A rising tide lifts all boats, and as the fortunes of other European makers grow, Italy’s boutique brands like MV Agusta and Bimota are thriving, too. MV Agusta is doing particularly well, thanks largely to a proliferation of new product made possible by Harley-Davidson’s massive investment in updating that firm’s R&D and production.
In 2010, MV had a range of just three models (the sporty F4 and two four-cylinder Brutales), and had built just 2213 bikes the previous year. Sales have risen dramatically since then, on course to reach 7500 units in 2012. President Giovanni Castiglioni is for the first time anticipating a small profit in 2012, and with a host of new models including the Brutale 675 and 800 and the Rivale supermoto—named the “most beautiful bike” at EICMA 2012—Castiglioni is confident that sales will push beyond 10,500 units in 2013, and to more than 12,500 the following year. These are good times for the firm from Varese.
Rimini-based Bimota, meanwhile, revealed no fewer than five new bikes at EICMA 2012, led by the DB11 VLX superbike, powered by a 190-bhp, supercharged version of Ducati’s 11-degree Testastretta V-twin. Bimota has always struggled, and is the last company you’d expect to thrive during a global downturn. But given the recent success of MV and other historically challenged Italian brands, this might be Bimota’s moment to shine, too.
The company from Hinckley had a good 2011 in terms of sales, up 18% from the year before despite a still-soggy economy. In part, the sales came thanks to a growing dealer network but also because of a broad product base that includes classics and cruisers alongside category-defying sportbikes and, since 2011, a range of adventure-touring models. Sales of the Tiger 800 and 800XC have been strong, and the new Explorer has proven to be a credible BMW R1200GS competitor.
Triumph is staying on the gas, too. Recent upgrades to the Street Triple and the Daytona indicate that the company wants to stay ahead of any possible three-cylinder threat from Yamaha. And it’s fair to say that the luxury-touring Trophy shows that Triumph is willing to stand toe to toe with BMW in some very demanding segments.
Where most of the European manufacturers use exclusivity and/or high technological content to justify a substantial price margin over the Japanese competition, Triumph has skillfully managed to achieve comparatively low cost—the base Bonneville is still only $7699—without impacting brand value. And while the company hasn’t broken any new ground stylistically, it is moving rapidly toward higher technical content.
Piaggio—parent company of Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, and Vespa scooters—stands in stark contrast to Italy’s other motorcycle manufacturers. While firms like Ducati and MV Agusta seem motivated primarily by some (often overhyped) “passion” for racing and two-wheeled performance, Piaggio operates more along a traditionally Japanese business model, motivated mostly by sales figures and market trends. While Ducati stakes its claim on MotoGP racers and exclusive superbikes, Piaggio brands focus on decidedly more practical products. (Although it should be noted that Aprilia has won 40 roadracing World Championships, including the 2012 World Superbike Championship.)
These differences are reflected in Piaggio’s remarkably broad product array: Moto Guzzi cruisers and retros, Vespa scooters, and Aprilia’s ever-expanding line of sportbikes, standards, and adventure tourers. Few are as sexy or outright desirable as their home-country competition, but the performance, value, and build quality is equal or superior to anything coming out of Europe—or even Japan. Once the marketing catches up with the motorcycles—and, in the United States at least, once the distribution and dealer network grows to a functional size—Piaggio will be Italy’s next big success story. Recent improvements with the Moto Guzzi product line, as evidenced by the California cruiser that debuted to rave reviews, as well as the competent-looking Aprilia Caponord adventure tourer and the drop-dead-gorgeous Vespa 946 scooter, suggest the product is where it needs to be. Now the company just needs the market to catch on and catch up.
A significant part of Europe’s success in the U.S. has to do with demographics. Buyers eyeing BMWs and Ducatis tend to be wealthier, paying cash or living in a tax bracket where credit was still available even during the dark days of 2008-’09. Just the opposite happened with many of the Japanese brands. Particularly for younger sportbike buyers unlikely to be cash buyers, financing was an absolute requirement. As both independent and company-subsidized credit disappeared, so did this customer.