BRP’s big bet: selling boomer bikers a three-wheeled motorcycle

The Ski-Doo maker’s weird-looking hog is aimed at a demographic looking to put the “easy” in easy rider

Older woman riding a BRP Spyder F3

Whichever motorcycle you covet but fear riding, BRP offers a safer, more stable, three wheeled version. (Portrait by Nikki Ormerod)

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”

—Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Motorcycle convoys are the coolest shows on the road, especially for the 95% of us who do not own a motorcycle. Every caravan is a rumbling parade of Easy Rider Americana: the bikes, the boots, the leather, the tattoos, the helmets and the hair beneath them—sideburns, mullets, flowing locks. All these things are merely outward signs of a coveted inner state, that rugged and unattainable Zen of speed, danger, rebellion and total independence. Biker convoys are freedom’s motorcade. As for the rest of us, well, hogs don’t really fit our risk profile and, anyway, we have somewhere to be.

But make way for Raylene Smith. The 48-year-old native of Sacramento, California, a mother of two with a business degree and a 20-plus-year career in the health-care field, recently found a way into the biker life. Two years ago, she and her partner went shopping for a motorcycle but came back with a Can-Am Spyder, the muscled-up motor-trike invented by BRP Inc., based in Valcourt, Que. Smith had planned to remain a passenger, but she fell in love with the three-wheeler in a way she didn’t expect. The Spyder felt safer than a standard motorcycle—safe enough to drive. “I was really excited to ride on my own,” she says. “I knew I wouldn’t be happy in the passenger seat.” Three weeks later, the couple went out and bought a second Spyder. Smith kept the first.

Today she is an officer of the Sacramento Spyder Ryders, one of dozens of such clubs that have sprung up across North America in recent years. She’s also the founder and president of the Lady Spyder Ryders of America, organizing and leading daylong rides for women bikers. Jaws routinely drop at the sight of her convoys. “The attention we draw at rest stops is unbelievable,” she says.

Suffice it to say that the Can-Am Spyder is both a head-turner and a head-scratcher: With two wheels in front and one in back, it’s a front-loaded open-air vehicle that looks an awful lot like a snowmobile on wheels. Perhaps that’s no surprise: BRP is, after all, the maker of the Ski-Doo. The Spyder is the company’s attempt to break into the global motorcycle market. The unconventional roadster has also been described as the love child of a Ducati Diavel and a Mazda Miata, but whatever it is, it’s Smith’s baby now. She has quickly become known as the Spyder Queen and draws so much attention on rides, she has perfected her own “Queen wave” for the adoring masses. The Lady Spyder Ryders of America has about 60 members, but that’s likely to increase. The group is an outgrowth of the Girls on Spyders Facebook page, a discussion forum with 2,000 members. Most of Smith’s members are in their 60s—but she says there’s a growing cohort of younger women in their 40s and 50s as well. Starting next summer, Smith hopes to lead an annual Spyder ride for women to a central U.S. destination. “We ladies don’t want to just talk about our Spyders,” she says. “We want to ride.”

BRP also wants the ladies to ride—and anyone else who has ever secretly harboured a dream to hit the open road. The annual global motorcycle market has been valued at roughly $70 billion. The company’s plan, in a nutshell, is to grab a piece of it and ride the Spyder to future growth.

When Bombardier Inc. spun off its recreational products division in 2003, the rationale was to separate the industrial conglomerate’s consumer-driven powersports products—Ski-Doos, Sea-Doos and ATVs, as well as Rotax and Evinrude engines—from its larger-scale, institutionally driven manufacturing in aerospace and public transportation (planes and trains). It has proven to be a smart move. Unlike its parent company, which can’t seem to get planes finished, let alone sold, BRP—Bombardier Recreational Products—has been on a hot streak of late. Its total revenues have increased more than 65% in five years, from $2.1 billion in 2011 to $3.5 billion in 2015. The company went public in 2013, and its IPO was one of that year’s best: BRP stock, which happens to sport the ticker’s coolest symbol (TSX: DOO), launched in May 2013 at $21.50 per share and rose 40% in the next 12 months to $29.97. Recent setbacks—most notably the collapse of the ruble at a time when Russia represented a prime growth market for snowmobiles—dragged the stock back to within a dollar of its IPO price this past February. But the firm still ended its 2015 fiscal year on an upswing, with revenues up by 10%, earnings up 17% to $70.2 million and the stock price back up in the $25 range.

Meanwhile, BRP’s financials also show an emerging and, for the company, potentially seismic shift in its revenues. While sales of its familiar seasonal products—Ski-Doos and Sea-Doos—have continued to grow, sales of its lesser-known year-round products—ATVs and, more recently, Spyders—have been surging more quickly. Last year, in a first for the company, BRP reported that revenues from year-round products had actually outstripped those from seasonal ones. That was true again in its 2015 report: year-round products generated $1.31 billion in revenues, compared with $1.29 billion from seasonal. The trend isn’t likely to abate anytime soon, and the Spyder, whose annual sales have surpassed the $300 million mark, is a big reason.

