You'd Probably Never Guess That This Is the World's Best-Selling Motorcycle Brand

During the summer there's a good chance that if you hit the highway you're going to see quite a few proud Americans riding their motorcycles. Motorcycles are a true symbol of Americana, offering the opportunity for riders to experience the thrill of two-wheel riding and the unique freedom that comes with owning an iron horse.

Source: Moyan Brenn, Flickr.

In 2013, Americans purchased nearly 466,000 motorcycles, with the iconic Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG  ) laying claim to a good chunk of those domestic sales. But riders -- and investors -- might not realize that there's a world full of cycle enthusiasts outside our borders that dwarfs the U.S. market.

Motorcycle sales soar in foreign markets
Motorcycles are often cheaper than cars, and traffic congestion and infrastructure problems are conducive to making bikes practical and popular in a number of foreign countries. So it's perhaps no surprise that global sales for Harley-Davidson and the six other top motorcycle manufacturers totaled more than 33 million bikes in 2013. While Americans might have an appetite for higher-priced and customized bikes, the U.S. market contributed less than 2% of worldwide sales volume last year. 

Source: Sumanth Garakalajula, Flickr.

With the understanding that foreign markets, especially the Asia-Pacific region, are the key to generating millions of motorcycle sales on annual basis, I offer this challenge: Can you guess which motorcycle brand is the world's top seller?

Before you venture that guess I'll give you a few hints.

The big hint is that the world's top-selling brand needs to hit economical price points. Therefore, Harley-Davidson, which saw its global sales expand 4% to 334,032 bikes last year, is not a contender. Harley-Davidson's bikes are often much pricier than its peers' products, and its expansion is tightly controlled, because the company's unique designs are the primary allure of the brand. As long as Harley-Davidson can keep that aura of exclusivity, its brand image remains safe.

Another sizable hint is that scooter production tends to play a large role for the world's best-selling motorcycle manufacturers. Scooters will always be the reason why a company like Harley-Davidson will never compete with some of its peers for highest total production, but they nonetheless remain a vital transportation component in foreign markets where streets are narrow and congested and parking can be very limited.

The other key factor is that a leading global brand needs to have sufficiently deep pockets and significant manufacturing capacity to meet the increasing demands of consumers in foreign markets. TVS Motor in India, for example, continues to see steady bike sales in its traffic-congested home country. However, its smaller manufacturing capability relative to some of its peers, compounded with a predominantly narrow focus on India, ensures that it isn't the world's best-selling brand. TVS Motor's total sales topped 784,000 units last year.

With this in mind, it's now time to venture your guess.

Got your pick?

The world's best-selling motorcycle brand
If you said Yamaha, Hero MotoCorp, Bajaj Auto, or Suzuki, you deserve a pat on the back, as you accurately identified numbers two through five in terms of annual motorcycle sales in 2013. These companies' sales ranged from just over 2 million total units last year to up to 6 million.

However, if you said Honda (NYSE: HMC  )  then you should have real bragging rights as you correctly guessed the world's top-selling motorcycle brand.

Honda Motor 2013 annual report (link opens a PDF). Source: Honda.

According to Honda's 2013 annual report, the company, inclusive of its subsidiaries and affiliates, sold 15,494,000 motorcycles (including scooters) last year. Sales were widely skewed toward Asia, which accounted for slightly more than 13 million units sold, with Japan, North America, and Europe combining for just 646,000 total units. Other regions, including emerging markets, totaled roughly 1.8 million units.

Honda can attribute several factors to its Asia-Pacific, and global, success.

First and foremost, Honda understands how to keep pricing under control. While price might not be the biggest objection in the United States, as evidenced by strong sales numbers for Harley-Davidson and Ducati, cost is among the most important factors in a number of emerging-market countries. Although the middle class in China, India, and other rapidly growing emerging markets are seeing opportunities for wealth grow, this broad group of people still remains constrained by ample budgetary concerns. That means motorcycle manufacturers need to be smart with their pricing.

