High summer sun is blazing down as Tony Campbell, the new head of Britain’s Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA) romps along the empty lanes on his favourite Essex country biking route.
Campbell’s loving the Kawa Z900RS that we’ve sourced for him. I’m doing my best to match his pace on a Yamaha Super Ténéré. We could be in a cinema advert for motorcycling bliss. For there isn’t a cloud in the sky.Except if we are talking metaphorically. In that case, we would be labouring under a massive dark cumulous. The sky would be blackened further by chickens coming home to roost. And we would be rapidly running out of tarmac.
Doomed we motorcyclists are, thanks to: plummeting bike sales (a record 51 per cent drop from Dec 2016 to Dec 2017); soaring thefts (some 30,000 machines pinched last year); a death rate like a two-wheeled Somme (the highest casualties per mile travelled of all road user groups), plus the chill breath of the Grim Demographer down our necks – one in five riders is aged over 50.
Meanwhile, biking’s carefree image has been hijacked by headline-grabbing balaclava-clad moped muggers, while the more mature among us are reviled as Saga-louts on blaring sportsbikes.
Campbell’s mission at the MCIA is to fix all that and make Britain’s bike-makers and dealers happy again. Preferably before lunchtime. But at least he knows what he’s up against.
The 54-year-old father of four’s biking history is from Central Scripting. It started with an FSIE. Campbell was so keen to mount the magic moped he got his Dad to bring it to his Saturday restaurant job, ready for one minute past midnight on his 16th birthday when he could legally ride home – in freezing February.
Being a true Essex lad, he naturally graduated to the hooligan 250 du jour, a Suzuki X7. When Campbell ditched the L-plates, a Yamaha 350LC followed.
Inexplicably, he chose to top that with a Honda VF400F from the era when the Big-H decided that daft innovations such as inaccessible inboard discs were more important than fun.
Family duties enforced a four-year break until he got his first company car. That enabled him to buy his first in a series of Suzuki GSX-R750s, which included a rare race-homologation model.
Nowadays Campbell might wear an industry representative’s sensible hat. But stick a helmet on and his riding gets joyously brisk. There’s nothing silly or show-off here, but he knows his local back lanes like the proverbial.
It’s a broiling heat-wave Friday as we rock through chocolateboxy thatched villages to Finchingfield, a popular bike meeting place. At least Campbell thought it would be popular. Where are all the bikers? Have they fallen victim to theft, accident, mopedmugging or senility?
So we push south, razzing down more swoopy lanes towards High Beach, the legendary Essex biking caff in Epping Forest.
We pause to take some riding shots. Photographer Chippy Wood lies prone under a hedge to snap some arty panning pics when a lad on a shoddy and unsilenced 125cc thingy blats past, then blats back to see if Chippy’s had a crash.
Campbell and I snigger discreetly from a distance. We are a little astounded by the youngster’s sudden appearance – as well as his physical appearance. Once Chippy carefully explains that he’s not a casualty, the lad blats off, trying to look his coolest in singlet and shorts.
At High Beach, we’re settled with tea and sarnies. Campbell reflects on the incident. ‘We should have said something to that lad about his riding gear,’ he ponders. ‘Our age group should be ambassadors for safer riding.’
Agreed. But quietly we were impressed by the rascal. And looking around the sparsely filled tables at High Beach, you have to question the ‘ambassador’ role: it’s mostly raddled long-hairs in Easy Rider garb, road-rat types in filthy camo and a nervy-looking chap who blasted in on a greasy Kawa H2 triple with expansions.
Here’s the thing. In Campbell’s eyes we aren’t the future of motorcycling. We are the past – a wonderful past he lovingly shares. But never forget that he’s a very shrewd industry man – even though he doesn’t have the most straightforward of CVs.
Campbell left school at 16 and went into catering. Then he tried despatching in London: ‘But I found myself riding faster and faster until I thought I was running out of future.’
He ran a local wine bar until the bubbles went flat in the early-Nineties’ recession. Aged 25 he changed tack, selling cars and becoming a Renault dealership boss.
On his 1989 GSX-R750 he rode to High Beach and met a gang of fellow sportsbike nuts. ‘They’ve been friends ever since and we’ve been all over – places such as the Bol in the South of France.’
The biking itch led him into motorcycle retail. ‘It was the era of the born-agains,’ he recalls. He got a job running Carnell’s three sites in London. When the group bought Motorcycle City in 2000, he ran half its branches.
Things started to go awry. The ‘stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ approach earnt a dismal reputation for aftersales that management repeatedly tried to fix. ‘The media had made Carnell a witch-hunt. The headlines were not fair,’ says Campbell. ‘It was a large-scale business run by motorcycle enthusiasts. It was a real shame.’
