Where was your bike made?

Ben Purvis_BikeSocial
By Ben Purvis

Writing about bikes for 20 years. Published in dozens of titles on five continents. Mildly obsessed with discovering how things work.

Just because it’s a ‘British’, ‘Japanese’, ‘American’ or ‘Italian’ brand doesn’t mean it came from a factory in those countries

Triumph Bonneville – a modern British classic. Made in Thailand.

 

National identities are closely tied to both the imagery used by motorcycle brands and the feelings they evoke. If you want to conjure a vision of America, a Harley-Davidson is right up there with star-spangled cowboy boots. Triumphs are as British as a cream tea. Ducatis are the epitome of Italian passion. But the reality isn’t quite that simple.

These days, companies are increasingly setting up manufacturing or assembly plants all over the world. There’s a multitude of reasons for that, but all are tied to the goal of getting a competitive advantage or to staying on a level playing field with rivals that have already made the move.

Most recently, and notably, we’ve seen the news that Triumph is to move almost all its production to its three factories in Thailand. The famous Hinckley base, home to the firm since its revival under the guidance of John Bloor in the 1990s, will remain a key element of the company’s structure but its focus will shift to R&D and engineering, with production slimmed down to a bare minimum. Just the highest-spec bikes, like Triumph’s limited edition ‘TFC’ (Triumph Factory Custom) models, will be made in the UK in future. At the moment, that means the Rocket 3 TFC, Bobber TFC and Thruxton TFC, but with each of those models restricted to a limited run of 750 examples –the Rocket and Thruxton are already sold out – more TFC machines will be emerging soon. Even so, Hinckley’s future output will be down to around 4500 bikes per year, less than a tenth of the firm’s overall output.

Explaining the switch of tack, Triumph’s CEO Nick Bloor said: “We are now preparing for Triumph’s next wave of strategic growth. We want to maximise the growth opportunity for the brand globally, particularly in the Asian markets. This is why we are increasing our design resources here in the UK, and focusing our mass production capabilities in Thailand.

“There will still be manufacturing capability in the UK but the role of our facility in Hinckley will be reconfigured to enable us to create a more flexible and high-value capability.”

 

Just because it’s a ‘British’, ‘Japanese’, ‘American’ or ‘Italian’ brand doesn’t mean it came from a factory in those countries

Some Ducatis, including Scramblers, are made in Thailand as well as Italy

 

Why are bikes built in other countries?

Inevitably, Triumph’s move to foreign production means that most of the firm’s oh-so-British bikes will actually emerge from Thailand and the hands of a Thai workforce, but that’s already been the case for a lot of Triumphs in recent years.

Looking at data from the Office of National Statistics, UK motorcycle production has taken a nosedive over the last few years, returning to levels not seen since Triumph was revived in the early 90s. After diminishing to almost zero in the late 1980s – in 1989 and 1990 fewer than 1000 bikes were made in the UK – the industry here ramped up spectacularly to a peak in 2006 when nearly 40,000 bikes were manufactured here. Almost all were Triumphs, of course.

By then, Triumph had already been operating a wholly British-owned plant in Thailand for four years, but its initial focus had been on manufacturing components that were sent to the UK for assembly. The firm’s second Thai plant (an even bigger one called Factory 4 – the first two were the UK bases in Hinckley), first began making complete machines in 2006 and production in the UK has been declining ever since. ‘Factory 5’, which is larger still, opened in Thailand in 2007. Combined, Triumph’s three Thai plants cover an area of around 104,000m2. The main UK facility is 30,000m2.

The result saw UK bike manufacturing – measured for all companies – decline from the 2006 peak. It dropped under 30,000 per year by 2009, slid below 20,000 by 2013 and in 2017 fell to less than 10,000.  So while Triumph is making more bikes than ever before, fewer are coming from the UK factory. Are they still British? Well, the company is wholly British-owned, the bikes are British-designed and the headquarters are British, so it depends on your definitions. And remember, even when the lions’ share were being assembled here, many of the components were already being manufactured outside this country.

Why? Of course, it comes down to practicality and economics. Staff costs vary hugely from one part of the world to another, and in Thailand wages, and the cost of living, are relatively low – where an average annual salary in the UK is about £30,000, in Thailand it’s less than £5000.

But it’s far more complicated than a simple matter of wage bills. Myriad details like import and export duties for different countries, proximity of components suppliers and costs of shipping to major export markets will all go into deciding where a bike is made.

One recent example is the trade war between the EU and the USA, which has seen tit-for-tat tariffs imposed on a variety of goods. Motorcycles were picked out in particular for import tariffs when brought from the USA to Europe, probably because Harley-Davidson is such an iconic American brand. In response, the firm decided to move much of its production for European markets out of the USA, notifying investors in 2018 that:

Harley-Davidson will be implementing a plan to shift production of motorcycles for EU destinations from the U.S. to its international facilities to avoid the tariff burden. Harley-Davidson expects ramping-up production in international plants will require incremental investment and could take at least 9 to 18 months to be fully complete.

