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Is this really the end of biking as we know it?

Bike sales down. DSA bike test numbers halved. Training schools struggling along making ends meet doing CBTs. Is this really the end for motorcycling in the UK?

The death of biking has been predicted more times that I can remember.

Ever since the mid-30s, motorcycling has seen increasing legislation and restriction. Those carefree days between the wars when anyone could jump on a bike and ride it are long gone.

1931 saw the first edition of the Highway Code published, which included advice for motorcycle riders, and on 1 June 1935, the first driving tests were brought in for all drivers and riders who started driving on or after 1 April 1934, though it was just one test in those days. It wasn’t till 1947 that cars and bikes were placed in their own groups.

In the 1950’s a doctor tried to introduce a private member’s bill banning pillion passengers but a postal campaign encouraged by Britain’s then-powerful bike industry swamped MPs with objections, clogging the parliamentary post room.

By the 60’s times were a-changing, and the industry was less able to face down legislation. The Women’s Institute were behind the imposition of a 250cc limit on learners in 1962, playing on fears that unqualified riders had access to powerful 650cc machinery.

As in many cases, the reality was somewhat different. Sales figures and retail prices suggest that fifty years ago, a learner was more likely to be riding a ‘cooking’ 350 or 500 whose performance more nearly resembled a modern learner 125 than anything else.

The helmet law appeared in 1973 and enforced what 88% of riders were doing voluntarily. Roads grew more crowded as vehicle numbers increased and drivers began to commute.

By the mid 70’s the L plate brigade had made the switch from BSA Bantams to Japanese machinery, and were hurtling round on KH250 triples, and RD250 and GT250 twins. These 2-strokes all had a top speed of around 85-90mph, and Honda’s CB250 4-stroke was not that far behind. There wasn’t actually much need for anything bigger – the Automobile Association discovered that 54% of motorcyclists were riding on provisional licences, many of them for years on end.

At the same time, the development of “sixteener” sports mopeds meant that 50cc machines ridden by sixteen year olds weren’t short of performance either. The endearing FSIE ‘Fizzie’ was capable of around 45mph, and the real racers from the likes of Garelli and KTM were clocked at 50 to 60mph.

It couldn’t last and it didn’t. With the increasingly high profile of safety, the high accident rate gave serious cause for concern. Naturally there were consultations, with pleas and promises of voluntarily putting motorcycling’s house in order. The industry protested long and hard about what was seen as the death of motorcycling, but with no united voice and little credibility, they were ignored., were ignored.

The ‘sixteener’ mopeds were first to go, being replaced with the pitiful 30mph “slowpeds” we still have around today.

In 1979 Suzuki’s X7 touched 100mph and then Yamaha’s mad RD250LC put the final nail in the coffin for the high performance 250s. The 1981 Transport Act confined learners to 12hp 125s, introduced the two part test system and a two year limit on a provisional licence with a one year ban if the test hadn’t been passed by the time the licence expired. The “L’s Angels” bit the dust.

Journalists at the time wrote sceptically of the government’s intention being a straight cut in numbers to reduce accident rates. Whether they were right or not is a moot point, but sales of bikes plummeted, particularly to young riders, and the average age of the riding population has continued to rise from that date.

By the mid 80’s, though there was still a lot of opposition from dealers and riders, the industry and riders’ groups had finally accepted that compulsory training was here to stay, and began to make sensible suggestions in response to a consultation document ‘Safer Motorcycling’. Mark Willis wrote in the December 1986 edition of ‘Bike’:

“No-one can get in a car and drive it about unrestricted on a provisional licence. Quite right too. By law they must be accompanied by a qualified driver at all times and in practice most learners on four wheels only ever drive whilst undergoing formal instruction prior to taking their test. Why should the situation appertaining to us be any different?

“In other European countries like France the training requirements and restrictions on car and motorcycle novices are almost identical. If you want to learn to ride a bike you must attend a riding school and be accompanied by an instructor following behind, who usually communicates via two way radio with helmet mikes and earphones. The French don’t seem to have any trouble with this. Their thorough training leads up to a single test which is considerably more difficult than the British part one and two together.”

What Willis wrote over twenty years ago sounds logical now. Back then it was the height of heresy at a time when the catch phrases “freedom of choice” and “personal liberty” were on everyone’s lips.

Willis didn’t make a lot of friends with that article. But in fact he accurately foresaw the replacement of the old ’round the block test’ with the pursuit test with the examiner following the trainee on a bike, and the change from the ‘part one’ test to Compulsory Basic Training in the early ’90s with its change of emphasis to open-ended training.

Whilst the recent rise in accidents reminds us that training might not quite have broken forever “the link forged in the minds of bureaucrats, parliamentarians and much of the public between motorcycle use and accidents” as Willis hoped, CBT has reduced casualties amongst young riders.

Even more distantly he foresaw the introduction of licensed instructors to teach Direct Access:

“The crunch comes though, in how you regard the long term effects of such a system, should it be imposed in Britain. At first glance lt would appear draconian and repressive, even compared with the complicated mess we’ve got now, but the opposite is actually true. It would define a simple and straightforward schedule for anybody who decided they wanted to get on a motorbike – See bike, Get trained, Pass test, Buy bike.”

The Theory Test came in in 1996 and (after a year’s delay) DAS was introduced in 1997 in response to changes in European driving licence legislation.

