Cruiser Motorcycles. Where Do We Go From Here?

This article written by Mark Zimmerman.

“Cruisers have been around for nearly four decades now. Since their inception they’ve gone from little more than a novelty to the most popular type of motorcycle sold in this country. The question is: How much longer will the cruiser as we know it remain on the scene? Cruisers got off to a slow start. Early on, few “serious riders” thought they’d be much more than a footnote in motorcycling’s history. Mainstream magazines panned them. Most dealers didn’t particularly like selling them. And many industry insiders thought they’d be gone and forgotten within a few years.

Fortunately a few of the industry’s brighter sparks-particularly those who had been tracking Harley-Davidson’s climb back from the abyss-realized there might be a future in selling what was then called a factory custom and decided to shake the tree just a little harder to see what fell out. Obviously it was a good call; by 1993 the cruiser had become the number one-selling motorcycle in the U.S., a position it still holds as I write this. So why do I suspect that’s about to change? Since the beginning the cruiser market has been fueled by the baby boomers. For a number of reasons, the traditional V-twin cruiser struck just the right chord with them/us/me, and the rest, as they say, is history.

However, the youngest of the boomer riders are now approaching their mid-40s, and the oldest are in their early 60s. While I’ll make no guesses as to the percentage of them that are drifting away from motorcycling, the hard fact is that some attrition is always taking place, especially among the ranks of older riders. Some folks simply lose interest, some suffer from health problems and are forced to stop riding and some sadly go the way of all flesh. In any event their numbers are dwindling. Obviously as the boomers fade from the scene they’ll be replaced by the next generation of riders. This group, the majority of whom are between about 18 and 34 years old, are what currently drive the sportbike market. As a broad generalization I’ll call them the “technology generation.” Right now they’re all hot for sportbikes: They thrive on the razor-sharp handling, the explosive power and, yes, the ever-changing technology. But I don’t think that’ll last forever. My bet is that as they age they’ll tire of the sportbikes’ radical riding position and knife-edge focus on performance and gravitate toward bikes that are broader in scope.

But I don’t think they’re going to be all that interested in their father’s Buick, so to speak. Let’s be honest: Although the traditional cruiser has evolved into a pretty good motorcycle, as a type it’s compromised by certain design characteristics some riders find undesirable. Primarily these are a lack of ground clearance, limited power output and what some consider to be dated styling. I’m just guessing here, but I doubt any of the tech-gen-ers are going to get terribly excited about motorcycles that to them represent a triumph of form over function. What they’re going to want are bikes that are functional, versatile, comfortable, and above all employ cutting-edge technology.

My thinking is that the manufacturers will respond to this group’s demands (a group that should approach 70 million or so by 2015) with motorcycles that move them the way cruisers move us. Some of the manufacturers are already headed in that direction. Consider the Suzuki B-King: While the bike doesn’t fit neatly into any particular category-being neither sportbike, standard or cruiser-it does owe something to each. Like the early customs, it has its share of supporters (mostly younger guys) and detractors (who seem to be older and more curmudgeonly). Maybe it’s not dj vu, but I definitely feel like I’ve been here before.

On the other side of the coin we have the Victory Vision. Yeah, it’s got a somewhat dated powerplant and the styling is over the top, but it certainly illustrates what can happen when your design team gets tired of the same-old-same-old. And for the record, I happen to like it. Imagine a motorcycle with the performance characteristics of the B-King melded with the Vision’s ergonomics and weather protection. OK, maybe not quite that radical, but I think you catch my drift. I think it’d be pretty cool, and I suspect there’s a fair number of guys trolling around on sportbikes with stiff necks and backaches who are just waiting for a bike like that to call their own.

Maybe I’m wrong about all this; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. I don’t think so, though. While I doubt the traditional V-twin cruiser will vanish entirely from the scene, chances are even better that 10 years from now the term “cruiser,” if it’s still used, will be describing a bike a whole lot different from what we’re used to. But I think that’s as it should be”Mark Zimmerman.

Zipper's

21 Responses to “Cruiser Motorcycles. Where Do We Go From Here?”


  1. 1 pop Nov 11th, 2008 at 8:52 am

    My daughters generation listens to Zeppelin, my grandkids too. Mustang is still selling even in this market. Generations get pleasure from familiar icons and take pride in attaching themselves to them. Motorcycles, big honking cruisers, underpowered and overpriced are in that category of icon. The term timeless styling applies to cruisers. It strikes a chord, it’s romanticized, it has history, it’s customizable to the nth degree.

    Sure the future is diminished market share, but it is a bread and butter concept that still gets a lot of riders hearts beating. Like most things motorcycle, the more you predict it’s demise, the more likely somebody is going to prove you wrong.

    Didn’t Twain say something about reports of his demise being exaggerated?

  2. 2 Mike Nov 11th, 2008 at 10:45 am

    I think Harley took one little baby stem in the right direction with the 2009 Electra Glides. The improoved frame is great and adds a ton of stability over the previous models.

    With that said, they are light years away from being cutting edge. They still need a water cooled engine for one thing.

