Chinese Motorcycle Export Industry Feeling the Pinch
Sanya motorcycle display at Canton Fair

On April 15, I flew to China’s Guangzhou for the first day of the Canton fair. For those of you not in the know, Canton fair is the most important launching pad for new Chinese motorcycle models for export and is heavily attended by the great and the good of the global motorcycle industry.

Early a.m. flights on the expo’s first day are generally buzzing and packed with motorcycle related workers from all facets of the industry – not so this spring. My colleague and I glanced around the half-empty airplane and thought the same thing “where is everybody?”

The downturn in Chinese motorcycle sales (a drop of over 4 million units per year since 2008) has been mainly attributed to the factors affecting domestic Chinese motorcycle sales but now more factories are reporting differences in the export industry.

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After arriving at the fair we discovered that attendance in the motorcycle export trade section was at its lowest point since 2008. XiangMin of Chongqing’s Fuego Power brand commented “I’ve been coming here since 2001 and this is the worse fair I have experienced apart from the disastrous 2008 fair which was a real anomaly because of the financial crash. There’s really no real buzz about this year’s expo and there is also a distinct lack of new models on show, maybe they are being saved for the October edition of the expo, maybe a more traditional time to release the new products.

“Also, in years gone by, if a customer wanted to buy sample motorcycles to test their market they would buy a small container of bikes in different colours with varied farings. Now we see a different approach and the same customers are ordering samples in ones and twos rather than the 20 foot container.”

Attendance from European motorcycle importers was noticeably down on previous years which had seen a surge in interest.

Winston Guo reported “the quality upgrade in the industry is happening but maybe not quite fast enough for everyone’s liking. There are Europeans here but not as many as usual and the ones here are worried about whether the upgrade to EURO 4 will be ready for 2016. It’s a shame because in terms of quality and reputation the Chinese are now on the crest of the wave in terms of the fact that their 2-wheelers are not just accepted but extremely marketable on many European markets.”

Ukrainian motorcycle importer Constantine Babich declared “I was in Russia recently and can tell you that the Russian motorcycle industry is in semi-crisis, this has hugely affected the amount of 2-wheelers imported from China. The latest reports suggest that 2014 saw 50% less Chinese motorcycles imported in to Russia, it’s to do with the economy and will take some time to fix.”

It is indeed changes to the economy in countries like Russia that have negatively affected the Chinese export industry. Also, the situation in Argentina (once a top ten export destination for Chinese motorcycles) is dire.

Argentinean Fabricio Lacabanne from DNA Motorparts told me “we have suffered a protectionist policy for some years now. This has meant that it is very difficult to send money out of the country and of course this results in imports being very difficult to arrange. Many motorcycle import companies have tried to go in to other businesses in order to export enough goods to enable them to get the permission to transfer money out of Argentina but the effect on the whole motorcycle industry is huge”

In the first three quarters of 2014, industry-wide motorcycle output and sales totaled 15,615,100 and 15,668,500 units, respectively, representing 7.47% and 8.33% year-on-year decreases, 0.53% and 0.72% less than those for the first half of the year. Among total, the output and sales of two-wheel motorcycles fell by 8% and 8.89% year on year to 13,899,200 and 13,959,300 units, while the output and sales of three-wheel motorcycles fell by 3% and 3.49% year on year to 1,715,800 and 1,709,100 units. In the first three quarters, the industry-wide motorcycle output-sales ratio reached 100.34%, representing a 0.94% year-on-year decrease. By the end of September, the industry-wide enterprise inventory fell by 0.46% year on year to 635,500 units.

It is important to add to this article that although the amount of units exported is dropping, engine (and most parts) sales are increasing year-on-year. Also, a drop in motorcycle export does not necessarily affect company profits as the better quality new generation motorcycles sell for a higher premium than their predecessors.

The conclusion would seem to be that the Chinese motorcycle industry must continue to improve its quality and begin to pay more urgent attention to the technology required for new certificates of conformity such as the 2016 EURO 4 regulations which will include motorcycle needing ABS and EFI systems. It is also necessary for the bigger manufacturers to develop their own research and technology regarding making the jump to producing bigger (600cc and above) engines.

If this happens, China will have opened up several new markets and can then concentrate at competing at the higher end of the motorcycle scale instead of concentrating on the cheaper, small engine, commuter market which is no longer the cash cow it once was.