As gas prices go up, so do fuel-friendly motorcycle sales

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Iraqi war veteran Nick Serio was beaming as he signed the paperwork for his new blue Harley-Davidson Sportster, the last one in the shop.

The further the price of gas goes up, the more wannabe motorcyclists think, "This is not a bad idea," said the 31-year-old soldier from Fort Richardson, who grew up riding dirt bikes in West Virginia.

While fuel prices weren't the main reason for buying the Harley, "it was a factor," said Serio, who returned from an extended tour in Iraq in December and will return to civilian life in June.

It costs Serio more than $100 to fill up the fuel tank in his truck, which gets 17 miles to the gallon, but he expects to get 40 to 60 miles a gallon with the Sportster. Depending on the model, Sportsters are listed at between $7,000 and $10,000.

"It's going to be a lot more convenient," he said.

Army buddy Joe Newell, 31, who shared the 15-month tour in Iraq with Serio, agreed.

Newell, who bought his Harley in Cortez, Colo., said his parents, Cortez residents, go riding on their own Harleys every weekend.

About 20 percent of the customers at the Denali Harley-Davidson Shop in Wasilla are military, said Wendell Weigel, sales manager.

Serio and Newell also fit the pattern of many buyers in that they are men 25 to 32 years old.

Still, the times they are a changing. The old icons of the motorcycle image, from the Hells Angels to the bad-boy character roles played by Marlon Brando, James Dean and Steve McQueen, are being replaced by a bunch of everyday Joe recreational riders of all ages as well as suited-up business people who ride their bikes to work.

Weigel said the price of gas is, in fact, the "100 percent factor" in his decision to ride his Sportster 16 miles round trip to work every day.

Wasilla real estate appraiser Greg Brooker said he uses his Harley Ultraglide Classic, which gets 38 to 40 miles to the gallon, for business from April through October. His truck gets about 15 miles to the gallon.

"I get utility out of it," said Brooker, who put 12,000 miles on his bike last year. "For my business, all I need is a notebook, a measuring tape and a camera."

Statewide the number of motorcycles registered was up from 16,084 in 2000 to 25,756 in 2007.

Keith Hull, general manager of Triumph Motorcycles in Anchorage, said sales are probably up 20 percent over last year. Still, he attributes only about half of those sales to the rising price of fuel.

"This is the time of the year when people switch from one bike to another," he said. "There are also a lot of military guys coming back from deployment, who are most likely to buy a sports bike."

Beverly Mulcahy, operations manager for the House of Harley in Anchorage, said sales are up there too.

"It appears sales reps are definitely communicating to customers the cost of savings on gas mileage, so it could definitely be having an effect," she said. "On average, gas mileage on a Harley is conservatively 50 miles a gallon."

Brad Helwig, manager of Anchorage Suzuki/Arctic Cat, said his sales numbers in April were three times what they were at the same time a year ago.

"People are buying (motorcycles and scooters) because of the fuel prices," said Stacy Miller, a salesman at Anchorage Yamaha. The Yamaha Majesty, a 395cc scooter, gets up to 65 miles to the gallon.

"Last year I sold one or two and this year four of them, and I could sell more if I had them," he said.

All eight of the popular cruiser-style Yamaha V-Stars have sold out already, he said.

"Normally we sit on them most of the year," Miller said.

The dealership also sold out the 10 Yahama Zumas in stock, the small-sized 50cc scooter that gets up to 126 miles to the gallon, and the last Yahama C3, a small but stocky scooter that gets 117 miles to the gallon, he said.

The big advantage of scooters is they are cheaper than classic motorcycles; listed at about $3,000 or less for the smaller models, compared to between $3,600 and nearly $20,000 for cruisers. Scooters generally get up to twice the gas mileage and can be driven using the standard vehicle operator's license. Riders of larger bikes must get a motorcycle endorsement for their driver's licenses.

Miller said most scooters are used to commute to work and home, although owners are also likely to bring them along with motor homes when traveling.

Still, because the smaller ones only will move at 35 mph to 45 mph, they can't be used on highways where drivers must maintain a minimum speed of 45 mph, he said.

Safety is a major issue for both scooters and motorcycles, and new operators in particular are encouraged to take Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses offered through dealerships or ABATE of Alaska, an organization dedicated to providing rider education and educating the public about motorcycles and how to interact safely with them.

The MSF, founded in 1973, works with federal and state agencies, the military and others to offer training for all skill levels, to encourage safe, responsible motorcycling.

"If we can watch out for each other, then everyone wins," said Paul Ramage, general manager of the Wasilla Harley Shop. "You have to drive defensively and be cognizant of the area around you."

May is Motorcycle Awareness Month, a time when those involved in the motorcycle industry make a special effort to increase public education about motorcycles.

"Motorcycles are a target," Ramage said. "It's just as important for the cyclist to look for the motorist. We have a shared responsibility."

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