Contrarian Bastard: Adventure in Marketing

In January of 2017, Harley-Davidson announced it would be bring 50 new models to market in the coming five years. As we’re three years into that schedule, let’s look at what’s transpired so far. 

First, I gotta fess up. I’m a bit jaded by The Mothership’s “New Model” announcements…have been for many years. Too often the new stuff has simply been a rearrangement of the old stuff; call it parts-bin engineering, or maybe repurposing. In fairness, today’s Harley line-up is probably the most powerful, best-looking and competent the company has ever produced. Yet the buying public just doesn’t seem to care all that much. Odd. My take on this is that the average —rather than Harley-specific—buyer sees all Harleys as being much the same, all cruiser variations dedicated to older men. Unfair? You bet! But as the ancient cliché reads, “It is what it is.”

One of the first new models to break cover was the 2020 LiveWire, a $30,000, range-challenged electric motorcycle that has wowed most who have ridden it but remains a bit of a dust collector at the dealerships. Several other entries are due in the next couple of years: The Pan America, the Bronx, a “Future High-Performance Custom Model,” a dirt track replica and the so-called Café Racer. Lots of talking points there, but I want to focus on what I believe is the most important of the fivesome; The Pan America adventure bike.

If H-D plays its cards right, their new Pan America could be an elixir.

Adventure bikes (ADVs) are the current hot hand. If you’ve owned one (I’ve had four) you know why as they are probably the most comfortable, versatile, all-around competent motorcycles you can own. Plus, not only can they carry that proverbial kitchen sink, but also the plumber to install it. And this is why every manufacturer of note has one or two in its lineup. And soon, so will H-D. Done right, an ADV on the floor can bring in a very large group of new and – this is important – younger buyers.

Harley faces two make/break points with the Pan America. First and most important, it must ring all the “…comfortable, versatile, all-around competent…” bells. Given its 1250cc engine, it will be tossed into the ring with the Godzilla and King Kong of ADVs, the KTM 1290 Super Adventure and BMW R1250GS. These are high-performance ADV veterans of competition and round-the-world jaunts. If the Pan America falls on its face against these two then H-D might as well find a place for it on its “Oh well, we tried” shelf. Let me harp on this a bit: If it can’t compete with these two…Harley needn’t bother. This competence issue is an engineering problem; Harley has the engineers and the resources. We can only hope that both were applied to the project in earnest, and the phrase “that’s not how we do it at Harley” was seldom heard during the motorcycle’s development. 

The second make/break point is the toughie: Supporting the ADV culture. One of the reasons Buell died under Harley ownership is because too many – not all, but too many –  Harley dealers did not know how to sell it and/or didn’t want it in their showrooms. The Pan America will be a challenge to the dealers for many of the same reasons. It’s going to bring in riders they’ve not dealt with, asking questions they’ve never had to answer, and looking for gear and accessories they’ve never carried. Certainly there will be Harley faithful that will buy it, but they won’t do so in the numbers needed. If the motorcycle is competitive it will draw in buyers, but they’re going to want more than just the motorcycles. 

ADV owners are a picky lot, particularly those who are true adventure riders. They expect to find labels that have proven themselves, such as Klim, First Gear and Forma. They’ll want tire brand/tread choices Harley dealers typically don’t carry, and they’ll want to see the dozens of different ADV fixtures, farkles and fun stuff not found anywhere near a Harley. If H-D follows its normal pattern we’ll see ADV-oriented MotorClothes, but this alone won’t be enough to satisfy the riders.

Personally, I’m not overly optimistic about the success of the Pan America. As to the motorcycle itself, I have three concerns, ones always present with Harleys: weight, power and price. It needs to weigh (dry) less than 550 pounds. Horsepower has been leaked at “145.” This is a great number as it sits between the BMW’s 134 and the KTM’s mighty 160. Price? Could be a deal-killer if it’s more than the BMW’s $20,195.

I want the Pan America to succeed, and Harley really needs it to succeed. 

If you’d care to explain to Kittrelle why his existence on this planet is no longer required, email reg.kittrelle@comcast.net

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