The Chinese travel bikes are coming

Updated summer 2019

hdrEach year China pumps out millions of sub-250s and scooters for users who need no-frills runabouts or workhorses. So now does India, and it’s an open secret that many long-established motorcycle marques have been manufacturing in China for years, even if some high-end bikes get assembled closer to home. Chinese origin isn’t considered a great selling point, but it’s easy to turn a blind eye with a familiar logo on the tank.
It’s much less easy to persuade western consumers to buy a native Chinese brand, even if that machine may well have been cast in the same foundry as the marques we know and trust. To get round this some importers invent ‘Anglo’ sounding brands like Mutt, WK or Mash. Instead Chnese manufactueres have invested in the rights to old European marques like SWM, Fantic, Benelli (Keeway or Qianjiang) or Francis Barnett which older bikers will recognise and accept even if it’s all just a badge over a Chinese build with some European design input.loncin
chinmotoResearching this, I’ve come across several tales of early adopters getting burned by crumby assembly, irregular running or poor materials. To that you can add the suspicion when the engine shows some obscure Chinese marque but the tank shows something else.
I suspect some western consumers are also put off by China’s ruthless manufacturing ethos that doesn’t see merry bands of workers attending communal keep-fit sessions in the company car park each morning, let alone provide the sort of workers’ rights or environmental concerns we take for granted in the West. This is mainly why the established bike marques play down any Chinese connection, even if what holds most of us back from buying all-Chinese is unknown reputation and crippling depreciation, rather than a prickly social conscience.

... Some of the more famous examples [of joining forces with more famous foreign manufacturers incude…] Loncin (BMW), Zongshen (Piaggio and Norton), Qinqi (Suzuki and Peugeot), Jianshe (Yamaha), Lifan (MV Agusta), Qianjiang (owners of Benelli), Jialing (Honda), and CFMoto (KTM).   David McMullan

chongqingAs far back as the early 1980s Honda established partnerships with the Chinese Jialing factory and within a decade Yamaha and Suzuki made similar arrangements. By 2011 China overtook Japan as the world’s largest bike manufacture, with many factories based in Chongqing (left).

Around 2006 Chongqing was renowned as the white-hot epicentre of China’s urban industrial gold rush, but according to this recent article that gold rush waned. The recession, adverse currency rates and the strength of other markets like India (where English is more commony spoken) have seen China’s motorcycle production slow or even reverse.

Back in 2006 there was over 100 motorcycle companies operating production lines in Chongqing alone, a good proportion of them ‘one line’ export factories that provided super-cheap models for the African and domestic markets. Unlike India in which the Hero Group and Bajaj share a huge proportion of the market the Chinese market was shared by a multitude of smaller companies. The number of Chongqing motorcycle factories still operating is now less than 40 relevant companies and is likely to reduce even further over the coming years.   David McMullan

adventures-1977-20Take this all back half a century and you can imagine our bike-riding forebears grappling with the same ‘Made in Hong Kong’ suspicion as Japanese bikes began to make their mark. Even when I started biking in the late 1970s you planted your boots in either the ‘Brit Shit’ or the ‘Jap Crap’ camp.

Broadly speaking, the Chinese have adopted the same strategy as Japan: start by banging out cheap small-displacement utilitarian machines, then move in on the smaller volume, bigger-engined bikes with motopig1a higher mark up, while getting into racing to speed up the R&D. Just like the Japanese in the 60s, the Chinese are on the march as they attempt to tune in to what affluent western buyers might consider, now that the load-carrying-runabout markets are saturated.


shine

Established in the late 90s, Shineray (as in ‘Shine-Ray not ‘Shiner-ay’ if the company motto above is any guide) are one of the smaller Chinese marques said to specialise in trail and off-road machines. In 2014 they notably bought the Italian SWM name, last heard of superdualin the 1970s. Around the same time Shineray also acquired an old factory with a batch of Husky models off KTM. That SWM Superdual on the left uses the old 600-cc Husky TE630 derived engine, but in the flesh was not so inspiring. Shineray/SWM have since diversified into SUVs.

franbanJudging by what I saw at a Classic Bike show, the even older Francis Barnett marque (right) has had a similar makeover. Buy the rights to a heritage brand then design a suitably old-school look around your Chinese- or Indian-made machine. For an anonymous Chinese factory which nevertheless annually pumps out more bikes than are sold in the UK each year, it’s a quick way of getting wary western consumers to buy your product, whether they know it or not.

mashlogoshine400In a similar vein established French motorcycle importer SIMA created the Mash Motorcycles brand. They’ve taken a proven Shineray XY400 (left) and refined it. It’s an appealing Brit-based retro look that some twenty years ago became popularGB250TT in fad-prone Japan, if not in Britain itself. That early 90s GB250TT on the right was one of many similar machines made for the Japanese market and which are now cropping up as pricey and exotic UK imports.

