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14th October 2011

Famous Last Words
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Motorcycle marketing is subtle and it is clever; so subtle and so clever that most folk have no idea of how it works. Frank Westworth, editor of the RealClassic monthly magazine, is one of those folk...

Loyalties are interesting things; complex things. We all develop them, sometimes appropriately, sometimes not. Magazines inspire loyalties, especially specialist magazines. Motorcycles are like that, too.

Loyalties change as time passes. Once again, as it is with magazines, so it is with motorcycles. It is certainly the same with magazines about motorcycles. A lengthy and pain-wracked couple of decades mis-spent working in the peculiar world of the motorcycle magazine has shown this to be A Great Truth. Some folk deny that it is the case. They are wrong.

Consider your own motorcycle loyalties - assuming that you are at least faintly interested in motorcycles and are not reading a magazine about motorcycles as part of some crucial Media Studies degree. Do you enjoy a loyalty to one particular marque? Why is that? Do you enjoy a loyalty to one particular model of that marque? Again; why is that? Or do you instead direct your loyalties towards a class of motorcycle; a type of machine rather than to an individual marque? Why - as ever - is that?

Cast your mind back; dig out a memory - hopefully a fond one - of the first motorcycle you rode. Or owned; whichever made the greater impression. What was it? There is a theory, both popular and commonly-held, that riders of classic machinery prefer to ride the bikes they remember riding in their youth. That theory may be true. There is another theory, also popular and commonly-held, that riders of classic machinery ride today the machines they could only dream of owning yesterday. That theory may also be true. Although I feel that folk develop theories because they feel some bizarre need to develop theories, rather than to enhance understanding, either their own or anyone else's.

The first motorcycle I rode was a Panther, a particularly ghastly device called a Model 10/4. I rescued it from death by dustcart, and to a dustcart it returned at the earliest possible opportunity. I do not have a residual loyalty to Panthers, certainly not to the 10/4, although Panthers are noble machines and their riders are among the very best of chaps. Peculiarly, I found myself gazing in a wallet-threatening kind of way at a Panther Model 10/4 at a Kempton Park jumble last year.

'I found myself gazing in a wallet-threatening kind of way at a Panther'...

The Panther was followed by an AJS, a 1948 Model 18. I loved it. It was freedom on wheels. It began a fascination with AJS motorcycles which has lasted from 1970 to the present day. I am currently rebuilding another AJS, although not a Model 18. And yes, I do indeed feel a strange loyalty to AJS motorcycles, although I am unsure why. If pushed, I could dream up some sort of argument suggesting that AJS motorcycles are somehow better in some tenuous way than some of their contemporaries, but as all testers of old bikes know, there's little to choose between them apart from … well … the name on the tank. But a loyalty? Maybe.

Motorcycle manufacturers understood that although their 500cc all-iron pushrod single was basically the same as their rivals' 500cc all-iron pushrod singles, they must somehow prove that theirs was the best. Otherwise, why would anyone choose theirs over another? They all cost much the same to build, given that they are so very similar, and they all boast much the same performance. So how could AJS persuade the vacillating punter that their Model 18 was a better bet than a BSA B33? It cannot have been easy.

Invest in the white heat of competition, you suggest. OK. Let's enter our beefy bangers in road races and scrambles and trials. Let the best bike win. But … the best man tends to win, rather than the best bike. You will know that Mike Hailwood could race a BSA C11G to victory against a field packed with Gold Stars; Jeff Smith could take a Panther 100 and win scrambles on it against HS Ariels and the like.

It's not easy to convince that vacillating punter that your own brand of paint is better than your rivals' or that your residual values are higher, or that he will pull the dollies by riding a Francis-Barnett Fulmar when his mates are struggling with Bonnevilles and acne.

A more subtle approach is to offer a prestige machine, a flagship model which only the more affluent rider can actually afford, but the glories of which are somehow reflected in the cheaper models which fill the sweaty end of the catalogue.

Think Ariel Square Four and Ariel Colt here. Think Ariel Pixie if you wish … although I'd keep quiet about that, myself. Think Bonneville and Tiger Cub. Remember that even Vincent offered their Firefly, and Velocette their Vogue. Everyone makes mistakes.

There is another theory which suggests that if you can lure a learner onto your cheapo learnerbike then you will have secured his loyalty for life. That might be true, but it is fraught with perilous thinking. Do learners ever buy new machines upon which to learn? I suppose they must, but I have never met one who did.

And if they do buy a new machine to destroy with their inexperience and incompetence, would they not simply buy the cheapest, and wreck it with a happy smile? Is that not the thinking behind the ubiquitous Chinese poppers? Or does the trembling rider of that ailing Jialing actually hanker after the Ducati Diavel which steams his windows of an evening?

Loyal Ariels on Right Now......

There is another strand to all this theorising. That strand suggests that we all believe what we read in magazines and that our motorcycle purchasing deliberations are somehow swayed by the opinions of folk who get paid to write about riding them. That's a puzzling notion, although Trade advertising is crucial to most magazines - check out how much of it there is in your own favourite magazine of the moment. So why do we develop loyalties to particular magazines? Is it because of the bikes they feature? Is it because of the folk who write about them? Surely no-one would risk their sanity or - worse - the contents of their porky bank because someone like me prefers an AJS to a BSA?

Famous last words, as ever…


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