As I sit here, a rather tired out 47-year-old that’s been involved with cars & bikes since a youngster, I’ve been totting up the different vehicles that I’ve owned, both in terms of numbers and approximate value, it’s actually quite scary when you work it all out.
From memory, I’ve owned at least 17 bikes, with an approximate value of around £35,000, only one of those was brand new (my ZZR 1400), and although I’ve owned a similar number of cars – 20, their approximate value is £105,000. The dawning realisation that I’ve spent at least £140,000 on vehicles (not including insurance, repairs, servicing and maintenance) is bloody scary.
On those figures alone, you can’t argue that bikes are ultimately cheaper, but is it as simple as that?
LIKE FOR LIKE
My first road car came from a friend of a friend; a glorious Austin Rover Metro, resplendent in the popular hearing aid brown colour (no doubt marketed as ‘Sahara Dune’ or some such nonsense), with brown vinyl seats, brown carpets and brown plastics. 50 shades of brown.
It had been pranged slightly at the front, so after handing over just £60, and replacing the bonnet (used, metallic red in colour) and the wings (new, primed in black), I was ready to go. It probably cost me around £150 all in, and that includes a tank of fuel (around £11 to fill up).
That little Metro did me proud for quite some time, and it was a prime argument for ‘bangernomics’, except back then it was called living on a shoestring … I remember having to scrape together all of my change (which amounted to around £1.7something) just to put a few drops of fuel in to get to work and back. And work and back. And work. Frugality was the nature of this particular beast.
Similarly, my first road bike that was primed and ready to go (not including my AP50 that was a ‘restoration’ project even back then) was a KH125, brought with money loaned from my boss, to be docked out of my wages each week. I’ll never forget staring at the wad of money as he unfurled it from a pipe tobacco pouch, kept in the top pocket of his engineer’s coat. This was more money than I’d ever seen.
From memory, the little KH was around £600; a huge price for a spotty teenager that was more interested in drinking his £96 wages away, Thursday through to Sunday. I think my boss saw it as an opportunity to make me responsible, a way of making me grow up. It’s no surprise that as soon as the bike was paid off, so was I.
POOR MAN’S TRANSPORT
For decades after the war, motorcycling was the accepted form of transport; cars were very expensive, only driven by posh people that used words like ‘bally-ho’, all pronounced perfectly in what we’d now call Received Pronunciation, or RP.
As the baby boomer kids started growing up though, motorcycles became more than that, they were a way of life, a statement, a big ‘screw you’ to the authorities. If you were a biker, or greaser, or rocker, you were a bad boy. Costs of transport weren’t really the argument (although of course they were still a factor), it was all about the … badassery. (Yeah, I know that’s a made-up word).
Mistakenly, the establishment still thought that motorcycles were being ridden for financial reasons rather than societal differences, and consequently, bikers were looked down upon; you can’t afford to be a normal member of society, therefore you will be shunned and treated as a second-class citizen. (For you are one, you peasant).
The upshot of this, is that motorcycles were disproportionally cheaper to own, run and maintain. Servicing was carried out by a mate of a mate called Sid, always to be seen with the obligatory half-smoked fag in his mouth, grease under his fingernails and a pair of Ashman boots with white fisherman’s socks rolled over the top.
In the car world though, everything was different.
Your car had to be serviced by a specialist garage, by a chap named Bertie, whose working garb consisted of Oxford brogues, trousers, shirt and tie, covered by a brown engineer’s work coat, and a cloud of pipe smoke. Slide rules, draughting tables and different ‘shags’ (of tobacco) were his friends.
THE MODERN AGE (READ: JAPANESE)
The story behind the closure of the original Triumph factory goes along the lines that Triumph believed the Japanese were SO far behind them in terms of development, that they’d never be a worry. When the Japanese started producing big bikes, with four cylinders, all balanced, smooth and clean-revving, with power enough to show any British-bike owner the way home, it was too late for Triumph.
