U.S. motorcycle: From sex appeal to green machine?

NEW YORK Tue Aug 25, 2009 2:37pm EDT

Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders parade through the streets to celebrate the 105th anniversary of Harley with five days of food, drink, and music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin August 30, 2008. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson

Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders parade through the streets to celebrate the 105th anniversary of Harley with five days of food, drink, and music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin August 30, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Allen Fredrickson

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The bad boy image of motorcycles helped drive sales for decades in the United States, thanks partly to Hollywood rebels like James Dean and Marlon Brando or Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider".

But now, with the industry facing sharply declining sales, some riders and advocates are trying to sell a different, greener image of motorcycles as the environmentally friendly alternative to cars.

Despite a tax rebate for motorcycles included in February's economic stimulus package, combined sales of the top 12 brands were down 46 percent in the first six months of 2009, compared to the first six months of 2008, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC). That's worse than the 35 percent drop for auto sales over the same period.

The slide was particularly worrying for Harley-Davidson, whose large, loud and powerful machines have become emblematic of the free-spirited American biker. It also accounts for nearly half the U.S. motorcycle market share.

In July, the company announced plans to ship 25 percent to 30 percent fewer motorcycles than in 2008, and U.S. retail sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles declined 26.1 percent for the first half of 2009.

Harley also announced it was eliminating around 700 positions in the hourly production workforce, on top of the 1,100 to 1,200 cuts they announced earlier in the year.

Harley-Davidson bikes get anywhere from 40 to 60 miles per gallon on the highway -- relative gas guzzlers among bikes but more efficient than nearly all cars.

NO HELL'S ANGEL

Geoff Crowther, a professor of consumer behavior at the University of Huddersfield business school, blames the downturn on manufacturers who push "high performance, aspirational bikes rather than bikes in the sustainable, low-cost area."

Freelance artist Cheryl Stewart, 47, who started a motorbike advocacy group in New York, says the motorcycle's bad-boy image turns also off many women and commuters.

"I weigh 117 pounds (53 kg)," Stewart said. "I'm not a Hell's Angel."

One motorcycle sub-category that has benefited from a new cachet are scooters, which are seen by young people as friendly and sophisticated, even slightly European.

Between 2007 and 2008, scooter sales rose 41 percent, the MIC said. Scooters accounted for 20 percent of motorcycle sales in 2008, up from 9 percent in 2004.

Still, there are nearly 20 times more passenger cars than motorcycles on the road, and Americans still see motorcycling as a leisure activity and not as part of a daily commute.

Only 35 percent of motorcycle owners said they use it frequently for commuting and errands, according to a 2008 MIC survey. The overwhelming majority ride for fun.

"People who ride motorcycles do so because of the image that they feel, the fresh air outside and going where they want to go," said Don Brown of industry analysts DJB Associates.

Ty Van Hooydonk of the MIC said that although motorcycles offer savings on maintenance and gas, "we're not yet to the point where folks far and wide are looking at motorcycles mostly for transportation."

Many Americans look at Europe, particularly France, Italy and Spain, as a kind of distant motorcycling ideal. But they say gasoline needs to get more expensive and traffic worse for Americans to embrace motorized two-wheelers.

"Absolutely we believe that's coming. In Europe higher fuel costs, more constrained roadway access and much less parking: it's much more practical for motorcycles," said Peter ter Horst, a spokesperson the American Motorcyclist Association.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Phil Stewart)

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