Rubber-Side Down – Redesigning The Sportster

By Kevin Duke

Rubber-Side Down

To the uninitiated, motorcycles are seen as just machines or even appliances that mindlessly do their jobs. But to riders, motorcycles are living things. Like people, they breathe, they inspire. They stir our souls.

And so it’s always insightful when there’s a chance to speak to a person who helps create the motorcycles that become parts of our lives.

Brad Richards, Vice President of Styling & Design at Harley-Davidson since 2015, was in our midst during the recent Sportster S launch in Los Angeles, California. He and his team were tasked with reinventing a veritable motorcycle icon, the Sportster, which originally made its debut way back in 1957. It was a mission Richards described as daunting.

“With Sportster S, you had this nameplate you were trying to do justice to,” Richards related. “We’re super emotional about the brand and the products and the history. We’re trying to move the brand forward in a way that doesn’t disconnect us from the past but gives a whole new customer-set to reconsider Harley-Davidson and think about the brand.”

Richards is a hardcore motorcycle enthusiast, with more than a dozen bikes in his personal collection, including several pre-1970s Harleys, so he fully understands the roots of the Motor Company and yet is challenged to bring vintage Harley DNA into the realm of contemporary motorcycles.

“So we took bits and pieces from some of our most iconic Sportster moments of motorcycling and created something that is a bit undefinable,” Richards elaborated.

“We wanted the first one to be like a really loud clap of lightning followed by a tremendous blast of thunder, so ‘irrational’ was a word we used a lot in the design process.”

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“If you know engineers, engineering teams,” added Kyle Wick, Chief Engineer of Middleweight Motorcycles at H-D, “when a word like irrational comes out, it kind of freaks us out and we don’t know what to do with it. That was really the challenge, but that was the excitement of working on this motorcycle and continuing to work on the platform we’re building.”

“With Sportster S, I see an incredible array of future opportunities with this architecture,” Richards enthused. “There’s all kinds of potential for this motorcycle. The fact that the engine is a stressed member, that just took the handcuffs off the design team. 

“Typically, there’s a lot of metal around the motor that we have to contend with,” Richards continued. “From a design team’s standpoint, we were just stoked because it just allows us so much flexibility. There’s so many avenues and places we can take this architecture that we’re really excited to create.”

Richards says that tension between design, engineering, and executive teams often creates better solutions.

“The fact that people are having such a hard time defining the Sportster S tells me we’ve found some white space and potentially some customers that haven’t been attracted to the brand in the past.”

After a day of riding the exciting Sportster S, we’re really eager to find out what will come next from the formidable new Sportster platform! Look for a full review in our next issue.

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