The rise and rise of motorcycling in the Far East

Ben Purvis_BikeSocial
By Ben Purvis

Writing about bikes for 20 years. Published in dozens of titles on five continents. Mildly obsessed with discovering how things work.

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

Not what you might expect from a Chinese motorcycle: QJMotor’s SRK600 looks surprisingly tempting

 

Not long ago China was a bit-part player in the bike industry – churning out vast numbers of two-wheelers but nothing that could really compete with the best that Japan, Europe or America was building. In recent years that’s started to change and China is finally beginning to fulfil its potential as a motorcycling superpower.

Although many Chinese-made bikes are still simple, cheap single-cylinder machines, often prioritising price over quality or longevity and cribbing from established Japanese models, there’s also a fast-growing trend towards larger-capacity, multi-cylinder bikes and a newfound confidence in home-grown design and engineering.

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

 

Is China the new Japan?

It’s tempting to make comparisons between 2020s China and 1960s Japan, when the latter started to make serious efforts to build and export bikes that could match or beat the European models that dominated the industry. The result of that battle was the demise of many longstanding western brands as superior, cheaper and more reliable Japanese machines appeared.

There are similarities between the countries’ adoption of motorcycles; both needed to find a cheap way to give their populations the ability to travel, and bikes are the obvious solution. However, their industries faced very different economic demands.

The Japanese government orchestrated a development and export push across a wide range of industries in the second half of the 20th century. In the process and a vast number of now near-forgotten brands – Pointer, Fuji, HOSK, Olympus-King, Monarch, Lilac, Meguro, Gasuden and many more – flared briefly before Japan’s bike industry was distilled into the ‘Big Four’ and able to turn its  attention to the rest of the world.

With a Japanese population of around 90 million in the 60s, Japan’s bike firms needed exports to be able to grow. The home market just wasn’t big enough to sustain all their ambitions. Racing was used to establish the Big Four on the international stage, leading to the adoption of cutting-edge technology, and they soon made bikes developed specifically for western tastes that embarrassed many of the previously unchallenged European brands.

China’s situation is different. A population of 1.4 billion means the country has been able to sustain a vast array of bike companies that haven’t needed to worry about exports to keep going and keep growing. As such, the development of bikes in China has been driven less by the need to compete with foreign brands and more to satisfy the demands of the home market. For decades that meant small, cheap bikes that don’t carry much appeal in the West.

Now things are changing. The Chinese motorcycle market has shrunk significantly from its peak, leading firms there to start taking exports more seriously, and tax relief on exported goods makes the idea even more attractive.

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

China’s police and military are huge motorcycle customers. A to supply them can justify the entire R&D spend of a new model.

 

How big is the Chinese bike industry?

In short, it’s massive. Last year some 16.4 million bikes were sold there, accounting for around a quarter of all motorcycle sales worldwide. But it’s a long way below its peak.

Back in 2013 nearly 23 million bikes were sold in China but a government decision to ban motorcycles from city centres in 2015 led to a dramatic fall in demand, putting China into second place behind India on global motorcycle sales charts.

Figures from China’s motorcycle industry body show that the vast majority of Chinese-made bikes stay in the country to service domestic buyers, with the top firms selling more than a million bikes per year in the country. But exports are starting to catch up:

 

Top 10 best-selling brands in China (2019)

1: Haojue: 1,956,800

2: Loncin: 1,138,000

3: Zongshen: 1,035,700

4: Yinxiang: 962,400

5: Lifan: 957,700

6: Wuyang-Honda: 894,200

7: Sundiro Honda: 821,400

8: Luyuan: 754,500

9: Northern Enterprises: 724,400

10: Guangzhou Dayan: 589,100

 

Top 10 motorcycle exporters from China (2019)

1: Loncin: 873,300

2: Haojue: 618,480

3: Yinxiang: 478,300

4: Sundiro Honda: 419,900

5: Zongshen: 396,800

6: Guangzhou Dayan: 329,900

7: Lifan: 321,100

8: Guangzhou Haojin: 276,300

9: Wuyang-Honda: 267,200

10: Bashan: 253,500

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

QJMotor SRG600 is a Benelli-based, 600cc sports bike that marks a significant move upmarket for Chinese-made machines

 

Why is China getting more interested in big bikes?