  3. 3 hoyt Nov 11th, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Good write-up.

    Mike – the Revolution motor is liquid cooled.

    The sport touring niche/market could see a significant increase when the current 18 – 34 yr old sportbike rider looks for something less cramped.

    HD could do well in this category…

    First, there is no American-made Sport Tourer.

    Second, this class has a wider range of peformance measures & this calls is not as cutthroat as the super sport genre. For example, BMW still makes one of their Sport Tourers with their air/oil-cooled boxer while Kawasaki makes their sport tourer with the ZX-14 mill.

    Lastly, although the models throughout this genre have improved aesthetically, the sport tourer class could use some styling.

    other thoughts….

    The cafe racer is hugely popular again….styles will always come full circle as pop eluded to above.

    In addition, technology does not only need to be applied to improving performance but technology can be applied to things like creating better, smaller and more cleverly packaged radiators.

  4. 4 hoyt Nov 11th, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    correction to: “Second, this class has a wider range of peformance measures & this calls is not as cutthroat as the super sport genre.”

    This “class” is not as cutthroat as the super sport genre….so, HD does not have to go be overly concerned about matching the sheer performance of the Japanese models

  5. 5 Mike Nov 11th, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Yes, the V-Rod is water cooled, but no “touring” motorcycle is, which is what we are talking about.

  6. 6 T Nov 11th, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    You look at all these radical custom fair weather “bar bikes” most disappear when the weather turns colder. There will always be a market for cruisers for serious riders. As younger riders mature, they will realize what most grey beards already know. Its all about the ride…… not how you look.

  7. 7 Nicker Nov 11th, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…..

    RE:
    “….I doubt any of the tech-gen-ers are going to get terribly excited about motorcycles that to them represent a triumph of form over function…”

    Well, since the “legacy” of the cruiser is in custom creations the “basics” of the janra lies in “form over function.”

    Face it, customers who want function over form will want nothing to do with cursors.

    If and when they bail out on street-racers, they’ll go back to simple roadsters. The custom version of which is, like Rickman-framed…. Chaney-framed…. Trackmaster-framed… (etc, etc, etc) street trackers.

    IMHO anyway.
    -nicker-

  8. 8 Scout Nov 12th, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Dear Mr. Zimmerman,

    I’ve intentionally joined the rebellion against crotch rockets. When there is a status quo, its an American trait to challenge it. It is in so many of our psyche’s to seek options. It is in our DNA.

    So, I quit my job as the Marketing Director at BAKER Drivetrain to focus less on the Boomers’ generation and to focus on what I know better, mine. It wasn’t easy leaving the family but I felt duty called, in a sense. I am deeply working with Harley on initiatives that get my generation to embrace the soul of all of this. As a guy in born and raised in Aftermarketland, a guy of the new generation, and a guy kinda proven in marketing I felt the call. I ask for your thumbs up please. You and I can can sure use the unity.

    With cruisers, there is a character, soul, creativity and brand of passion that technophiles can’t get with sterile bikes bent on pure, shallow performance. It is something that I think that anybody in this blog can feel. I’m not knocking performance or people who embrace it (it is obviously cool in its own way), there are just those of us who are compelled by a profound authenticity based in the nostolgic essence of “this”. I learned this at BAKER. I see it in all my friends that shaped their lives around it. I grew up immersed in punk bands, skateboards and art. I still am, but there is a lot of classic gas and oil in the mix as we age. Everybody that I’ve every been around I could never see on sport bikes. This is our lifestyle and I wanted to do my part.

    I see plenty of us younger riders circling around cruisers and I will do what I can to support it. That’s why I’m here. May it live on. Its a great way to live and I think it is here to stay. Its the glue between all my friends.

    I guess what I’m saying is that work is finally being done and I hope I’m not alone. You ain’t seen nothing yet Mr. Zimmerman. Worry not.

    Sincerely,

    //Scout

  9. 9 Ed Nov 12th, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    “Yes, the V-Rod is water cooled, but no “touring” motorcycle is, which is what we are talking about.”

    The post is about touring and cruising bikes (see the title).

    The next decades will still have a healthy draw towards cruiser motorcycles. And, hopefully, the next energy source will still make use of the i-c engine as opposed to using electric. The power source seems to pose the biggest challenge to the cruiser than anything. e.g. The Road King style just doesn’t have the same appeal with an electric motor.

    “With cruisers, there is a character, soul, creativity and brand of passion that technophiles can’t get with sterile bikes bent on pure, shallow performance.”

    Cafe Racers and certain sportbikes have character and style as well as performance.

