Milwaukee is a Harley-Davidson town. The company was founded in the city 114 years ago and is still headquartered here to this day. But recently the Milwaukee motorcycle giant has run into a bit of trouble. Harley’s third quarter financial report for 2017 shows revenue down 9.7%, net income down 40.2% and market share stagnant at 50.7%.
The logical assumption suggests that the new motorcycle company on the block, who set up shop in Milwaukee for their North American headquarters in September 2016, would be hungry to take advantage of the behemoth’s rough patch. But John Kear, general manager of the Royal Enfield dealership in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, is quick to dash those assumptions. “With Harley-Davidson, we’re not a competitor; we probably complement them in the market,” he said.
Royal Enfield—a U.K.-founded, India-based motorcycle company that has been in business since 1901—builds motorcycles that are perfect for the urban rider. Their motorcycles are relatively small, lightweight and inexpensive, and many of them aren’t even recommended for highway riding. It’s a long way from the speed races, open highways and other Bruce Springsteen lyrics commonly associated with American motorcycle culture.
The Rise in Urban Motorcycling
The World Bank has periodically documented the growth of motorcycle use in global urban environments since at least 2010, when World Bank urban transport specialist Georges Darido wrote: “Motorcycles are prevalent in the developing world because they are relatively cheap to own and operate, usually less regulated and can be faster than other modes on very congested roads.” Since then, The World Bank has released reports on “the emerging role of motorcycles in African cities” and urban motorcycle safety in Latin America.
Because of their base in India (the second most populous nation in the world), Royal Enfield is the perfect company to take the lead in this arena. But the trend of urban motorcycle use is not limited to developing nations. Though young people are buying motorcycles at a much lower rate than previous generations, manufacturers are betting on smaller, more affordable bikes—like the ones Royal Enfield produces—to win them back, and it seems to be working.
“Between 2011 and 2016, sales of motorcycles with engines smaller than 600cc increased by 11.8%, while bigger, more powerful bikes managed only a 7.4% gain,” Bloomberg reported in July. GQMagazine even documented “The Rise of the Moto-Commuter” back in 2011.
Matthew Thompson is even younger than the Millennial riders that motorcycle manufacturers are dying to attract. Placed firmly in Generation Z, he is a 16-year-old high school football player, and he bought a Royal Enfield in June. Thompson was drawn to the brand eight years ago, when a friend bought one. He rode a Harley-Davidson while taking his motorcycle license class, but felt like “they didn’t have any thrill to them.” He also said that Harleys are too expensive for young riders, and they may be too intimidating as well. “For someone who is trying to ride motorcycles for the first time it can be terrifying,” he said. So for Thompson, his Royal Enfield is an easy way to get to and from everyday errands like school and football practice. The 60-70 miles per gallon he gets isn’t bad, either.
Royal Enfield’s focus on the urban rider comes with another distinction: their 226 N. Water St. location. “Look at other motorcycle dealers and where they are; they’re not in the city,” Kear said. “Royal Enfield is the only motorcycle dealership actually in the city.”
Urbanism is growing as a movement. Young people are embracing life in the city, as opposed to the suburbs of their parents’ generation, and a boom in urban retail space has followed the types of multifamily units that are springing up all over Milwaukee and many other cities in the country. “From a quality-of-life perspective, city centers have improved,” Kear said.
Connecting with the Community
Royal Enfield has managed to use their central-city location as a way of connecting with the community in a way that suburban dealerships may find difficult. The company sponsors the Brewtown Rumble, a vintage motorcycle show at the Downtown Milwaukee Pabst Brewery. The dealership also opens its doors for Gallery Night and Day, which aligns far more with the Downtown art scene than Sturgis.
“Motorcycle Movie” screenings are periodically held at the dealership, and there are plans to host an open-to-the-public concert featuring a to-be-announced local band in the near future. “It’s about engaging with the city on a different level,” Kear said.
The most ambitious community involvement initiative Royal Enfield puts on is their café run, named after the café racer style of motorcycles that Royal Enfield manufactures. (“Café racer” alludes to the old European practice of racing around cities from café to café.) On Sunday mornings in the riding season, motorcyclists meet up at the store at 8:30 a.m., some with Royal Enfields, some with other types of bikes, and they ride to a local café. During these café runs—when traffic is much lighter in the usually crowded Third Ward—Kear said riders experience the city in a unique way.
“People have said that they’ve never seen Milwaukee in that light before,” Kear said. “Having the sort of freedom to really look around the city—to see it without the pressure of rush-hour traffic and be able to appreciate the city in a completely different light—is important and a contributing aspect to motorcycling culture.”