H-D’s new multi-faceted marketing and growth plan is cleverly labeled “More Roads To Harley-Davidson.” In truth, that very phrase sums it up without saying it all… or much of anything specific. “Roads” is more a general declaration of intent and preparation to go there, than a precise map. After all, it’s hard to describe any path… before it’s been traveled. So, specifics are hen’s teeth as of this writing. You’re likely to find more punditry and speculation than anything else for the next few months… including this column… and that’s fine. Because, for now, H-D mostly needs the buzz this half a billion dollar “Roads” program has already generated.
In broad terms, Harley-Davidson has been struggling in vain to sell the best motorcycles they have ever made, to a dwindling market. Those core customers… well-heeled Yankee “boomers”… are going bust. Age and decrepitude are decimating the loyal rider base. Meanwhile, younger folks in this country are more obsessed with Uber and Xbox than getting their knees in the breeze in spite of all efforts by every motorcycle manufacturer to reverse the trend. Therefore, Harley needs fresh machinery for new riders wherever in the world they can be found, i.e., “more roads”… to generate sales and guarantee survival. It’s that simple. How they accomplish this is anything but!
Why, for the first time in the company’s history, they should surrender the “close to the vest” way of playing their cards, in favor of telling the world what’s in their hand, is a matter for contemplation. With trade wars, tariffs and Trump tirades against them… filling heads and headlines recently… the timing was not incidental. Previously taking “windfall” money, then using it to close plants here and build them elsewhere, didn’t set well either. At core, these strategies and tactics were integral to a coherent, totally apolitical five-year plan for the company’s future that was already in full swing when this stuff occurred. It all stems from dire necessity and reasonable corporate responsibility. But the “optics” weren’t good. Time to fess up.
Three ways down the roads
First—as mentioned, H-D has made obvious the need to attract new riders to the fold. The unabashed admission is, if they can’t find ’em here, they must look to “emerging markets” overseas. (Harley has sold more motorcycles overseas than here multiple times in the past. You can look it up.) The difference is, certain machines will be made overseas, for those markets, and some 125 smaller “storefront” dealerships are a part of that part of the strategy.
Second—dealers, new and old alike, will be held to (and rewarded by) a new standard of performance. That “performance” could be distilled and translated into one key phrase: “enhanced customer experience.” Further insight might be gained by reflecting on the fact that not all dealers will necessarily be “full-line” in the future. (Hint: the electric bikes are so new and different they must be dealt with differently… not indifferently.)
Third—an onslaught of new motorcycles, many of which are intended to show H-D’s abilities in ways that attract riders who might never have set foot in a Harley shop. These machines may be summed up in three words, electric, modular, and modest. Three more words apply as well, product, product, product! In the end, that’s always what it boils down to. And, no better example, no more evocative evidence can be offered than the first in a line-up of nuevo “Gnarly Harleys”… the unique LiveWire.
One thing not everyone thinks of when it comes to H-D is innovative products. But over its 115-year history, they’ve actually developed more than their share. Most never made it to market… as often as not because of market conditions, ironically. This time conditions are right for one of the most innovative Harleys of all time. Think about it; a machine with no clutch, no gears, no heat, no noise, no messy fluids, no gas stops, no pollution, torque that puts a Big Twin to shame, weight more like a Sportster than a bagger and so damn easy to ride it beggars description. In your dealer’s showroom around this time next year, the production LiveWire and its soon-to-come siblings are a game changer! Especially in crowded urban environments, and for new riders who don’t want the learning curve or the baggage that goes with conventional motorcycles (let alone Harleys). Walk out, unplug, climb aboard, twist a grip. The big LW is for us, the alternative versions to follow… who knows? But H-D is betting it’s the ticket for many a millennial in the heart of a cold cruel city… anywhere in the big wide world!
“Modular” models like the 2020 975cc Street fighter, 1250cc Pan America and Custom are great answers to a bunch of questions. More conventional, more adept in wide open spaces, more modern in concept and execution than anyone expected… these are all machines destined to widen H-D’s appeal, extend the product line, expand the rider family and prove a point. The Motor Company builds truly sophisticated motorcycles.
The official line is that these modular engines are “all-new” and I’m sure that’s true… in the sense the parts won’t interchange with anything else. But if there’s not a dollop of Buell/Rotax 1125 DNA (or at least “inspiration”) in ’em… I’d be damned surprised. Either way, the modular approach will result in another distinctive family of “middleweight” machines that will be available alongside (but not instead of) Harley’s middleweight legend… the Sportster.
Modest… is a word you haven’t heard in conjunction with the Motor Company, since the ’70s Aermacchi connection. It’s not Harley’s word; it’s mine. Appropriate all the same, because any inroads into “emerging markets” (India and Asia mostly) requires smaller, affordable, utilitarian motorcycles. Small motorcycles don’t sell here, but you can’t easily sell big ones in most other places on the planet either. So the “raison d’etre” for H-D tiddlers is self-evident. In most of those “emerging markets”… 125cc motorcycles is the norm… lots of smaller ones… damn few bigger ones. A 250 is a big bike and a 500 is huge! In India, for instance, the big bike “ideal” for years has been a Royal Enfield single in 350cc–585cc displacements. The Motor Company’s 250, 500, and whatever else develops in terms of displacement form a spanking new family of “modest” machines for the world market. Harley’s soon-to-be-announced “partner” in Asia will not only help manufacture these bikes, but likely offer up a convenient and comprehensive distribution/dealer network. (Google “Mahindra” for one strong possibility.) Sure, the machines that Harley ultimately markets in these areas will be “premium” motorcycles… the kind riders aspire to… but they won’t be big or flashy by our standards. They will prove immodestly competitive.
Here and there… everywhere
Make no mistake, H-D is in it to win it in the U.S. If it’s sold here, it’s built here… period! That won’t change. What “More Roads” signifies is simply that a world-class manufacturer is heart-attack serious about using its muscle, money and magic to compete head-to-head globally, in new ways with new products.
Triumph builds the quintessential “British” bike… in Thailand. BMW has their premium “German” single built in India. Iconically “American” Indian motorcycles, sold in Europe, are built in Poland. Hell, Hondas were built here in the U.S.A. when the situation demanded! I could go on… but the point is, it’s not fair to criticize Harley-Davidson for doing much the same. Rather than boycotted, they should be congratulated, encouraged… commended for not getting caught flat-footed with no plan at all. “Same ol’, same ol’”… would be the kiss of death for our favorite motorcycle company.
So, I, for one, think “More Roads To Harley-Davidson” is a good thing for a great company… and I wish them well. They are writing the latest chapter in their legacy. One that will help ensure that my children’s children and their children will ride into the future on the great American motorcycle… no matter where it’s built or sold. To paraphrase the old Irish blessing, “May the roads rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.”
(Editor’s note: Photos of the new models, provided by Harley-Davidson, may not reflect the eventual production versions.)