• David McMullan

The history of the Chinese motorcycle industry



Last year it was revealed that the Indian motorcycle industry has exceeded its Chinese equivalent in terms of statistics of motorcycles manufactured and has become the largest maker of motorcycles in the world. Though the industries are dissimilar (China exports nearly 50% of all motorcycles whereupon India ships just 10%) this signifies an historic moment. In 2007 the Chinese industry mass-produced 24 million powered 2 wheelers, the utmost that has ever been manufactured in a year by the motorcycle trade in one nation. 9 years later the industry manufactured 16 million, still a vast quantity but far fewer than in preceding years (primarily due to the motorbike bans in tier one and two metropolitan centres in China). The Chinese trade is responding to the descent in unit sales by moving its sales objectives away from developing countries and concentrating more on Europe (and to a smaller degree America) where the profit boundaries on motorbikes are far higher. The Chinese motorcycle industry has experienced several highs and lows through the years, here’s a summary of the Chinese motorcycle industry since its beginning in 1951.


The foundation


After the Second World War the Chinese military recognised the need to develop their arms and military equipment industry domestically in a move that eventually gave birth to the largest motorcycle industry the world has ever seen. Motorcycle production in China first began in 1951 when the People's Liberation Army started manufacturing a 500cc motorcycle to meet the country's military necessities during the Korean War. This motorcycle was developed along the lines of the K500; a German model used in the Second World War and set the standard for the early industry. Up until the finish of the 1970s motorcycles manufactured in China were used primarily by the military services; the major exception to this rule being the Beijing Motorcycle Factory which from 1958 onwards created motorcycles for the general public that were founded on the German pre-war BMW R71, and also the Russian Ural and Dnepr models. In Chongqing city in 1979 the military munitions factory China Jialing Industrial Company began to independently manufacture motorcycles for civilian use ushering in the modern era of Chinese motorcycle production. In 2000 the Chinese industry took over as the biggest motorcycle producer in the world a position that it has maintained up until 2016.


Foreign influence


For many years motorcycles in China were used exclusively for commuter use and also as an aid to agricultural transport. This was reflected in the size, design and displace (invariably 150cc) of motorcycles in the earlier years of the industry. These early models were shameless Japanese (mainly Honda) clones utilising Honda’s CG range of engines.

As the industry evolved motorcycle culture slowly introduced itself into mainland China especially after the handing over of Hong Kong in 1998. Harley Davidson had entered the Hong Kong market in 1995 and marked its entry into mainland China by establishing a representative office in Shanghai in 2005. The representative office managed sales, marketing, dealer development, and after-sales services.

The first authorized Harley-Davidson dealership in mainland China opened in Beijing in 2006. Today, the company has sales and service networks through eight full-service dealerships

Ducati followed in 2009 and them and Harley remain really the only 2 manufacturers from outside of Japan that have entered the Chinese market (save from a below par attempt by MV Agusta to partner with Lifan) but at the moment there are still less than 15000 motorcycles registered in China that have a displacement of 500cc or over.


Joint ventures and takeovers


Joint ventures have played a huge part in shaping the industry as technicians from Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, BMW and Piaggio have all been utilised by Chinese factories to produce motorcycles for the Chinese market. Lessons learned from these co-operations have enabled the Chinese to develop export markets for their products, thus opening the world up to Chinese ICE powered 2 wheelers.

There are several motorcycle riders in the world who are completely unaware that they are riding a bike which is developed by a Chinese manufacturer (much like the fact that passengers in a London black Hackney carriage are unaware that their transport is made in Shanghai), Benelli, Italjet and SWM are some big examples of this phenomenon but also many British and European ‘resurrected’ brands have the parts or even the whole unit manufactured in China.


The future


Chinese motorcycles are getting a better reputation in Europe as after-market services grow to competent levels and consumers begin to recognise brands (albeit brands rebadged from the OEM). A trip to Canton fair will demonstrate that many of the dozens of manufacturers now have at least 2 models with the EURO 4 COC. Also, at least 10 motorcycle manufacturers are now developing engines with displacements over 500cc, a trend that will see more following. The Chinese motorcycle industry, through necessity, is starting to move with the times and could expect to return to the number 1 spot in the future.

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