 

What’s the difference between manufacturing and assembly?

Even that last term – ‘made’ – isn’t as simple as it sounds. If a bike is bolted together in Italy but all its components were manufactured elsewhere, is it Italian?

The normal vision of a motorcycle production line, with dozens of part-built bikes progressing from station to station as more components are bolted on until the finished machine roars into life, is really an assembly line, and only the last stage of manufacture. Before that, parts have to be cast, extruded, forged or rolled from raw materials, welded together into sub-assemblies or machined into finished components, and many of those jobs have traditionally happened off-site for many bike firms. And that’s before we even get to the issue of components supplied by other brands – perhaps Bosch for the electronics, Ohlins, Showa or Sachs for the suspension, Brembo or Nissin for brakes. Not to mention tyres, clutches, hoses, even nuts and bolts that are all going to be externally made. The list is almost endless, and many of those pieces may well be made up from smaller components sourced all over the world.

 

Just because it’s a ‘British’, ‘Japanese’, ‘American’ or ‘Italian’ brand doesn’t mean it came from a factory in those countries

Yamaha’s XSR700. Japanese? Nope. Made in France.

 

Where was my bike built?

While all the above means that almost any bike is a multinational effort, their eventual nationality is defined by the location of the factory where the finished product rolled out.

Here’s a list of some of the UK’s main makes and models including their country of manufacture – some may surprise you.

 

Honda

CBR1000RR-R:  Japan

CBR650R: Thailand

CBR500R: Thailand

VFR800: Japan

GL1800 Gold Wing: Japan

CRF1100L Africa Twin: Japan

VFR1200X: Japan

CB1100RS/EX: Japan

CB1000R: Japan

NC750S: Japan

CB650R: Thailand

CB500F: Thailand

CBX500 Rebel: Thailand

CB300R: Thailand

CB125R: Thailand

Super Cub 125: Thailand

Monkey: Thailand

MSX125 Grom: Thailand

CB125F: China

Integra: Japan

Forza 300: Thailand

SH300i: Thailand

SH125i: Vietnam

PCX: Vietnam

Forza 125: Thailand

 

Yamaha

YZF-R1: Japan

YZF-R6: Japan

YZF-R3: Indonesia

YZF-R125: India

MT-10: Japan

MT-09: Japan

MT-07: Japan

MT-03: Indonesia

MT-125: India

XSR900: Japan

XSR700: France

SCR950: Japan

XV950: Japan

FJR1300: Japan

Niken: Japan

Tracer 900: Japan

Tracer 700: Japan

XT1200Z Super Tenere: Japan

Tenere 700: France

TMAX: Japan

XMAX 400: France

XMAX 300: Indonesia

D’elight: Vietnam

 

Kawasaki

Ninja H2: Japan

Ninja ZX-10R: Japan

Ninja ZX-6R: Japan

Ninja 650: Thailand

Ninja 400: Thailand

Ninja 1000SX: Japan

Ninja H2 SX: Japan

ZZR1400: Japan

Versys 1000: Japan

Versys 650: Thailand

Versys-X 300

Z H2: Japan

Z1000: Japan

Z900: Thailand

Z650: Thailand

Z400: Thailand

Z900RS: Japan

W800: Japan

Vulcan S: Thailand

J300: Taiwan

J125: Taiwan

 

Suzuki

V-Strom 1050: Japan

V-Strom 650: Japan

V-Strom 250: China

GSX-R1000: Japan

GSX-R125: Indonesia

GSX-S1000F: Japan

GSX250R: China

Katana: Japan

GSX-S1000: Japan

GSX-S750: Japan

GSX-S125: Indonesia

SV650: Japan

Burgman 400: Japan

Burgman 200: Thailand

 

Triumph

Thruxton TFC: UK

Rocket 3 TFC: UK

Bobber TFC: UK

Daytona Moto2 765: UK

Street Triple: Thailand

Speed Triple: UK

Rocket 3: Thailand

Tiger 900: Thailand

Tiger 1200: UK

Thruxton: Thailand

Speed Twin: Thailand

Scrambler 1200: Thailand

Street Twin: Thailand

Bonneville T100: Thailand

Street Scrambler

Bonneville T120: Thailand

Bonneville Bobber: Thailand

Bonneville Speedmaster: Thailand

 

Ducati

Diavel: Italy

XDiavel: Italy

Hypermotard 950: Italy and Thailand

Monster 797: Italy and Thailand

Monster 821: Italy

Monster 1200: Italy and Thailand

Streetfighter V4: Italy

Multistrada 950: Italy and Thailand

Multistrada 1260: Italy

Multistrada 1260 Enduro: Italy

Panigale V2: Italy and Thailand

Panigale V4: Italy

Panigale V4R: Italy

Superleggera V4: Italy

Supersport: Italy and Thailand

Scrambler 1100 : Italy and Thailand

Scrambler Full Throttle: Italy and Thailand

Scrambler Cafe Racer: Italy and Thailand

Scrambler Desert Sled: Italy and Thailand

Scrambler Icon: Italy and Thailand

Scrambler Sixty2: Italy and Thailand

 

