Here we explore the American moto industry, timeline, and trends. Long the innovators and trendsetters - founding the earliest motorcycle companies coming off the rise of the bicycle. Whilst this article is not intended to be encyclopedic in its details, we believe history is a good teacher, and instructive for shaping gen-E.
The first US production motorcycle was the Orient-Aster, built by Charles Metz in 1898 at his factory in Waltham, Massachusetts. Built on a strengthened bicycle frame with a 1-cylinder US built engine generating 2.5 HP fitted with copper fins, an early innovation to improve engine cooling. The Orient-Aster gave people newfound freedom beyond the bicycle. Sound familiar? Incredibly, this notion of freedom and free-spiritedness has transcended time.
Indian & Harley
Indian founded by George Hendee began production in 1901 and is now owned by Polaris (LON: OKJQ). Indian was followed by Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG) founded in 1903 by William Harley and Arthur Davidson who met at fabricator Barth Manufacturing, also in Massachusetts. Over the years Harley has crafted one of the worlds most formidable owners groups. Community and lifestyle sit at the heart of their brand. Over 1M members form the Harley Owners Group, however HOG is dogged by a toxic minority. Both brands also struggle to recruit new riders due to high price, low innovation, and old school brand positioning. Harley's electric offering LiveWire simply electrified the status quo rather than grasping the opportunity to innovate for new customers and categories. Lots of simple lessons here.
Founded in 1983 by ex-Harley engineer Erik Buell and based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Buell's designs were considered the most progressive around, with innovations like their rim mounted brake rotors and swing-arm integrated oil reservoirs.
Harley acquired the business in 2003. In 2009 after 136,923 bikes Harley announced the discontinuation of Buell as part of its strategy to focus on the Harley brand. In 2021 Buell announced their return under the new ownership of Erik Buell Racing (EBR), and also entering the eBike market with the Fuell brand. The lesson? Never say die!
Leitner & ATK
Horst Leitner was born in 1942 near Salzburg, Austria. A Grand Prix and ISDT motorcycle racer, winning four ISDT golds and Austrian Motocross Championship. Leitner saw America as the place where his motorcycling dreams could come true. He loaded up his family and emigrated to the US in 1980. Living in a motorhome he bet everything on his engineering background and creative mind. Leitner designed and built motocross frames to accept Honda XR350 engines; in essence, Rickman Metisse-style kits for the 1980s Honda four-stroke engines. The success of his kits attracted the Puch family, who approached Horst with the idea of producing a new dirt focussed motorcycle brand. ATK was founded in 1985 in Laguna Beach, CA. The ATK 560 and ATK 604/605 four-strokes were instant hits. Every ATK 605 buyer was committed to the idea that the four-stroke was the power plant of the future a decade before the YZ400F was introduced. This rapid growth into a full-blown manufacturing business ran counter to Horst's inclination to design and innovate and so he sold the business in the early-90s to private equity partners that moved operations to Centerville, UT. One of Leitner's most interesting developments after founding his own development company, AMP research, was a contract job building a 125cc two-stroke for KTM in 1990. Leitner pushed the boundaries of structural design, integration and optimization to produce a bike that was simpler, lighter and easier to service than anything else of the time. A recipe that we can definitely get behind.
The acquisition of Cannondale Motorsports by ATK was the result of a failed $80M investment between Cannondale Bicycle Corporation and private equity firms in the late 1990s to create a subsidiary producing off-road motorcycles and ATV vehicles. First announced at the 1998 Cincinnati Motorcycle Dealer Show (at which Cannondale began accepting dealer orders), their X400 Motocross bike would not appear on showroom floors until 2001. The delays in delivery were the result of several engineering issues related to the many advancements Cannondale attempted to incorporate into the motorcycle, including two engine redesigns. The potential of the new machine was found so impressive by Dirt Bike Magazine, they named it Bike of the Year, two years ahead of its release. In February 1999, Dirt Bike editor Ron Lawson was quoted regarding the unreleased bike's possible appeal to "older moto guys who want kind of a status symbol" as opposed to novice motorcyclists. Unfortunately the vision couldn't be seen through. While innovation is often seen as required for a new business formation, a key lesson here is that execution trumps good ideas.