  10. 10 harry Nov 12th, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Cruisers will never die, that is simple fact. People move on or progress onto other things, it is human nature. Younger guys that were into sportbikes usually move onto cruisers (if you want to call them that, arrgh…). As much as this analogy might get me a verbal ass-beating on here, but does anyone remember the Honda V-65 Magna? Yeah, that was considered a “cruiser” but for straight line performance, that thing hauled major ass for a “cruiser” at the time, and it was a V-Twin (I remember the commercials of it hauling ass on a drag strip at Ascot Raceway–correct me if I am wrong but I am sure it was there). Folks like S&S and Harley have taken major strides in modern technology and have improved the V-Twin in recent times so it can be a logical choice in a performance motor. Honda used a V-Twin design in the RC series of superbikes (RC 30/45/51) and they have been used in the Buell’s as well (No shit, I know). Can a Dyna Glide outrun and keep up with a Yamaha R-1? Obviously not, but beating a Liter Bike isn’t in the interest of most people and I believe a cruiser can deliver performance and comfort (i.e the Dyna Glide). To piggyback off of some of the other comments here, you are going to customize a cruiser more often than not, so you can add perfomance as well as looks when and still have a comfortable ride when you spend 100+miles in the seat of your bike. You know what goes good w/ cruisers, Doom Metal.
    Doom Metal/Stoner Rock and Cruisers, sorta like beer and hot chicks, they just go together. Sorry bout going off of the deep end, just got too serious here and had to dumb it down a little/lol.

  11. 11 Doc Robinson Nov 12th, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    Scout nailed it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of biking (as most readers of this blog know it and enjoy it) truly does rest with guys like him. Read his words again if you haven’t really taken them in the first time.

  12. 12 Rodent Nov 12th, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    If Harley would stop eating stupid pills and drop the usless Buell that will never compete against Jap crotch rockets and take the Vrod motor and trans out of the stupid chassis it’s in and put it into a tour bike that’s not overpriced they might have a winner.

  13. 13 fuji Nov 12th, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    HARRY: You are right on about the honda V 65 with the exception that it was a ” V 4 ” engine not a twin and 1100 cc. The bike would run in the low tens on the strip

    Quote; FROM 1983. Cycle magazine cover bike.
    The V65 is a urban streetfighter through and through, a bike that can kick almost anything flat in a stoplight to stoplight brawl. >YOU NOTICED THE TERM STREET FIGHTER. This came from a publication in 1983.

  14. 14 fuji Nov 12th, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    Rodent; If Harley would stop eating stupid pills and drop the usless Buell that will never compete against Jap crotch rockets and take the V Rod motor and trans out of the stupid chassis it’s in and put it into a tour bike that’s not overpriced they might have a winner.

    Right on again Rodent. But you have to remember who there customers are. It’s almost Nascar esque on how they think. Harley wants in on the youth movement but the only movement is in old youthfull minds hence a cruiser in the ” dying days ” .

  15. 15 Mike Greenwald Nov 12th, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    “If Harley would stop eating stupid pills and drop the usless Buell that will never compete against Jap crotch rockets and take the Vrod motor and trans out of the stupid chassis it’s in and put it into a tour bike that’s not overpriced they might have a winner.”

    Rodent,
    Not until they stop building their bikes as accessories to their MotorClothes based upon 50s movies will that ever happen.

  16. 16 Henry Huckstep Nov 12th, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    Thank you Mr. Zimmerman

    Good discussion but you missed the mark; A leading pub in our industry ran an article in 1993 with a headline close to this: “Cruiser: World’s Best Selling Model — By 1996” The author is good at forecasting and he hit this one on the nose. But a lot of top engineers in the business still didn’t believe this, Many thought that the Harley cruisers, for interest, were “junk” and simnply would not believe why people would buy those cruisers . That was because the people who were nuuts about cruisers liked them because they were based on designs from the thirties and in fact when the V-Rod came out most of the early Harley owners cried “foul!!” They also liked the cruisers because they were designed and made in America. Not since the Indian or Excelssior.

  17. 17 hoyt Nov 13th, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Henry – good point: “people who were nuts about cruisers liked them because they were based on designs from the thirties”

    That style IS genuine and timeless. I agree with most of the comments here – there will always be a large number of riders in future generations that will appreciate and buy that style. The challenge will not be in the next generations’ tastes but will be in technology and the power source….

    Fast forward to 25-30 years from now when the air cooled engine is possibly history….

    If OEMs don’t use technology to “stylize” the components of liquid-cooled engines in order to simulate the “look” of an air-cooled engine (and consequently the 30’s), where will the cruiser motorcycle go from there?

    There will still be cruisers, but it could be a very different experience. No matter how cleverly the radiator and plumbing are packaged, will people reject the 30’s style used in conjunction with a liquid-cooled motor as being a hoaky, illegitimate pretender?

    Hopefully, engineers will be able to continue the air cooled engine indefinitely, but that could be wishful thinking.

  18. 18 Nicker Nov 16th, 2008 at 12:23 am

    RE:
    “… Hopefully, engineers will be able to continue the air cooled engine indefinitely, but that could be wishful thinking…”

    Why “wishful thinking”….?
    All they have to come up with is a fuel that will suck up the residual heat and burn clean…

    -nicker-

  19. 19 Mike (Kiwi) Tomas Nov 16th, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Scout, Keep up the great work mate. You are a big asset to our industry (and a good guy too).

  20. 20 David Nov 17th, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Just give me a great BMW Sport tourer and I’ll be set. Quick, comfortable and reliable.

  21. 21 psychodrew Nov 18th, 2008 at 1:52 am

    choppers forever

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