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Vintage Marketing: Old Bikes Build New Business

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If you ride your restored bevel drive Ducati, Panhead Harley or Black Bomber Honda on a regular basis, you are probably used to being mobbed at gas station stops and motorcycle hangouts. A nice looking vintage bike just naturally stops traffic.

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“I was going to a military vehicle meet,” explains Robin Markey, partner in Bob’s Indian Sales, which not only sells classic Indians, but is one of the oldest Honda dealers in the United States. “I was riding a World War II military Indian alongside a convoy of half tracks. We didn’t have enough police to escort us, so I stopped in an intersection and held up my hand. The semi trucks came to a screaming halt. The fact that I was wearing an authentic WWII MP uniform may have had something to do with it.”

Classic bikes hold a powerful attraction, and many people, from knowledgeable enthusiasts to casual observers, will go out of their way to look at a classic bike. This pulling power of classic bikes is something you can harness to build your business. Having old bikes and old bike enthusiasts around can increase foot traffic and make your shop a destination for local riders.

Glenn Bator, whose company, Bator International, buys and sells vintage bikes worldwide, points out that vintage bikes give people something to talk about. “We place classic bikes in store displays. The stores have nothing to do with motorcycles, but the old bike increases foot traffic. People see the old bike and tell their friends and family about it. People will even make a special trip to see a bike that has special meaning for them, like one that looks like the bike that Pop used to ride. The old bike makes your store memorable. It makes your store unique and individual in a world where everything is stamped out with a cookie cutter.”

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Beyond the Museum

Many dealers, recognizing that a lot of people will go out of their way to look at a classic old motorcycle, create mini museums in their shops. However, it is often more effective to put your vintage bikes right on the showroom floor, next to the new bikes you are selling. Both Bob’s Indian Sales in Pennsylvania and Moto Italiano in Central California report numerous sales to customers drawn in to look at the old bikes. “We have six or eight vintage bikes in the showroom at all times,” says Robin Markey. “With the vintage bikes right there, it’s easy to show how much bikes have improved. It’s gotten a lot easier to ride.”

“We have a vintage Triumph right in the showroom,” explains Maya Lai, saleswoman for Moto Italiano San Jose. “It draws people in. They want to look at the old bike — but then they realize they couldn’t do the maintenance and leave with a new bike. I have sold a lot of bikes this way.”

Vintage Marketing

The public relations team at Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A., has come up with some suggestions to help dealers capitalize on the public’s fascination with vintage iron:

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• Hold a classic bike competition in your parking lot and encourage enthusiasts you know to show up. Get a local charity, such as the Lions Club or the Boy Scouts, to sell coffee, sodas, doughnuts and hot dogs. Award prizes, not only for best restoration, but also for oldest bike, longest distance traveled to the show, most obscure and best rusty runner. A show is likely to draw attention from both vintage owners and from motorcyclists in general.

• Sponsor a vintage bike ride and make sure a freelance photographer is on hand to take photos. Often, the owners will want to buy shots of their bikes in motion and good photography should make it easier to get the local lifestyle publication to cover your event.

• Do you have a website? Do you want to get more people to visit your website? Create a “vintage views” section and invite local owners to submit photos and information about their rides. You can also host a Yahoo! group for local classic bike enthusiasts. In either case, you and your staff will be key to the site’s success. Add frequent updates to keep the site fresh and encourage repeat visits.

• Host a history of motorcycle fashion show, starting with genuine historic garb, contributed by local enthusiasts, and finishing with modern items (on sale at your store) that resemble the vintage clothing. This event could be coordinated with a charity raffle and is an excellent way to attract women riders to your shop. Be sure to hire a photographer and make sure the local lifestyle publication knows about your show well in advance.

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• Let’s say you bought a Kawasaki Z1 and have just gotten it ready to ride. Don’t be shy — contact the local chapter of the Classic Japanese Motorcycle Club or Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club, announce you are going to take the Z out for its maiden voyage, and invite local club members to show up and celebrate with free coffee and doughnuts. If it’s a nice day, everyone can go out for a ride. If not, start the bike, rev it up, let everyone ogle it, then return to story telling and other rainy day activities.

