'The motorcycle business has changed'
Like many of his contemporaries, Mike Hopkins got into the motorcycle business to support a racing habit. Unlike most of them, however, he's still in the bike trade 33 years later, and showing no signs of slowing down as he settles into shiny new premises.
Hopkins bought his first motorcycle, a Honda XL250 dual-purpose machine, in 1972 at the age of 21. Three weeks later he entered it in a motocross race at Cape Town's Killarney circuit and, to quote the man himself, “I must have been doing something right - I came fifth in class!”
The bug had bit and by 1974 Hopkins was racing at National level; he won the 1976 South African 500cc Motocross title on a Suzuki RM370 he'd prepared himself and continued to compete on the National circuit until forced into retirement by a back injury in 1987.
In between he also notched up at total of seven Western Province Motocross and five WP Enduro championships.
In 1978 he opened Mike Hopkins Motorcycles at 133 Bree Street, which was built in 1790 as a private residence, selling first Husqvarna and later KTM off-roaders from distributor Butch Hirsch.
As a motorcycle shop the building was less than ideal; the showroom space was cramped and fragmented, the workshop was around the back in what had originally been a mews and, until the day Hopkins moved out after more than three decades, some of his regular customers didn't know that on the first floor, up a treacherously steep flight of stairs, there was an Aladdin's cave of off-road bikewear and accessories.
But the bikes that came out of the grubby little workshop were fast and reliable and in the late 1970s that was all that mattered - although Hopkins recalls ruefully the phone calls at 2am on raceday looking for vital parts for a bike that would be would be racing against him in less than12 hours!
“We did very little work on a Monday,” he said. “The guys would come in and we'd sit around re-running Saturday's races.”
In 1985 Hopkins went mainstream with a Kawasaki agency, selling both street and off-road bikes, but the motorcycle boom was slowing down and it was difficult to maintain momentum. In 1989 he expanded into bicycles, becoming the first in South Africa to specialise in mountain bikes - which he describes as motocross bikes without engines.
That eventually took on a life of its own and was sold off as the motorcycle trade picked up again in the early 1990s. Ten years later Hopkins took over the Triumph agency for Cape Town, which eventually became the catalyst for a move to new premises.
In 2009 Hopkins' business partner emigrated and, after more than a decade of working behind the scenes, Hopkins had to re-invent himself as a retailer.
It took him more than a year, he admits, to learn just how much the motorcycle business had changed.
Good service and fast bikes are no longer enough to satisfy customers who spend big money on a very expensive hobby; they expect to be welcomed by professional staff in upmarket showrooms.
The ongoing attempts by Triumph UK and the South African distributors to persuade him to create a world-class 'Triumph experience' began to make sense and a year later, on Monday, November 21, he opened officially in bright, airy new premises at 79, Roeland Street, with Triumph international sales manager Peter Huckin and Kawasaki SA head honcho Chris Speight in attendance.
The move had been a huge challenge, he said, but positive results had included a streamlined spare parts department, world class branding and displays for both Triumph and Kawasaki and a new, positive vibe among the staff which was getting through to the customers.
The one thing that would not change, he said, was that the bikes coming out of the new workshop would still be fast and reliable; that after all, was where he started.