David McMullan aka the ‘Englishman in China’ has worked with the Chinese motorcycle industry for 10 years as an exporter, journalist, consultant and motorcycle event organiser. In these years he has seen the highs lows and rebirth of the Chinese industry. He currently resides in the city of Chongqing the unofficial capital of the motorcycling world. To learn more about his work click on
The Englishman in China
David is the International Editor of ChinaMotor Magazine, to receive a free copy in your inbox every month sign up as a free member on this site.
Introduction to the Chinese motorcycle industry
China has leapfrogged Japan to become the 2nd biggest
economic power in the world, with no small help from its
motorcycle industry. China’s motorcycle factories currently
produce just over half of all the motorcycles ridden in the world
having manufactured 23 million complete units from January to
November 2012 generating a staggering $4.132 billion US dollars
It is then no surprise that China is the world’s biggest producer of motorcycles with over 400 exporting enterprises (including over 200 factories) employing in excess of 3 million workers; this is no mean feat considering that the total number of exported motorcycles from China in 1980 was a paltry 43000 units.
Chongqing city in China is (according to a recent BBC documentary) the ‘fastest growing city in the world.’ It is as a result of this growth, mainly due to migrant workers providing labour for the production lines, that Chongqing has become one of the global centres of motorcycle production producing an estimated 15% of all two wheeled vehicles ridden in the world. A better known fact is that the Chinese industry mainly caters for the ‘lower’ end of the market, producing lesser quality and cheaper machines.
It could be imagined then that Chinese motorcycle companies have found a winning formula, one that involves low cost labour, materials and limited research and development but this is certainly no longer the case! Not content with producing budget, small engine motorcycles, cubs and scooters for ‘developing nations,’ the industry is now turning its attention to securing a market share in the Western world. Of course Chinese motorcycles have been around for years in developed countries but unfortunately their reputation as ‘low cost, low quality’ products has tarnished them in the eyes of many a would-be motorcycle purchaser. This may all be about to change.
Top Chinese motorcycle factories are now investing vast sums on original research and development and also forming cooperative alliances with many of the world’s ‘big guns.’ In recent years BMW, Honda, Peugeot, Harley Davidson, MV Agusta, Piaggio, Yamaha and Suzuki have all committed to long term collaborations with leading Chinese companies. It is mainly due to this influx of foreign motorcycle culture and expertise that the Chinese industry has begun to rethink its strategy, choosing to concentrate its efforts on improving quality to a standard that would be generally accepted by a western motorcycling public and thus breaking in to the mainstream market. On the style front (Chinese motorcycles may not have been the first choice of the fashion conscious) many top level Chinese factories are now engaging renowned motorcycle designers from Europe.
A typical example of this is the Qingqi motorcycle company, they employ the Milan based Marabese Design company who boast Triumph, Yamaha and Piaggio among their customers. This is a welcome deviation from the all too ‘homogenous’ Japanese copies which have flooded the market in recent years and is representative of the wish of many Chinese motorcycle companies to attempt to discard the negative reputation previously attached to them.
It may come as a surprise to the western rider that many Chinese factories are collaborating with such renowned motorcycle companies as the ones mentioned above, but the simple truth is that left to its own devices the Chinese industry will not progress on to the next level. This next level will see top Chinese motorcycle brands featuring among the more recognisable brands in North American, Australasian and European showrooms and forecourts.
One of the primary considerations of the Chinese industry is to convince western consumers that the days of poor quality Chinese machines (almost considered a ‘throwaway’ product) are over. Top factories now boast of the ‘2nd wave’ of Chinese motorcycles; products that utilise state of the art technologies imported from countries with a more established motorcycle culture. One of the biggest stumbling blocks of promoting this new improved wave of motorcycles is that up to now Chinese motorcycles have been subject to ‘re-branding’ by foreign dealerships as opposed to promoting the factory name. The top Chinese motorcycle factories have long term plans to make their brands as publicly recognisable as their competitors from Japan, Europe and America. As Kevin Kong an ex-employee of Chinese giant Loncin puts it “if you asked a member of the public in most countries to name a Chinese motorcycle brand they would not be able to name one. They would however be able to name all of the Japanese brands. If you asked a motorcycle enthusiast to name a Chinese brand he or she may be able to name one or two, but that’s only may be able to! We have had a persistent problem with foreign dealers re-branding our products and in the past we have even encouraged it in an effort to increase sales. Those days are over now as Chinese companies look to make their names count in the top North American, Australian and European markets. My ex-company Loncin has been able to run a motorcycle in the 125cc moto GP. Competing against Ducati, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda has afforded the company more respect in the motorcycle world. Also the Shineray Company competes at the highest level in Belgian motocross. It is this kind of dedication to furthering technology and marketing that will see Chinese companies break through in western markets. I will always remember attending a marketing meeting in which it was mentioned that in the early 70’s the Honda brand was unknown in the UK and Europe. After a successful run at the Isle of Man TT they gradually gained a place in motorcycle culture as we have seen…the rest is history!”
As brand marketing became the name of the game for the top factories measures were taken to give brands maximum exposure. In recent years anyone attending the major motorcycle exhibitions in the world (Indianapolis, Cologne, and Milan etc) would have noticed a considerable influx of Chinese exhibitors and China itself is not without it own exhibitions. The Canton Fair in Guangzhou is an export exhibition that has its roots in ancient Chinese history. These days it is the largest and most modern export fair in the world and boasts a considerable motorcycle exhibition section; but to really appreciate the growth of the industry it is essential to visit the CIMAmotor expo