You could probably pinpoint the beginnings of change to this exact point in time.
The Japanese bikes were ultimately more reliable, easier to live with and better suited to riding, as opposed to the Brits that needed constant tinkering, a drip tray and a tool-roll for anything other than blasting around the North Circular.*
But that extra power, reliability, smoothness and fuss-free riding came at a price; Sid, armed with his ciggie, grubby fingernails and A/F & Whitworth tools could no longer perform routine maintenance. Sure, a talented spanner-man is a talented spanner-man, but thanks to the complex designs and engineering, the manufacturers started introducing the need for more complicated specialist tooling, and extra training. Prices for ownership and maintenance inevitably rose.
This was also partially responsible for motorcycles becoming a little more mainstream and accepted. The days of rolling up on a noisy motorcycle, oil dripping off your boots, and tool-roll unfurled were numbered.
Over the next few decades, motorcycling went from poor man’s transport to recreational pastime, dragging a whole new culture of customisation, fancy accessories and even fancier bikes straight from the manufacturer.
The bike makers were taking lessons from the car brands; why buy a standard Yamaguki 1000 when you could have the Yamaguki ‘Carl Valentino Marquez’ 1025? For just an extra £3,000. Add on a set of custom-made leathers, replica boots and DreamTeam painted lid and you were the Daddy. Or Mummy of course.
And that brings us to today, and the question of “Are motorcycles really cheaper than cars?”
It would be all too easy to pick something like the Ducati V4 Speciale 2019, with an unbelievable list price of £34,995 (nope, that’s not a typo), or at the opposite end of the spectrum, a Suzuki V-STROM 250 which sells at £3,995 for the comparison.
To make things fair, I’ve taken the average price of a new Triumph Bonneville, which works out to £10,450, and I’ll try to do some basic number crunching for ownership and comparisons.
What sort of car could you get for between £10,000 – £11,000?
There are a number of new cars available for that price, things like a Peugeot 108 Collection (71hp, 1.0 litre £10,523) or the Dacia Logan Essential (74hp, 1.0 litre £10,045) or even the ever-popular Ford KA+, at £10,999. But if we’re comparing prices with a bike, surely we should compare fun factor and excitement?
Moving over to the used cars, things get a little more interesting; all of the following cars are for sale at the time of writing. I’m not taking into account negotiations, mates rates or industry knowledge, I’ve taken a sample of cars from across a number of websites.
1982 ROLLS ROYCE SILVER SPIRIT 6.8L V8 61,000 MILES £10,000
The epitome of style & sophistication (once), the big Roller will waft you along in comfort and grace, and of course, there’s still a lot of prestige associated with them. If you have dreams of living like an ageing Rockstar, or a wannabee Peter Stringfellow, this is the car of your dreams.
1996 TVR CHIMAERA 4.0L V8 47,000 MILES £11,000
All-weather bikers will love the Chimp; you’ll still get as wet inside the cabin as you would on the bike, the heaters blow as much air as an asthmatic pensioner, and screen-fogging is a very real thing. Also, a 4.0 litre V8 sounds like it should be fun, but the reality is that around 180hp isn’t exactly bike fast.
2005 PORSCHE BOXSTER 987 90,000 MILES £11,000
Replace the B for a C (as is commonly done in the motoring world) and that tells you everything you need to know. OK, that’s harsh, but having been in the trade for more years than I care to remember, it’s pretty valid. Yes, it has 280hp.
2005 VAUXHALL MONARO V8 87,000 MILES £7,995
Forget the Vauxhall name badge, this was born in the land of Oz, and as such, it’s a knuckle-dragging, beer-swilling, uncouth brute. The 328hp lights up the rear tyres on a whim and you’ll strain your neck muscles through having to get used to looking sideways all the time.
2017 HONDA CIVIC 1.4L V-TEC 22,000 MILES £11,000
It’s not all silliness and nonsense. The Civic almost looks like it came from another world, and will outlast the cockroaches that survive a nuclear holocaust. This will do everything you want it to, and do it well. It kind of reminds me of an old jelly-mould CBR1000. Outstanding in an unremarkable way.