In the past, China’s bike industry needed to cater for a vast number of customers, but those buyers didn’t have a vast amount of disposable income. As a result, small, cheap bikes ruled the roost for years.

Now, a combination of factors is encouraging companies to expand towards larger bikes. One is the simple fact that Chinese disposable income has skyrocketed over the last few years. In 2000, the average urban household had 6280 Yuan (£713) per capita of disposable income over the year, while rural Chinese people had just 2253 Yuan (£255) spare cash to spend. By 2018 that rose to 39,250 Yuan (£4457) of per-capita disposable income in urban areas and 14,617 (£1660) in rural China. That income growth has been reflected in an explosion of car sales in China, with people ditching two wheels in favour of four to create a similar situation to the economic position that saw Western and Japanese bike firms moving away from purely providing cheap transport and into the pricier, more profitable ‘leisure’ markets decades ago.

That shift towards cars, allied to the government moves to ban bikes from many city centres on environmental and safety grounds, mean lower overall sales for Chinese bike firms.

With fewer bikes being sold, it’s no surprise that Chinese manufacturers are looking at a two-pronged approach to future growth. On element is to move away from the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap model of the past, instead looking to make higher-spec, larger capacity bikes to cater for increasingly affluent Chinese customers. More expensive bikes have bigger profit margins, even if outright sales numbers are lower. The other prong is to take a new look at export markets; with the market in China no longer able to sustain the volume of sales it used to, firms will inevitably look further afield to find buyers.

Does that mean we should expect all China’s bike companies to mimic the Japanese, powering into the European market with low-priced, high-performance bikes? No. Europe and America aren’t the prized markets that they were in the 1960s. These days, places like India, Thailand and Indonesia are all vast bike markets, potentially offering juicier targets for Chinese brands that aren’t keen to expand into building much bigger, more expensive bikes tailored to Western tastes.

Some Chinese firms, though, have set their sights on much bigger bikes, suited to the more sophisticated European and US markets. One example is CFMoto, probably the best-known Chinese maker of big bikes. Freddie Hinckley, Managing Director of CFMoto’s UK importers Quadzilla, said: “CFMOTO have just released their 1250J motorcycle, which has been made and produced for the Chinese government in thousands. We know that a lot more is to come from China and certainly from CFMOTO who spend millions on R&D. CFMOTO in particular are using higher spec and higher quality components on their bikes now to try and prove that they are not the typical Chinese manufacturer, and to prove they are built to last, not to fall apart. For example, they use Pirelli, Metzeler and CST tyres, Bosch fuel injection, J.Juan brakes, KYB shocks and so on.”

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

Bikes are now banned in some Chinese city centres, a move that has harmed sales in the country and could encourage more companies to look to exports for growth.

 

Reliability, quality and the 13-year rule

The idea of Chinese motorcycles is often tied to a concept of low-quality, old-fashioned components and designs. To many, they’re throwaway bikes that aren’t worth repairing.

It’s not a completely unwarranted reputation, but the cheap-and-cheerful Chinese machines built to those standards don’t necessarily represent an inability to build bigger, more expensive or higher-quality bikes. Instead they’re a response to very specific Chinese rules that demand bikes are scrapped after 13 years or 120,000km.

For years China has operated a compulsory scrappage policy that’s intended to ensure the roads aren’t filled with old, dangerous, polluting cars, trucks and bikes and to provide a constant demand for new machines that helps the country’s industry.

Consider for a moment that the average motorcycle in the UK is now 15 years old and it’s clear that such a law must have a huge impact on the type of bike that customers will be happy to buy. Why spend extra on a well-built, large bike if it’s going to be nothing more than scrap metal in little over a decade?

What’s more, the rules also include a MOT-style test with the added sting that if your vehicle fails three times in a row, it gets scrapped.

Similar Chinese age rules for privately-owned cars have now been lifted to encourage sales of more expensive, high-end machines, ensuring better resale values and eliminating the need to replace perfectly serviceable cars. If the same was done for motorcycles it could lead to an explosion of big bike development and sales in the country, as well as encouraging companies to improve quality and spare parts supplies.