Honda, for example, has been manufacturing select models of its PCX series motor scooters in Thailand since 2009, beginning first with its 125cc-class scooters. Thailand offers some of the most competitive labor costs around the world, which has allowed Honda to build in the Southeast Asian nation, and then export its products to key markets at a reasonable cost. The end result is that Honda's motorcycles are competitively priced and well-received throughout its key markets.

Second, Honda understands that emerging markets are key to success. For example, Honda has established three motorcycle subsidiaries in the African nations of South Africa, Nigeria, and (most recently) Kenya. By expanding into underdeveloped and undermarketed regions which, until recently, have been ignored by the world's largest motorcycle manufacturers, Honda believes it can hit consumers' price points and desires while also beating its peers to the punch in getting manufacturing facilities off the ground. The company also recently expanded sales into Myanmar and Bangladesh. Don't forget that emerging-market economies can often grow independent of a global recession, meaning the potential for less volatility to hit Honda's top and bottom lines.

Innovation is another reason Honda stands head and shoulders above the competition. As Honda stated in its annual report, the company has identified a trend in a number of markets in which consumers are seeking a more "fun" riding experience and a bigger engine. Honda's plans include developing bikes with larger engines for its Brazilian customers, as well as the ongoing maturation of its middleweight-series motorcycles, such as the CBR500R, CB500F, and CTX700, which have larger engines and are as primed for pleasure as they are ready to get the rider from Point A to B.

2013 Honda CBR500R, CB500F, and CB500X. Source: Honda. 

Putting things into perspective
From the standpoint of an investor examining Honda there are two important takeaways.

Perhaps the most important is that you need to put Honda's motorcycle sales into perspective with its other business segments, which include automobiles, financial services, and various power products. Despite being the best-selling motorcycle brand in the world last year, its motorcycle operations accounted for just 13.6% of total sales, while the automotive segment comprised 78% of total sales. The automobile segment, not surprisingly, offers Honda the potential for much beefier profits than its motorcycle segment, with operating income in automobiles nearly tripling that of motorcycles last year.

However, it's also worth noting that operating margins for motorcycles tend to be higher and more consistent than with automobiles. In other words, this is a business segment that Honda will want to continue to promote. Honda's entrance into new emerging markets and the costs and pricing associated with those moves could weigh on its operating margins, but the results for the past five years speak to the consistency of the motorcycle segment.

Honda's share of the motorcycle market coupled with its superior price leverage could be part of the formula that helps push its share price higher over the long run. And that could be welcome news for an avid rider considering investing for the future or an avid stock market hound looking for the next investment, 

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 10:04 AM, anyon wrote:

    Why would the author think we wouldn't guess Honda? I bought my girlfriend a Yamaha Fino six years ago, mainly because it was $100 cheaper than the comparable Honda. It has been a very reliable motorbike, but people here (in Thailand) willingly pay the premium for Hondas. They're everywhere.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 10:38 AM, 100Bagger wrote:

    Hondas are reliable, but most of their product lines are of un-inspiring designs.. Yamaha has better designs. Suzukis are really simple to maintain. Of the three, Hondas are the most reliable. Just wish they made better looking bikes.. Honda's current designs are boring. Hondas are exceptionally practical, functional, reliable, good performing,.. But they are boring

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 10:53 AM, Smokey3214 wrote:

    Duh. Honda was a pretty obvious guess with so many models and such high quality control. Only Americans are dumb enough to pay a premium for an outdated motorcycle such as a Harley or a Ural. Harley has been tweeking and selling the same engine for 30 years.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 10:54 AM, RedBaronRX13 wrote:

    Most sold doesn't mean best looking, most reliable, fastest, best braking and handling.

    It only means a lot of people are idiots paying High Dollars = HD = Harley Davidson for a NAME.

    They all want to be part of a long gone era.

    When you see them riding in the highway, you think the Circus is in town. They all look like a walking billboard for HD.

    I wouldn't ride one even if it was free, since I like to make to where I am going.

