Harley-Davidson is in a uniquely desperate situation. It’s struggling to attract new riders, especially younger ones, its financials haven’t been great, and it’s in an ugly tariff war with America’s own president. The Motor Company isn’t giving up just yet though, and today announced a plan to get new blood buying.
Harley describes its official growth plan through 2020, More Roads To Harley-Davidson, as “a comprehensive, top-to-bottom assessment” in a big shiny press release that came out today. That sounds promising, but it sure looks like it boils down to “a couple new bikes in popular market segments, and Harley stores in malls.”
So I’m intrigued but, to be honest, not exceedingly optimistic.
At the highest level, the bullet points are “new products,” (good start) “broader access,” (hmm) and “stronger dealers” (isn’t that a given?).
Harley-Davidson on the ground
Diving into the release a little further, “stronger dealers” apparently means “(enabling) best-performing and most entrepreneurial dealers to drive innovation and success for themselves and Harley-Davidson—while providing the premium customer experience the brand is known for across an increasingly diverse product and customer base.”
How exactly that differs from “incentivized sales,” which is how every dealer pretty much works, I’m not sure. But I think the idea is somehow to get Harley dealers to be creative.
As for “broader access,” that appears to be a combination media blitz and more diversity in the company’s physical presence. “New retail formats—including smaller, urban storefronts globally to expose the brand to urban populations and drive sales of the expanded Harley-Davidson product portfolio and expand international apparel distribution,” states the company. Sounds like “get ready for a Harley-Davidson store in the fancy mall.”
But while distribution is essential to the company’s survival, its products are far more interesting to talk about. So let’s break down what Harley plans to build in the near future.
Harley-Davidson on the road
“A new modular 500cc to 1250cc middleweight platform” is apparently going to be the backbone of a new off-road adventure touring motorcycle, a very sleek cruiser, and a naked streetfighter.
Which, wow, there’s a lot to unpack there.
A portable platform makes sense for a company trying to make money, as it’ll make assembly at a lot easier and cheaper. Building three motorcycles with decidedly different purposes around the same architecture seems inherently limiting from an engineering standpoint, but since I’m no engineer I’ll have to reserve judgement on these machines until I can swing a leg over one. H-D is hardly the first company to try such a thing, anyway.
The Pan America adventure bike
Adventure biking was overlanding before overlanding meant “strap a tent to your truck and cover the rear window in stickers.” You can cross incredible distances and rough terrain on a motorcycle, making them great adventure vehicles. Just like with cars, you can slide the scale between “capability” and “comfort” but the ends are more extreme. My Yamaha WR would leave a BMW GS in the dust through deep sand or rock gardens, but my trail bike gives me a sore butt in an hour of easy riding whereas the Bimmer could do days of gravel roading with ease.
Harley’s play is quite clearly on the latter end, as the Pan America appears to be a monolithic 1250cc luxury cruiser wearing knobby tires, undercarriage armor and presumably compliant suspension.
It’s a bold play for H-D to be sure. BMW has its heels so deeply dug into this market that the American entry will really need to stand out to distract people. It’s going to need more than looks too, because the ADV crowd are a nit-picky bunch.
The Future Custom high-performance cruiser
This looks the most like a transitional design for Harley-Davidson right now. It’s got a lot of old school cool styling cues with a healthy dose of modernity. I think the result is undeniably badass without dating itself, kind of like a more fully realized execution of the Fat Bob design that won a lot of praise when it came out last year.
The Future Streetfighter
A naked sport motorcycle with a gigantic engine is great for annihilating onramps and is kind of a pain in the ass for everything else, in my humble opinion, but they sure do look cool and I’m sure a talented rider could extract a pretty extreme experience with 975cc of displacement.
The Streetfighter, Custom and Pan America are supposed to hit the U.S. market for 2020. But to be honest, I’m a little more intrigued by H-D’s emerging small segment. In addition to those three big bikes, Harley-Davidson stated that it plans to build 250cc to 500cc bikes “through a planned strategic alliance with a manufacturer in Asia” to sell less expensive bikes.
Smaller, cheaper bikes for Asia
Sounds like the company’s going to rebadge some Asian-made motorcycles so it can sell products in places that have less disposable income than Americans “in India, one of the largest, fastest growing markets in the world, and other Asia markets.”
I am guessing that means H-D will attempt to offer a premium product in more compact packaging. The company surely fears backlash against “non American-made Harleys” being sold in America, but that’s too bad, because a 250cc entry-level option would probably go a lot further in broadening the brand’s appeal than another cool-looking expensive cruiser or a gigantic adventure bike.
The electric Harley is happening
Finally, there’s the LiveWire electric motorcycle, which Harley-Davidson has now confirmed for 2019. Not only that, but the clutchless “twist and go” LiveWire will get stablemates in the form of “additional models through 2022” meaning we’ll see at least two more electric Harleys within the next four years.
At this point, it looks like Harley-Davidson is basically just trying to get itself to where other people are. The adventure touring and streetfighter segments are pretty popular, and there are a whole lot of motorcycle customers in Asia.
The plan should certainly put more Harleys in front of more people. Whether that translates to more actual sales and money coming in remains to be seen.