Is Motorcycling Dying Out?

Its early 1981 and I’m in my final year at my secondary school in sunny Birmingham. Anyway, I speed through the school gates on my 10 speed racer thinking myself to be the real deal. But already in the bike park was a Yamaha FS1-E, the legendary ‘Fizzie’. Another 16 year old in my year had bought himself an honest-to-goodness motorcycle. The majority of us who were still on Shank’s Pony or pushbikes were instantly also-rans. He was officially king of the hill, despite the fact that I could go quicker up hills than he could. This scene played out in schools all over the country. It was a commonplace happening.

The Cool Ones had Bikes

It was the same when I started my apprenticeship a few months later. Some lads had mopeds; a Honda CB50J, a Fizzie and a Honda SS50 stick in my mind. A few of the older apprentice lads had graduated to bigger bikes: 250 Yams on L plates and one even had a Kawasaki Z650!

Honda SS50. Typical transport for a teenager of the late 1970’s. This one is in a museum..

Even the introduction of the two-part test and 125cc rule in 1982 didn’t interrupt the standard progression too much: You started out on a 50 or 125 and then worked your up through ‘the ranks’: 250 to 550, 550 to 750 and then maybe even a mighty 1000 such as a Z1! Your future was mapped out…

Record Sales

Bike sales in UK were just over 300,000 units pa in 1980. A record figure that represented the high-water mark. Bikes such as the much-maligned Honda CB250N Superdream sold by the thousand. I believe they sold in excess of 30,000 in 3-4 years on sale.

The mighty Honda CB250N Superdream

Fast forward to 2024 and bike sales are nowhere near those numbers now, despite showing a bit of an uplift recently. Numbers are around one-third of the 1980 total. This despite an increase in population in excess of 10,000,000 in those years.

Grey Hairs and Flat Caps

Rock up at a bike meet or a popular biker’s haunt such Matlock Bath or Willingham Woods and many, in fact the majority of attendees are not in what could be described as in the first flush of youth. It’s the same with the on-line biking community.

You need to keep your shades on as the sun glistens off our grey hairs and bald ‘chrome-dome’ heads! Many of them are in fact those same folks who rode those CB50Js and FS1Es all those years ago. The group has migrated in many cases away from sports bikes to more upright alternatives such as adventure or naked bikes.

Visiting ancient monuments on R1250GS. Somehow Ironic in the contest of this article

Some of the braver souls are still speed-junkies and plumb for the latest breed of hyper naked bikes. The Yamaha MT10 or MV Agusta Brutale are good examples of this. Anything basically doesn’t kill their back, knees, hips, wrists or ankles etc! Another group now ride cruisers partially for the look and the vibe. However, the low-seat height plays a role I am sure on the quiet…

The Youth are Missing

What you don’t see much of at a typical meeting is younger folks on 50’s or 125cc bikes. One or two perhaps, not little packs like we used to. Neither do see rows of the outside schools, colleges or training schools…

In fairness you do spot quite a few youngsters on knackered twist and go mopeds with cheap, noisy exhausts. However, we are all too aware that these types are not budding motorcyclists of the future, but all too often lads up to no good. As seen on such reality TV shows as ‘Police-Interceptors’ etc, Even this ‘demographic’ is quickly migrating to awful electric scooters now!

Only Going to Get Worse

Sadly some of the biking community are reaching the point where riding simply isn’t an option anymore. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak. I do know one chap who at 86 years of age still enjoys riding either his 2021 Honda CB650R or his CB250N regularly, However he is the exception rather than the rule. The hard truth is that by the time we reach 70-75 or so the majority of us will be jacking in riding, I’m 59 this year so I can see that point, albeit in the distance. It saddens me the odd time that it crosses my mind. However I am just getting on with my riding for now.

What I do find saddening is the lack of younger riders joining our ranks. Societal changes, the focus of the UK economy, the complexity (and expense) of getting a full bike-licence and a shift in what the younger generation are interested in. All are playing their part in the decline.

Changing World

Huge factories are now a comparative rarity, so access to relatively well paid jobs and the money to support an expensive hobby are not available. Interest in all things mechanical isn’t at the same level when compared to my youth.

This brings us to the final nail in the coffin…cost: A Yamaha MT-125 is £5102 today, before any extras or on the road costs. Add in insurance, riding gear, training and test fees and you see why a 17-year-old on one is a rare sight.  Of course, you can do it less expensively than this with a Chinese 125 or a secondhand bike, but you get my point.

I was in a full-time job at sixteen back in 1981. Today with further education almost the norm someone can be well into the 20’s before being in a proper job. Buying bike is a priority for very few,

This decline has been going on for nearly four decades now. Those that do come into motorcycling and earn their full licence are faced with increasingly expensive larger capacity bikes. It’s easy to see why the cheaper Chinese bikes are gaining ground on the more traditional offering from Europe, Japan and the USA.

In my opinion the sub thirty year olds of today are more cautious than we were. Risk adverse, even. They seem to party and play less hard than we did. Perhaps are imagining that?

In the Meantime – Crack-On!

Anyway, I don’t know where biking will be twenty years from now. In the meantime I’m just going to crack on and enjoy my riding and the camaraderie that our world offers. I just will be getting ever more creaky and cranky as I do!

Words and Pictures: Tony Donnelly