Chinese motorcycle industry interested in reviving classic motorcycle brands


By Sean Kerr


Brands have, for many years, been traded and reinvented, bought and sold, forgotten about and revived; Daimler-Benz shells out for Chrysler, Tata of India picks up Jaguar-Land Rover from Ford, BMW Group via KTM buys Husqvarna, Volvo is sold to Gelee and Volkswagen purchases, well, everything and anything it can lay its big, fat mitts on. There’s nothing new to these brand purchases and they often result in a prosperous future for both investor company and the firm brand being traded, as in many cases, the brand is sold on when the parent company can no longer support it or justify its continuation.

While common in the electrical, textile, food and beverage and car industries, the trading of marques in the motorcycle area had been all but limited to the upper level European and American companies. That was true until just a decade ago. In 2005, just twenty years after first being established, Qianjiang Motorcycles landed a deal that bagged them one of Europe’s oldest bike firms, Benelli (now labelled Benelli QJ).

The Italian marque first opened its shop doors as a repair business before RMS Titanic had even had a taste of North Atlantic ice. Ten years later in 1921 it began pumping out its own machines. Enduring two periods of world war Benelli pushed forward through the years to pick up numerous racing wins across the continent including European Wold Championship, Moto GP Constructor and Rider Championships and that holist of grails, the Isle of Man TT, in ’39, ’50 and ’69.

Qianjiang’s forward thinking has led to the revival of a classic motorcycle brand which otherwise might have remained just a fond memory after it’s slowdown during the 1980’s and eventual closure in ’88. Not only has Benelli seen resurgence in sales on its flagship models in recent years, they’ve added more bikes to their line-up to meet demand for varying engine sizes.

Is it possible that some of the world’s earliest yet long forgotten brands could find a breath of new life from the big Chinese Motorcycle manufacturers in the near future? David McMullan, Chief Editor of C2W brought up this point at the Chongqing Motorcycle Export Council and put out some feelers to gauge interest levels. Many of the representatives of Chinese bike companies gathered in that meeting were excited by the prospect of buying and reinvigorating a historical brand. Some were very keen as to ask how classic marques could possibly be acquired and what it would involve. Very few, if any, had no idea how their company would go about proposing the buyout of a retired marque.

Jane Jia, one of the organisers of the China International Motorcycle Trade Exhibition (CIMAmotor) was excited at the prospect of helping the defunct brands’ revival process. “If anyone wants to showcase their brand with a mind to selling it to a Chinese company we would welcome them here at CIMAmotor in 2016 and would prepare a forum where they could outline their intentions to sell the brand. We would invite all the CEO’s of the big Chinese motorcycle companies and provide introductions.”

There are probably as many defunct brands as there are current operating companies. What would a Chinese bike manufacturer gain from investing in a retired brand? Obviously the first thing that springs to mind is the prestige. Older firms like those originating from Britain in the early 20th century such as BSA, Vincent and the like are still romanticized over by motorcycle fans yet these days there is barely a peep heard from the factories themselves. Having a classic name to sell bikes under is one key benefit of purchasing older brands.

It goes without saying that if new bikes are going to be produced and given the prestigious marque’s badge they would have to be of sound quality and preferable follow in the vein of their predecessors. Not only that, but if remakes of older bikes are to be made a company would do well to keep the design true to the original.

It’s not just Qianjiang making moves on classic brands. Royal Enfield, founded in 1893, was revived in 1995 by the Indians and has grown from strength to strength with the RE exported globally and the main factory in Chennai employing more staff to work double shifts the demand was so high. Wouldn’t it be great to see a new Vincent on the roads again? The Chinese companies have more than enough money to develop the tooling for some brand new and exciting models.

Classic and custom bike show organiser Lorne Cheetham discussed the opportunities with me. “working towards getting some of the legendary brands back on the road is an exciting prospect and it would seem, in all honesty, that the Chinese are the best placed (maybe the only ones placed) to make it happen on a large scale. Qianjiang gained enormous face by taking over Benelli and although that transaction was different to say, reviving Ariel, it’s surely something the Chinese would consider. I would suggest that they work on reviving old classic designs and modernise them, maybe making the parts in China and assembling them in the country of the brand’s origin. It’s a very exciting thought.”

I think the main thing to consider is the structure of the agreement when a brand is sold. Would the revived brand be made in China as Royal Enfield is in India? Is it better purely to produce the parts and assemble them in the brand’s home country? Would having a Chinese owner lessen the prestige of the brand or would it not matter as long as the product is of top quality as in Land Rover and Range Rover (owned by Indian company Tata)?

My own opinion is that as long as a Chinese company revives a brand and retains its original integrity it’s all good and maybe the only way we will get to see and ride these marques again. Producing a 150cc Honda copy commuter under the BSA (to use an example) brand is obviously not acceptable so contracts and agreements would have to be in place before the project went forward.




March 14, 2016