Chinese motorcycles have been available in the UK for decades now, but it’s only in recent years that they’ve started to be seen on the road in greater numbers.
Early imports (rightly) had a reputation for old fashioned designs, terrible build quality, poor reliability and almost non existent spare parts availability. The upshot was that these bikes were almost disposable in their nature and few, if any, remain on the road. Most fell apart quickly anyway, and with spare parts hard to get hold of these early bikes were often in the scrapyard before their first MoTs. Despite their cheap purchase price, Chinese bikes could be a false economy. The lack of support could mean that they were difficult to insure, while the eye watering depreciation meant that you would not get much money back come resale time, if the bike did actually manage to last long enough.
These early bikes were not exactly appealing either, with old fashioned designs, unpronounceable brand names and uninspired model designations which were more product codes than model names.
But all that is changing and a new generation of Chinese bikes are being imported into the UK and they’re not at all bad.
The difference this time around is that the bikes imported are being especially developed, built and quality checked for the British market. Whereas in the past an importer would simply ship over a container full of bikes, without any real attempt to control the quality or offer back up support, these days there are a number of UK based companies working hand in hand with the Chinese factories to develop and build the bikes to our tastes.
The result are a number of companies such as Lexmoto, WK Bikes and Zontes, providing solid commuter bikes, as well as trendy brands like Herald, Mutt and Bullit. Chinese companies are also starting to build bigger bikes too, with Chinese money behind the historic Benelli brand and WK also offering a range of 650cc twins.
The majority of Chinese built bikes on the market today use old fashioned air-cooled, two-valve, 125cc singles that are copies of old Japanese designs like the Suzuki GN125. Old they may be, but they are simple too, making them cheap to build and easy to service, while the technology is tried and tested. Most are originally developed to provide cheap transport for the domestic market but, working with the importers, the factories now build bikes to meet the latest European regulations, currently Euro4, and the build quality has come a long way too.
But rather than just shipping them in and selling them on cheaply, these new breed of motorcycle companies are much more in tune with what British riders want. Lexmoto, for example, have a warehouse full of spare parts available for their bikes and offer finance packages and an after sales service in line with the more established manufacturers.
Recognising that few Brits wanted to be seen riding around on a Jailing or a Loncin, the importers rebadge, rebrand and rework their bike to make them appealing to our riders.
Herald, which is based in Cambridgeshire, has its bikes built in China but then modifies the bikes and brings them up to spec here in the UK. The sort of things they do are to change the handlebars, wheels, brakes, seat, oil… you name it. In the end you get a bike that’s more like 75% Chinese and 25% locally built. The result is an uprising in boutique companies developing cute little learner bikes that look like they’ve just rolled out of the Bike Shed bike park, topped off by advertising campaigns featuring tattooed hipsters and beautiful young people…
It’s not just 125s where Chinese motorbikes are starting to become more commonplace. Mopeds and scooters, where a low purchase price is important to the consumer, have been happy hunting ground for Lexmoto and WK too.
Lexmoto, for example, is not a manufacturer as such. Its base models are made by various different manufacturers in China, but the Exeter based company personally selects the models it wants to import and ensures that they meet their quality standards. The bikes are all rebranded with more appealing names and logos (who would argue that Longjia LJ125T is more appealing than a Lexmoto Diablo?) and sold through a network of over 100 UK dealers, who can also provide parts and servicing support).
While these Chinese bikes are nowhere near as inexpensive as the bikes that were so badly received in years gone by, they typically still undercut the Japanese bikes on the market. These days they’re more cheap and cheerful, than cheap and nasty.
Some may scoff at Chinese bikes, but we think that they’ll only improve in quality and will become more and more commonplace. After all, Japanese motorbikes were universally derided when they first appeared in the 1960s and look where they are today. Those ‘rice burners’ almost singlehandedly decimated the British bike industry in the 1970s, as Japanese manufacturers became the biggest and most respected in the world.
When we see a Chinese manufacturer in the mainstream is not yet known, but it might not be that far away. We’re already seeing bigger capacity machines, such as the Honley RX-3 adventure bike (a 250cc adventure bike built by Zongshen), while WK have also introduced a range of 650cc parallel twins, based upon a Kawasaki engine design. Built by CF Moto, these WK Bikes branded machines even took on the Lightweight Isle of Man TT a few years back. Benelli’s range of 500cc twins are designed in Italy but built in China, while Loncin has an agreement with BMW. As a result, Loncin builds engines for the German giant and enjoys access to BMW technology for its own, domestic market, 650cc single cylinder machine.
The Chinese motorcycle industry still has a long way to go before it reaches those heady heights, but we’re certainly not laughing about their bikes anymore