    With all that cheesy looking chrome weight and they are not even good boat anchors. LOL

    British, German, Italian and Japanese bikes al day, every day.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 11:05 AM, nvwildoates wrote:

    I'm sorry, but when I hear the phrase motorcycle, I think of something bigger than a 1000 cc, the rest are motor scooters....

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 11:14 AM, Rifleman3006 wrote:

    Well my 650 cc motor scooter tops out at 109 and weighs 575 pds. so I wouldn't consider that a scooter.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 11:23 AM, poopoopoint wrote:

    ...and my 1966 BMW R69S has 479,000 miles on it.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 11:36 AM, godbey wrote:

    Motorcycle riders have 33 time the fatality rates as auto drivers per mile travelld. Many states, such as Pennsylvania, don't even have helmet requirements. Also, there are no muffler requirements. Loud, very dangerous, disturb the peace of others. I favor banning them.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:07 PM, buttrash wrote:

    KTM is the best motorcycle period fools

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:09 PM, buttrash wrote:

    anybody know about KTM stock?

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:32 PM, travr6 wrote:

    Every true motorcyclist knows Honda is the #1 motorcycle brand in the world.

    No other brand is even close.

    It is apparent this author is not a motorcyclist.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:49 PM, brianh59 wrote:

    The reason you buy a motorcyle dictates the bike that is best for you. For many in the US, it is image, hence the popularity of Harleys. I have many buddies that are Harley owners. Yes, it really is like a bunch of kids dressing up for a costume party when then swap their business attire for black leather, bandanas, etc. So what? Constume parties are fun, even for big kids.

    On the other hand, if you ride for thrills, you get a speed bike (all major brands other than Harley have great speed bikes).

    On the other hand, if you ride for transportation (which is the majority of the world), you get an inexpensive, highly reliable brand.

    "Scooter" is simply a style of motorcycle, not something different than a motorcycle. There are 50cc motorcyles and 650cc scooters.

    Personally, I have a Kawasaki Vulcan for image, a Suzuki Burgman for practicality, and a Can Am Spyder for fun!

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:52 PM, TKK1959 wrote:

    I like the Goldwings......but other than that, as far as foreign bikes go....I'm Yamaha all the way.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:55 PM, phillipzx3 wrote:

    "anybody know about KTM stock?"

    Up 100% in 12 months. I still have a 1974 175 KTM (Penton) I bought when I was in the Army.

    Great bikes! There's an RC-8 in my near future.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 12:58 PM, enoclan wrote:

    No brainer.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:04 PM, kirk66 wrote:

    Hero's association with Honda ended recently. The fact that Hero sans Honda sold nearly 7 million motorcycles in 2013 should actually worry Honda a bit. Magneti Marelli's and Erik Buell Racing have new agreements and investments with Hero. Buell is designing larger CC motorbikes for Hero to break into the US market and MM is the strongest player in the Fuel Injection market going right now. In 5 years Hero with be over 85% of Honda's annual output and in 10 years they should have surpassed them.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:07 PM, mcdoogs2003 wrote:

    Yes I like Harley Davidson stock. Its been really good to me over the years,but I am getting ready to sell it,because I see that Harley is totally missing the opportunity of a new era in two an three wheeled transportation. What grandiose idiots.

    China is and will continue to supply a ever growing demand for smaller less expensive, more fuel efficient two and three wheeled motor bikes. Kinda just like Japan did with 500 cc or less motorcycles in the 70's.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:08 PM, jackbenimble2 wrote:

    smokie3214-- I have friends that ride 1938, 1948, 1952, 1960 Harleys every day. How many 1938 Hondas are running the road around your house?

