Wheel of fortune returns for the motorbike

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SALES of motorcycles have increased by 21 per cent as congestion- bound car drivers swap the frustration of four wheels for the speed and glamour of two.

While sales of cars slipped by 6 per cent last month, motorcycle industry experts are expecting their best figures since 1980 - an estimated total of more than 110,000 for the year.

Industry insiders attribute the growth in sales to two factors: the return to two wheels of middle-aged "born-again bikers", and the advantages of avoiding traffic jams and spewing out motor-car levels of pollution.

Just five years ago, the industry was in the doldrums, with sales of only 46,000. However, while motorcycle companies celebrate the latest figures - 9,980 motorcycles and 1,425 mopeds sold last month - they will bear in mind that they have a long way to go before they achieve the sales levels of 1980, when 315,000 new motorcyclists mounted up.

Advertisers believe that motorcycles no longer conjure up images of greasy rockers. Instead, top-of-the-range models like Harley-Davidson or Ducati are targeted at ABC1 professionals with money to spend. In the 1980s they might have spent pounds 35,000 on a Porsche; in the 1990s they would rather spend pounds 10,000 on a race-standard superbike.

Scooters, too, once associated with mods and considered the poor relation of the motorbike, are enjoying a resurgence thanks to slick redesigns and improved engine technology.

"They have become extremely fashionable," said a spokesman for the UK importers of Piaggio Ltd, the world's biggest manufacturer of scooters. "Celebrities and `It' people are all over them - Oasis, Patsy Kensit, Simon le Bon. Then there's traffic pressure. There are thousands of frustrated drivers out there who just will not use public transport but some are prepared to use a scooter."

Jeff Turner, of Yamaha UK, said the industry is disappointed that the two-wheel solution to traffic congestion has not been promoted by the Government. Because of the recent upturn in sales, however, he said: "I hope the Government will at last acknowledge the contribution commuter motorcycles can make to green issues and congestion."

The growth in British sales are mirrored throughout Europe, where most markets showed a healthy rise last year. In Germany, by far Europe's largest market and globally second only to the US, sales leapt to almost 314,000.

Ironically, there is still a minor crisis in the British industry. While the official figures look healthy, there is another level of "parallel sales" which go unreported and unrecorded. These are bikes brought in by importers from Europe, where prices are - apparently inexplicably - much lower.

Precise figures are not available, but Kevin Neesam, owner of Britain's largest parallel importer, DK Motorcycles, believes parallel imports may now account for over one quarter of new sales for large-capacity sports machines.