BMW

S1000RR: Germany

R1250RS: Germany

K1600B/GT/GTL/Grand America: Germany

R1250RT: Germany

R1250R: Germany

S1000R: Germany

F900R: Germany

G310R: India

R nineT: Germany

R1250GS/GS Adventure: Germany

S1000XR: Germany

F900XR: Germany

F850GS/GS Adventure: Germany

F750GS: Germany

G310GS: India

C650 Sport: Germany

C650GT: Germany

C evolution: Germany

C400X: China

C400GT: China

 

Just because it’s a ‘British’, ‘Japanese’, ‘American’ or ‘Italian’ brand doesn’t mean it came from a factory in those countries

Your bike’s VIN might reveal where it was made. The 11th character is sometimes a factory code – here it’s ‘K’ for Honda’s Kumamoto plant in Japan.

 

How can you tell where your bike was made?

If your bike isn’t on the list above or it’s a model that’s made in multiple plants there are still ways to narrow down where it was made – and the key is the bike’s VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number.

In both Europe and North America, VINs have followed a similar pattern for many years, using 17-character VINS with certain letters and digits giving vital information if you know how to crack the code. When it comes to country of origin, there are two sections to look at.

The first three characters are the ‘World Manufacturer Identifier’ or WMI code, which tells you where the manufacture is based. It might well be a clue to the bike’s country of origin, but as we’ll see it’s not necessarily proof as to where it was built.

The first character of the WMI shows the region. The letters A-C are Africa, J-R are Asia, S-Z mean Europe, 1-5 mean North America, 6-7 mean Oceania and 8-9 are South America. Within those groups, certain letters and numbers, along with the second character, narrow down to specific countries. For instance, UK manufacturers will have the first letter ‘S’ and the second will be between A and M. If needed, the third character defines a specific manufacturer. As an example, Triumph’s WMI code is ‘SMT’.

You can find a pretty comprehensive list of WMI codes here.

For some companies, the WMI is enough to get a good steer on where a bike is built. For instance, Ducati Italy’s WMI is ‘ZDM’ but those made by Ducati Thailand will start ‘ML0’.

But those WMIs only actually identify the manufacturer and companies don’t necessarily build bikes in their own country. Ducati Thailand’s WMI is only different to Ducati Italy’s because it’s been set up as a company in its own right.

Triumphs, for instance, will have a seemingly British WMI (reading ‘SMT’) regardless where they were built. This can make it harder to establish exactly where the bike was made, particularly on European bikes.

In America, VIN rules mean that the 11th digit must be a ‘Plant Code’ that reveals exactly where a bike was made. Triumphs sold over there, for instance, will have a ‘J’ for bikes from Hinckley (J stands for Jacknell Road, where the factory is). If it’s a ‘T’ then the bike is from Thailand, and elsewhere you can also find Triumphs with an ‘M’ (for Manaus in Brazil) or ‘D’ for the assembly plant in Manesar, near Delhi in India.

On European VINs there’s no legal requirement for the use of a plant code, as there is in the USA, although many firms will use US-compliant VINs regardless, complete with that all-important 11th digit that reveals where the bike was made.

There are dozens of online VIN decoders that tap into databases so on inputting your VIN they can reveal where a bike was made.

 

Just because it’s a ‘British’, ‘Japanese’, ‘American’ or ‘Italian’ brand doesn’t mean it came from a factory in those countries

Harley-Davidson might be an American icon, but the bikes aren’t necessarily built there

 

Does it matter where my bike was made?

Although some bikes have long held strong ties to national identity – notably the likes of Triumph and Harley-Davidson – evidence from other industries suggests that brands don’t lose that identity even when production moves to another country.

Cars, for instance, have been manufactured globally for decades. Some Hondas have been built in the UK since the 1980s, as are many Nissans, but both brands remain resolutely Japanese. Hondas are also made in the USA, China, Pakistan, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Turkey, Argentina, Taiwan, the Philippines and Mexico. But ask anyone in the street – even owners of those cars – and they’ll tell you’re they’re Japanese.

Similarly, BMW cars are made in Germany, Austria, the USA, Mexico, India, South Africa, Brazil and China, but they’re still synonymous with Germanity.

The same already applies to many bikes. While most Harleys are still made in America, the firm also has plants in India and Thailand. Few Triumph riders will be aware what percentage of their bikes came from Hinckley, or whether they originated in Thailand. But at the end of the day, acceptance is down to the individual customer. Provided there’s no reduction in material or manufacturing quality, do you care where your bike was bolted together?

 

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