The Five Most Important Motorcycle Stories from 2018

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2018 is coming to a close now, so we of course are looking back at what happened over the past year in the motorcycle industry.

There was no shortage of weighty stories in 2018, so we picked just our Top 5 big themes from the year to share with you.

They range from business items, racing news, and new motorcycles (or the lack thereof). Without too much fanfare, let’s get into it, and see Asphalt & Rubber‘s most important stories from 2018.

Harley-Davidson’s New Clothes

On the one hand, it should come as a surprise that Harley-Davidson is our top storyline for 2018, as the American brand dominates the American motorcycle landscape, but on the other hand, it is quite the feat.

This is because Harley-Davidson’s business model has been stuck in the past, churning out roughly the same motorcycles over and over again to the baby boomer generation.

For as long as there has been an Asphalt & Rubber, we have been talking about how Harley-Davidson’s chickens would come home to roost, and in 2018 that finally seems to be the case.

I have talked before about how Harley-Davidson’s decline in ridership was going to be like walking off a cliff, and not like rolling down a hill, as the exodus of older (male) riders from the industry was likely to occur en masse, not in a trickle.

The tsunami of that wave is breaking right now, and Harley-Davidson’s sales show for it.

Each quarter of this year has resulted in a sales loss, with business in the US consistently dragging down the Bar & Shield brand’s sales. With the doom and gloom of each quarterly report, we began to wonder when Harley-Davidson would begin to take notice finally…and this year they finally did.

The first big move came from Harley-Davidson’s short-lived investment in Alta Motors, which was part of a larger strategy by Harley-Davidson to bring electric motorcycles, mopeds, and bicycles to market, which itself was part of a larger new business plan.

Harley-Davidson’s shift from being a heritage-focused marque to a motorcycle company that would offer a full lineup of models from different segments, drivetrains, and price points was the story of 2018.

I would even argue, it was the story of the past 10 years.

That Harley-Davidson would make such a radical change to its business (and show it to the public in such an early stage of development) shows the strong moves (and perhaps the panic) occurring in Milwaukee.

Harley-Davidson is finally gearing up to be a 21st century motorcycle manufacturer, company, and brand. It is a scary time for the iconic corporation, but also an exciting one.

Already we have seen the first moves, and the first missteps by Harley-Davidson.  The Livewire is ready to debut next year, with the electric motorcycle taking center stage at Harley-Davidson’s 115th anniversary celebration.

Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson’s partnership with Alta Motors imploded just a few months into the relationship, leading to Harley-Davidson setting up its own business unit in Silicon Valley for EV development.

This of course, brings us to our next big storylines of the year.

The Demise of Alta and Motus

While question marks remain for the future of Harley-Davidson, the year has been even less kind to some other motorcycle brands. Both Alta Motors and Motus Motorcycles closed their doors this year, both for a lack of funding.

For Motus Motorcycles, the closure marks the end of a ten-year road, which saw meager sales from the company’s sport-touring machine. A truly unique motorcycle, the Motus MST was a tough ask of consumers at $30,000+ a pop.

The highlight of the MST was its 180hp, pushrod, V4 engine, which was an intriguing homage to American muscle car design, but failed to resonate with a crowded space of other highly capable motorcycles from established OEMs.

Motus was defined by its “Made in America” brand, its affable founders, and its approachable machine. An absolute pavement-shredder to ride, the MST was promising, though not perfect.

The reasons for Motus’ demise are perhaps not that far from Harley-Davidson’s push to change, as the market size of buyers who resonate with this kind of motorcycle are shrinking fast. 

The converse of that coin is surely Alta Motors, which sat on the bleeding edge of motorcycle and transportation technology. Starting life as electric supermoto, BRD switched its name to Alta and found religion in the dirt.

As such, the Alta Motors Redshift MXR and EXR were very promising dirt bikes, and the San Francisco company showed that when priced aggressively against premium petrol-powered machines, the market was willing to accept both the benefits and detriments of electric motorcycles.

The story of Alta Motors though isn’t that uncommon in Silicon Valley, where being able to navigate the waters of investment is perhaps more important than just having a raft in the first place.

A bad marriage with Harley-Davidson lead to a troubled investment opportunity with an unnamed investor (rumor pegs BRP as Alta’s failed acquirer), which then led to the company shutting its doors.

Under-capitalized for the haul, the story of Alta Motors is not a new one from the world of startup business, but it is a very public one for the motorcycle industry.

One has to wonder what the implications will be for the motorcycle industry without a brand like Alta challenging the status quo. Did Alta prove the market, or kill it? Maybe 2019 will have the answer for us.

The Next, Next Big Thing

Despite the loss of Alta and Motus, the motorcycle industry has not been without innovation. This past year has been the year for 3D printing technology to find its applications in the two-wheeled space.

BMW Motorrad has been leading this charge, thanks mostly to its automotive parent company. Recently, we saw progress from another four-wheeled company, as Bugatti showed off its process for making titanium brake calipers from an additive manufacturing process.

This year also showed us the world’s first 3D printed motorcycle, which while looking like a complete death trap, at least shows the sounding of some of the more core principles and benefits of additive manufacturing practices.

This wasn’t the only space for innovation, however. Yamaha released news that it was set to invest $100 million over the next 10 years, which include a recent investment in exoskeleton technology company Roam.

