Long Strange Trip: Milwaukee On My Mind

It happens pretty often as I go about my days in this industry, but this month the realization flashes regarding Harley-Davidsons’s sales and demographic challenges were popping like Joe Biden’s campaign-rally gaffes. (Oh, come on…be honest!)

It happened while watching the Drag Specialties King of the Baggers race at Laguna, which was a huge success and maybe the most-anticipated motorcycle event of the year. You knew teams would build outrageous motorcycles; you knew fans would salivate; and you knew that watching the bikes slew around the dry lagoon would be totally worth the Covid-inspired wait. And you were right.

So, can we all agree this whole performance-bagger streetbike thing is more vital to the industry than ever before, and a serious boon to Harley-Davidson (and Indian), especially among younger riders? We can. Will next year’s rumored three-race series (Laguna, Barber and Indy) help keep folks fired up, involved, buying and riding? For sure. (And yes, I am a fortune teller.)

Are Harley-Davidson’s new Serial 1 sub-brand bicycles a path to new (and younger) Big Twin owners? Some think so.

I was reminded of the whole ‘excite younger riders and they’ll stick around’ concept while working on this issue’s Motor Co. Motocrosser
piece (pg. 24). It chronicles the story of Keith Geisner, who found a real-deal factory Harley-Davidson motocrosser in a barn, bought it, restored it, and continues to thrill motocross fans with it at shows and events all over the country.

Milwaukee’s attempt at top-tier motocross in the late 1970s was short-lived and ill-fated, but the effort was interesting for what it attempted to do: improve Milwaukee’s off-road chops (and blunt Japan Inc.’s tech advantage over Motor Co. products), but also – and apropos to today – generate excitement, brand awareness and loyalty among younger riders and non-riders, the thinking being that once a Harley fan, always a Harley fan. 

Sound familiar? 

No one’s sure how to actually do this today (despite all the tiresome pontificating on the internet), but new Harley-Davidson CEO Jochen Zeitz (of Puma turnaround fame) has a plan, and it’s pretty different than the well-meaning More Roads To Harley-Davidson angle pushed by previous CEO Matt Levitich. 

Zeitz’s pathway to renewed Motor Company success is currently called ‘Rewire’, and includes a slimmed down product line, plenty of cost-cutting, maintaining (or expanding) Milwaukee’s exclusive brand image, and a focus on investments in new, higher-potential segments.

That list of high-potential segments also includes the all-new adventure-oriented Pan America, which will bow in early 2021, along with some electric bicycles via Harley-Davidson’s new Serial 1 sub brand, which teased a 1903-spec first-Harley lookalike e-bicycle in late October. (No word on whether the Bronx, Café Racer or dirt track replica will appear.)

Before you scoff at the e-bike thing, consider this: In Europe, e-assist bicycles have been hotter than glowing-red brake discs for years, and are quickly catching on in the States. I’ve been riding a Tazer e-MTB from Intense Cycles (and my buddy Mark Blackwell) while rehabbing my fifth knee surgery, and I can tell you it’s a totally new and amazingly fun experience – and not unlike that of riding a lightweight off-road machine. You not only go farther and faster than you ever could on a pedal-bike (and see a lot more along the way), you get a killer workout in the process. 

There’s little doubt that more e-bicycle use will lead to more motorcyclists, and if Harley-Davidson’s Serial 1 brand can capture a portion of those new riders, we’re right back to that once-a-Harley-fan-always-a-Harley-fan concept. 

CEO Zeitz said something interesting on the subject of demographics on an investor conference call in July. “I’ve heard now so often that our consumer is aging out,” he said. “Well, I’m aging, and I feel like riding right now. In fact, I would say consumers are aging into [my emphasis] riding as they have more free time and resources, especially post this pandemic. Harley-Davidson is really more about attitude and emotion than age and demographics.”

I tend to agree. Despite the fact that boomers are going away in pretty big numbers, there are still millions of them out there, and many, as Zeitz says, have the time and money and inclination to ride. He’s just got to find a way to hook ’em. 

If you dare to go toe-to-toe with Boehm find him at longstrangetrip@thunderpress.net. May your wounds quickly heal

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