You know, people just love to dump on Harley-Davidson. It’s an all-or-nothing thing: you either live and breathe Hogs, without acknowledging any other brands, or you ridicule Harley as your Old Man’s bike, wheezing to keep up and dripping oil to mark its territory.
(There are a couple of rules for Harley ownership, though. One is that if somebody asks what bike you ride, the correct response is “a Low Rider,” or whatever. Don’t say “a Harley-Davidson Low Rider,” because it should just be a given that you would ride a Harley. Well, duh. The other is that when a kid asks how fast it goes, the correct response is “just as fast as I want it to go.” Which is a macho way of saying not very fast at all, lest the fillings shake from your teeth. I know this because I own a Harley, an ’08 Low Rider, which I’m telling you in the interest of full disclosure: I’m about to try to defend the MoCo against its many detractors, which isn’t going to be easy.)
Harley-Davidson announced its fourth quarter and yearly sales figures in a conference call last week, and most of the media, including us at CMG, piled on to the gloomy statistics. “Once again, they aren’t encouraging … This was the fifth straight quarter of decline for Harley-Davidson,” we reported at CMG. “Earnings show weakness beneath the surface,” said Revzilla. And Jalopnik, of course, spared no mercy: “Harley-Davidson’s slow decline is getting hard to watch,” it said. “It’s desperately trying to prop up U.S. sales, but the LiveWire hasn’t been selling great, and its core demo is aging out.”
All this is true and indisputable. In fact, it’s worse, because every year, Harley sells fewer and fewer motorcycles. Back in the heady days of 2006, just before the recession, Harley sold nearly 350,000 bikes, but last year it sold 218,273 bikes worldwide. That was the smallest number sold outside the US this decade, and the smallest number in the States, its major market, this century. Clearly, something must be done.
If this sounds familiar to some, it’s because Harley-Davidson’s experience is very similar to Jaguar Land Rover. Consider this: Both brands make vehicles that are quintessentially patriotic, with Harleys being pure Americana, and both Jaguars and Land Rovers being British to the core. For JLR, that goodwill toward the brand was not enough to compensate for building crappy, expensive, outdated vehicles. It struggled for decades with a lack of investment and a wayward vision. Ford Motor Company bought Jaguar in 1990, and then Land Rover in 2000, but the Detroit auto maker had no money to spare and tried to sell the cars on their name alone.
“We’re so upper-crust British!” said Jaguar, and “we’re so stiff-upper-lip British!” said Land Rover. And it wasn’t enough for their unreliable vehicles to appeal to the rest of the world. Even in the U.K., drivers shifted to BMWs and Mercedes. Then in 2008, JLR was sold to Tata Motors of India, which invested a billion dollars in research and development, and the vehicles began to improve.
More to the point, Jaguar’s designers looked around and noticed that few buyers wanted the large sedans and coupes the company was selling – they wanted SUVs. Porsche had already added the Cayenne SUV to its sports car lineup, and although purists were appalled, the Cayenne quickly became Porsche’s best-seller. It was the same thing at every other car company: people wanted SUVs. Jaguar was very late to the party with its F-Pace SUV, announced in 2015, but it’s now the company’s best-seller. And for Land-Rover, which has watched Jeep eat its lunch around the world for at least the last decade, there’s an all-new Defender this year, finally.
Jaguar Land Rover is now giving the people what they want, not what it thinks they should have. Maybe somebody at Harley-Davidson recognized this a couple of years ago, because Harley is finally preparing to do the same thing. Yes, there are still buyers for the big cruisers and tourers, just as there are still buyers for Porsche 911s and Boxsters, but the trend is to more versatile adventure bikes, and naked bikes. All the other motorcycle makers have known this for years, but Harley is only just now getting ready to introduce its Pan America adventure bike and its Bronx naked bike, sometime later this year.
Armchair critics have been swift to dump on the new bikes, but Harley’s showing a willingness to think outside of its 45-degree V-twin box. Yes, the bikes have a V-twin, but it’s 60 degrees and water-cooled. So was the V-Rod of course, but that was a quirky machine, far more niche than these upcoming motorcycles. The new engine, with a whole new philosophy behind the bikes’ design and purpose, is exactly what Harley needs.
There’ve been plenty of attempts in the past to save Harley: Buell sportbikes, the radical V-Rod, the small displacement Street motorcycles. None have worked to turn the company around because it’s always been centred on the heavyweight cruisers that are bought by hairy heavyweight bikers. Now, all the media focus is on the electric Livewire and the decriers are thrilled that it’s too expensive and too limited in range to appeal to more than just a few early adopters.
The Livewire, however, was never meant to sell in huge volumes. It was meant to show what’s possible, and to lead the way to a whole new electric line-up that complements, but does not replace, the rest of the MoCo’s bikes. As the new president of Harley-Davidson Canada told me last year, “If I compare it to Tesla, they didn’t launch the Model 3 – they launched the Model S. They launched a $100,000-plus car, and then they went downstream as they evolved the technology. We’re not expecting this bike to be mainstream; it’s not a bike for everyone. It’s a motorcycle for those who have the means and who want the experience that it provides, and I think we’ll have plenty of customers for it.”
The “plenty of customers” bit might be a little ambitious for a $40,000-plus bike, but it’s good that Harley is ambitious at last. It’s not resting on what it has, because that’s falling away. It’s invested all kinds of money in a 10-year turn-around strategy that’s aimed at a global market, and it’s very clear that this is the pivotal year. It’s the year for the Livewire to be seen on the road, and for the Pan-America and the Bronx to debut and prove themselves against the competition.
There’s plenty more to come, but is it enough? We’ll find out soon. These things take a long time – Jaguar Land Rover isn’t out of the financial woods yet, but it’s also invested heavily in electric vehicles and the all-electric I-Pace was named World Car of the Year for 2019, as well as AJAC’s Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year. So maybe this is the turn-around, and 2021 will finally be Harley-Davidson’s year. Let’s hope so.