2015 SUZUKI VITARA ALLGRIP 1.6L 40,000 MILES £11,000
Suzuki reliability, reasonable room, and almost posh-roader styling. At 40,000 miles it’s barely run-in, but don’t be fooled by the ‘ALLGRIP’ tag, this is no Land Rover Defender; it’ll lug a caravan across a manicured lawn, but don’t expect to be hanging out with Bear Grylls.
Round one to the bike.
Quantifying fuel economy is difficult; the more modern cars are under strict legislation for emissions, therefore, fuel economy. This means that manufacturers are pushing harder to eek that last drop of fuel out, and as such, we see small capacity engines, usually turbocharged, with multi-speed transmissions.
But keeping with the theme of those used cars, it gets a little easier; average fuel consumption across those cars works out to around 24mpg, of course the little Honda would around double that, but the big 6.8 litre V8 in the Roller sinks the mean economy. (As does the TVR and the Vauxhall).
The average fuel consumption for a new Triumph, works out to approximately 48mpg. So even with the best of the above vehicles, you’re only getting close to matching it, certainly not beating it.
Round two goes to the bike, but modern cars really aren’t as far behind as you might expect.
According to the website Money Advice Service, the average cost of car insurance throughout the UK is around £485 per year (source). When it comes to bikes, it’s a little more complicated because of the vast difference in performance, engine size and style.
However, the financial website ‘NimbleFins’ does give quite a breakdown; using age, engine size, type of cover and storage locations as their dataset. The two categories of interest are 900cc and 1200cc; the average price of insurance for the 900cc group is £424, but that takes a huge leap when we look at the 1200cc category – £8462, very nearly twice the price (source).
Given that car’s are seemingly more expensive (averagely), and the average price for insurance, they certainly represent better for value for money when it comes to insuring them, and as it’s close to the 900cc insurance medium, you’d have to say that the car wins this round.
Round three is a close run thing, but the car just edges it.
Motorcycles have always been my passion, the thing I do when I want to just have fun, have a bit of me time, maybe get a bit giddy with the performance; cars were always the opposite – I made my living with cars (admittedly, they were very fun cars), it was something that paid the bills, and I’d always argue that cars were nothing like bikes, even when you’re comparing the faster ones.
I had an epiphany in my thirties – owning a performance car was different to working with them, and if you get the right car, they’re still as involving as a bike, and truth be told, under the right circumstances they can be quicker, or at least as quick as a bike.
Sure, a fast bike will outrun pretty much anything up to around 150mph, but much above that and aerodynamics start taking effect, throw in some twists and turns and a fast car will outperform the bike quite easily, as this video from Red Bull demonstrates.
But to gain that level of performance, for either vehicle, you need good rubber, the difference being that cars obviously need four super-expensive tyres, whereas the bike just really needs one and a half (in terms of costings). With that said, even soft rubber tends to last a little longer on a car than it does a bike; I could easily go through a rear tyre in 1,000 miles on my bike, whereas my car would last around 5,000 miles.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have what we’d call in the trade, ‘DitchfindersTM’ – these represent great value for those just needing the ultimate mileage, but of course don’t offer much in the way of grip and ride comfort.
Available for both cars and bikes, they’re a similar proposition, but truthfully, I wouldn’t risk my safety for the sake of a few thousand extra miles of tyre wear, so for ‘normal’ use, the car edges it.
Round four belongs to the car, just.
MAINTENANCE & SERVICING
How long is a piece of string?
According to some statistics the average price of car servicing is surprisingly low (£395 for a full service on a BMW M235i for example), but speaking as someone that’s been a Service Manager for a franchised dealership, I’m not so sure that’s all that accurate.
