Cruisers motorcycle models are one of the most recognizable and iconic kinds of motorcycles. This style is so vivid in the common imaginary that, when most people think of motorcyclists they see riders donned in leather on a cruiser. What they miss is that cruiser motorcycle models truly are about freedom and comfortable riding. Enough with the talking, let’s dive into their history!
Cruiser motorcycle: the beginnings
As we all know, motorcycles were born thanks to many changes, they passed through many designs of motorized bicycles in Germany, France, Japan, and England; then, the movement soon moved spread to America. In 1901, Indian Motorcycle opened its doors and, in 1903, two years after Indian Motorcycle began, Harley-Davidson Motorcycles was born. The two American brands took over the continent with their uniquely styled machines and Harley-Davidson became one of the largest manufacturers of motorcycles in the world.
In 1918, after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, BMW had to stop production of aircraft engines. In order to remain in business BMW had to shift to small engines. As a result, in 1920, the iconic BMW M2B15 flat-twin gas engine was unveiled. In 1923, BMW presented the R32 motorcycle was released using an updated Boxer engine. This was one of the first real German cruiser motorcycle.
By 1920 Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, with dealerships in over 67 countries. Meanwhile, Indian released the most iconic cruiser of all times, the Chief. Unfortunately, no one was safe during the Great Depression and the effect rippled throughout the whole motorcycle industry. For Harley-Davidson, sales dropped from $21,000 in 1929 to $3,703 in 1933. All companies struggled during the Depression, impressively though, Indian Motorcycles kept its head above water and continued development through these difficult times.
In 1939 Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle stepped up to help the country during WWII. Harley-Davidson became popular through the military with its WLA motorcycle, while Indian Motorcycle offered up its Scout 640. Both vehicles were redesigned for military use, however, the Scout 640 was too heavy to function well in a combat environment.
By 1945 Indian Motorcycle was in crippling debt and, in 1953, their motorcycles production ended. At the time, everyone though that their cruiser motorcycle models would never see production again.
The 70’s 80’s and 90’s
At the beginning of the 70’s Indian Motorcycle was non-existent and Harley-Davidson was sinking. The “Universal Japanese Motorcycle” (UJC) took its chance. The most famous models included the Honda CB750, the Kawasaki Z1, the Suzuki GS750 and the Yamaha XS. Bikers immediately loved these bikes, as they were maneuverable, easy to ride, and less expensive than a Harley-Davidson. Many European brands landed in the USA too, for example Moto Guzzi – in 1972 – with the California. It was soon made famous by the California Highway Patrol.
At the beginning of the ’80s and ’90s, the interest in UJC’s was slowly dropping so, to get around the problem, Japanese manufacturers moved to specific niches like Touring motorcycle, Sport motorcycle and Cruiser motorcycle models. In 1983, Honda released the Shadow, an incredibly popular cruiser that was affordable, reliable, and offered several different engine sizes to appeal to all riders. In 1984, the Kawasaki Vulcan hit the market, and in 1985 Yamaha unveiled the iconic VMAX.
The New Century
In 1998, cruiser motorcycle models were very popular within the motorcycle industry, with almost every brand including multiple cruisers in their lineups. At the time Triumph began working on the Rocket III, which has one of the largest engines ever created for a motorcycle (2,200 cc).
In 1998 to me was a great year because it was the year in which Victory Motorcycles came around. Polaris created the brand to contrast Harley-Davidson power and popularity. Their flagship bike was the V92C; it was received, however, they never had record sales.
2006, is the year of Indian Motorcycle rebirth and, in 2009, the company released a revisited version of the Indian Chief. In 2011, Indian Motorcycle was purchased by Polaris Industries, leading to a switch in 2017 where Polaris decided to cut the Victory brand (which closed doors) and shift resources into Indian Motorcycle.
Since then, Harley-Davidson has seen a lot of ups and downs, almost shutting down due to a loss in sales revenue. They’ve adapted to offering new models and, although controversial to long-time loyalists of the brand, Harley-Davidson is doing well with its new electric model, the Livewire, and its new Adventure Touring platform, the Pan America.
Lately, we’ve seen a large revival of cruiser motorcycle models, with many brands offering Power Cruisers and Cruisers winking at companies’ heritage: Ducati released the Diavel, which is a perfect balance between a sportbike and cruiser; BMW released the R18 which is an eye-catching cruiser that pays homage to BMW’s first motorcycle the R32.
We are pretty much through. Cruiser motorcycle history is intertwined with general motorcycle history. Who knows what the future has in store for us, all we can say is that, whatever happens, cruisers will be there to give us freedom.