At the time, DAS was predicted to be yet another ‘death of biking’ but in fact it had a very different effect. Aside from giving 21 year olds new to biking a direct path to a full licence, DAS opened up motorcycling to ‘born again’ bikers, those self-same “L’s Angels” who’d never bothered with the test. More importantly, the emphasis on training rather than the ‘just ride it’ mentality that had prevailed previously attracted an almost entirely new group – women.

There was, however, two unanticipated effects – Direct Access virtually killed off the 350 – 500cc bike overnight, and it turned bikes into leisure toys.

Suddenly the GPz, CB and GS 500s that riders had been quite happy to ride for work and play were reduced to the status of ‘learner bikes’. 50 or 60hp was no longer enough. The 600 became the new post-test bike, and Suzuki had had the foresight to plug that gap with the Bandit – introduced in 1995, it sold in droves right through the rest of the decade to newly qualified riders.

As the bike of choice for new riders became bigger, so many also became toys. Sales of ‘honest workhorses’ plummeted and riding increasingly became a fair-weather activity, something helped along as a series of gorgeous summers in the late 90s offered fantastic riding weather. And of course, nice toys tend to be expensive, so prices went up too.

So what about the teenagers stuck on 125s? As it happened, relatively few bothered with the test. Some presumably did what generations of teenagers had done before – saved some cash, bought a cheap car and got rid of the bike. Others rode round on the 125 until they got to 21 then did DAS.

As a result, there was no pressure on the manufacturers to produce any genuine 33hp bikes as there was little in the way of a market. If you did take a 125 test, your choice was to look for a old bike that slipped in under the 33hp limit or buy something more recent with a restrictor kit on it.

So what’s changed now?

The first is that big bike sales have crashed as the recession has bit deep. If you’re strapped for cash, you cut out the luxury purchases. And although you’re rarely putting much more than four gallons in a bike tank, fuel prices increases have also hit riders in the pocket.

There are still people out there with enough money to turn up to do DAS in their posh car, buy a BMW S1000RR for sunny Sundays and run a track bike at the same time. At the other extreme are the commuters riding scooters who are not going to upgrade from their CBT scoot and do DAS. What’s gone missing is the middle tier of riders who had to save to get trained, did DAS then bought a nearly new 600.

The motorcycle industry isn’t exactly helping itself at the moment, either. There’s a crazy over-emphasis on high capacity (not necessarily high power!) models which started off in the US but has spread to Europe. Development outside of sportsbikes is stagnant (look at the Deauville as an example – essentially a mid-80s powerplant).

The importers have used the excuse of exchange rate variations to hike prices for the last two years (Yamaha in particular – the XJ6 has gone up nearly £2000 in two seasons) and even Hyosung are punting out their bikes at prices which pretty much match the Japanese.

There remains a gaping hole between 125s and 600s – yes, there are artificially restricted bigger bikes and there are a couple of 250s that fail to hit the 33hp ceiling, but there are no purpose-designed 33hp bikes on the market.

The latest round of changes to the testing procedure have also hit hard. Bike tests are way down after the botched introduction of the off-road Module One test. The practical bike test is now a two day operation rather than one. And if bike tests are down, it’s hitting training schools too.

It’s not simply down to the sheer inconvenience that 150 mile round trips to the nearest Mod One testing facility causes for trainees and trainers alike that’s hitting bike tests, it’s finally reaching the point of no-return in terms of “why should I jump through all these hoops?”

Riders are questioning why they need suffer the inconvenience and expense of taking CBT, passing the theory test, then taking first Mod One and finally Mod Two when the “train and take a single test” route to a car licence is far simpler. Whilst car insurance has been an obstacle for youngsters looking to get mobile, the costs of getting fully licenced on two wheels has ballooned too.

At least some of the riders who’d be moving on to take the test have simply decided not to bother – or at least to skip the expensive process of taking a full licence course, whether on a 125 or a DAS bike, and simply accumulate some experience before taking a stab at the test. Sales of 125s and scooters are holding up well enough, as are the numbers of CBTs.

Will it get better?

Just around the corner is the Third European Driving Licence Directive. By adding an extra tier to the motorcycle licence, not only will yet another hurdle be added for new riders to jump, but training schools will be required to fork out to provide yet another class of machine for trainees to take the new full power test on. A bare 18 months from the supposed date for the new regs to be introduced, there’s no word yet on how instructors will be certificated to train for the new test.

At the risk of joining the ‘doom and gloom’ merchants who’ve predicted the death of biking for over half a century, it’s hard to see how an already moribund industry will cope.

What could be done to bolster the training industry? Arguably, CBT is an anachronism from the carefree days of fifty years and more ago. In the twenty first century, there’s no reason motorcyclists should be riding round without proving their competence by taking the bike test first.

Streamlining the testing procedure by eliminating CBT would arguably make things cheaper for riders and training schools would probably be better off running fewer full licence courses that earn them a far better return than making ends meet on CBTs, but there are two problems;

Firstly the big guns of the industry – the manufacturers and the dealers – don’t want that, they want learners riding round on L plates with the minimum of fuss. Getting shot of CBT would see the lucrative scooter market go down the pan.

Secondly it’s doubtful if the training industry in its current form could survive – the marginal businesses would certainly go to the wall. You’d probably see far fewer schools operating residential courses near DSA test centres. Would that be good for new riders? Probably not, wherever a near-monopoly operates (remember CSM?) prices become driven by what the market will bear rather than what the market will pay.

I doubt we’re really looking at the end of biking any more than we have done since the 1950s. But I doubt there’s any quick fix for the current woes around the corner.

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