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China Rising 1 2

The Chinese motorcycle industry and you
By Paul Dean
September 2007

What would you say if someone told you that half of all the motorcycles sold worldwide every year were made in China? You’d probably wrinkle your forehead, stare blankly into space and blink your eyes in disbelief. China? Can’t be. What’s the catch?

You don’t need to be an anthropologist to know that motorcycling in China is very different from the U.S.
There is none. It’s a fact. And someday fairly soon, you and the rest of the motorcyclists in the U.S. will come to know it all too well. In 2003, China produced a staggering 14 million motorcycles. According to one credible source, China has been the world’s largest producer of motorcycles since 1994!

Okay, so there is a catch: At this point, the Chinese do not make motorcycles that compete directly with the vast majority of those sold in the U.S. Most Chinese streetbikes are small by our standards, single-cylinder tiddlers in the 50/100/125cc range. A few Twins up to 250cc sneak into the mix, but there aren’t many models larger than that. And, of course, China produces a wide range of scooters, which make up a huge percentage of that country’s two-wheel production.

Actually, scooters and small-displacement kids’ dirtbikes are two categories in which Chinese bikes are already having a noticeable impact on the U.S. market. Both segments tend to attract buyers hoping to spend as little as possible, and the price tags on the Chinese offerings are only a fraction of those on their Japanese and European counterparts. With rare exception, the quality of these Chinese machines is significantly lower than that of the higher-priced bikes; but for people who only intend to casually putt around on the vehicles every once in a while, the trade-off can be worthwhile.

Editors Girdler and Miles performing emergency repairs on a Qujos Trailmaster 200. It didn’t finish the 1000-mile trip for our “Grand Tour” feature story.
For residents of the world’s largest communist country, the motorcycle is not a recreational vehicle or an object of personal passion; it’s a utilitarian device that provides millions with their only reasonable, affordable means of transportation. Many citizens of China—as well as those throughout most of Southeast Asia—cannot afford cars, so it’s no wonder that country has one of the world’s largest concentrations of small motorcycles and scooters. Most of these riders also can’t afford the higher-quality Japanese motorcycles and have instead resorted to buying Chinese-built imitations—some legal copies, others not so legal.

Popular perception would suggest that these imitations are shoddily built and of low technical content, but that’s not always the case; many indeed are dreadful, but some are decent and still others are quite good. The better ones typically use proven Japanese engine, chassis and suspension designs that are only a generation or two old. The end results are durable, practical bikes that often cost a fraction of what the originals would sell for.

Potentially, Americans looking to get into motorcycling at minimal expense stand to benefit greatly from these savings, so what’s not to like? Well, at this point, quite a lot. For starters, how about an infant industry with little or no dealer network? How about very little buyer recourse should something break or fail? How about too many manufacturers, distributors and other middlemen clouding the market with false hopes, hollow promises and flat-out misrepresentations?

This may sound like doom and gloom, but the true picture is brighter than that. Considering that there are more than 100 supposed motorcycle “manufacturers” (most are actually just parts suppliers) in China, there’s bound to be some bad apples.

That situation is changing, though, and surprisingly enough, some of the most powerful forces driving that change are the Japanese manufacturers. In the past, when a Chinese company copied a Japanese design, legal action or economic sanction would have been the order of the day. But in this era of global economies, the Japanese are instead setting up trade and manufacturing partnerships with some of the Chinese companies. Although this potentially gives the Chinese an opportunity to copy Japanese designs more easily, it’s actually having a reverse effect. The riders in Asia are demanding better quality, more features and higher technology for their money than in the past, so legally partnering with the some of the world’s leading manufacturers is a real shot in the arm for the Chinese companies.

Tank has been selling a line of scooters, quads and motorcycles for some time in the U.S. This is the Sporty 50 scooter. Among its features, a remote starter.
Truth is, several manufacturers in China have been producing high-quality motorcycles for quite some time, but at this juncture, they have no interest in expanding to the United States. When they look at the certification hurdles imposed by the EPA, DOT, CARB et al, as well as the time and expense of creating a legitimate dealer network here—not to mention the promotional effort required to get the program off the ground—they simply shrug their shoulders and continue with what they had been doing: selling all the motorcycles they build as quickly as they can build them. They don’t need to be in the American market, so they aren’t.

As the Chinese motorcycle industry evolves to meet the demands of markets within and outside its own boundaries, the quality of its products will only increase. The lower end of the market will soon be crowded with small bikes that are just one or two technological generations old, built to Japanese standards in Chinese factories.

