riders should give thanks for the Big Four Japanese bikes: Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Yamaha. Why? Even H-D advertising admits they have changed. Speaking of the 35,000 riders that bought H-Ds last year, their own advertising says these new riders discovered, “Harley had not only changed for the better, it had changed for the best.” (Rider magazine, May 1985)

In April 1983, Harley-Davidson was able to sell U.S. lawmakers the idea that Japanese bikes were unfair competition for American bikes. As a result of this pressure a tariff of 45% was levied against all imported Japanese motorcycles with a displacement of over 700cc. Some of the Japanese manufacturers got around this by assembling their larger models in this country, and they scaled their 750s down to just below 700cc. They want to sell to us, so they stay competitive.

Some readers might ask, “Who cares about motorcycles?” Most of you probably don’t. But that’s not the point of this essay. One lesson we learn from the two-wheelers is that producers can be very innovative in their efforts to supply the market, and the Japanese are currently the examples of this fact.

The more important lesson for all the world to see, if they only will, is that competition is good for everybody. Twenty-seven years ago Harley-Davidson sold a few motorcycles to a limited clientele. There was virtually no effort to increase the size of the market. (And who wanted to buy stock in H-D? It has changed hands several times in the interim.)

Enter the Japanese Big Four bike makers with sophisticated research, development, innovations, constant improvement and promotion. More Americans became interested in these fancy, trouble-free two-wheelers, and they started riding in ever-increasing numbers. Harley- Davidson saw the handwriting on the wall: “Weighed in the balances and found wanting.” Rather than quit, they decided to learn from the competition, retool, and “get with it.”

How about the car industry? It’s somewhat the same story. American carmakers became fat and lazy. Enter the Japanese carmakers (and some from Europe). What has been the result? We have all been able to get more for our money, regardless of whether it is American or foreign-made. No one can deny this!

Who will gain if a tariff is imposed on foreign cars? Well, the American manufacturer directly affected will be able to raise his prices. The benefits stop here. There will be fewer cars on the market, so every potential car-buyer is impacted by the tariff in a negative way. Furthermore, without open competition, quality, research, development, and innovation begin to suffer.

Who wants a basketball game where any player over six feet is outlawed? Would you pay money to see a baseball game in which it is against the rules to hit the ball more than 300 feet? Competition looks for the best—the thing we all want. Harley-Davidson, according to my re search, made three bikes in 1903. After fifty-five years of anemic competition on the home front they made fewer than 13,000 in one year. Japanese competition in the past twenty-seven years has stimulated H-D to the extent that last year in order to get just a small piece of the market they turned out over 35,000.

No, maybe you don’t like two-wheelers, but the four-wheelers can learn something here, too.