Zero & Brammo
Nearly simultaneously around 2008, the founders of Zero (Neil Saiki) and Brammo (Craig Bramscher) arrived at the conclusion that lithium-ion battery technology could provide the necessary energy density and power-weight ratios to power compelling two wheeled vehicles. While Brammo focused on street bikes from the get-go (after trying their hand at supercars), Zero built a light MX bike called the Zero X before pivoting largely to street and dual sport models. As it was developing consumer models, Brammo also built some of the most competitive race electric race bikes on the planet culminating in 2012 TTXP win with the fastest ever recorded speed of an electric motorcycle. In the following years, Brammo was acquired by Polaris industries and folded into the Victory brand which stopped operating in 2017. Zero has continued to grow and operate, expanding their line and focusing on developing their powertrain technology, including the resulting license agreement reached with Polaris in 2020. Along the way, they have taken on nearly $500M in investment, and struggled to find the market penetration that many folks expected, even though they currently are the largest manufacturer of electric motorcycles in the US. Many accounts have covered the tensions caused during the growth of these businesses, especially the primary focus on the street bike replacement market in the US. Importantly, a takeaway we gather is: don't shy away from owning a niche before moving onto broader pastures.
Alta entered the scene in 2010 to take the baton from Zero who had departed their efforts on building dirt focused bikes. Drawing from a similar talent pool of Zero in the bay area, and largely fed by tech and Tesla alumni, the Alta bikes definitely caused a stir in the core dirt bike scene. After entering into a handful of exhibition events against their gas counterparts, across MX and Enduro, and producing respectable results, the demand for Alta bikes started to grow.
While the third generation bikes had ironed out early gremlins, Alta was on track for their highest sales yet, but needed a cash injection to meet their production targets. During this time, they had deals with both Harley Davidson and Bombardier fall through before the business shuttered in 2018. In hindsight, their aggressive pricing, at $10k-$12k, considering the performance at the time for electric technology, likely resulted in quite lean gross-margins, substantial cash burn while growing, and the resulting pressures to raise ever growing sums of capital.
At the end of the day, as Dust builds a business designed to stand the test of time, we are lucky to have such history to draw learnings from. Some of the key influences to our decision making:
- The US has a rich history of motorcycle innovation, thought leaders and inspiring brands.
- In the motorcycle market, road dominates compared to dirt, with Harley the gorilla at 40% of market $ volume and 24% of total unit volume across all 2-wheelers. However, this gravitational pull can cause immense challenges for new entrants, including pressures to scale, safety + performance considerations and capturing market share from mature competitors.
- The focus on building electric products to replace their ICE benchmarks results in exponential increase in the powertrain technology challenges, and creates a more divisive decision point for passionate consumers. Why not drive towards category innovation?
- Building new motorcycle businesses is cash intensive, especially during growth phase, and so it is necessary to develop a pragmatic financial strategy focused on lean operation and positive unit economics.
- Community is massive part of a business' staying power, and Harley a key reference point. How might we build a similar committed tribe in the dirt and MX space?
Each week, the team at Dust has conversations with inspiring people across the industry and continue to come away positive we are headed in the right direction.
For those of you looking for the 4th of July Art from Instagram, for your phone background, kids room or in the shop, find it here!
As always, please don't hesitate to reach out:
(neil or jarett or colin) @dustmoto.com
We'll see you out there, when the dust settles.
Gold Dust (interesting links and news from around the industry)
- Police in southern california continue to crack down on Surron (and other light electric motos) being ridden illegally on streets. (here) Will the industry and local developers step up to figure out legal riding opportunities?
- Cooper Webb announced, effective immediately, his departure from KTM racing. Could we see him on a Dust Moto bike in the future?! 🤪 (here)
- Throwback to Josh Hill at Straight Rhythm in 2016, winning his first heat (here)