® Little known Big Four insider facts

"Big Four" is the tradtional identifier for the four very large Japanese powersports companies that together with American manufacturer Harley-Davidson own the lion's share of the market and largely control and define it. "Insider" here refers to a person associated with the "inside" of the industry; a person on the selling side of the counter, not the buying side, and especially that individual employed in a responsible position by one of the Big Four distributors, and to a lessor extent someone responsibly employed by an authorized Big Four dealer.

Tire repair
Japanese OEMs train their dealers to never repair street bike tires. However, this is somewhat disengenuous, because the fact is, all of the Big Four owner's manuals formally permit streetbike tire repair with two qualifications. First, only a Uniseal brand (a combined patch and plug in one piece) plug is acceptable by all the OEMs, and for good reason. Sure, there are a half dozen alternate repair methods, but the uniseal really is the optimum tubeless tire repair. The second little-known fact concerning tire repair is that according to the OEMs, even using the Uniseal, the repaired tire should be considered afterward to have degraded from whatever speed rating it had originally to the lowest markable rating, 80mph. This too is in the owner's manuals. Additionally, in this context it is interesting to note that all technician training schools, including OEM, teach that installing an inner tube inside a tubeless tire is bad practice because it is unsafe. The interior of a tubess tire has reinforcement ribs that are absent in tube type tires. These ribs have been proven to abrade the unwisely-installed inner tube and lead to its failure.

Voluntary speed limiting
Speaking of speed, most enthusiasts know that in 2000 the motorcycle manufacturers got together and agreed to a 300 kph (186 mph) limit for all their street-legal hyperbikes. This was an attempt to avoid U.S. government scrutiny in the face of Senator Danforth and others calling for wholesale bans on sportbikes. The manufacturers' agreement was voluntary and not all of them agreed to it, mostly just the Big Four and one or two others. Interestingly, the earliest speed controls were easy to circumvent. Kawasaki for example used the drive sprocket's hex as a signal generator reluctor. Simply grinding down the points of the hex removed the control. Other systems have been defeated by attaching a chip that "fools" the bike's computer (ECU) into "thinking" the bike is always in low gear, and still other machines have been freed up by actual reflashing of the computer, which is becoming increasingly common.

Antilock brakes
The Big Four Japanese OEMs build their bikes having ABS in such a way that it can't be turned off. Even their traction control systems, which for their part *can* be turned off, default to instant-on whenever the keyswitch is turned off and back on again. My observation is this situation with ABS especially seems unique to the Japanese companies and is, along with the traction control likely connected with liability inasmuch as the Big Four are the largest legal liability targets in the industry by a huge margin.

The Big Four vs. the rest
There are many other peculiarities among the Japanese Big Four. For example they use most of the same equipment vendors, but usually no two specifications are the same despite this because they change just enough of the technology's application to make it seem different. Thus Yamaha's pioneering (among the Big Four at least) gyro-based stability systems preceeded Honda's and Kawasaki's by a year, yet all use the same vendor for the all-important inertia chip. Kawasaki however claims a later chip manufacture and therefore the more highly-developed system in its ZX-10R. All the Japanese OEMs source their clutch assemblies from the same Japanese company, their fuel systems from either Mikuni or Keihin, their electrical parts from the same three companies, etc. As I explain in another article, this fact of them all drawing from the same technological well unfortunately works against them.

Keyless entry
Many motorcycle maker's larger models are available with a keyless entry system similar to that on most cars. Either the head of the key or the key's fob is a radio transmitter, actually a transponder, which communicates with the bike's computer by radio and signals it to allow starting of the engine. This likely seems overkill for most riders. The secret to why bike manufacturers are creating these systems however is that they offer such a huge theft deterence that they are virtually mandatory outside the U.S., where insurance companies have far more successfully influenced legislation protecting their interests. In some European countries a new vehicle cannot be insured if it lacks a certain level of computerized antitheft technology. While seemingly draconian to Americans, the fallout is Americans get what most of the world wants, like it or not. Indisputable is the fact that a simple mechanical locks offers at most a few thousand unique key combinations, and in many cases, depending on the vehicle, only hundreds. Keyless systems on the other hand increase security by providing combinations of codes that potentially number into the hundreds of thousands.

The Big Four is actually the Big Five when American company Harley-Davidson, number one in sales since 2003, is included. But "Big Four" sounds better, don't you agree? Many are not aware however that these ratings are based on dollars, not on numbers of units. In terms of unit count, Honda is still on top and has been since the early 1970s.

