It’s July 4 — what better day to take a look at that most American brand of all, Harley-Davidson?
For years, the naysayers have predicted Harley-Davidson’s downfall. At the same time, the brand’s fans say that Harley has long retained the biggest share of big bike sales, at least in North America, even though that market is shrinking overall. One thing’s for sure: the company is going to look a lot different.
A world vision
Harley-Davidson’s always had overseas sales (some credit its Japanese exports with saving the company in the 1930s), but the US has always been its biggest market, followed by Canada, Australia, and Europe. Americana is a big part of the company’s identity; buyers wanted motorcycles that were made in the US.
However, that’s going to be a lot more difficult down the road. Harley-Davidson now has factories in developing countries (Brazil, India and Thailand), and has just announced a deal to put its name on made-in-China motorcycles built by Qianjiang. Those bikes will still be designed in the US, but they’re going to feel different from the current Harley-Davidson lineup. The change is already here, really: ride a Street 500, and then ride a Big Twin. They’re made for a different world.
In the future, Harley-Davidson will make more bikes overseas, and will work hard to sell more bikes overseas. Some fans will whine about these changes, but without the broadening focus, it’s hard to see how the company could stay in business. A decade from now, those overseas sales could be the cash cow that fund the further development of Big Twins to a shrinking customer base in the developed world. The faithful would be wise to complain less, and welcome the possibilities ahead.
The small bike revolution
No other manufacturer is as tied to the big bike image as Harley-Davidson. Even BMW, a rival in the luxury motorcycle market, has a long history of building smaller bikes (30 years ago, the 650-class boxers, and now the G310 thumpers).
Harley-Davidson still has plenty of behemoths in the lineup, but the MoCo will soon be selling plenty of smaller machines as well, and it’s tied to the global growth strategy. The company’s just-announced made-in-China motorcycles will have a 338 cc engine. If the design sketches are accurate, it looks like they’ll have an air-cooled parallel twin assembled from the parts bin, from components originally developed for Benelli. Harley-Davidson’s partner Qianjiang has been building Benellis for a while; it makes sense to re-use those designs for customers who haven’t developed a “V-twin or bust” attitude.
We’ve seen no indication these made-in-China motorcycles will come to North America, but they’ll likely be sold in big numbers around the rest of the world. They are definitely going to change Harley-Davidson’s image in overseas markets. Will they ever come here? If Harley-Davidson can sell them in North America without alienating its existing customer base and labour force, then it would make sense, but those are two problems that may be impossible to sort out.
Harley-Davidson has a reputation as a brand that you buy after starting on something else. The Sportster line served as entry-level machines, but many riders started elsewhere before entering the world of Harley-Davidson.
That’s changing, for two reasons. First off, Harley-Davidson is making an effort to train new motorcyclists, with a stated goal of creating two million new Harley-Davidson riders by 2027. This is partly through rider training at the dealership level, but Harley is also using other approaches to attract new trainees, including motorcycle rider training included as part of a university program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee , or teaching an entire town how to ride. Take note, nay-sayers! How many other OEMs have kickstarted similar efforts in North America? We sure haven’t heard of any.
Harley-Davidson is also building more beginner-friendly bikes than before: the Sportster lineup is still around, but there’s also the new Street lineup, which is easier to ride and less expensive. To be sure, there’s room for improvement; what Harley-Davidson really needs in North America is a simple mid-displacement bike, something like the Suzuki Savage. It should be easy to pay for, easy to insure, easy to customize and easy to ride. There’s a lot of interest in Harley-Davidson from hipsters and millennials, but they don’t like the weight and cost of the current bikes. But still, the company is moving in the right direction, instead of just cranking out baggers for boomers.
Bob Dylan gained a whole new legion of fans when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and that’s what Harley-Davidson hopes to do with its new LiveWire electric bike. Costa will be riding this machine for CMG later this month, and we’re pretty excited to see what it offers.
Harley-Davidson has done a fair bit of development on the LiveWire since the prototype was unveiled in 2014, instead of just releasing a warmed-over machine from Mission (which was what many expected). Will it be for everyone? Nope, and not everybody liked Bob Dylan’s new sound in ’65, but he’s still rocking 50 years later, unlike the heartbroken hippies who booed him.
The interesting thing about Harley-Davidson’s new LiveWire is that not every dealer will sell them, at least not at the start. The dealers who do are required to have a fast-charging station on-site. Will those fast-charging stations bring in other EV owners, potentially introducing a new class of motorist to the Harley-Davidson brand? Interesting potential lies ahead, for sure.
A diversified motorcycle lineup
We covered Harley-Davidson’s plans last summer to move into the adventure bike and streetfighter markets. Harley-Davidson seems very serious about these plans, unlike in the past, when it would turn a Sportster into a roadster or cafe racer every few years, with proper brakes and suspension, and then dump the model shortly afterwards (see also: XLCR, XR1200, etc.).
Will Harley-Davidson be successful with these new markets? Considering the rapid technological developments of the street bike and adventure bike worlds, there’s a real chance the MoCo could face the same problem Erik Buell Racing faced: a lineup of bikes without electronic safety gadgetry, priced higher than much more modern motorcycles. That would be disastrous for sales.
However, Harley-Davidson is definitely trying to make this happen, and that’s a massive cultural shift for a company that’s basically sold nothing but cruisers for more than a half century.
Building non-motorcycle bikes
This is something nobody predicted, but this winter, Harley-Davidson surprised many people by introducing a couple of concept bikes that weren’t motorcycles. One was a sort of aggressive e-bike, the other was an electric scooter. Harley-Davidson also purchased StaCyc, a US-based EV manufacturer that builds things like electric balance boards.
This is smart. As the North American population moves to urban centres, there’s more interest in city-friendly runabouts, especially as they typically don’t need licencing or insurance, and they’re certainly far cheaper than even a Street 500. If Harley-Davidson figures out how to make money on these vehicles, that’s great; if these serve as an entry point to full-sized motorcycles from Harley-Davidson, even better.
It’s possible these vehicles could prove to be key to getting new customers inside Harley-Davidson showrooms, particularly the X Games-type crowd, which Harley has been courting in recent years. Young consumers use the subway or Uber for transportation now, instead of a bike, and they’re more interested in a vehicle that lets them stunt at the skate park. Harley-Davidson seems to realize this, and looks to be developing EVs towards that end.
What does it all mean?
No doubt some of its planned projects will end up being axed, but 10 years from now, even if only a few of them come through, Harley-Davidson will be a drastically different company, selling to new customers in North America (skaters, hipsters, EV junkies) and with a whole new world of overseas buyers, literally. It could be the most dramatic change any motorcycle company has ever seen in such a short time. It’ll be fascinating to watch, and if Harley-Davidson sees such a drastic change, you can bet the North American riding scene is going to change with it. All we can say is, stay tuned, because there are interesting times ahead.
What happens if it doesn’t pan out? Look at the Brit bike industry of the 1960s. BSA, Royal Enfield and the rest didn’t have the same challenges Harley-Davidson has now, but they did have the same need for evolution. If Harley-Davidson’s plans fail, the company will likely face a similar fate as those brands.