Picking a sample vehicle from our second-hand list which isn’t ridiculously muscled, the Honda Civic, it has a 12,500 mile service interval (a Bonnie is every 6,000) and servicing costs are (approximately) as follows:
1st Year, 12,500 miles £235
2nd Year, 25,000 miles £305
3rd Year 37,500 miles £285
Total cost: £825
Triumph dealers offer fixed servicing, and I’ve broken it down to 6, 12 & 24,000 miles:
6,000 miles £197
12,000 miles £630
24,000 miles £729
Total cost: £1,556
And of course, the bike has double the service frequency.
Yes, there very well maybe cheaper, franchised servicing available, you might negotiate a discount, if you purchased new you might get free servicing etc, but this is about as comparable as I can make it.
Round five, the bike has been well & truly owned by the car.
CONGESTION, PARKING & ULEZ
In the instance of the Civic, both car & bike will be ULEZ-charge free, and quite frankly, if you’re looking to purchase a vehicle based purely on whether it’s ULEZ chargeable, you may want to rethink your life choices.
There has been a spate of towns and cities announcing new plans for congestion charging, but primarily of course, we’re talking about London. Driving a regular car into London will currently cost you £11.50 once you hit the congestion zone, whereas motorcycles are free to enter the city.
But that doesn’t mean a free ride everywhere; in certain parts of London, parking a bike can still cost a pretty penny or two, maybe not as much as a car (which can be up to £8.50 for the first hour, depending on car and location). Forgetting central London for moment, it’s generally very easy and extremely cheap (perhaps free) to park a bike in most cities.
An easy win for the bike for the 6th round.
TIME IS MONEY
We’ve all heard the mantra “time is money”, usually uttered by the type of people that aspire to owning a top of the range Audi, accompanied by an orange coloured partner, wearing the gaudiest watch possible and an Armani suit (huge apologies if I’ve just described you).
Still, very slowly, these nouveau riche monsters are cottoning on to the fact that motorcycles are perhaps the answer to their time=money conundrum; without a doubt, a motorcycle is the fastest way to get anywhere with today’s current traffic levels – through a city, along a motorway, short B-road blast, there’s very little that can live with a bike, purely for the ability to get through the traffic.
From 1994 – 2016, motorcycle ownership increased by a whopping 74% (source). Whether that’s down to an increase in the mid-life crisis brigade, or people understanding that a motorcycle really makes a commute easier is unclear, but one thing is for sure – the face of motorcycling has become widely accepted.
It’s more than transport for the poor, bigger than a rebellion; it’s a lifestyle choice that more people are taking.
If time really is money, the bike trounces the car easily. A clear win for round seven.
IS MOTORCYCLE OWNERSHIP REALLY CHEAPER THAN A CAR?
What was once a very clear divide between the two vehicles is no longer quite as clear cut. As with anything that’s popular, manufacturers tend to make the most of their pricing strategy; as bikes have become accepted, more consumers have understood that it isn’t necessarily about being a badboy, that in fact, owning a bike can make you feel … special.
Even now, with decades of riding experience under my belt, I still feel that excitement when I jump on a bike, and it’s nothing to do with horsepower, lap times, lean angle (although I do take enormous pleasure from entering a slip road on a motorway and knowing that by the time I reach the part that joins the motorway itself, I could be travelling faster than anything else on there).
I had just as much fun on my little stink-wheeler hybrid, or green-laner, as I did on my superbikes – you don’t need 200+hp to have fun, nor to be accepted as a ‘biker’, and that’s quite different to car ownership.
Unless you take the chosen path of horsepower or vintage, cars are all so very similar, all non-descript boxes with four wheels, tacky plastics, and marketing aids; go-faster stripes, Union flag inspired lights, paddle-shift gears, built-in WiFi, 15-way adjustable seats, buttons to tune the exhaust note … all completely superfluous to the job of driving, only there to make XYZ car more attractive to buyers than the ABC car.