For a company that has long excelled at making off-road vehicles, the path to future growth will have to be paved. “The snowmobile market in the United States is shrinking,” explains BRP CEO José Boisjoli matter of factly. Thanks to global warming, less and less of North America experiences white Christmases, to say nothing of white Januaries or white March breaks. That leaves BRP looking at not only declining sales but also a brand footprint that’s receding northward. The truth is that even if the outlook for the snowmobile market were healthy, it would still be dwarfed by motorcycles. In 2014, consumers purchased 157,000 new snowmobiles worldwide, and half a million new motorcycles in the United States alone.

Hence the Spyder, a product line BRP is eager to grow. “The Spyder is the ideal vehicle for newcomers to motorcycles,” says Boisjoli. The term “newcomers” is code for a couple of demographic subsets, one being women, the other aging boomers—people with time on their hands, replacement hips and money to spend. By 2017, nearly half of the U.S. population will be at least 50 and, according to Nielsen Research, will control 70% of the nation’s disposable income. For decades, this cohort was fed a steady pop-culture diet revved up on motorcycles: They tripped out to Easy Rider, thrilled to the daredevil exploits of Evel Knievel and read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Now they want to buy one of their own.

And they’re willing to pay. The base model Spyder costs a minimum of $15,000 before tax, an amount that could buy two motorcycles. But Boisjoli says the typical Spyder buyer is willing to pay a premium for peace of mind. “It’s a safer vehicle than a traditional motorcycle,” Boisjoli says. “It requires no balance. It’s bigger and more visible on the road.” It also incorporates all the safety features of a car, including anti-lock brakes and a vehicle stability system.

Unfortunately, it also quite literally catches fire. In one Youtube video, a Spyder went up in a ball of flame at the annual Thunder in the Valley motorcycle rally in Johns­town, Pa. Problems with one of the 2013 models led BRP, in February of this year, to issue recall notices for 5,165 units due to excessive heat and a potential fire hazard when rolling at low speeds in high heat. By April BRP was still working on a viable solution to the problem; once they have it figured out they’ll recall the units for repair. The Spyder already has a fairly lengthy recall rap sheet due to fire concerns, though the numbers are getting smaller: The company recalled 8,200 units in 2013 and more than 34,000 in 2012.

“Every time that happens, it’s a chink in BRP’s armour,” says Mike Brunken of Gart Sutton & Associates, a consulting firm that assists powersports dealerships. Brunken also notes that even when the vehicle works well, it costs a lot to maintain. An oil change can run $170, and the second scheduled service is as much as $600. Boisjoli remains undaunted.

The recalls have yet to hamper the company’s bottom line, and this is the summer BRP goes all in to become a major player in the global motorcycle market. The new Spyder F3, showcased at this year’s North American motorcycle shows, is the company’s cruiser model, with upright seating that allows your legs to stretch forward—the kind of ride associated with iconic brands like Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle. Cruisers represent the majority of motorcycles sold in the world. Harley-Davidson, another company with a great stock symbol (NYSE: HOG), had revenues of $6 billion last year, mostly from selling close to 270,000 cruisers. The F3 is BRP’s attempt to eat Harley’s lunch.

If the plan succeeds, it will usher in two remarkable revolutions. First, one of Canada’s most storied firms—the inventor of the snowmobile—will transform itself into a motorcycle company. Second, as women and seniors flock to the open road on Spyders, BRP will rewrite the mythology of the motorcycle. The future of biker culture will be less Hells Angels, more Golden Girls.

When BRP brought the Spyder to market in 2008, its arrival was heralded by practically no one. The powersports world had not been clamouring for someone to invent a three-wheeled motorcycle. Mind you, no one was demanding snowmobiles either; the company’s founder, Joseph-Armand Bombardier, invented both the machine and its market in 1937. The Spyder, however, is not the brainchild of a visionary iconoclast, but the product of contemporary corporate planning.

In the spring of 1996, Denys Lapointe, then Bombardier’s head designer—he’d led the late-1980s revamp of the Sea-Doo that turned it into a cottage essential—gathered 20 of Bombardier’s top designers in Palm Bay, Fla., for that hoariest, most blasé of corporate rituals: the annual three-day retreat. This year, however, Lapointe had a very specific challenge in mind, because Bombardier was in an unusual position as a powersports manufacturer. Thanks to its 1970 purchase of the Austrian engine maker Rotax, Bombardier made the engines used in many of its off-road products. But Rotax engines also powered other manufacturers’ vehicles, including BMW motorcycles. Ergo, Bombardier manufactured road-worthy engines, yet its vehicles travelled on every surface except pavement. Says Lapointe: “We needed a product that would get us on the road.”

Bombardier had considered building a two-wheeled motorcycle of its own, but concluded that it would be too difficult for a newcomer to compete against such iconic brands as Harley or major multinationals like Honda. The only way into the market would be to offer consumers something new. Lapointe presented his designers with a pared-down definition of “motorcycle” upon which they could build: It had to have fewer than four wheels and feature straddle seating for the driver. Then he broke the group into six teams and set them to work.