The disconnect in the U.S.
Speaking of big business, the communications departments of overseas OEMs are not as proficient as one would assume the inside of a multinational corporation to be. This is true first because the U.S. importers for the foreign manufacturers are only tenuously linked to their their home countries. Further, the acumen of these importers is in most cases not equal to that of their parent companies. Thus you have Canada's Bombardier, the maker of Sea-Doos and Ski-Doos, stating in a publication that horsepower is an amount of work, which any beginning physics student knows is incorrect. It also caused Honda to incorrectly describe their ignition systems, Yamaha in training literature to reverse the descriptions of vertically and horizontally split crankcases, and Kawasaki to mix up advancing and retarding of their moveable intake cams. Speaking of Kawasaki, lack of communication at the Big K resulted in the most expensive mistake in the company's history, that of insufficiently vetting a third party in the production of Concours police bikes, with the result a recall of all these bikes that involved three and a half years and many millions of dollars.

Big Four autonomy
While on the subject of relationships, one of the most surprising powersports industry secrets, one that those not working within the business are scarcely able to believe, is that the Big Four actually and ultimately have no control over their dealers. Unlike the much stricter American and most Euro brands, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki have no say in the day-to-day operations of the dealers of their products. They don't have input into hiring, staff qualifications, business practices, sale prices, days and hours of operation, profit margins, any of that. They can't even force them to get technical training, good training by the way, and often free or very low-priced. The reason has to do with the so-called "Japanese invasion" of the 1960s. During their emergence into the American market, the Japanese made too few demands on new dealer signups. Their business agreements gave the dealers too much power. And until the dealer goes out of business, that same ancient agreement stays effective. In short, the Japanese manufacturers got their dealers the easy way -- too easy, really -- which now costs them dearly, while the other brands got theirs the harder way, a fact now in their favor, with the result that the two sides of the industry (Japanese vs. all the rest) look very very different today. In a nutshell, the Japanese sell the most units but have the least control, while the rest of the industry sells the dregs but enjoys very strict, businesslike relations with their dealers.

Technical training
Speaking of training, and actually linked to the above issue, Japanese companies for the most part give mere lip service to technical training, expending resources at middling levels only after spectacular sales years, and not at all otherwise. During the 2008-2010 recession for example Honda stopped training altogether, Kawasaki temporarily brought video production in-house at a ridiculously-slashed budget, and Suzuki went bankrupt. The Japanese by and large are just not committed to training. However, it should be pointed out that Yamaha stands out as the most consistent and most dedicated to training of the Big Four, and Harley-Davidson among the Big Five.

Big Four new bike prep
A very peculiar situation exists regarding new bike prep at Big Four dealerships. Assembly and prep out of the crate is regarded by law as actually a part of -- the last part, but still a part -- of vehicle manufacture. Thus it is a final episode of high liability exposure to the manufacturer, and is therefore accompanied by all sorts of legal paperwork. And yet, assembly and prep is nowhere given more short shrift than among Big Four manufacturers and their dealers. They can hardly be bothered with doing it right; it inevitably is relegated to the least experienced individual in the dealership, is renumerated (to the dealer) the least by the manufacturer, and is generally taken the least seriously of all that goes on in the dealership, leading to safety issues, more customer dissatisfaction, and in fact more customer complaints about the new bike purchase experience than about any other single thing, by a ratio of at least five to one, as documented by the companies own CSI systems. Simply bizarre.

Here's another significant Big Four fact. Consumer Reports recently (2013) did a survey for the first time of motorcycle owner satisfaction, and their results rocked the industry, particularly the largest segment, the Big Four OEMs. Riders reported that they would rather own a machine that gave more mechanical problems yet had a "soul", than a bike with fewer issues that connected with them less emotionally. Consumer Report's subscribers prefer more quirky Harleys, BMWs, Triumphs and Ducatis over historically more dependable (by a three-to-one margin) Hondas and Yamahas. I have written on this elsewhere.

Not everything is a recall
Within the industry it is well understood that formal dealer bulletins generically called a recall, a service action, and a service advisory are very different things. However, this distinction is lost among the general public. Everywhere I look the word recall is used as if it is a catch-all word. But this is far from being correct. They are each something very different. Starting with the mildest, a service advisory is a technical change that should be followed but is not mandatory, the factory usually will not pay for it, and has no safety aspect. A service action is more strongly suggested, often (but not in every instance) will be paid for by the factory, has a limited timeframe, and still has nothing to do with safety. A recall is different; unique. It is not limited in any way except eligibility based on VIN. It is always mandatory, it is always paid for by the factory, it never has a time limit (Honda fuel tank caps were eligible over 40 years ago and still are today), and it is always safety related -- always. And now you know.