These activities don’t always have to center around your shop. Vintage racing is very popular. If there is an off-road venue nearby, sponsor a vintage enduro, motocross or trials event for excellent publicity. Contact the local American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) chapter to sanction the race, and make sure your Honda Elsinore or vintage Maico is tuned up. Why should the customers have all the fun?

Parts Get in On the Action

You may not want to actually work on old bikes yourself — tracking down hard-to-find parts and figuring out what goes where may tie up more space and personnel than you can afford — but one of the most underrated ways to increase good will in your community is to help vintage enthusiasts order parts from your OEM.

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Many dealers are under the impression that parts for older bikes are not available, but in fact, many items for older motorcycles are easily obtained via mail order. People in the vintage community tend to know each other, and word will quickly get around that you will special order these parts for your customers, increasing traffic into your store.

Jeff Saunders, owner of Z1 Enterprises, a specialist in parts for older Japanese motorcycles, says that he gets a lot of his business from people whose local dealer or parts person told them, “We don’t carry stuff for old bikes.” He points out that by the time the customer has located Z1, they are often disgusted at the local dealer. This is not the kind of publicity you want.

“In this day of the Internet, it’s not too hard to learn what is available,” says Jeff. “Kawasaki puts parts availability right on their website. So, the guy already knows the parts are available and then your parts person says they are not.”

“You are only hurting yourself if you turn away a customer,” Jeff points out. Someone who rides a 1972 CB 750 Honda or a BSA Gold Star is an enthusiast who often has a mix of bikes and is likely to provide repeat business. They may not take their bike to your service department, but they still need oil, tires, chains and more. “You may be shutting the door to jacket, rain gear or helmet sales. At some point, they might even want to buy a new motorcycle to ride while they are rebuilding the transmission on the oldie,” continues Jeff. Has this person’s previous experience at your shop been such that they will want to come back?

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Jeff also points out that, due to high gas prices, many people are currently resurrecting an older motorcycle in order to get cheap transportation and high gas mileage. “Not all people stay with the cheap bike. After a few months, some will look to upgrade. Will they buy the upgrade from you after they have been treated badly?”

“You shouldn’t look at the transaction as a hundred dollars worth of parts: you are making a new customer. If you are looking for repeat business, you must cultivate the customer.”

Lastly, if you give significant assistance to someone restoring an old bike, the grateful owner might even park their beautiful restoration in your showroom over the winter — allowing you to enjoy the pull of the classic bike into your shop without having to buy an old bike yourself.

Vintage Bike Organizations

Antique Motorcycle Club of America

www.antiquemotorcycle.org

Best known as the AMCA, it is the largest and best-known vintage bike association in the United States, with chapters in most states. The AMCA originated the point system (as in “95-point restoration”) and an AMCA-judged bike is known to have passed the strictest standards for a restored motorcycle. The club puts on rallies, rides all over the U.S. and has one event per year in Europe.

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American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association

www.ahrma.org

Where you go if you want to go fast on old bikes. AHRMA is a nonprofit organization that sanctions all sorts of races for old motorcycles: observed trials, roadracing, enduros, motocross and hare-and-hounds events. There are about 5,000 members and venues all over America.

Classic Japanese Motorcycle Club

www.cjmc.org

A relatively recent organization that has been expanding rapidly with the growth in interest in older Japanese motorcycles. “The CJMC is an International club dedicated to the preservation, celebration and having fun with the early Japanese manufactured motorcycle. If you like it, it must be a classic!”

Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club

www.vjmc.org

Another enthusiast organization for lovers of older Japanese bikes. Founded in 1977, the VJMC has affiliated branches all over the world. The North American branch has over 2,700 enthusiastic and dedicated U.S. and Canadian members.

International Norton Owners’ Club

www.inoanorton.org

One of the largest one-brand British motorcycle clubs in the United States. “Dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of the Norton motorcycle.”

Vintage BMW Motorcycle Owner’s Club

www.vintagebmw.org

Celebrating the older bikes from der Fatherland, the VBMWMOC is the place to go for technical information, parts and service resources for BMWs that are at least 25 years old.

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