They’re fitted so that Adenoid Andrew can boast to his equally adenoidal friends at the ‘car club’ meet that his car is one trim level above the peasant’s that’s standing before him, and I know that sounds harsh, but speaking as someone that’s done more car club meets than I should have (purely in a professional capacity you understand), it’s the truth.
“Oh yes, you see when Ford realised their colossal mistake in 2004, they promptly added this extra feature for the 2005 model, and that is indeed why my car’s rear window is 1.367% wider than yours”.
Bikes are different, the owners are different, yeah, there’s bravado and bulls**t, but there’s also camaraderie, an understanding, and an acknowledgement between us – a slight nod of the head as we pass each other, a quick warning of impending doom around the next corner, or just the appreciation of another bike. And you don’t need to have spent a mortgage’s worth of money to get that.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Pound for pound, a bike is cheaper than a car. There, I’ve said it.
But … that’s talking about cold, hard, cash outlay, and realistically, the gap between the two isn’t as wide as it once was. And if we start looking at ‘value’ (which of course is purely subjective), it could even be argued that a car works out better.
You don’t need to purchase protective motorcycling gear to drive a car, it’s capable of transporting more than just you, a passenger and whatever you can fit in some hard luggage (where fitted). It offers better crash protection, weather-proofing comes as standard, as does in-car entertainment (music, media player, Bluetooth etc), in-car comfort means no sweating in the summer or frostbite in the winter … in non-cashable benefits, a car may just have a bike beat.
And yet, there’s still another argument to be made …
CAR-VS-BIKE – REAL WORLD
Using a generic, new model Triumph for illustrative purposes gives us an indication that, actually, prices are closer than we think. But what happens when we change the bike? Or go for used, or even change the category?
Think of a superbike – 190+mph performance, 0-60 in less time than it takes to say, and a whole world of badass-ness (yes, that’s another made-up word) that only a true supercar could live with – £14,000-ish against £150,000-ish.
Or a second-hand mudplugger DRZ (£600) to a capable off-road 4×4 – £2500?
Want something for the commute? A Honda CB125F starts at £2,829, an equivalent beige car would be something like the Peugeot 108 – £9,225.
In fact, I can’t think of one scenario where a car could possibly work out cheaper than a bike. The key to all of this is understanding what it is you need, what you want to do, and what the comparisons are; pointless in comparing a Ducati superbike to a small town car for example, equally, if you’ve a family that’s in need of transportation, then no matter how much cheaper than a car, a bike just won’t work for you.
Statistics tell us that you’re more likely to own a motorcycle if you’re a car owning household, in other words, the bike is a toy or not the primary source of transport at least; in households without a car, just 1% had access to a bike, households with access to a single car were at 2% and for two or more cars, 3% had access to a bike (source).
Very few people make a choice to own a motorcycle as their sole vehicle, that’s much more likely to be a car, mainly for the practicalities, or just because they’ve never learnt to drive – it’s unlikely to be a choice driven by purely financial reasoning.
So where does that leave us?
We’ve almost gone full circle – a motorcycle is definitely cheaper than a car, but thanks to popularity, and it being seen as a recreational activity, prices have increased to the point that the differential between the two has never been closer.
Equally, the technology used to get such performance from the engine needs specialist knowledge, bespoke tooling, and thanks to being so popular, the smaller backstreet dealers or workshops are on the wane, to be replaced by fully-fitted, floor tiled, glass-fronted showrooms and immaculately prepared workshops; a great professional image, but one that’s costing us, as customers, in the pocket.
‘Lifestyle’ means we’re accepted for riding a bike (remember the days of pubs with ‘No Bikers’ signs outside?), but that’s also our downfall. Lifestyle means popular, means recreation, hobby, pastime, a route to channelling our spare cash, and the manufacturers, dealers and specialists know that … £900 to service a Triumph?
Maybe I’ll just stick with my car.
* I’m a huge fan of British bikes, my dad was an original Meriden worker, my brother still rides a T140, my friend has an X75, but there’s no getting away from the fact that they need loving if you want to ride one as a regular thing, even way back in the 70s.