The results included lots of cockamamie schemes. But every group also arrived at some version of the same thing, which was a craft with two wheels in the front and one in the rear.” It was a reversal of the more familiar souped-up, three-wheeled motorbike with two rear wheels (sold as conversion kits for Hondas and Harleys by a number of aftermarket manufacturers). The key advantage of their design, they believed, would be stability. It would not require the driver to balance atop it or counter­balance through turns. In theory, it should also brake more effectively; the act of braking transfers weight to the front of the vehicle, so it seemed logical to front-load the craft.

Lapointe then set about validating the idea. After building and test-driving a couple of prototypes, he sent a polling team to the Montreal motorcycle show, to seek out people who didn’t own motorcycles and ask them why. “Most people said they were intimidated by the product—they were scared of it,” he says. That’s when BRP came to believe the invention could find a niche within the market. Like a kids’ trike, the Spyder would be an entry-level vehicle.

The program was initially christened with the top-secret code name R3R, short for the patois-heavy phrase roadster trois roues (“roadster three wheels”). Everyone hated the name. One day some other members of Lapointe’s team were in his office, admiring his collection of miniature die-cast sports convertibles. The models were lined up on the window sill: a Porsche Spyder, a Fiat Spider, a Ferrari Spider. Since theirs was an open-air vehicle too, they renamed the project Spyder.

It took 12 years for the Spyder to go from first concept to market launch. “When you are creating a new product, the market for it doesn’t exist yet,” says Lapointe. “So the one luxury you’ve got is time.”

“The Spyder F3 is not a motorcycle, and we’re not going to pretend otherwise,” reads Peter Jones’ review of the Spyder F3 in Cycle World, a powersports trade publication. This is a common opinion among motorcycle purists, who dislike the Spyder for a litany of reasons: It’s too bulky, it looks weird, and it requires neither balance nor strength to ride. But Jones also gave it a glowing review: “The Spyder F3 is fun. There, I said it. And I’m not going to apologize. But that doesn’t mean it’s a motorcycle.”

The haters can hate all they want. The company’s strategy has always been to create a three-wheeled parallel universe to the existing market for two-wheelers. Whichever motorcycle you covet but fear, BRP offers a safer, more stable, less challenging three-wheeled version to allay your anxiety. The product line began in 2008 with a sport model, the RS, the three-wheeled equivalent of a Yamaha R1. Two years later came the RT, a sort of Honda Goldwing trike, designed with comfort and storage for long rides. It was followed in 2013 by the ST sport-touring hybrid.

In terms of the ride itself, Spyder enthusiasts agree that the three-wheeler simply takes less out of them, leaving them freer to enjoy the open road. “We can ride for hours on end and not get tired,” says Smith of her Lady Ryders. “Women who are four-foot-11 are able to touch the ground when the bike is stopped, and they don’t have to worry about keeping it upright.” There are also lots of former motorcyclists who have had to give up riding due to everything from a bad back to hip surgery, but have rediscovered their mojo on the Spyder.

Still, the Spyder’s market successes to date are modest at best. It’s cruisers that represent the big time: Boisjoli says they account for 63% of all motorcycle sales, which is why the new F3 model is such a crucial one for the company. BRP is also counting on the F3 to help expand its thin dealer network. Powersports dealerships are largely independent mom-and-pop businesses selling multiple models from a variety of manufacturers. Boisjoli admits he needs to get more of those retailers selling Spyders—especially ones in cities. “Our dealers tend to be located in rural and cottage areas, where Ski-Doos and Sea-Doos get used,” he admits. By venturing into the market’s biggest sales category with the F3, BRP should be able to recruit more urban vendors.

Meanwhile, reports from the existing dealer network have been glowing. A 2014 survey conducted by Powersports Business magazine and RBC Capital Markets indicates retailers that sell BRP vehicles are outperforming their competitors: 32% of BRP dealers reported an increase in motorcycle sales of at least 20% in the fourth quarter of last year (compared with 13% for dealers overall), and 42% of BRP dealers expect another 20% jump in sales for 2015. Even Brunken, the retail consultant, says that, all issues aside, “dealers love having variety on the showroom floor. The Spyder brings in an entirely new customer, someone who wouldn’t otherwise come into the store.”

Perhaps the best thing BRP has going for it is the Spyder’s uniqueness. Seven years after its launch, most major motorcycle manufacturers haven’t bothered to produce a three-wheeler of their own. This is surely thanks to BRP’s rollout strategy: It ventured into the smallest market segments first, so competitors didn’t see the value in developing a competing product. The only firm that has responded is Harley-Davidson, which now makes two trikes. But both have two wheels in the back and one in the front, which, from Boisjoli’s perspective, makes them entirely different products. He feels like he’s got a head start on the competition, and no one has moved to close the gap. “The question keeps coming, ‘When will others copy you?’” he says. “I am not the one to answer that. For now, I am happy to be alone in the marketplace.”