For the present, what this means to motorcyclists in the United States is unclear. The expense of building or even copying a modern fuel-injected full-size motorcycle—whether sport, standard or cruiser—is still too high to justify the cost of entering the high-end market, especially without a proven name behind the model. For new and recreational motorcyclists, or for those who just want something to putt around on without much investment, Chinese motorcycles will open a whole new world of possibilities. There will be more and cheaper motorcycles available to the public.

Currently, no one would consider these new imports to be anything but economy machines. Cycle World’s own experiences with Chinese bikes have been inconclusive at best. A faux enduro model that had a premature valve failure, a cruiser that, ahem, “borrows” styling cues from another manufacturer, and a scooter with too small of a gas tank do not constitute a representative sample. But aside from its tiny fuel capacity, the scooter wasn’t all that bad: An alarm, a remote starter and decent performance could be had all for one-fourth the price of its Italian competition.

Vento’s 249cc V-Thunder XL delivers some big-bike styling cues, like chrome accessories, solid wheels and a windscreen for $3599. The actual riding experience, though, leaves a lot to be desired.
You can’t help but draw parallels between the current state of the Chinese bike market in the U.S. and the Japanese motorcycle industry here in the late 1950s. At first, the Japanese copied some designs and styles, but they quickly “got it.” They figured out that to compete in the global marketplace; they had to design their own machines and create their own images. They offered a different riding experience than what was available at the time, and did so with reliability and sensibility—two words which, in that generation, were not always part of motorcycling’s vocabulary.

The Chinese seem to be following this same model. Oddly enough, the greatest proponent of capitalism, the United States, will benefit from government control of the greatest communist nation, China. No matter what the current perception of the products from China may be, there are people in that country who do know how to build a motorcycle. Rest assured, the Chinese will one day “get it” and come into the global marketplace firing on all cylinders. One day soon, we will be the target demographic for the Chinese motorcycle industry. And if any part of the history of the Japanese entry into this market is repeated, we’ll be the better for it.

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The Cheap Chinese Scooter Phenomenon

August 14th, 2008

The recent proliferation of $4 gasoline has brought renewed interest in economical two-wheeled transportation, particularly the latest styles of motor scooters from Japan and China. The Internet and the manufacturing boom in China are playing key roles in this new market, offering a wide variety of machines in the $1000-1700 price bracket.

Small motorcycles and scooters have fascinated me since the 1950’s. You can visit my Tiddlerosis website to see more than you will ever want to know about the explosion of small Japanese motorcycles in The Sixties. I followed the evolution of the Cushman Eagle, the Whizzer, the Simplex (built in New Orleans), and the Mustang (yes, Maybelle, there was a line of small motorcycles built in the U.S. under the Mustang brand name in the ’50’s and early ’60’s). Many Americans ordered their small two-wheelers from the Sears & Roebuck catalog back then. Although these models were all marketed under the Allstate or Sears brands, most motorcyclists from the era know these were manufactured by Cushman, Puch, Vespa, and Gilera. Scooter fans of the time generally rode Vespas and Lambrettas, both built in Italy. Even my cat Powduh Puff knows that once we met the nicest people on a Honda at the end of 1959, everything about the motorcycle world changed forever.

You can still buy a Vespa motor scooter that will cost you as much as a Honda Rebel, go a lot slower and provide less driving entertainment, as well as less safety. Would you prefer to hit a pothole with a twelve-inch front wheel or an eighteen-inch one? Would you rather have the bulk of your transportation’s weight distribution directly underneath you or hanging out back with your caboose? Yes, Maybelle, that $329 Allstate Cruisaire from Sears is now pretty much the same as that $3500 Vespa 125 from the snooty-environmentalist scooter dealership next to the Starbuck’s down on the campus drag. You can still meet the nicest people on a Honda. Now it’s a $3000, 250cc Rebel twin instead of a $300, 50cc Cub with 4.5 horsepower and the cutest little legshields you’ve ever seen.