sinnis250The breifly sold 250 Retrostar from Sinnis (left) bore a very close resemblance to the Mash 400 retros, but as far as I can tell, Sinnis (a UK brand name behind Qingqi) and Shineray aren’t the same company, and now in the UK Sinnis only sell 125s in various styles. The fact is you can spend a long time trying to untangle these Chinese whispers. But with Chinese bikes origin is important. Is it a Jap clone, licensed or otherwise, a copy, or a cheaply made fake.

mash-06I’d heard of the Mash retros and at a Classic Bike show got the chance to see some close up. Chinese 250s are two a penny, but with a more overlandable capacity of 400cc, could a Mash retro be a contender as a base bike? I’ll admit that part of me is attracted to the idea of regressing towards a retro-styled machine: the appeal – however flawed – of a simple and inexpensive low-key, leg-over overlander that you can adapt to your needs. My 2019 Himalayan fitted that category. A close look before the crowds rolled in revealed a quality of finish that was hard to separate from a similar Japanese bike. A few days later I took one for a test ride.

shin400Many assume the motor is an XR400 clone, but it’s actually derived from the 400cc version of the similar, late-eighties XBR500kick-and-electric XBR 500 cafe retro (right), also sold in Japan as the ‘Manxified’ GB500.

I was deliberating over a back-to-basics zongRX3400 overlander when it transpired that manufacturers in China might to the job for me, producing adventure-styled bikes mimicking BMW’s F800GS but with full equipment. One such machine is the Zongshen RX3 Cyclone sold under various badges in the UK, the US (5000-mile report) and Russian-speaking lands, but that’s just another 250. What’s wanted is a 400’s added torque so you don’t have the scream the motor when overtaking a lorry up a hill.
wk400Shineray’s Kougar 400R (left) cropped up on the WK Bikes stand at 2014’s NEC show: a light but well-equipped medium capacity single which connected with riders like me..
WK‘ is the UK brand of the Chinese CFMoto marque – one of the bigger players in the bike game which is sold simply as ‘CFMoto’ in other western markets. They were unusual in being one of the few Chinese bike makers to produce a ‘big’ 650 road bike which, bodywork aside, looks based on a Kawasaki ER-6/Versys. but that bike no longer features on WK’s website; a 400cc version seems to have replaced it.

WKTrail400Frim 2015 there was an over-priced WK Trail 400 (above left and right) but within a year it was going for under £3000 and is now no longer listed. Comparing specs with the Mash 400 Adventure far below (and still sold in Europe), it does seem to have been the same bike, except the luggage and crash bars were optional. Read how UK owners are getting on.

mashadv1In 2014 French Moto Mash announced their 400 Adventure (left, quick road test),  which was near identical to the also defunct WK Trail 400 above. At 400cc you’d hope either of these bikes could potentially plug the gap between the heavier and pricier twins and an over-extended 250. Right now that category is only really served by the Himalayan.
The conclusion I came to reading short tests of the WK400 in BikeOverland Magazine and Rust is that they don’t plug that gap. The bigger capacity doesn’t add up to any greater performance over a similarly priced Jap 250 trail bike in terms of top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption and price, while brakes and lights are said to be poor. Royal Enfield’s Himalayan makes similar compromises but actually works very well.
mash-16The retro-styled Mash Roadstar (left; still available in a variety of styles) is the closest thing they have in the UK. But as the 400-cc engine is the same as the 400 Adventure (and the WK Trail), I figured a test ride might reveal the potential. More on that here.

The SWM 440s in the UK
MCN test here

Shineray also bought former Italian off-road marque SWM in 2014, a way of slipping into the European market which otherwise wouldn’t look twice at a ‘Shineray’ or even a Mash/WK badged machine.

4-swmSWM now sell cool-looking 440cc retros shown above, all based on a different engine to the XY400 used by Mash/WK. It’s described as a 435cc; 12.9:1 compression; 6-speed with a SOHC wet sump, air-cooling and no kick. It seems unlikely that SWM will come out with an 440 adventure model as that clearly didn’t work for Mash or WK. At this capacity there’s much more demand for retro-styled bikes for new riders.swm-silver
On the left, the retro-styled SWM Silver Vase 440. Conceived at the end of BMWs involvement with Husky, some of its iterantions husqvarna-bajafaintl recall the Husky 650-based Baja (right) concept bike that was seen a year or two earlier. By 2019 the 440s were being heavily discounted in the UK.