Disencentivising mechanics
Another thing not well understood among the riding public is how motorcycle mechanics are paid. See my website for a more thorough treatment. But essentially, no matter the payment system, it usually comes down to some sort of incentive arrangement. On one hand you can appreciate how efficient that could make things. The mechanic isn't likely to waste time when it costs him directly. But the reality is, and everyone needs to consider this, the flip side is this setup almost always results in the mechanic being penalized for doing good work. With rare exception, it comes out of the mechanic's pocket when that little bit of extra effort will make the difference between an adequate job and an exceptional, really quality job. Having my own business has done more to erase the pain and frustration of nearly a lifetime under that system than even I imagined it would. Working on bikes is fun again. It never could be the other way, always taking it in the shorts for being a good guy.

The 10 year rule
Many who only recently got into vintage bikes are surprised to learn that franchised dealers almost universally have a seven-year rule. They won't work on machines more than 7-10 years old. Far from arbitrary, there are some pretty good reasons for this. One, the OEMs promote this tactic. They do that by discouraging dealer parts inventory, by eliminating old parts stock at their warehouses, by not training mechanics in older models, and by discontinuing older special tools. But it isn't all the OEM. Other reasons dealers have for not taking in older machines include a lack of dealer staff experienced in older stuff, inconsistent parts availability, and perhaps most important of all, the relatively low monetary value of a several-years-old Japanese bike that results in either its abandonment at the dealership due to the owner's lost interest or a service bill higher than the machine is worth -- both of which are very common. However, even suggesting a deposit before the work starts often insults the customer. The dealer can't win.

OEM vs. aftermarket parts
Another little-known fact of the powersports industry is how poorly it is supported by the aftermarket parts world. Those familiar with car and truck repair are astounded by the difference. Unlike in the car world where original and aftermarket are often equal, often even the same exact parts, this is not at all the case in powersports. Very few alternatives to factory parts exist, and almost all of the few that do are such poor quality as to be unusable by any conscientious professional mechanic. Engine gaskets and seals, fork seals, and carburetor rebuild parts are perfect examples. What's even worse, ninety percent of independent shops unwittingly rely on this junk and do substandard work as a result. Better believe it.

Parts stocking
Here's another. Many are unaware that tax rules and other changes in business practice have dramatically changed how shops stock service parts. Basically, they don't stock them. But some shops take this to extremes. I once managed the service dept. of a historic big name Honda dealership that never stocked anything. I couldn't even take in a flat tire without checking first that we had the inner tube to repair it, or a tuneup without checking to see did we have the correct spark plugs. Good shops take steps to deal with this, but this scenario is the default mode for most and has been for a more than fifty years.

Service manuals
It is hard to adequately communicate how much aftermarket manuals are loathed by professional techs. These books are consistently bad and the subject of much ridicule on the inside of the industry. When I was a dealer tech, even mentioning a Clymer manual was akin to admitting you had herpes. This is not hyperbole; if anything it is an understatement. After leaving a career in dealerships and shifting to making a living outside them, I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover that Clymers even still existed, let alone that their use has increased. It simply makes me shudder. But it is just one of the many ways that those inside and those outside the industry exist in two different worlds. The factory manuals are not without fault however. Two things make them less than perfect. One, most of the Big Fours' manuals are produced in Japan. As a result they depict tools that are unavailable in the west, procedures that make little sense, and often show bikes that are not even U.S. models. The second weakness of factory manuals is that over time their creators, the manufacturers of the motorcycles, have been forced by the American legal system to turn the manuals into legal defense documents. This is a fact. As defending themselves has taken priority over communicating practical and effective repair technique, the manuals have reflected this increasingly. While OEM owner's manuals are all about fifteen ways to not swallow the ignition key, service manuals are not far behind, though their tactic is simply to water down or avoid technical subjects so that they cannot be used against the manufacturers in court. Really. Compare OEM manuals from the 1960s and 1970s to today's and you'll see it.

Paint codes
The Internet is still struggling with correctly answering members' inquiries about Honda motorcycle paint. The fact is, the paint code labels Honda put on their bikes were connected with a short-lived factory touch-up paint program begun in 1982 and which died shortly after. The Honda-labeled tiny bottles of paint with built-in brush (exactly like those in the car industry) were created and marketed by Color Rite, and Honda sold the Color Rite product under Honda part number. But, here is the important thing: before and after this couple-year period, there was and is no such thing as factory Honda paint. Yes, Color Rite also sold pints, and even Honda included a 5 oz. can of Japanese-labeled touch-up paint inside the CB750's crate in the early 70s. But these are history, and of course, collectible today. And yes, a company that started as the suspension fluid supplier to Italian fork maker Cerrani, Lubritech, did, way before Color Rite, also market Honda replacement paint in both bulk and aerosol cans. But this was an even earlier third-party effort and still not a factory operation, not a product sold by Honda though Honda did endorse the paint in official publications. Lastly, attempts by many to take either the earliest Lubritech paint codes or the later Color Rite/Honda codes to a professional painter and formulate a color have proven fruitless. There is no U.S.-accessible Honda powersports paint code system.

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