The Lowdown No. 14 / Beat a Retreat

The Lowdown No. 14 / Beat a Retreat

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I walked to the front of the building and pulled on the door handle. Locked. I pulled again. Yup, locked. The neighboring industrial complexes were a whirr of activity on a fine spring day. Trucks backing in, trucks pulling out, overhead doors rolled up to let sunshine in. After an interminable winter, life had returned to the Canadian tundra. But not at the building I was attempting to enter. I shrouded my eyes, pressed my face to the glass, and looked into the lobby. Stuffed in a corner was an outboard motor. In another corner was a motorcycle. And on the receptionist’s unmanned desk sat a four-by-six-inch card with the words “Welcome to Suzuki”

I wasn’t at a Suzuki storage facility. I was at Suzuki’s head office. Every other business was able to keep the doors unlocked over lunch, so why not Suzuki? All I needed to do was drop the key to the test bike off, jump into my just-arrived taxi, and head home. After hammering on the door but failing to rouse anyone inside (was anyone inside?) I sent the disgruntled taxi driver on his way, stretched out in the sunshine on Suzuki’s front stoop, and slept. Not dozed. Slept.

Forty minutes later a man sauntered up the walkway whistling to himself and jangling a ring of keys. I straightened. He stopped whistling. He took me for a vagrant. “Oh,” I said, with a big yawn, “you’re still in business?” He gave me an odd look, which said, clear as the sky, who have you been talking to? What have you heard?

Rumors are rife that Suzuki is leaving the MotoGP championship. Many news outlets, including MotoGP’s own website, are treating the news as sacrosanct. This on the heels of Suzuki confirming its participation in the series until 2026, and having won the title with rider Joan Mir in 2020. Devout followers of MotoGP are incensed, and believe Suzuki’s “core values” have been betrayed by the move. They’re wrong. Suzuki’s retreat is predictable, expected, and, moreover, necessary.

In the minds of many enthusiasts in the west, the Japanese big four have been, historically, virtually indistinguishable one to the next. They compete in many of the same segments, at the same price points, on motorcycles that often vary only by small degree. But in recent years Suzuki has chartered its own path. New models are few and far between, and it’s palpably clear that Suzuki has lost interest in western markets. Instead, Suzuki is investing heavily into appliances. Transportation appliances.

What Ducati is to a San Francisco Starbucks on a Saturday morning, Suzuki is to moving millions. Suzuki is the best-selling car in India, the world’s second-largest marketplace. And their small-capacity motorcycles sell in staggering numbers all over southeast Asia. And while racing enthusiasts in the west think of Suzuki as GSX-Rs, and many of you reading this think of Suzuki as V-Stroms, that’s not the business that keeps Suzuki in business. And if you don’t believe that, believe that Suzuki thinks so little of its business in Canada that it can’t be bothered to unlock its doors in the middle of the day.

It’s an affront to the ego of a motorcyclist in the decadent west that Suzuki doesn’t much care about us. The withdrawal from MotoGP and a stagnating line of large-capacity bikes are proof of that. Suzuki is withdrawing from the business of making vehicles to fulfill your fantasies of power, speed, and status. Yes, the Hayabusa—the sole Suzuki with a singular identity—remains, as do its fine GSX-Rs. But sportbikes are as moribund a segment as manual typewriters. Longtime motorcycle industry insider Michael Uhlarik, who follows the ups, downs, and arounds of the global motorcycle trade, believes there’s a better than 50/50 chance Suzuki will eventually abandon North America for good.

It’s been a decade since Suzuki’s auto division followed in the footsteps of Daewoo, Isuzu, Yugo and Daihatsu and fled the North American marketplace. I had a neighbor, a heavyset, downtrodden man in ill-fitting suits, who drove a Suzuki Esteem. Naturally, I dubbed his car the Low Esteem. In the western marketplace, where cars are status pods, inching along in choking traffic, Suzuki, with its sensible, cheap, mundane vehicles, was laughably out of step. Silly Suzuki, cars aren’t about getting to work. They’re about personal enlargement. The only reason to drive a Suzuki? If a family member died and gifted it to you in their will.

The V-Strom is beloved by many. And it’s a good bike. But there’s more to it than price vs. function. In the way a Prius is admired by those who are indifferent to the automobile, the V-Strom is a motorcycle for those indifferent to style, technology, and fashion. I was having a drink at my local, in the summer before the pandemic drove me to the minibar, and a man walked in carrying a 20-year-old helmet and wearing overalls and rubber boots. He sat down next to me. I craned my neck to look into the parking lot. Sure enough, he’d arrived on a V-Strom 650, the bike that’s quietly overtaking oilhead BMWs and Guzzis as the machine for riders who don’t give a good-goddam about whether you have the latest smartphone. Or a phone at all.

Suzuki, the brand many (myself included) considered the weakest, least confident of the Japanese four, is, paradoxically, the most assured of them all. They’re a thoroughly modern, entirely unsentimental, shareholder-driven company that doesn’t let aura or image make their decisions. It’s all about the bottom line.

Aside from the awkwardness of having committed to race in MotoGP for four more years (Suzuki executives who signed the contract wander headless through the streets of Hanamatsu), it was Suzuki’s very participation in MotoGP that was a betrayal of its identity. As facetious as if Satan, keen to sluggish for the sins of his past, sidled into church one Sunday morning claiming he’d seen the light.

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