2018 will surely go down as the year of the winglet, as well. Though the MotoGP Championship has been dabbling in this technology for several seasons now, aerodynamic rider aids have finally hit the mainstream.

First, it was the WorldSBK Championship that made winglets legal for racing, so long as they were on the production models.

That prompted Aprilia to be first out of the gate with its winglet design for the RSV4 superbike, though ironically the Italian brand will not be racing in the WorldSBK paddock next year, and is likely not to return until the 2021 season.

We will see Ducati with winglets on the superbike race track, however, as the Ducati Panigale V4 R debuted with the ability to add wings to its fairings.

We expect many other brands to follow suit…especially if Ducati is successful at winning the 2019 championship title.

If a few carbon fiber wings isn’t high-tech enough for you, we bring you one last innovation…from space. This is because Bosch announced this year that it was working on a motorcycle thruster system that would prevent motorcycles from tipping over during  a loss of traction.

The idea is pretty crazy, but it does address one of the perceived problems of a riding a motorcycle. I’m not sure if 2019 brings us space thrusters, but it could be interesting if it does.

The Curious Case of Romano Fenati

What can we say about Romano Fenati that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam this year? Even before 2018, the young Italian rider has made a reputation for himself in the MotoGP paddock for his light switch temper and bad behavior. 

This has translated into a mercurial talent on the track, which shows signs of a true born ability that is held back by a lack of maturity and clarity of action.

This has led to many setbacks for “Naughty Fenati”, the biggest of which was getting the boot from Valentino Rossi’ Sky VR|46 Moto3 team.

Romano Fenati’s actions in the grand prix paddock spilled into the mainstream world this year though, as he grabbed the brake lever of Stefano Manzi’s Moto2 bike at the San Marino GP.

The racing paddock was then plagued with Fenati’s story of penalties, appeals, banishment, and redemption. Despite losing his ride with the factory MV Agusta Moto2 team for next year, we seem set to see Fenati back on the track in 2019, despite the Italian’s suggestion that he was retiring from racing.

It has been said before the motorsport is a soap opera for men, and the curious case of Romano Fenati certainly lives up to the hype, but the real legacy of Fenati’s actions is that it put grand prix motorcycle racing front and center around the world…and not in a good way.

Gaining not only widespread coverage by mainstream sporting outlets in the United States, a market that almost never covers motorcycle racing, Fenati’s actions featured on nightly newscasts and printed publications of record.

In a world where all press is considered good press, one can debate whether or not Romano Fenati helped or hurt the greater cause of motorcycle racing and the industry as a whole. But, it does surprise us to hear that the young Italian could ever be racing again.

Fenati’s actions at Misano were very far from his first offense, and if history teaches us anything about Romano, it is that he lacks the ability to learn from his past mistakes. As such, we expect to revisit this story again in 2019. Brace yourselves.

Where Is My Damn Hayabusa??!

The ongoing news about a new Suzuki Hayabusa reached such a level that we began our own “This Week’s Suzuki Hayabusa Rumor” story series. The reality is that this headline holds two stories.

The first is the return of Suzuki, which went through a long hibernation during the Great Recession. The Japanese brand has been slow to find its mojo during the ensuing economic boom that came in 2010 and onward, and if current indications are correct, Suzuki might be getting its swagger back just in time for the next economic downturn.

As such, Suzuki has a lineup of motorcycles that is extremely long-in-the tooth, the prime example of which is the Suzuki Hayabusa. A motorcycle that first debuted in 1999, it seems the venerable Busa is finally ready for a complete makeover…that is, if you believe the rumors.

We do believe the rumors though, but the details and timing have been hazy, to say the least. Will forced induction make an appearance? Some of our sources say yes, others say no. 

A full electronic upgrade is almost certain, and there has been speculation about a healthy displacement bump. Visually the bike is expected to be updated, though we doubt it will stray too far from its current design. And so, the list goes on.

One of the most interesting things about the Hayabusa though is its cult status. Suzuki managed to sell nearly as many Hayabusa models this year as it did the new GSX-R1000.

Consider that: the nearly 20-year-old motorcycle that by every measure is the inferior machine to the new GSX-R1000 superbike is still able to move units at the same pace.

That is the opportunity that is surely driving Suzuki to renew the Hayabusa, and we patiently waited this year to see the new hyperbike released. Our wait will extend into 2019, though it seems it won’t be for too long.

While the Hayabusa’s production for Europe and Japan has ceased, and the 2019 model continues in the USA, there are indications that an early 2020 model could debut in the coming months.

We talk a lot about the waning of the sport bike market, but I think there is argument for the segment’s renewed vigor when I look at bikes like the Hayabusa.

We live in a superlative time. Our online lives are consumed with words like “the best” or “the fastest” – as we consume bite-sized stimuli from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other social media platforms.

A return of the world’s fastest production motorcycle fits into that lifestyle. It is the reason why non-motorcyclists recognize the Hayabusa name, and not the GSX-R, in the first place.

If we really want to tout the locution “Make Motorcycles Great Again” then maybe we should consider the principles that put that phrase into our lexicon. Maybe we should make a motorcycle that fits that mold.

The Suzuki Hayabusa could be that machine. Bring it on, 2019.