On Monday, motorcyclists across North America heard the news: Polaris is shutting down its subsidiary Victory to concentrate on making money through its other motorcycle marque, Indian.
There was a wide range of reactions across social media: Anger and disappointment from fans, mockery from detractors, and overall, an air of surprise. But for insiders, there was little surprise. If you’re really been paying attention to what’s going on in society, and what’s going on in the motorcycle industry, it’s clear Victory’s fate has been sealed for years.
The countdown started on April 19, 2011, when Polaris Industries announced its acquisition of the Indian marque. There had been rumours of the sale for months, and at the time, it was obviously a smart move: it gave Polaris a brand to finally challenge Harley-Davidson on an equal footing, something Victory had been unable to do since coming on the scene in 1997.
From a technical standpoint, Victory’s motorcycles gave up nothing to Harley-Davidson, but the marque didn’t have the same decades of heritage that sold so many Sportsters and Big Twins. Indian offered a (checkered) history that reached back even further than the legend of the Bar and Shield brand.
Where was it all going to end up for Victory? It made no sense to continue building cruisers under the Victory brand. The market for pricey, non-traditional, made-in-America cruisers was too small a niche.
Yet, after the Indian deal, we got a couple of years of blingy cruisers from Victory, and the company started building bikes that offered a lot (big sound systems, shiny paint, flashy rims) for relatively little money. There were several factory customs that undercut made-in-America counterparts on price. For a while, it looked like that was the company’s future.
Things changed in 2015. Polaris bought out Brammo’s motorcycle business, rebranded its electric superbike as a Victory, and became the first major motorcycle manufacturer to bring a battery bike to showrooms.
A few months later, we got Project 156; you can find out more about that here, but to sum it up, Victory built a liquid-cooled flat-tracker, raced it at the Pikes Peak hillclimb, and proclaimed the company’s future lay in more high-performance models instead of cruisers. The future was bright, and the devotees of the quest for the Great American Sportbike wondered if Victory, not Buell, would bring US-made superbikes to the masses.
But all the hype never came to pass. Despite promises of exciting new models, all Victory offered for sale was variations on the same theme: heavy cruisers. Even the concepts based on Project 156 were portly. The end result was the Octane, which was really little more than another cruiser.
Victory’s Empulse battery bike did earn a second-place at the IOMTT’s electric race last spring, but most of the talk about performance bikes went up in smoke, as you can see in the video below.
And that was it. After 2011, despite the hype, Victory never developed its own sporty production models and the existing lineup was stealing sales from sister company Indian, which seemed to be growing healthily. Furthermore, changing emissions regulations meant changes were needed to existing models if Victory planned to continue selling them overseas (only four models were offered in Europe in 2017), to which the Polaris press release alluded. Even the status quo wouldn’t have worked for much longer.
Polaris had to make a tough decision and the result sees Victory out, with Indian leading the way ahead.
Perhaps these lines from the Polaris press release say it best: “Victory has struggled to establish the market share needed to succeed and be profitable. The competitive pressures of a challenging motorcycle market have increased the headwinds for the brand. Given the significant additional investments required for Victory to launch new global platforms that meet changing consumer preferences, and considering the strong performance and growth potential of Indian Motorcycle, the decision to more narrowly focus Polaris’ energy and investments became quite clear.”
It’s terrible news for the company’s employees, it’s a bitter pill for dealerships that spent years growing the brand presence and finding customers, and it’s tough for customers who now own bikes that may end up devalued.
So what can we learn?
First, there’s getting to be little room in the cruiser market. The Japanese manufacturers haven’t brought out an all-new cruiser in years, and there hasn’t been much change in the cruisers from Europe either. There are fewer cruisers being sold, and with Harley-Davidson still controlling a massive chunk of that market, there just isn’t enough money to make it worthwhile for the other manufacturers to battle over it.
Depending whose numbers you trust, Harley-Davidson still controls roughly the same percentage of the shrinking market, meaning everybody else fights over a smaller piece of that pie every year. Indian, with its made-in-America heritage and storied history, is the only brand that’s working to capture back market share, instead of just surviving. To survive in the motorcycle market, Polaris had to trim some weight.
Second, no matter whether your product is arguably superior to the competition, it doesn’t matter if environmental regulations are against you. Victory’s cruisers always compared well to competitors, but new Euro4 emissions standards mean air-cooled V-twins are going to be hard to sell in overseas markets, just as air-cooled thumpers have already disappeared. Polaris obviously decided there wasn’t enough money in cruisers to justify building both the Indian and Victory brands to the new standards.
Third, building bikes only for boomers is not going to work in the future. Several manufacturers made a lot of money from baby boomers, but that demographic is approaching the end of their riding careers. Without affordable, enticing models to bring in younger riders (whether they be Millennials, or even Generation X or Generation Y), a motorcycle manufacturer is in big trouble. Harley-Davidson has had sub-$10,000 bikes in the lineup for years, Victory has not. That’s a big part of the problem right there. Unless it can attract some younger blood, Indian may face the same problem not far down the road.