Older riders rev up motorcycle sales

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee — Jim Heppe bought his first motorcycle nearly a half-century ago, when he was a teenager, and has been riding most of his life.

Now 65 years old, he’s throttled back some from riding 800 miles in a single day, but he still takes an occasional trip to Sturgis, South Dakota, and many trips closer to his home.

That bodes well for companies like Harley-Davidson Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of heavyweight motorcycles, which want to keep folks like Heppe in the saddle — and buying new bikes — as long as possible.

“I am going to keep riding as long as I can. I believe that when you quit, you get older a lot quicker,” said Heppe, who has owned about 10 motorcycles in his lifetime and now rides a 2009 Harley-Davidson Street Glide.

In Wisconsin, the average age of a motorcycle license holder is 51, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Transportation.

More than 58 percent of the 518,567 motorcycle license holders in the state were 50 or older, the data from 2013 showed. Nationwide, 39 percent of motorcycle owners are 51 to 69, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Americans over 50 control 77 percent of the total net worth in the nation, U.S. News & World Report said in 2014, and that represents a huge market for companies like Harley-Davidson.

Harley’s core customers — white men age 35 and older — continue to be an important part of the business, even as the company aggressively pursues “outreach” customers — those ages 18-34, women, African-Americans and Hispanics.

The company takes a “balanced approach” to make sure it has the right products for customers at all stages of their lives, said Ken Ostermann, integrated marketing operations general manager.

Some of that includes comfort features appealing to older riders and others who spend a lot of time in the saddle, but that don’t give the bikes a “senior look.”

Some older bikers want fast motorcycles, known as “sport bikes,” where the rider is in a crouched position for aerodynamics and bike performance.

An Erik Buell Racing 1190RX, for example, has a top speed of 167 miles per hour and can travel from 0 to 60 mph in under three seconds.

Priced at $19,000, it’s aimed at experienced riders still on the young side of the sport.

But baby boomers are buying these kinds of bikes, too, said Erik Buell, founder of the Wisconsin company that bears his name.

“I am 64 and I ride a sport bike all of the time. I would also rather drive a sports car than a luxury car, and I am willing to bet that people who buy Corvettes are also a bit older. It makes you feel young,” Buell said.

Much of the advertising for consumer products, including cars, is aimed at buyers 18 to 34. But in 2011, the peak age range of car buyers rose to 55-64 from 35-44, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

If there’s a downside to more older folks on motorcycles, though, it’s that a high number of them are seriously injured or killed in crashes.

In 2012, the worst year for motorcyclist fatalities in Wisconsin in decades, 60 percent of the victims were between the ages of 46 and 65 — an increase from years ago when most of the fatal crashes involved much younger riders.

Some of the increase stems from motorcyclists, overall, being an older crowd now. But some of it could be linked to more people starting to ride in their 50s or returning to the sport after a lengthy hiatus and losing their skills.

“There are guys who rode when they were in their 20s, then got married, had a career, raised a family, and the bike took a back seat. Now they’re starting to relive their youth,” said Tony Sanfelipo, an accident investigator for the law firm Hupy & Abraham and a founder of Abate of Wisconsin, a motorcyclists rights group.

“I suspect that guys are coming back with riding skills that are pretty rusty. And for vanity, or whatever reason, they haven’t taken a rider education course,” Sanfelipo said.

Some midlife bikers are buying motorcycles that are much more powerful than the machines they rode in their youth, which can result in accidents.

Sanfelipo said he would like to see more mentoring of inexperienced motorcyclists regardless of their age.

“I would rather have somebody mad at me, because I offered them a little help or some suggestions, than have to attend their funeral,” he said.