The changing face of Chinese motorcycle culture

January 15, 2019




The last 2 years have seen a big rise in the production or planned production of motorcycles with displacements over 400cc. Until relatively recently only a tiny percentage of motorcycles made in China had engines bigger than the 250cc displacements that are common for export models (it was very rare to see domestic models over 150cc). One of the catalysts for the recent rise has been China’s own motorcycle culture revolution which has seen an upturn in the popularity of more expensive foreign made (and bigger engine) marques.


The Chinese generation born in the late 1990s will gradually become the major motorcycle consumption group and armed with more of a disposable income they are wanting something a bit more than the 150cc commuters their fathers’ and grandfathers’ were riding.


In previous years, bigger motorcycles capable of higher speeds and long-distance travel were often smuggled into China through illegal means, but things started to change after 2005 when foreign brands such as Harley-Davidson began exporting to China, generating an increased interest in recreational motorcycling. It is, however, a hobby that can be prohibitively expensive, meaning many of China’s new bikers are affluent men in white collar employment. Katrina Wu, a sales associate at a Shanghai Harley-Davidson dealership, says that their imported bikes cost 98,000 to 600,000 yuan ($15,500 to $95,000) new, plus up to 320,000 yuan for a Shanghai licence plate (this is necessary to allow the bike to be ridden in an urban area).


Despite the costs involved, sales of foreign bikes are on the rise with the latest news tying KTM to CFmoto in a deal that will see KTM trying to enter the Chinese market. Ducati are also reporting record sales last year with MV Agusta beginning to start to sell despite a slow start.


This phenomenon has been a long time coming as detailed by Chinese motorcycle historian Guo Chenjiang, “A government official of the Qing Dynasty named Mr. Zhou Hongsun bought a motorcycle as early as 1886. He liked to take his 'new gadget' out for a ride whenever he was free. He was China's first motorcycle rider and China's first motorcycle rider appeared barely one year after the invention of the motorcycle. The aristocracy of the late Qing Dynasty were crazy about imported goods, like imported matches, imported records and imported vehicles. These things were mostly the symbol of social status at that time, and also a reflection of their personalities.”


Moving closer to the modern era Mr. Pan Huang, Director of Shanghai Donghong recalled his fascination in motorcycles at the end of 1970s. “I went to study in Japan but in fact my main agenda was to see if there are better motorcycles in Japan than the Suzuki King 125. Thirty years ago, owning an imported 'Suzuki King' motorcycle would get you the limelight absolutely, it was the pinnacle of success in the same way that driving a Porsche Cayenne in China seems to be now. There are many stories about motorcycle fascination of the 1960s and 1970s generation but we only learned outside motorcycle news through circulated stories, books, newspapers and a few movies. The Soviet movie 'Siege of Leningrad' made me fall in love with the military motorcycle which as nicknamed 'the cannon' and I began to love motorcycles deeply since then. Later on, the Hollywood classic 'Easy Rider' aroused my desire for the Harley-Davidson and custom made bikes. There were many other people who became custom motorcycle fans under the influence of movies in his time. At that time, the average monthly income of an ordinary worker was only RMB 100, but the price of a relatively good motorcycle was several thousand Yuan, and the price for some imported motorcycles like Honda or Suzuki was about 10 thousand Yuan. It would be more distinctive to ride a Suzuki King motorcycle at that time than driving a Mercedes Benz now. So, motorcycles which were expensive at that time were out of the reach of ordinary people so they began to customise.”


Due to the increased wealth in China It is now quite common to see high level motorcycles on the streets of China’s affluent cities with showrooms for Harley Davidson, Kawasaki, Ducati, MV Agusta, a regular sight in China’s tier one and tier two cities and even the likes of Triumph on the roads (although heaven knows where they come from because there are no Triumph dealerships in China). It’s a fair guess that it is this phenomenon that has shaken the industry out of its 250cc slumber with Zongshen, Loncin, CFmoto, Jialing, Motrac and others developing and selling bikes with bigger displacements. If I know anything about the Chinese motorcycle industry it’s that when one factory makes a move in a certain direction they all (the bigger ones anyway) follow suit.  













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