Fantic Motor ifantic-chopper-004s another reborn Italian brand whose sports mopeds and embarrassing 125cc chopper (right) I recall from the 1970s. Things are looking up; they now have the Caballero 500 in Scrambler, Rally and Flat Tracker with the 450 water-cooled Zongshen motor claiming 43hp.

fantic-caballero-500-scrambler-1The Zongshen RX4 Cyclone is sold in the US under the CSC brand. It sits alongside their established RX3 250 Cyclone which was heavy at 195kg, same as my CB500X. The 450cc RX4 is said to be heavier at 210kg, but maybe that depends whether you take the full luggage option. Here’s a road test.
ZRX4-2019-2The 6-speed, injected motor puts out a claimed 40hp with a 95mph top speed. Tank is said to be 20 litres (5.3 USg), the alternator puts out 300w, seat is 32 inches (813mm) and price in th US is $5395, £1300 less than a less well equipped DR650S.
Among other branding round the world, in France Cyclone Moto sells the Zongshen RX3S twin cylinder of around 380-400cc (below). Power, weight and styling seem to be the same as the 450 single, price is €5000.

RX3S

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18 Responses to The Chinese travel bikes are coming

  1. Pingback: Chinese adventure motorbikes – treehouserick, misadventurer extraordinaire

  2. alex says:

    I looking for a replacement engine for my XR 200 RFVC 1985. I do not want to do conversions on exhaust carburators and I want to be complete with electrics and cables for road legal use, witch mean I need to have lights too. CC from 150 to 450 will be ok, I prefer around 250 cc. If someone know something will be nice, if many know something will be very nice.

  3. crazyjin says:

    It looks like you western people know china motorcycle market more than chinese.

    I have no business with china motorcycle industry. I just like motorcycle like many chinese young people who like to ride to a quiet place far away from crowded cities. But when we look for the right motorcycle, there is not much room for choice. Bikes made in china is generally considered unreliable, but very cheap. Bike imported from Japan and Europe are expensive. But the most important thing is they are just too high and heavy. You can not image you have to pick up a 200kg bike on the most famous road to Lhasa. On that road, Country Road 318, many places is 4000m high above sea and even some places are 5000 above the sea. We need more light, low and reliable bikes.

    Actually, as we getting richer and richer, many people can afford a bike imported from Japan and Europe. But the tax is too high for common people and some model can not be imported for some reason. So, it is not a market where Japan and Europe Manufacturers can be easy to make money.

  4. GD says:

    Thanks for a well informative article on a subject that is not explored much.
    I live in Ethiopia and not much of a choice exists when it comes to two wheelers, except for the Indian bikes, which I agree are well tested and reliable. We have one dealer that sells ‘shineray xy400’, which looks exactly likethe ‘Mash’ bikes in Europe. Just wondering what u think about that bike for daily commuting and rare off road riding?

    • Chris S says:

      Well, depending what it costs new and how long you expect to use it, you might take a chance. I imagine Ethiopia is hard on bikes and the durability may not be up to Jap standards.
      Have a wade through the 400+ replies on this post for the WK400 and see what they say. Same bike afaik, discontinued in the UK after only a year or two (it was way overpriced, originally). Good luck and let us know how it runs.

  5. Paul says:

    Fantastic write up ! this is a topic that thats thrown around in serious dual sport / Enduro trail riding topics ” what makes the perfect dual sport motorcycle for the serious off road riding with as little hard top as possible ” leave that to the BIG GS owners with all the gear and no idea !
    looks ALMOST like the perfect bike , not to heavy, comfortable, simple air cooled motor, 18/21 wheels , fuel injection – even though thats debatable for river crossing, there’s one thing missing on this bike a 6th gear ! DRZ has same issue if it had a 6th gear ( if proven reliable enough ) would be perfect .

  6. Hi i must say shineray is the best chinese bike av riden i have a 200cc enduro shineray gy i know many guys who ride and have positive feedback, the thing is shneray stopped supplying parts and has sadly closed shops in kenya due to that new company yatian is taking over slowly ,,, if they culd do smthn about that it wud make a reljef for shineray rider

  7. Blair says:

    As someone who has owned KTM 950 Adv, Suzi DR 650, BMW R80GS Basic for adventure riding here in NZ I (along with many others) am still waiting for someone to bring out a mid capacity twin with a realistic weight and power able to be ridden two up. Say no more than 160-170kg with not less than 60HP. Singles are great (light and with adequate power) but they get pretty tiring on a long ride especially on the seal. I have heard rumours from the local KTM agent that KTM are toying with the idea of building such a bike but it is not coming any time soon. These 1200cc ‘Adventure’ bikes are great tourers but unless you are Chris Birch they don’t make Adventure bikes.
    If someone made one cheap enough it would be worth buying and ditching the suspension, wheels and brakes and upgrading the lot.
    Meanwhile Adventure bikeless for now I think about buying another DR650; cheap enough, reliable as hell and enough farkles out there to keep anyone happy BUT no room for the missus.

