Fireworks, egg-fried rice, kung-fu, intricate writing…Those are just a few of the things that spring to mind when we think of China. One thing that doesn’t feature on that list is high-performance motorcycles.
But China already produces more machines than any other country. Most of them are two-stroke commuters to keep its huge population mobile. But now it looks like Chinese firms are setting their sights on greater goals than just feeding their home market by building superbikes good enough to compete with the Japanese at prices more akin to scooters.
If they can do it, at worst it could mean a whole new range of decent, cheaply-priced bikes, thanks to lower wages and production costs in China. And at best, according to industry experts, it could result in China becoming the new Japan, flooding the market with quality, desirable machines at prices lower than we’ve ever seen before, just like Japan did in the 1960s.
Rob Hobson, editor of CAP Green Book, the dealers guide to the value of bikes said, " It’s a similar situation to when the Japanese first took on the British and European firms
By offering cheaper bikes in the 1960s. What the Chinese could do mirrors what the Japanese had to do. Like the Japanese, the Chinese just have to get over the problem of becoming accepted by customers and they’ll do that by price. There’ll be jokes about them for a while, but if the technology, style and price is right, they’ll get over that problem.
" They’ll start by building replicas of Japanese bikes, like the Japanese copied British bikes in the 1960s Kawasaki 650W1s were basically BSAs. But somewhere down the line they’ll start to build decent machines of their own. "
But Hobson thinks we’re in for a wait before we see anything from Chinese firms on the level of cutting-edge Japanese superbikes. " It will take at least 10 years for them to develop anything even close to the likes of the Yamaha R1 " , he said.
Last month we reported that Chinese firm Zongshen had built a 750cc, 90bhp, 155kg (341lb) V-twin superbike capable of around 150mph.
The prototype engine was based on the SV650 motor, but the final version shares little in common with the smaller Suzuki.
Called the ZS750, the bike has the credentials, at least on paper, to compete with a Ducati 748. But, best of all, Zongshen, China’s third largest bike producer, reckons it can sell the ZS750 in the UK for £2500 just £300 more than a Honda CG125.
Hobson is sceptical about the price. He said: " Why would they sell it so cheap? If it’s a decent bike, they could get more for it. But is should be cheaper than the rest of the market maybe £3500. "
But that is still £1000 less than the SV650. And if the bike is of the quality Zongshen claims, finding dealers to distribute it shouldn’t be a problem.
David Morrow, managing director of Carnell and Motorcycle City, said: " We do, of course, consider any new entrant into the market to ensure that we offer the widest choice. If the Chinese bikes were keenly priced, well designed and if we believed they would appeal to our customers, of course we’d like to take a look at them. "
There’s no shortage of people keen on importing the bikes to the UK. Paul Jason, who used to work for the marketing department of Italjet UK, is planning to import a range of Chinese machines, starting with a 125cc commuter. Called the Warrior 125 Despatch, it is very similar to Honda’s CG125 but costs £700 less at £1499.
Japanese manufacturers are becoming increasingly concerned about Chinese " copies " of their bikes, but Jason doesn’t believe he will get into trouble with Honda for selling the bike. He said: " If someone has breached copyright law in China, it’s between the manufacturer and them. And even if there was a problem, they’d just change the part which breached the copyright law. "
And though a CG125 clone may not be the bike of your dreams, Jason also plans to import superbikes to sell from his 2500sqft showroom in London and he thinks there will soon be plenty of them around. He said " There’s no doubt that the Chinese are becoming a big force in the superbike market here. "
Hobson thinks one of the initial problems for Chinese bikes could be their quality. He said: " Will they be reliable? Will they stand up to British weather? And will they look right? Some people will always buy based on price, but there will also always be people who want the best. "
It’s that lack of desirability which manufacturers claim will ensure the Chinese won’t pose a serious threat at least in the short term.
Dan Harris, spokesman for Yamaha UK, said: " It would be naïve to ignore any new competitors. Years ago, people didn’t take Japanese firms seriously. A quarter of the world’s population is Chinese and the quality of their products is constantly improving. But I think it will be a long time before they’re up to the standard of our bikes. People buy an R1 because they want the best and I think they’ll continue to do so. I don’t believe
the Chinese currently pose a threat to any of our markets. "
Suzuki UK’s position is similar. Director of sales and marketing Ian Catford said: " I don’t see it as much of a threat, as it takes many years of development to get to the proven level of technology, build quality, and reliability that Japanese machines offer. "
Italian importers also claim to be unconcerned. Paul Walker, marketing manager for Aprilia UK, said " The ZS750 sounds like a good product, but it’s not going to compete with our range. If you want to compete at the highest level, marketing costs go up and so does price. It won’t be competing in the same market as us. "
The importers could be right. But, of course, they have an interest in talking up their own products. However, independent observers see things differently.
Professor Garel Rhys is the director of Cardiff University’s Centre For Automotive Industry Research. He’s one of the country’s leading authorities on motor industry economics, including bike markets. He doesn’t buy the importers’ arguments that price isn’t a deciding factor when people are choosing superbikes. And he thinks we’re going to see Chinese bikes at least as good as the best the Japanese have to offer, as cheaper prices. Soon.
He said: " If Chinese bikes offer similar reliability and similar performance, people will buy them. There’s no doubt about it. History shows it over the last 100 years, any firm which has assumed its brand value is good enough to overcome price has gone to the wall. When the Japanese came on the scene, they offered a new level of quality for the money. Nobody cared about the names.
" Chinese bikes could well be of the same quality as Japanese ones in a very short space of time and they could still have much lower production costs and prices than the Japanese. This isn’t a third world country. They have thousands of huge, modern factories. And what the Chinese do, they do well.
" I’m sure the Japanese are looking over their shoulders with a lot more alarm than importers are admitting. For some time, many people have felt that China is capable of delivering far more than we’ve ever seen from Japan. "