By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
It's hard to miss the giant billboard the Fort Hood Harley-Davidson recently erected over its store in Harker Heights, facing U.S. Highway 190 - especially with gas at $3.50 per gallon and climbing.
The sign reads "54 MPG, $7,995," with a big arrow pointing down at the motorcycle retailer. It's a feat of marketing simplicity that has already attracted new clientele to the store, sales associate Jim Goode said.
"We've had people come in and say, 'I was just filling up my truck with diesel, and I saw your sign,' and it's crazy."
A lot of people never realized motorcycles get that kind of mileage, said sales manager Butch Carter, who spends about $85 per month filling up his bike, versus $130 each week filling up his SUV.
While gas prices alone won't convert the average driver to biker, Carter said, it can be the spark that sends those with a pre-existing interest in motorcycles into his store.
Sales already are up slightly from this time last year, he said, and definitely were up in 2008, the last time gas prices were so high.
With gas season meeting the newly-sprung bike season, Carter said, he's braced once again for a sales spike.
According to information from the Motorcycle Industry Council, which collects sales figures from distributors and manufacturers, more than 1,087,000 motorcycles and scooters were sold nationwide in 2008. That was down 3.3 percent from 2007, but, compared to a reported 18.7 percent decline in car and truck sales that year, bikes fared well.
Fuel-efficient, dual-purpose motorcycles sales actually hit a quarter-century high.
That was especially true in greater Killeen, Carter said, where Fort Hood troop levels can affect the local economy more than national economic conditions.
It wasn't just H.O.G. members hitting the pavement. Harker Heights' Impact Kawasaki also saw sales soar three years ago, sales manager Eric Hermanson said.
"In 2008, when fuel went up, we probably had two times the business that year," he said. "We sold out of inventory."
Citing his own economic indicator, he said, "When the price of fuel went up, wives were bringing their husbands here and giving them their blessing."
Hermanson hasn't heard as much complaining about gas prices so far this season, he said. He expects $4 to be the new threshold that sends would-be riders "into a frenzy" - at least he hopes so.
"With what's going on in the Middle East right now, it's going to go up, going to get crazy," he said. "I think it'll be a great year for us. I'll pay a little more at the pump, but I'll get a whole lot more at the end."
As gas prices rise, many riders who already have bikes choose to ride them more.
Ret. Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Gray of Killeen has been riding motorcycles for about 20 years. He loves the feeling of freedom and the rush of adrenaline he gets from the open road, he said, but his bikes' fuel efficiencies have been happy by-products of that love for about a decade - particularly over the last few years.
There was a time when his Harley wouldn't take more than $8 worth of premium gasoline, he said. Now it takes about $13.
That's still a lot better than his sedan and truck, he said, and now that the weather's getting better, he'll consciously be riding his two motorcycles more and more.
"It's a lot of fun, and cheap on the gas," he said. "It's a lot of bang for your buck."
Fort Hood Harley-Davidson service manager Mike Kiger has noticed a 14 percent increase in service visits from customers over the last two years, he said, attributing the change to both new bikers and increased usage by longtime riders.
When serviced properly, bikes can last as long or longer than cars, he said.
Newer bikers interested in fuel efficiency tend to buy smaller, cheaper bikes, Kiger added.
Harley-Davidson employee and rider Carlie Currer can't wait for her children to get out of school, she said, so she can make the transition to two wheels.
Her large cruiser bike gets up to 40 miles per gallon, she said, far more than her "family wagon."
"Gas is definitely an issue," she said.
Contact Colleen Flaherty at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.