Similarities and differences between the early Japanese and Chinese motorcycle industries
A 2006 Visor down magazine article boldly declared “the Chinese are coming” to its readers intimating that within a few years the sight of a Chinese motorcycle on the roads and motorways would be as common in the United Kingdom as their Japanese counterparts are and have been for some time. While this is fast becoming the case there are essential differences and similarities between the arrival and marketing of Japanese bikes in the 1960’s and the current influx of Chinese machines.
It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and this is certainly an issue in the global automotive and motorcycle industries. There has been a lot of flak aimed at the Chinese industry for ‘copying’, ‘cloning’ and ‘reverse engineering’ through the years though what many won’t realise is that these allegations were also levelled at the Japanese on their entry into British markets. Indeed it is often speculated that the ‘borrowing’ of ideas from the British motorcycle industry led to its eventual demise (Kawasaki’s versions of BSA models immediately spring to mind). In terms of quality early Suzukis had huge problems with paint and plating and Honda’s cam shafts and cam chains were infamously ductile. Early Japanese models also came (much like the earlier Chinese models) fitted with tyres that were perfectly good on the dry but little short of treacherous on the wet. Regardless of this, Japanese bikes went from smaller displacement commuter bikes to the miracles of engineering we are so used to today. In stark contrast the Chinese industry seems, on the whole, to be stuck in the commuter market for the foreseeable future.
Although these differences are apparent I’ll start by documenting an obvious similarity between Japan’s Honda and China’s Zongshen companies. The story of Soichiro Honda is a familiar one. The son of a blacksmith, Soichiro was born in rural japan in 1907. His early years were spent with his father repairing bicycles. Likewise founder of the Zongshen factory Zuo Zongshen began by repairing bicycles in his home village in the Chongqing municipality although this maybe where the similarities end. Honda motorcycles exploded on to the Isle of Man TT scene at the beginning of the 1960’s and was soon promoting its Honda Benly in British motorcycling magazines. Zongshen, like most other Chinese manufacturers, have largely negated the international motosports scene despite declaring in 2008 that they would be running a bike in MotoGP “to raise their western profile.” Alas this promise did not come to pass and Zongshen’s (and many other) Chinese manufacturers profiles have remained extremely low key not least because of the fact that they wholesale rebrand their vehicles rather than opting to build brand awareness.
The exception to this ‘rule’ is CFmoto who prefer not to rebadge and have forged an extremely successful partnership with WK Racing who have defied critics and proven that their motorcycles are capable of defeating some of the world’s biggest and best known racing bike manufacturers such as Suzuki and Kawasaki, at the world’s most punishing road race.
One of the most baffling aspects of the Chinese industry is its seeming inability to develop and evolve its own technology (as I have documented recently in my report on the engine technology partnership between Norton and Zongshen). China currently has an extremely successful space programme as well as being one of the few nuclear nations and is also beginning to lead the way in electric vehicles and driverless cars. Regardless of this we have yet to see anything like the progress made by the early Japanese models and there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest that it will happen any time soon. That being said Chinese models have become reliable small engine commuters and now that the supply chain for spare parts has been properly introduced into the UK there is no reason not to begin to compare them to their Japanese rivals in terms of cost efficiency.
To the Chinese industry a ‘big’ displacement engine is from 300 to 650cc and it’s only a handful of manufacturers (out of the 100+ that exist in the country) have the facilities to manufacture them, many relying on experienced foreign partners to aid with development. They include the afore mentioned CFmoto and Zongshen (who will shortly have their model available after they receive the Norton developed engine), Loncin (who have an engine manufacture agreement with BMW), Jialing (the oldest Chinese motorcycle manufacturer but unfortunately floundering fast), Shineray (a very decent 400cc scrambler model) and Motrac who produce a 400cc and 500cc with parallel twins with an 800cc V-twin cruiser in the pipeline which will surely be competing with CFmoto for the title of ‘most progressive Chinese motorcycle manufacturer,’