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 1:48 PM, TheMoogly wrote:

    Honda XR650R, baddest motorcycle on the planet.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 3:48 PM, HDlover4life wrote:

    say what you want but HOW many 20 year old Japanese bikes od see running on the roads. compare that to the number of old Harley D's still out and running after 50-60 years of service WHY ? because of 2 things OWNER loyalty and lie all the want but quality they will take a beating and keep running, where motorcycle junk yards are full of old broken down Honda's, Yamaha's, and Suzuki's yes the Honda is top in the Market only because they are cheaper and sold EVERYWHERE WORLDWIDE . all of you Harley hater's use the same argument all the time, price quality answer this question why are they still here and why do all of those "better" Japanese bikes make a V-Twin engine if the design is so bad imitation is the first sign of a builder who knows the best when he see's it. so if you want to go 60 in first gear by all means by a Honda but if you want to give that bike to your son buy a Harley it will still be running while that Honda has already recycled into something else

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 3:50 PM, HDlover4life wrote:

    so sorry but I did mean to say DO see running and lie all YOU want

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 4:25 PM, TheMoogly wrote:

    Jackbe There aren't any 1938 Hondas because they weren't made until 1949 and to fill an entirely different market, inexpensive transportation in war torn Japan. You are comparing apples and oranges. BTW, those Harleys are still running because they have had a ton of money pumped into them. Compare a modern Honda to a modern Harley. The Honda is the second most dependable after Yamaha. The Harley is the second least dependable followed by BMW.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 4:34 PM, unksammc1982 wrote:

    I returned from Afghanistan on leave after six months. Pull out my 1000 Honda, adjusted the choke and started it right up. Rode around California for two weeks , and then returned back to Kandahar. My Harley buddies all had to take their bikes into the shop , because they would not Start. I am restoring a CB 750 next summer. A 1978 CB 750, restoring it into a Cafe racer. Harley Riders seem to all have attitudes, Bad ones!

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 4:47 PM, nosmiley wrote:

    Interesting that the author didn't think to mention BMW, a company making motorcycles since 1923. He must be a Yuppie, like so many I used to run into. They would see me at a gas station on my 1968 R/60us, and remark that they didn't realize BMW made motorcycles. Yes they do, and years before they started making cars. They make boat engines, they make a mean turboprop engine that kept me in the air on a very overloaded airplane, they make automobile engines and automobiles.

    Lots of snide remarks from people that seem to think if you're a real motorcyclist you know Honda is blah, blah. I'm a real motorcyclist, of 45 years, presently owning 3 BMW's. If you ride a BMW, you're not too concerned with what else is on the road. Mine have Always taken me out there, And brought me home. A great way to thin the herd when someone is popping off about their bike, is ask them if they're up for a ride from D.C. to Los Angeles, or Miami, to Portland, Maine or Charleston, S.C. to Calgary, Alberta Canada. The other guys, except for a very few, stop bragging. BMW's aren't very pretty or stylish, or full of chrome, or make "fun" loud noises, in the minds of many folks, but they go the distance, come back, and are ready to go again, without doing much, other than changing the oil. They don't sell tens of millions, but neither does Rolls-Royce, or Mercedes-Benz and I've never been embarrassed to be seen riding one. I'm a regular guy in every sense of the word, but I look for quality, and longevity in a single person conveyance. It couldn't be any fun to be on the side of the road, scratching your head and butt at the same time. I shudder at the thought of abandoning something that valuable in the middle of nowhere.

    Ride safe. Intelligence saves lives, not loud pipes. One last thought- BMW's have had antilock braking for years. It works. I got a company rep to roar across a parking lot made of asphalt and pea gravel. (Those little loose stones like ball bearings, that can be difficult to even stand on.) That motorcycle stayed upright, and moving in a vertical line, and stopped very quickly right in front of me, from about 40 miles per hour.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 5:14 PM, dkw12002 wrote:

    Harley is going to be a steady loser over the next few years I think. Young people ride sport bikes, not Harleys. Who wants such a heavy bike that when it falls over you can't get it back up especially if you are 65 years old. There is camaraderie amongst Harley riders though and they do have a lot of meets and that looks like fun. I just don't want 800 lbs. of anything (not including the passenger). 400 lbs. is my limit.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 5:18 PM, hbrogan57 wrote:

    @Rifleman3006 ....