    • Chris S says:

      I always liked the GS Basic: low seat/weight, adequate power, good springs and basic in the right way. I’m with you on the max the weight of a mid-sized twin but I’d happily settle for <50hp (like the CB500X RR I ran) if it meant up to 90 mpg. Better economy = less carried weight and bulk. I’m dithering over buying a new travel bike that is not really what i want but will be great on the dirt and a compromise in getting there – all for want of a 450 single in the CRF-l/KLX-S mould, or a light 500 twin. Of the later I hear of the KTM too, as well as a Triumph. Bring ’em on.

  8. what about the Husky TE 630? I have ridden mine for 4 years and love it even if loaded down for a 2 week mostly off road trip it tops out at 70mph on the hwy when linking to dirt. give husky a try.

    • Chris S says:

      Yes I look for them occasionally but very rare here in the UK and unknown as a travel bike. More common in US and Au, I think.
      Expedition Portal did a nice job on one and which was for sale by the guy who bought it off them while I was in the area a few months later.
      As you may know SWM are re-using the motor in their Super Dual due some time soon. Looks heavy in all that clobber but will be interesting to see how that turns out.
      SWM Super Dual

  9. panttiroiko says:

    If you want to add something else in the mix, here’s an interesting example from Belarus…

    http://www.minsk-moto.com/en/

    Not Chinese, but fits the bill of a lightweight enduro/adventure bike with a low price. Too bad they only seem to have dealers in Belarus and Vietnam.

  10. Chris S says:

    Hi Kevin, glad you enjoyed the article. Well if you think the WK400 is too pricey at £4k then you won’t be buying the Mash Roadstar I just wrote up for the same price! Now that is an overpriced machine and I suppose Mash’s take on the 400 Adventure will cost quite a lot more when or if it gets here. I mention your comparison with a used CB500X for the same money or less. I don’t know about 15hp – just another 5 would bring it up to what an XR400 had which would do me while keeping it low stressed. As it is, I found the Roadstar no more powerful than the XR250 Tornado I’ve ridden in Morocco and I have my doubts it even makes 26hp unless it needs a lot more loosening up (which is possible). And unless my rosy specs need a wipe, I’m sure my ’78 SP370 had more grunt than the Mash 400. Online specs (the non-rosy type) confirm what you say about the weight and power of the XBR (on which the Mash and WK motors are based). Had a quick scan on ebay but converting that to an adv tourer is too big a job.

  11. 24moskito says:

    Nice article, thx for sharing your thoughts, BUT… this bikes I see at Chinese Bikes dealers are for sure good looking and CHEAP but often there are parts that rust already while they are still in the dealers shop. I mean, It make no sense buying a ride with a good engine but shit steel….

    On the other hand the prices really are a PRO for Chinese bikes… A 250cc offroader, looking a bit like Hondas CRF-L is available for less than 50% of the CRFs price. A friend bought a 125cc TIGER about 6 years ago, ok, there is some rust and the colour is gone on some parts but it was cheap and he never experienced any problems with the engine, the little bike never refused to ride on….

    I am currently looking for another CRF-L for a bit offroad travelling in Asia, my wife dont like my big bikes and feel safer on a small one :)
    Since another friend of mine bought this 250cc ride… TORNADO was the name I think, I will talk with him today, he has it 6 month already… btw, the price is just funny… 760.- USD per piece :)

  12. Great to see an objective and well-informed write-up of the current state of play involving Chinese bikes. Yes, early examples to arrive on these shores were ill-made and unreliable. The guy with whom I ran a training school made the mistake of buying a pair of 50cc twist-n-goes back in about 2004 – they lasted two weeks before he realised just what a big goof that was and replaced them with Piaggios which actually started on the button and didn’t have the brake shoes delaminate when you applied the front brake. But they are improving fast. In WK at least, the factory seems to have an importer who believes in the brand and isn’t simply attempting to unload crates at the dockside and do a runner before anyone can mention the ugly word warranty.

    I also think you are spot-on that the Chinese have spotted a gap in the market for middleweights that only Honda seem to have noticed and attempted to plug with their CB500-based trio. The only thing that bothers me slightly is that the WK400 trail bike is around £500 too expensive at £4000. Is that sufficient margin to pull in buyers, when the CB500X can be had for just over £1000 more.

    I’m also concerned that it needs another 15hp. The CB500s are on the 46.6hp limit for the intermediate licence and whilst I like the idea of an unstressed single – I can remember bikes like the SP370 and GN400 – 27hp wasn’t really enough back in the 80s and I don’t think it’s enough now. The (claimed) 44hp from my XBR500 made it almost the perfect all-rounder as a road bike and it wasn’t much heavier than my CB250RSs either.

    Good stuff! Keep it up!

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