Three4Three: Where’s HD going?

We picked this up from the news feeds recently. It’s an excellent interview with Harley-Davidson’s Anoop Prakash on attracting the next generation of riders to the brand.

If you don’t know the back story,Harley-Davidson motorcycles had been imported into Canada for the past 42 years via a third-party company called Deeley Harley-Davidson. That all changed this year when Harley opted to not renew the agreement with Deeley and take on the Canadian market directly.

They appointed Anoop Prakash to head the new subsidiary, who came to the company in 2009  to establish the brand in India. Having done just that, Prakash’s new challenge is to attract the next generation of riders to the brand and to bolster the company’s presence in Canada, where sales are down nearly 4% year-over-year, despite the company’s introduction of the more entry level Street 500 and 750.

We thought that this would be a good topic to put to the CMG panel of three, which this time includes Insider Michael Uhlarik, News Editor Zac Kurylyk and CMG Test Rider & Harley aficionado Costa Mouzouris. Here are their thoughts on the subject:


Question : Harley Davidson is a landmark brand for North Americans, seen by the general public as the giant in the room of motorcycling.  The reality is that in terms of number of bikes sold around the world it is tiny compared to Japanese and Asian brands.  With new entry-level bikes like the Street 500 and 750, and the recent successful expansion into India and China, can Harley keep its image as the ultimate go-to motorcycle brand for Canadians and Americans?

Screen capture from Harley-Davidson's China website
Screen capture from Harley-Davidson’s China website

CM: Harley sales are tiny in comparison to small-displacement Asian bikes sold abroad, but the company is still at, or near, the top of the rostrum when it comes to large-displacement motorcycles. There will always be the haters, and there’s absolutely nothing the company can produce to swing them. So it’s no surprise that the iconic American motorcycle has found its way to China and India, where it has the biggest potential to grow.

I don’t think the entry-level thing will work for Harley here in North America, though. People here want a Harley, which for most is either a Big Twin or a Sportster, even those who are unfamiliar with the brand, but are aware of its stature (read new riders in the right age range). Anytime Harley swayed from its traditional formula, sales just never took off—just look at the V-Rod.

ZK: I agree 100 per cent. Harley-Davidson has had to introduce “premium” versions (like the Seventy Two) of even its Sportster to retain public interest here, which is too bad. For some reason, the MoCo faithful are only really interested in big displacement. So yeah, I think they’ll lose some market share — they already are — but they will continue to be a top-tier brand.

MU: I think Harley will keep that image because North Americans largely have no idea what the motorcycle universe is like in the rest of the world. Harley could sell rebranded mopeds from Vietnam and it would make no difference to the brand’s base over here. Remember how all the pundits said that the liquid cooling and Porsche designed motor of the V-Rod would erode the Harley image? Well it didn’t. Same goes with the Street.

Question : With the recent introduction of affordable motorcycles from many exotic European heritage brands (think Ducati Scrambler, BMW 350, Benelli Leoncino and TRK502, etc.), added to already successful retro street bikes such as the Enfield Continental GT and Triumph Bonneville, can the Harley Street family compete in this increasingly crowded, price sensitive marketplace?

Love it or hate it, the Scrambler by Ducati is now the reference point for upmarket, entry level, motorcycle branding
Love it or hate it, the Scrambler by Ducati is now the reference point for upmarket, entry level, motorcycle branding

MU: I don’t think the Street will be strong against the Scrambler and retro Triumphs because they are superior in quality (fancy castings, brakes, forks, etc) and the marketing of them has been so strong in the under 30 segment. The Street is too vanilla looking in stock form. Not American enough. If they allowed for more of a statement, perhaps going after the uniquely American themes of dirt track or even (gasp) a chopper look, it might get more traction.

ZK: I could be reading the market wrong, but the trend I see is younger buyers wanting affordable, maneuverable bikes with classic styling. Unless someone is dead set on owning a Harley-Davidson, the competition probably has better options. And, if you really want a Harley, are you going to settle for a Street? A Sportster isn’t that much more expensive, and has a lot more history behind it.

But don’t forget: the Harley dealer network is strong, and they have a lot of marketing behind them, so a new buyer is more likely to encounter the Street than a Triumph or Royal Enfield, which helps their sales.

CM: Wait. What? The Enfield Continental GT is successful?

Harley is a premium brand, but that perception is getting diluted by the Europeans, who are introducing excellent retro designs at affordable prices.  The Street isn’t the machine that can compete with the Scramblers, Bonnevilles, and V7s; that’s Sportster territory.

I do believe, however, that people are getting saturated with just more variations of the Sporty. The bike needs some cornering capability and it needs to be lighter, something that cannot be achieved with the current design. As for the Street, maybe it’s time to introduce other, sexier models with its engine, which although simple, is superb.

Question : What changes, if any, would you make to either the brand positioning or the Street 500/750 if you had the power to do so?

So many Streets, so little market reaction. Harley says it is a hit, but where?
So many Streets, so little market reaction. Harley says it is a hit, but where?