    You're calling a 650cc bike a scooter? I bet your vagina is quite happy isn't it?

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 10:13 PM, randydevinney wrote:

    Honda has been number one for decades. That should be no surprise to anyone. They make good bikes, but selling the most of something doesn't make it the best. Otherwise Harbor Freight would be the best tools. Everyone who has ever owned a BMW knows it is the best.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 10:57 PM, HLRembe wrote:

    Motorcycles are merely toys here in America whereas in the rest of the world they are true transportation. As an avid motorcyclist I find myself often scoffing those that claim to be but will not ride when it is to hot, to cold, to sunny, to dark/cloudy, or god forbid raining (don't even think about snow) and the worst of these are HD enthusiasts. People in the some parts of the world will load whole families, the weeks groceries, and stop at the hardware store for lumber and plumbing supplies on bikes we consider to small to haul our FAT arses on.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 2:20 AM, faterikcartman wrote:

    I knew the answer before I read the hints. Frankly, I'm not sure how the author would think the answer would be difficult or a surprise. Maybe it would be to non-riders, but would someone who didn't ride a motorcycle be reading this story?

    Anyway, I've had my class M since 1985. I currently have two bikes. I wanted to try a cruiser, but I'm not big on conformity so I don't have a Harley. I went with a Victory instead.

    But my main bike is a BMW. And my next motorcycle will be a BMW as well. As far as production bikes go I think BMW makes the best in more than one category, in my opinion. If I were a kid with limited funds, I probably wouldn't say that though! If, on the other hand, you've got some experience and can afford it, I don't think you would be disappointed with a BMW.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 2:33 AM, AharonK wrote:

    ""Scooter" is simply a style of motorcycle, not something different than a motorcycle. There are 50cc motorcyles and 650cc scooters."

    What a pile! A motorcycle shifts gears, and you mount it. A scooter has an automatic transmission and you "sit" on it.

    What a quack! To think that sitting on a sofa and screaming the engine to reach the half the way to the next line, and need to start braking at half the way, because you cannot use the engine to help stopping the contraption... Sorry, scooters are for ladies and little girls.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 2:34 AM, AharonK wrote:

    *"reach half the way until the next traffic light"

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 2:54 AM, greenknight32 wrote:

    Honda was the obvious answer, how would anyone not know that? It's true I wouldn't guess the answer, because I don't need to guess.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 8:51 AM, sjemiii wrote:

    Harleys in Asia can cost $50,000+, and are real clunky on the miserable roads. Most Honda's start around around $1,000, are reliable, get over 100mpg, and can handle the roads and trails. I often see families of 4 and 5 (no helmets), riding a 110cc Honda. They are definitely the class motorcycle for most of Asia.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 10:56 AM, hdeglider wrote:

    Included in those numbers are small cc motorcycles and off road motorcycles that Harley does not offer. And as far a the claim that Harley is more expensive than it's foreign counterparts, they need to do a little research on comparable bikes. For example a Honda Goldwing is about the same price as a Harley Electraglide Limited.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 12:16 PM, ChMacQueen wrote:

    Easily knew it would be Honda. Its the top seller throughout Asia and has been for sometime.

    However most Motorcycle owners and countries were motorcycles are popular do NOT recognize scooters as motorcycles or the hybrid's between scooters and motorcycles. Hence why most of the laws say *Motor Bikes* or *Motorcycles and scooters*. If it doesn't have a clutch, its generally NOT seen as a motorcycle.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 4:42 PM, DBeard54 wrote:

    I can easily see why Honda is the best selling bike. I had a 1994 Goldwing a few years ago. It was the most dependable thing on rubber tires I ever owned. When I sold it, the odometer showed 98K miles and all I ever did to it was maintenance. Never had a repair bill.

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A Fool since 2010, and a graduate from UC San Diego with a B.A. in Economics, Sean specializes in the healthcare sector and in investment planning topics. You'll usually find him writing about Obamacare, marijuana, developing drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices, Social Security, taxes, or any number of other macroeconomic issues.

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