On the final night of our 1979 cross-country staff tour, Jeff Karr got some bad menudo, re
We began to get some traction in ’81. In particular, the February issue—which debuted the Kawasaki GPz550, harbinger of the sportbike revolution—was well-received. The next year was even more memorable, as Honda and Yamaha geared up for war with new turbos, cruisers, tourers and revolutionary engines, most notably the first V4s. As the April issue was about to go to press late on a Friday afternoon, Honda called to say that the 750 Sabre was ready and we could pick it up on Monday morning. “Could we get it today?” I asked. “If you get here by closing,” was the answer. I got a speeding ticket on the way, but by Monday morning we had put 2000 miles on the bike, and the issue went out with a comprehensive test—and a new cover. That PO’ed the corporate higher-ups, but they shut up when that issue became the best-selling motorcycle magazine in 30 years, with newsstands sales of just under 130,000 units!
I celebrated by trying to give up the editor’s job and returning to a staff position. For better or worse, that only lasted four months.
Our next big pitch came in ’82. Waingrow gathered the company brain-trust, mostly car guys, to hear our proposal. Their view went something like this: “So, just when your magazine—after 10 years here—is finally showing a little momentum, you want to eliminate half your audience by covering only streetbikes? How can that possibly make sense?!”
Almost to a man, they turned thumbs-down on the idea. Waingrow thanked them and dismissed them, presumably to spare us the embarrassment of them hearing what he had to say. Instead he told us, “Okay, I’m going to give you enough rope to hang yourselves.” So Motorcyclist celebrated its 71st anniversary with the declaration: “Now All Street!”
It should have been a rough time. The bottom dropped out of the new-bike market in ’82, and the slump lasted into the ’90s. The bigger magazines were primarily testing new motorcycles; however, we realized that even in good years, the vast majority of sales were of used bikes. We reasoned that lots of readers wanted to know how to maintain, improve, ride and enjoy their motorcycles, which weren’t necessarily the latest and hottest. There were lots of ways to have fun with them, and we pumped up that content. Comparisons became our preferred method of testing new models—they answered more questions and took less space per bike. Our circulation began to grow steadily. Even though the motorcycle manufacturers were advertising less, the aftermarket liked what we were doing and supported us.
It was a good time to be a performance-loving enthusiast at a motorcycle magazine. Manufacturers were finally realizing the potential of sportbikes. Newer, faster and more exotic models arrived every year. Readers often suspect that editors are unwilling to bite the hand that feeds them, but that was never the case at Motorcyclist. The manufacturers understood that if we called one model a “little pile,” glowing remarks about another carried more weight. On a few occasions, a manufacturer withheld testbikes or advertising dollars, but those rarely lasted and had no significant effect with circulation growing.
By Motorcyclist’s 75th anniversary in ’87, the magazine had shed its also-ran status. It was frequently the best-selling American motorcycle magazine on newsstands, was solidly profitable and enjoying critical success. That issue, with an expanded page count and special historical section, was another blockbuster, the second best-selling issue of the last 30 years. The cover featured a reader’s project bike. Of course, James Parker wasn’t just any reader, and his MC2 was a proof-of-concept vehicle for his RADD front-suspension design, later adopted on the ’93 Yamaha GTS1000. Today, James is a Motorcyclist columnist.