There is another alternative, folks, and its source is a company called Lifan, and it has a lot more in common with Honda than just an Asian heritage with five letters in the name. If you saw Ted Koppel’s four-part story on China recently, you learned about Lifan. The company builds several small engines, one of which has been used in so many different scooters and go-karts from China that you will swear it’s the second coming of the Honda 50, which in a bizarre way, it is. One of the Lifan designs is a direct copy of the legendary, small Honda single. The Chinese version is 110cc and you can find it powering vehicles all over the Internet. The second common Lifan design is a 150cc single that is even more common than the 110cc model. The plot thickens immeasurably when you discover that not only do the Chinese copy everyone else, but they copy their own Chinese competitors’ designs like crazy! There are countless affordable scooters built in China and sold on the American Internet. I hope to untangle some of the confusion and educate you exactly as to what sort of gas-sipping transportation is available to any American with a credit card and an online connection right now. Although Lifan is the market leader in more ways than one, there are numerous other brands.

Before we get to the actual models available, you need to understand a few basic marketing concepts. When Honda first approached its future dealers in 1959, it shocked the handlebars off them with the future sales figures the company was proposing and predicting. Spreading eastward from the ubiquitous loading docks of L.A., Honda developed an enormous dealer network. Yamaha and Suzuki were left standing on the docks saying, “Me too, me too.” Lifan and the other Chinese brands seem to have little interest in developing dealer networks. The World Wide Web is the leading Lifan dealership. This means little customer service, of course, and I’m sure many of you will immediately think anyone who buys a cheap Chinese scooter online gets what he deserves. There is more than a grain of truth to this concept, of course. The more experienced you are with motorcycles and marketing, the more likely you are to have a good experience with this manner of doing business. Then there’s that $3000+ Italian scooter. The Vespa is only the most legendary. The Aprilia Scarabeo is one gorgeous hunk of scooter with brilliant engineering and a Ducati price! Kymco is a Taiwanese brand that sells through both established dealers and online, and even their prices will choke a small moped. There is no doubt at all that the online marketing is a key element in the price competitiveness of Lifan and other Chinese brands.

Although there may seem to be literally hundreds of different brands, models, and model names of Chinese scooters, they actually boil down to only about six different types. The lowest and slowest are the 50cc models. In previous years, most of these used two-stroke engines; now they are mostly four-stroke. At the opposite end of the price and power scale are the 250cc models. These mostly compete with the Honda Rebel in price and the ability to drive legally on freeways; whereas the 50cc models might need to be duck-walked up a steep hill. In between these two extremes lie the most commonly usable scooters for transportation, the 150’s using either the Lifan engine or a direct copy of it. I have seen horsepower ratings ranging from 7 to 9.8 hp for these models, and some websites even claim that many of these are actually 125cc engines masquerading as 150’s. Whatever the case, these scooters are plenty strong enough to climb hills, carry two people, and scramble out of the way of marauding Honda Cubs. For the sake of simplicity here, I am lumping all 50’s and 250’s into one group each, but I am separating out the 150’s into four types. The reason for this is that you can imagine that most of the 50cc models are just slower, cheaper versions of many of the same 125/150cc versions, and most of the 250cc types are outfitted to look like giant turtles with huge seats, windshields, and storage capacity bordering on excessive. For many practical reasons, only the 150’s come in a large variety of styling types, although the usages of all types are more determined by their engine displacements than by their styling cues.

Before I proceed any further, I want to insert a disclaimer. Although I have been having a kitten for one of these 150cc jewels for years, I don’t want to give up any more garage space or one of my classic Japanese motorcycles, either. Take this story however you want. Not only have I never ridden one of these Chinese scooters, I haven’t been on any scooter since I replaced my 1957 Allstate Cruisaire with a 1963 Yamaha Rotary Jet 80! If you want to throw out this whole story with the saltshaker, I ask only that you visit Tiddlerosis before making what might be a rash decision. I do know a few things about pooter-scooters.

Beginning right smack in the middle, we have the 150cc Chinese scooter with modern styling. It is distinguished by its 13″ wheels, sleek and stylish lines and graphics, speedometer/tachometer/fuel gauge instrument panel, up-front glove box, under-seat helmet storage, and a luggage rack of some sort that may or may not include a matching storage box in the price. If not, the matching box is usually an option. Some of the more deluxe models have a rear disc brake, but most have a drum brake in the rear with a disc only in the front. At a price of $1200-$1400 to your driveway, this is the ringleader of the pack for your cost-effective transportation needs. If you study the websites closely, you will see that there is a virtual multitude of these critters scattered all over the net. Although they are sold with many different brand and model names, and enough color and graphics choices to boggle the mind of an Internet neophyte, they are all basically the same scooter with the exact same engine.