ZK: They could take that platform into a lot of interesting places, making street trackers, scramblers, desert bikes — these machines are in the company’s history. RYCA Motors has done a lot of cool stuff with the Suzuki Savage, and I think Harley-Davidson could build a similar model and capture the public’s attention. The coolest, most desirable machines I see built on the custom blog sites are all along these lines.

I don’t see the Street lineup filling that niche. I know they are trying to build race series around the bike, and there’s talk of a performance version of it coming (looking something like the V-Rod). I think the Street will do well overseas, but here in North America, people want something else. If they wanted a heavy liquid-cooled middleweight cruiser, they could have bought a Honda Shadow.

What bothers me is that they never seem to think outside that box, because I think it would be a smash hit if they re-thought their devotion to the V-twin and forward controls. They don’t have to build a sportbike, just something that aligns with North America’s history of flat track racing and the like. Victory  is aiming at this, with Project 156. I’d be interested to see if Harley-Davidson could beat them at this game.

CM: Hmmm… I think I answered this one in my last response. I disagree with Zac’s response to this one, namely because of what I said above: If Harley sways from its established formula, it just doesn’t work. If Harley does do what Zac suggests, I could only see it working if it rebranded the bikes, à la Ducati Scrambler. And they’d need to be twins. Singles, regardless of the brand, just don’t sell unless they’re KLRs.

I do, however, think that Project Livewire has marginal potential for future success, if bike makers don’t drop the electric thing altogether, which I think is likely.

ZK: You’re right, in that Harley needs to follow an established formula. I’m just saying they need to go to the formula they used before Easy Rider, when function was important, not form, and make those sorts of machines again. And I disagree on the singles — KTM still sells a lot of them, although their premium machines are V-twins.

MU: If it is going to be low cost, and come with generic, low performance chassis components, then that needs to be reflected in the price. It is not a matter of good value versus a Sportster. Most people have absolutely no idea what market segments are, and when they go into a showroom they just shop for 1) look, and 2) price. From that standpoint, the Street is not canibalizing Sportser sales, it’s the other way around. Not enough differentiation.

28 thoughts on “Three4Three: Where’s HD going?”

  1. Dear Harley Guru’s

    I ride a 2014 Limited have 20 000 miles on it already. I travel thw world was just In South Africa…. An on amd offroad model would be great, more affordable models are great, but Harley Davidson is out of touch with the riders…. the youth market is not developing as younwould like the next generation is not developing as it should… why? I traveled far thia tear and everyone is speaking the same language…. Cheapening the brand but increasing the asking price…. using parts that are junk for example I had to fix my shifter 4 times ….. I had tonride my sisters Suzuki boulevard to Harley Dealer with my bike in trailor on way back from Sturgis.. My GPS is impracticle takes too long to program going from Garmin to Harmon Cardon to cheapen it a mistake, then have the actual agent at Sturgis practically tell me I am dumb. Well Inhad the Zumo it was great… these are small things……No matter how you try and build your market when a person has to pay $95.00 / hour to service their bikes theynare not going to ride often thwy are going to give it up or they won” t get into the cost peohibitive sport. I am fortunate, but how many poeple can afford $371.00 for an oil change when you do not pay that for car, or even a big truck seriously your dealera are killing your market…. think about it two tires on bike is more expensive than 4 on a car…. you seriously need to take a look at what is driving your market away!

  2. I have to say that of the 3 “experts”, CM’s comments seemed to me by far the most predictable, and indeed biased although he was the only one to complain about “bias”. HD makes lean-back-arms-out-feet-forward “cruisers” (+”baggers”, “tourers” etc) but for me at least, the whole cruiser thing doesn’t make much sense. I find them uncomfortable, and they generally don’t handle well. Personally, I find a “standard” or a “sport-tourer” far more comfortable than a cruiser.

    So CM writes me off as “a hater” and writes-off my opinions as being biased… Hmm, not sure where the bias is. I’ve been riding motorbikes for >30 years, and there are lots of great machines out there from lots of manufacturers. My favourite-ever twin-cylinder bike I’ve ever owned a 2007 M-G Breva V1100. It’s an air-cooled, pushrod V-twin “standard” with 1064 cm3. It handles, brakes, and steers better than any cruiser ever made – while still being cross-continental comfortable. I did 15,000 km from Saskatoon to Halifax and back this past summer with no problems (at least that weren’t self-induced), no drama and in perfect comfort.

    So with an engine smaller than a sportster, much less their big machines, stock, on a dyno my Breva pushed about 75 Hp. From an air-cooled, pushrod V-twin. (I’ve since modified it to >90, but that’s not the point). The point is that an air-cooled V-twin SHOULD NOT BE TRANSVERSLY MOUNTED – unless of course, you mount it as an L-twin like the air-cooled Ducatis. It’s really not difficult to grasp. My longitudinaly-mounted V-twin produces at least 1.5x the power per cm3 because it was engineered by engineers, and not by the “styling” department. Air-cooled engines that are transversely-mounted will have to be tuned so low – i.e. produce so little power so as to not fry the rear non-cooled cylinder until it explodes! Transverse mounting of anything other than ducati’s “L” makes zero engineering sense without a radiator. So why do they do it? “styling”. In order to get a certain “look”. The look that goes along with wearing a pirate costume to ride your motorcycle. For grown men? sheeesh!

