Harley hopes to broaden its appeal
Get ready to welcome a new motorcycle company. Harley-Davidson is set to spread the eagle’s wings and claim more territory than ever as the motor company becomes a fullblown motorcycle company.
What, you may well ask, is he on about? Hasn’t Harley-Davidson always been a motorcycle company, since its foundation a hundred and fifteen years ago? Wasn’t it making more than 17,000 motorcycles a year only 15 years later?
Yes of course. But in the latter part of the 20th Century, Milwaukee began to limit its range to make more motorcycles of fewer types.
Finally, they coalesced into what was really only one bike, although it was presented in many guises.
Yes, there were and are Sportsters, cruisers and baggers but the essence was identical. A Vee twin engine; swoopy, quintessentially American design; high-torque/ (relatively) low power; severely limited cornering clearance and indifferent handling; superb chrome and paint; adding up to a high-impact, immediately recognisable product. H-D was, indeed, as it claimed, a Motor Company.
But was it a Motorcycle Company? H-D had never descended to the depths of becoming “a T-shirt company with a motorcycle” as my friend and US industry analyst Robin Hartfiel described Indian before Polaris took it under its wing.
And yet, as it focused more and more on the bikes its ageing buyers wanted, there was no sign of the kind of diversification that had seen original designs like the Topper and the Hummer being created to appeal to younger buyers. Well, all right, the Hummer, like the BSA Bantam and many other manufacturers’ bikes, was a copy of a DKW but you know what I mean.
Harley-Davidson’s part and then full ownership of Italian manufacturer Aermacchi from 1960 also provided a variety of smaller motorcycles with H-D badges but that effort finally failed in 1978 — supposedly because environmental legislation made it impossible to sell the bikes in the US.
But also, according to some commentators, because of declining quality at the Italian factory.
There are even stories of warehouses filled with unsellable bikes rusting away in South America.
Perhaps that failure helped to steer H-D management away from diversification. Certainly, the decision in 2008 to effectively buy Aermacchi back again in its new form as MV Agusta (and Cagiva, for what it’s worth) was not any kind of attempt to diversify the brand.
More than anything, other than finding a way to park $70 million, it was intended to strengthen dealerships by widening their offer with sports bikes.
That didn’t work, anyway, despite Matt Levatich, who is now H-D boss, being sent to Varese to keep an eye and probably a restraining hand on MV’s Claudio Castiglioni. I attended a press conference with the two of them where it was painfully clear that they were not seeing eye to eye. I suspect that the Castiglioni family is not easy to deal with; last year, even Mercedes-AMG walked away from Giovanni Castiglioni and its investment in MV Agusta.
But back to Harley-Davidson in 2018.
Launching Harley-Davidson’s future plans under the title of “More Roads to Harley-Davidson”, a name possibly inspired by China’s “One Belt, One Road” and just as important in the more limited environment of the motorcycle industry, president and chief executive Mr Levatich said, “the bold actions we are announcing today leverage Harley-Davidson’s vast capabilities and competitive firepower — our excellence in product development and manufacturing, the global appeal of the brand and of course, our great dealer network.
“Alongside our existing loyal riders, we will lead the next revolution of two-wheeled freedom to inspire future riders who have yet to even think about the thrill of riding.”
Although he speaks for a company that has often made much of pretty minor changes — different paint and a few other cosmetic changes have been known to create a “new model”, according to Motor Company PR — he backed that claim up with an outstanding range of innovations.
Mr Levatich said, “in moving forward, we are tapping into the spirit that drove our founders back in 1903 and every one of the employees and dealers who rose to the challenges faced along the way.
“Our plan will redefine existing boundaries of our brand — reaching more customers in a way that reinforces all we stand for as a brand and as a company and we can’t wait to kick it into gear.”
Redefining existing boundaries is also known as extending the brand, and if you have a successful one then it’s the surest and safest way to increase sales.
In Harley’s case, brand extension is what will lead the Motor Company to become a fully rounded Motorcycle Company.
While Harley has led the market in some ways, especially in the emphasis it has placed on alternative parts, accessories, clothing and all kinds of bling, it has not, or at least not successfully, extended its brand.
The V-Rod range was a solid attempt to do that, but like so many not-quite-right extensions it was not a success.
Ducati experienced the same thing with the ST touring bikes and the Sport Classics; BMW saw it with the original K Series.
There is no doubt in my mind that Harley-Davidson is the prime brand in motorcycling. Whenever someone finds out that I’m involved in the business, the immediate assumption is that I must ride a Harley. No other brand comes close; even BMW Motorrad has had its identification blurred by the cars.
Now admittedly my mental jury is still out on the Pan America — I think it’s the right bike at the right time, but I’m not sure that enough of you will agree — but the Streetfighter, Custom and even Live Wire models look like certain winners.
And Harley intends to back them up with other improvements under the More Roads plan.
Harley is not letting up with its current models. The Touring and Trike ranges get upgraded with new technology including an electronic Reflex Linked Brake system for the Tri-Glide Ultra and Freewheeler trikes which incorporates Antilock Braking, Traction Control, Drag-Torque Slip Control and linked front and rear braking.
New suspension technology adds a significant improvement in ride quality and ease of spring preload adjustment.
Some of the bikes and trikes in these ranges will be available with the Milwaukee-Eight 114 engine which delivers strong acceleration and overtaking performance.
Milwaukee has also just announced a Limited Edition Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) range of three bikes — the CVO Limited model “for the rider who expects it all — luxury, performance, features and style with the ultimate in long-range touring comfort and luxury”; the CVO Street Glide, “an edgy, custom-bagger with hotrod performance and a mind-blowing premium audio system”; and the CVO Road Glide, “distinctive, menacing style combined with long-haul comfort in a performance touring motorcycle ready for long roads and late nights”.
These bikes are somewhat on the expensive side of expensive but they’re also going to be exclusive.
And if you thought that the disappearance of the V-Rods meant the end of seriously performancebased Harleys, check out the 2019 FXDR 114.
Handling is said to be significantly improved with, among other things, “premium suspension components” and the lean angles are greater than with other Softails.
There is no doubt in my mind Harley is the prime brand in motorcycling.
Your local Harley-Davidson dealer is Great Southern Motorcycles 9841 2246.
What do you think of the Harley-Davidson Pan American?