The second type of 150cc scooter is styled to look pretty much like a 1957 Cruisaire, but its features and attributes are much the same as the model with more modern styling. For about the same price as the modern variant, this model usually trades the tach and storage capacities for the retro styling, and its wheels are usually 12″ in diameter. Most of these have drum rear brakes, although there could be a few models with discs in the rear.

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The third variety of the 150cc models is a fully adult sized and equipped model with a gigantic seat and a windshield. As you may have already guessed, this is one of those models commonly sold as a 250cc version, too, for a $1000 (more or less) premium added to the price of the 150cc variant. Of course you get the privilege of buzzing down I-95 with the eighteen-wheelers for that price premium. I’m sure having one of those monsters buffet your big windshield as it passes is a barrel of monkeys. The 150cc, all-but-the-freeway legal models lack the 13″ wheels, tachometer, and wild graphics of the sportier 150cc variant described above, but otherwise are the steal of the bunch for two-wheeled transportation comfort. I can only guess that their 12″ wheels and drum rear brakes are the results of strict cost-cutting. These models are generally priced only about $200 more than the sporty, 13″-wheeled versions with exactly the same 150cc engine. Not only does Powduh Puff know which version is obviously faster, he also knows which type is more comfortable. You whips out your credit card and you makes your choice.

The last scooter type is the one that makes my Tiddlerosis heart go pitty-pat, pitty-pat. It is a somewhat skinnier model with 16″ wheels, legshields that are not as wide as a circus fat lady, and that sweet little 110cc copycat engine. The only catch is that the online retailers charge as much for this one as they do for the big cruiser described above. I guess they know the beauty of selling a Honda clone. This design is currently far less available than all the other scooter types described in this article, but access to it is slowly increasing. The bigger wheels are the key. You don’t have to fear potholes with quite the same level of trepidation and the overall handling is better balanced. These models usually include a tachometer, but the design of the whole instrument cluster is a bit less perfect than that of either the large cruiser or the modern sporty type. The graphics packages and color choices leave a little to be desired, too. Blatantly inspired by the Honda Cub, the Aprilia Scarabeo, and the Kymco People, with the first extinct and the latter two overpriced, this little sweetheart is somewhat irresistible. I hope this model proliferates and improves in the future.

I should give an honorable mention to yet another variant that tries to split the difference between the sporty type and the cruiser type. This model is usually referred to as having European styling. It has a windshield a little smaller than that of the standard cruiser and the 13″ wheels of the sportster. The seat is between the sizes of these two types, and it usually has more downward slope toward the front edge. I am not a fan of this type simply because the windshield and instrument panel do not turn with the handlebars. To a decades-old fan of the sort of two-wheelers that would not embarrass Peter Fonda or Steve McQueen, this effect is quite disconcerting to me. The eerie feeling of sliding off the front end of the seat and not being sure exactly which way my front wheel is pointing gives me the cooties. If this design happens to start your motor, you will find it somewhat less common, like the Honda 50 clone, and priced about the same as that model, as well as the even larger cruiser. Other than the disconcerting elements, the reason I give this model only an honorable mention is that if I wanted a sporty model, I would go completely in that direction, but if I wanted a cruiser, I would go in the opposite direction. This European type seems to be a somewhat silly compromise, being neither the fastest nor the most practical.

You may have noticed that I have not included any actual, specific model names or brands in this article. Nor have I included any plugs for the horde of online retailers of cheap Chinese scooters. Like the Chinese operations in other fields of marketing, the brand names, rules, and reputations seem to change daily with their underwear. There is no substitute for thoughtful research before you decide to make a purchase. I do want to mention Northern Tool, a respected American catalog company that carries at least a few of these low-priced scooters. The main operation and warehouse of Lifan is located in Dallas, TX. A typical competitor of Lifan is Tank, and the crazy part is that I cannot even tell you if Tank is in any way related to Lifan or not. Such is the mysterious world of cheap Chinese scooters. The Kymco USA site will show you their whole lineup, if you don’t mind whipping your credit card a little harder. Feast your eyes on the Aprilia Scarabeo, made in the same country that produces Ferraris. Rabbit Scooters displays many of the models discussed in this article, but I cannot speak for their reputation. I could list many more dealers similar to Rabbit, with nearly identical models, similar prices, and unknown reputations, but this article is long enough already. Go out there and save some gas!

Floyd M. Orr is the author of four books available at Amazon and the proprietor of Tiddlerosis, a site dedicated to the history of the many brands of small motorcycles and scooters sold in the U.S. in The Sixties.
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