Monthly Archive: April 2016

Motorcycle Myopia

During the 1960s, BSA was the leading motorcycle manufacturer in Britain (Triumph, BSA), while Harley-Davidson was the leader in the U.S. Both markets experienced increased import penetration from Japan. Given the emphasis by Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha on smaller motorcycles, the Japanese challenge was largely underestimated. Eric Turner, chairman of BSA Ltd., commented in 1965:

The success of Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha has been jolly good for us. People start out by buying one of the low-priced Japanese jobs. They get to enjoy the fun and exhilaration of the open road and they frequently end up buying one of our more powerful and expensive machines.

Similar complacency was expressed by William Davidson, president of Harley-Davidson:

Basically, we do not believe in the lightweight market. We believe that motorcycles are sports vehicles, not transportation vehicles. Even if a man says he bought a motorcycle for transportation, it’s generally for leisure time use. The lightweight motorcycle is only supplemental. Back around World War I, a number of companies came out with lightweight bikes. We came out with one ourselves. We came out with another in 1947 and it just didn’t go anywhere. We have seen what happens to these small sizes.

By the end of the 1970s, BSA and Triumph had ceased production and Harley-Davidson was barely surviving. The world motorcycle industry, including the large bike segments, was dominated by the Japanese.

[Sources:
Pascale (1983) Honda (A), Harvard Business School Case No. 9-384-049
Advertising Age (1965) Issue December 27
Forbes (1966) Issue September 15]