Cincinnati, Ohio, Jan. 28–29—In the dead of winter, when many motorcycle dealerships and independent shops endure sluggish sales and service request slowdowns, the annual V-Twin Expo offers welcome respite. From all over the country, often in the midst of snowstorms, dealers and shop owners come to Cincinnati to see the latest and greatest offerings for the American V-twin aftermarket. This year, though, the weather gods cooperated, gifting us with only a few flurries that caused only minor flight delays at the tail end of the weekend.
The V-Twin Expo, now in its 17th year, is the only trade show that caters solely to the American V-twin market, and, as such, is open only to manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and other motorcycle industry professionals. The Expo has seen the industry through its peak, when in 2007 the show had its biggest year ever, with two floors of the Duke Energy Center packed to the gills with exhibitors and attendees. And it has mirrored the economic freefall of the following decade, where the motorcycle industry, which largely comprises discretionary rather than essential products, has taken a harder hit than many other business genres.
During those boom years, a number of production custom motorcycle and parts manufacturers sprung up, many of whom exhibited at the Expo to huge numbers of attendees. And many of those attendees may not have been decision makers for their businesses. But extra eyes—and hands—were sorely needed to cover the entire show; there were too many booths for just one person to visit. Since its heyday a decade ago, the industry has pretty much been distilled to its essence—manufacturers and distributors that are in it for the long haul, with the marginal players bailing out once the easy money evaporated.
What remains at the show are, for the most part, the industry leaders, the mainstays, those still in it for the long haul. These include, just to name a few, Barnett Tool & Engineering started by Charlie Barnett in 1948 and still family owned and operated; Spectro Oils that’s been making automotive and motorcycle oils for more than 50 years; and James Gaskets, in its 39th year. And then there are businesses like The Carlson Company, supplying service equipment to the motorcycle industry for 35 years, and Dynojet Research that for 45 years has been manufacturing performance enhancement tools such as their line of dynamometers.
Yet it’s not only the well-established companies that set up displays at the Expo. This year, more than 20 new exhibitors showed up, some of whom had participated previously but had not attended for one or more years. There were also a few new companies that wanted to test the waters, to gauge interest from dealers for their new gizmos and widgets. One such company was CenterFlo, a firm from Sacramento, California, that showed a prototype of their new Ultimate Induction Throttle Body for 2006–2016 Harley-Davidson Big Twins (cable throttle only) that features a “segment bored cylinder pair” instead of a throttle blade (i.e., butterfly) or shaft to more precisely control and create an unobstructed air flow. The valve cylinders rotate from the center of the bore until they are fully flush with the interior wall, which is different than anything we’d seen before. This made-in-the-U.S. product created quite a bit of buzz, and a number of dealers expressed interested in acquiring at least one to experiment with once the product is available in the summer of 2017. Of course, having just acquired a 2017 Road King, I’d love to try this product, however, the 2017 (i.e., electronic throttle) version won’t be available until sometime after the release of this first product.
Speaking of the 2017 Harley-Davidson models, some exhibitors present wasted no time in gearing up for the Milwaukee-Eight engine that powers the entire Touring line. For instance, JIMS, another industry mainstay that’s celebrating 50 years in business this year, displayed an array of specialized tools crafted for the 2017s. Aftermarket distributors such as HardDrive, Drag Specialties, and Mid-USA had a number of parts available for the new models as well.
Several prominent players in the industry did not display at the Expo this year, including companies comprising the Motorcycle Aftermarket Group, such as Kuryakyn, Mustang, Performance Machine, Progressive Suspension, Roland Sands Design, Vance & Hines, and Xtreme Machine. S&S Cycle and Biker’s Choice were noticeably absent, as well. However, some first-time exhibitors had eye-catching displays, such as the aforementioned CenterFlo and Big Bike Parts, a company making parts and accessories that’s been in business for 35 years, and, in fact, during the weekend, won a V-Twin Industry Leader award for one of its products. Other companies like Heartland USA, K&N Engineering, and Yelvington Trikes made a reappearance after one or more years’ absence.
Several motorcycle manufacturers were on hand, such as Wild West Motor Company of Buckner, Kentucky, that exhibited with the more recently-formed Havoc Motorcycles out of Prince Edward Island. The partnership, which began just last year, has enabled these companies to co-design and co-market several motorcycle models, and allowed them to persevere even after the bottom dropped out of the production custom market. And Kory Souza Originals had on display some custom motorcycles and a collection of parts with a distinctive, retro-modern flair.
TC Bros Choppers, established in 2006 by Ohio brothers Tyler and Tim Cobb, returned to the Expo with a wide range of parts to support the home builder. We saw other interesting customization options from various exhibitors as well, such as the head plates and back plates made by Old Jim Customs from Evansville, Indiana. Leathers and other apparel manufacturers displayed their 2017 styles, with first-time exhibitor Wrangler showcasing their new line of Premium Performance Cool Vantage jeans designed especially for motorcyclists.
The exhibit floor wasn’t the only action at the Expo; a succession of seminars was also conducted on Saturday. Technical sessions scheduled included seminars on Power Vision and Power Vision CX by Dynojet Research, ThunderMax’s introduction of its 2017 products as well as a seminar on diagnostics, and a presentation on BAKER Drivetrain’s GrudgeBox gearsets. V-Twin exclusive seminars reflected present-day interests and concerns, with Anvil’s Kent Lewis’ talk, “Leveraging Video to Rev Up Your Marketing,” Bikernet.com’s Keith Ball returning to discuss industry emissions issues, Earl T. LeVere of Ice Miller educating and taking questions from business owners about patents, trademarks, and copyrights, and, new this year, Jody Perewitz sharing her Land Speed Racing experiences. Jody also had a booth in the exhibit hall which saw constant visitors waiting for a chance to chat with her and to check out the bike that helped her break the world record on an American V-twin at 206 mph.
Although the number of exhibitors has declined over the last decade, dealer attendance was on par with last year. The exhibitors I spoke with were pleased with dealer engagement, on both a product and business level. That said, with the ability to order most anything online, “show specials,” where dealers receive reduced pricing for orders placed during the show, are no longer the draw they once were. The major focus of most dealers is to check out new parts in preparation for the upcoming riding season, and to maintain relationships with suppliers as well as establish new ones. And exhibitors participate year after year for much the same reasons—to network with dealers as well as other exhibitors and to support the industry in general.
The sluggish economy isn’t the only reason the show hasn’t rebounded from the large numbers seen a decade ago. In recent years, some of the other industry events, both consumer and trade, take place around the same time, and few businesses can afford the travel and staffing costs associated with having a presence at multiple events.
Regardless, the show will go on. The 2018 dates are January 27–28, and the 2019 and 2010 dates have already been announced as well. It remains to be seen whether the American V-twin market will continue to support the only trade show of its kind.