Worse, the group’s owners were bought out by financiers who had no real interest in the motorcycle business. ‘I ended up as the last man standing,’ says Campbell.
After an attempted management buyout, he was asked to close the entire business – laying off 700 staff and disposing of its immense stocks. ‘What an experience, to shut the business down,’ I thought.
‘But winding it down was the toughest bit. I had to work carefully with the manufacturers about clearing unsold stock into the market. They appreciated my considerate approach and it kept me in good stead with them.’
After Campbell turned the lights out for the last time, he tried racing in 250GP. He had a wildcard for the British GP in 2004, alongside Pedrosa and Lorenzo. But it proved all too expensive. Hattempt to open a Yamaha dealership in Chelmsford came to nowt, due to landlord shenanigans.
Instead, he joined Piaggio as national sales manager. A year later he was managing director of Piaggio UK, which in 2008 bought Aprilia motorcycles. He ran the Guzzi brand as well.
By then Campbell had been on the board of the MCIA for three years. He wasn’t impressed. ‘The association was like an old boys’ club. The board was made up of industry giants from a bygone era – not thinking progressively but complaining about how good things used to be.’
Campbell’s predecessor Steve Kenward was brought in to modernise things. ‘He made a positive difference,’ he says.
‘Our big event, the NEC motorcycle show, had gone into steep decline. Manufacturers were dropping out. It was starting to look like a jumble sale. Visitor numbers were tumbling. People went to see the latest bikes, but they weren’t there. The show was costing us £200,000 a year.
‘We had to get every manufacturer back in the room,’ remembers Campbell. ‘We said to them that if they got MCIA membership then that qualified them for a free stand at the show. It was an instant success.’
Despite Kenward’s efforts, Campbell laments that: ‘We do still look old as an organisation. People in the industry don’t really know what we are up to.’
He cites as a prime example of ‘must do better’ the Get On initiative, launched in 2010 to persuade more yoofs to try motorcycles on for size.
‘It was a good idea poorly executed. It only got mixed support because dealers weren’t brought fully on board,’ he explains.
‘We need to take risks now,’ he says. ‘When you’re on your arse, you need to start thinking differently. We need to look at the future and start talking about it.’
Biking is indeed on its backside. The future cannot profitably rely on middle-aged bikers carrying on doing the same old thing until they lapse into senescence. ‘By getting older and dying we are solving our own problem,’ he says. ‘We need a cultural shift. We need to move away from behaving like a minority group with a chip on its shoulder.’
Instead, Campbell says the industry must become the new solution rather than the old problem. He believes it offers a magical answer to the urban congestion problems that threaten government as Britain’s city streets finally clog to a standstill.
‘Forget speeding and antisocial behaviour. Look instead at commuting. What about London’s transport system for the future?’ he asks. ‘We have done studies that show that 98 per cent of people’s reason for going to work on a powered-two-wheeler (PTW) is that they enjoy it and they say that it’s fun.’
The PTWs that Campbell foresees spearheading this revolution are comparative tiddlers: electric-powered, emission-zone proof and ridden by people who seek practical, safe transport rather than elderly teenaged kicks.
The problem, says Campbell, is our politicians know nothing of this. They see only the old antisocial image. ‘We have to push the “reset” button. PTWs are not on the transport policy map.’
This means our city streets aren’t built with bikers in mind. ‘If motorcycles are not part of the transport solution, road designers are not going to think about it,’ he argues. ‘We have got to change the architecture of roads. Road planning still puts manhole covers on corners. I’m telling the Department for Transport that one significant reason for accidents is they don’t give us safe space.’
Already nations such as Vietnam have adopted a vision where PTWs are central to urban mobility. Campbell says that Greater Manchester also seems to be waking up to the idea of commuter armies on “clean” electric tiddlers.
Ultimately it could be the only thing that helps dinosaurs on big bikes, Campbell believes.
‘Once people have had experience of PTWs, they are going to be more inclined to go for larger more powerful machinery,’ he predicts.
‘By improving recognition for the industry’s future potential, we improve recognition for the current bikers,’ he says through a last mouthful of sandwich. ‘If we can convince politicians about what the future looks like and how we can be included in all aspects of future transport policy, then that will help all riders, present and future. Otherwise we will only be servicing this ever-decreasing market. Weekend warriors riding stupidly on sportsbikes are never going to be the future.’
It’s time to kit up. Campbell, Chippy and I – fifty-somethings with an embarrassing resemblance to weekend warriors – prepare to head off into the sunset. But at least it’s a very warm and beautiful sunset. And we’re bound to enjoy the ride.