    Does that make me a “hater” CM?? Actually, I think it makes me a P.Eng. who values things that are real and measurable and who is a bit put off by marketing fluff and “lifestyle” marketing. When HD puts out a motorbike that is reasonably light, has reasonable engine performance, decent maneuverability and cornering, good brakes and good suspension – well I will keep an open mind. But that just isn’t something they’ve built in the last couple of decades. Which is too bad. But the folks in Italy and England, Germany Japan and Austria are putting out good motorbikes that people want to ride for what they actually are – rather than for the image that is supposedly associated with them.

    Well CM, since I desire substance over fluff, you call me “a hater”. Fine. In that case, you’re a sheep.

    1. Agreed 100%.

      What’s interesting in the article is that they talk about HD being a “premium brand”. That’s very telling: It says nothing about the quality, capability or relability of the actual MOTORCYCLE and just expresses the marketing fluff: If we were discussing steaks it would be like saying “Gee that steak has a good sizzle” without discussing price, quality, flavour, texture or nutrition of the steak itself.

      “Premium brands” are for sheeple who want to buy a name and image for egotistical reasons.

      1. Gentlemen,

        Thank you for reading and commenting on the article. I won’t speak for Mr. Mouzouris, however as a member of the panel I feel I should respond.

        The thrust of the discussion was not to critique the technical merit of the Street versus the competition, but to answer the questions asked, which were about the impact the Street and its marketing might have on Harley-Davidson in general.

        The Street 500 and 750 are radical for H-D, and have polarized opinions in the press (as you can see) and the public (look at the comments!). What you may call “marketing fluff” is actually what sells products, by dictating price, spec, and presentation to the buying public. “Premium” branding works, which is why you pay more for Kraft Diner than No Name Macaroni and Cheese (even if they are made in the same factory).

        A lot of CMG readers like to know how that develops. The Three4Three series will place a lens on this process.

        For bike to bike comparisons, I’ll point you to CMG’s regular test features.

    2. Got you beat Ian 😉 this summer did the Pacific coast (at least Vancouver to Big Sur) than rode back home to Toronto on my “lifestyle” machine. Best machine out there to do that trip IMO, throw out your “sheep” and “image” comments all you want, my ass was quite happy in that saddle.

      I actually considered a Griso, but I’ve read more than once that the longitudinally mounted engine forces too much heat on the rider – never a good thing. At least the heat from my BMW flat twin was concentrated on my lower legs.

      Otherwise your concern on rear cylinders in straight twins is simply untrue, ever since the Evo engines (we’re talking the 80’s here) Harley engines have been relatively reliable, and more so since. Harley forums are full of people well into six figures on the odometer on original engines, and that’s often with engines tuned to nearly 100hp and 110pnds ft of torque at the wheel (which is stupid easy on these bikes). I remember the BMW forums I frequented expressed far more issues (surging, spline failures, etc.). I’m 8 years into my latest Harley with only fluid changes, never a single adjustment needed. It shares space with 8 other machines, all way more labor intensive. Tires and brakes last twice as long as anything else I’ve owned.

      Regardless, it’s useless to try to change perceptions when you’re so hung up on the usual arguments. That way, I think Costa is right.

  3. Here’s just a few from the others:
    “Harley could sell rebranded mopeds from Vietnam and it would make no difference to the brand’s base over here”
    “they go into a showroom they just shop for 1) look, and 2) price”
    “it would be a smash hit if they re-thought their devotion to the V-twin”
    “when function was important, not form, and make those sorts of machines again”

  4. Nothing gets the whiners & haters (or the think they’re still building AMFs / the can’t affords / my jap cruiser is way better / my sportbike makes more sense to ride everyday / I really look too much like Mr. Rogers to pull it off) types out more than a Harley article.

    As for the article, Costa offers some insights, otherwise far too many comments I wouldn’t expact from “industry insiders”.

  5. I went to by a new Harley this year and the price made me step back, I bought a comparable cruiser bike for 20 thousand less instead. I still own a couple HD’s but I am tired of the attitude in the dealerships, the arrogance of what used to be a great motorcycle company but is now a Clothing company that happens to sell motorcycles.

  6. Perceived value for money is terrible for me. Brand new R1 is bleeding edge technology and incredible to ride and costs $17k new. What can you get for $17k at Harley? 1200 Sportster with a pipe? C’mon.

  7. As a person who has been obsessed with everything motorcycles for the last 45 years, it’s not their bikes that turn me off, it’s the cultist ignorance of many the the Harley riders. Their bikes right now are very very good, but it’s a club I want no part in joining. The long gone Street Rod and XR1200 almost made me an owner, but could you see me with a full face helmet and one piece Aerostich riding one?

  8. You spoke of Harley Davidson being a premium brand, which we agree on. However the fit and finish of the Street models is much less than desirable. Things like exposed wiring, with connectors in plain sight just don’t cut it. A Honda Shadow puts the Street Line to shame in that regard. It wouldn’t create a huge cost increase to tidy up wire and cable routing and at least come close to the Big Twin paint.

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