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

CFMoto CF1250 is China’s biggest, most powerful bike yet

 

Six Chinese bikes that could be hits in the West

CFMoto CF1250

Already being procured by Chinese police, CFMoto’s CF1250J is the first fruit of the company’s tie-in with KTM and a clue to a future generation of large-capacity V-twin models.

As befits a police bike, it’s a big touring machine, but power comes from a new 1279cc V-twin that’s derived from KTM’s LC8 engine. Making 140hp, it’s the most powerful engine yet to grace a Chinese-made motorcycle.

At the moment the main Chinese police bike is a touring version of CFMoto’s 650cc parallel twin. It led to spinoffs including the naked 650NK and adventure-style 650MT, so similar civilian-aimed derivatives of the CF1250 are likely to follow the police tourer.

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

Benelli BJ1200 is aiming at BMW

 

Benelli BJ1200

The main rival to CFMoto’s CF1250 is the Benelli BJ1200 – another bike that’s vying for potentially lucrative contracts to supply Chinese cops.

While Benelli isn’t purely Chinese – it still has European operations including its own design and engineering facility in Pesaro, Italy – the company is wholly owned by Qianjiang, with manufacturing plants and further R&D operations in China.

Based on a 1209cc version of the Benelli 1130 three-cylinder engine making 134hp, the BJ1200 hasn’t been officially announced yet but it’s already been developed into a civilian-oriented touring bike as well as a police machine. As befits a rival to BMW’s touring range it’s packed with kit including tyre pressure sensors, auto-folding mirrors and even radar-assisted cruise control.

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

Zongshen RX6 uses Norton-based parallel twin engine

 

Zongshen Cyclone RX6

Like many other Chinese firms, Zongshen is taking a shortcut to big bike production by licencing an existing engine – in this case the 650cc parallel twin developed for Norton’s forthcoming Atlas range.

Unlike the retro Norton models, the Zongshen Cyclone RX6 is a modern adventure tourer, detuned to a realistic-sounding 70hp rather than the ambitious 84hp claimed for Norton’s Atlas. Zongshen is also developing a larger, 850cc version of the same engine to use in future models.

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

Brixton is designed in Europe but built in China

 

Brixton 1200

Designed in Europe but set to be manufactured in China, the forthcoming Brixton 1200cc retro twin is a direct rival to Triumph’s Bonneville but likely to cost significantly less.

Although technical details are scant at the moment, the firm showed the bike as a concept last year and has since confirmed that it will go into production, albeit without setting a timescale as to when it will be available.

Brixton’s Crossfire 500 models, powered by a 486cc parallel twin making 47hp, have also been well-received.

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

SRB750 is QJMotor’s biggest adventure model

 

QJMotor SRB750

QJMotor is a new brand formed by Benelli’s owner, Qianiang (itself largely owned by the massive Geely concern, which also owns the likes of Volvo and Lotus), intended to sell to increasingly affluent Chinese buyers. The firm has already revealed a naked 600cc four – the SRK600 – and plans to launch a fully-faired sports version, the SRG600 very soon. Both are based on Benelli’s TNT600i engine and frame. The SRB750 is an adventure bike derived from the Benelli 752S, and there will also soon be 500cc and 350cc QJMotor models based on Benelli’s smaller twin-cylinder engines.

 

How China is becoming a new motorcycling superpower

Rariro’s electric tourer is also offered in police spec

 

Rariro JY2400DJ-X

The Rariro is a new Chinese electric bike that takes the unusual approach of being styled as a tourer. That’s in part because, like the Benelli BJ1200 and CFMoto CF1250, it’s courting police buyers.

In top-spec form it’s claimed to make 67hp (there’s also a 54hp version), with a 112mph top speed, a 137 mile range from a 12kWh battery pack and the ability to get from 0-60mph in 4.3 seconds. A recharge is said to take 4 hours from a normal domestic plug. Those numbers, if they’re achieved, put the bike on a par with some of the best electric models in Europe and America, and if they’re allied to a Chinese-cheap price could make the Rariro a tempting proposition.

 

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