In the over 100-year history of Harley-Davidson, the company has repeatedly reinvented the motorcycles it manufactures and sells to catch the current prevailing economic winds. When the Model T Ford wreaked havoc on the American motorcycle industry just prior to World War I, Harley was one of the few survivors. The company switched from selling economical transportation to commercial sidecar haulers and sporting machinery. At the end of the 1920s, when commercial sales hit a lull, Harley set out to boost membership in motorcycle clubs and was very successful. Moribund clubs got an influx of membership, new clubs were formed, and sport sales increased.
Harley-Davidson weathered the Great Depression as well, and as a new war came on the horizon, it successfully bid on military motorcycles for the U.S. and Canadian governments. With World War II won, the company switched back to transportation, making thousands of single-cylinder machines for veterans going to school on the G.I. Bill. When that segment of the market started to go flat, Harley introduced the Sportster, an effective competitor with the then-popular British sport bikes.
The best-selling models for Harley-Davidson since the 1970s have been cruisers. However, management realized, for at least the last 10 years, that people who bought cruisers and heavyweight touring machines were aging, and it was once again time to change its offerings and the way consumers saw the company’s offerings to appeal to a younger group of enthusiasts.
As a result of concerted research and involvement with all stakeholders, Harley started developing electric motorcycles (a prototype of the LiveWire appeared in 2014) and an upgraded internal combustion powerplant, which was announced in 2018. This effort has been championed by Jochen Zeitz, who took over as CEO in March 2020, and has been concentrating on upgrading Harley-Davidson’s product line.
“Last year, 2021, was a landmark year for innovation at The Motor Co.,” says Zeitz. “In 2022, we continue to lead our industry through innovation and evolution.”
The Hardwire plan, released in February 2021, memorializes Harley-Davidson’s push to reinvent itself. Major aspects of the plan include expanding into the adventure riding and untapped aspects of the cruiser segment; growing the cruiser, large tourer and trike segments; and expanding the company’s view of customers to include present non-riders.
The Hardwire plan is evident in the moves Harley-Davidson has made in the year since it was announced. The company has introduced innovative new models that attract new riders, international riders and riders who currently ride motorcycles from other brands. It has offered easy-to-access training to convince non-riders to learn on a Harley-Davidson and thus become comfortable with and inspired by the brand. Learn to Ride events and motorcycle training courses are prominently featured on Harley-Davidson’s website, with links to local training courses. Harley is promoting events that promote the image of Harley linked to innovation, speed and excitement. Harley-Davidson’s advertising is strongly linked to the popular King of the Baggers racing event, featuring American-built V-twins battling it out with touring fairings and saddlebags.
The first of Harley-Davidson’s entirely new machines was the LiveWire, an electric motorcycle introduced in 2019. The company has recently announced that it is spinning off the LiveWire operation as a separate company, although Harley has majority ownership. The LiveWire ONE, a less expensive version of the original LiveWire with updated software and hardware and a different paint design, is the first offering of the new LiveWire company, and there are others in the works.
The next new machine to come out of the factory doors was the Pan America adventure bike. A Harley-Davidson spokesperson commented that the factory saw adventure riding as having a growing base in North America and Europe and wanted to provide a bike that could easily go both on and off-road. Arriving at dealerships in the spring of 2021, this bike, featuring a newly designed engine with double overhead cams, hydraulic valve adjustment and an automatic sensor that will soften the ignition timing to allow the bike to run on regular gas in a pinch, is nothing like the traditional Harley-Davidson. Magazine writers were surprised at how well it worked, and enthusiastic customers have made it the best-selling adventure bike in North America.
Following this success, Harley introduced the Sportster S in the Fall of 2021, which put a variant of the engine from the Pan America into a Sportster package, with improved, fully adjustable suspension and a lighter weight than the older versions of the Sportster. The Sportster S version of the motor has smaller valves, different velocity stacks and altered cams to produce more mid-range power. It comes with five riding modes, built-in navigation, LED lighting, and a monoshock. The new machine has had positive reviews in the motorcycle press, and The Motor Co. is hinting at additional models on this base later in 2022.
January 2022 saw the introduction of a pair of updated sport tourers built around Harley’s touring platform and a 117cc version of the Milwaukee Eight engine. The Street Glide ST is billed as a performance tourer. It has been engineered for more torque and lean angle, and the fork-mounted fairing is designed to reduce wind buffeting. The Road Glide ST is more touring-oriented, with a larger, frame-mounted fairing and styling cues from the King of the Baggers event and the popular FXRT from the 1980s. Both machines have a longer rear shock for more rear-wheel travel, a performance exhaust system and dual front Brembo disc brakes.
“Touring is at the very core of our business,” says Zeitz. “We do it better than anyone else.”
Harley-Davidson continues to offer a wide range of accessories, but these now include a modern control package, billed as Cornering Rider Safety Enhancements, available as an option on all Grand American Touring models, including the new STs. This package includes cornering traction control, variable ride modes, cornering automatic brake systems (ABS) with linked braking of the three brakes, hill-hold control and tire-pressure monitoring. Other performance accessories available for the STs include footpegs to replace the floorboards and track-tested (in the King of the Baggers event) Ohlins shock absorbers.
An important recent addition to the Harley Davidson factory website is the H-D1 Marketplace. This feature assists dealers by giving their used bike inventory a national audience and helps attract new riders by offering a less expensive entry machine. Potential buyers can search for their desired motorcycles by year, category, mileage and price. Part of the Hardwire strategy is to promote Harley-Davidson Certified pre-owned motorcycles, and visitors to the Marketplace can specify certified machines only. To simplify purchase, customers can apply for financing, contact the dealer, and arrange a test ride through the website. The H-D1 Marketplace has quickly become a hit and now boasts the largest selection of used Harleys in the U.S.
The Hardwire plan envisions strengthening the large touring and trike segment, and Harley has made progress on this aspect of the plan as well. At the same time the two ST models were unveiled, the company showed off four new Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) designs — one based on a trike, two based on Road Glides and one based on the Street Glide. The Rider Safety Enhancements are standard on Harley’s CVO motorcycles. Harley continues to build midweight machines (now referred to as Iron 883 or Forty-Eight instead of a Sportster), cruisers and standard touring machines — including an updated version of the iconic Electra Glide from the 1960s.
“We stand for the timeless pursuit of adventure and freedom for the soul,” says Zeitz, who is optimistic about how 2022 will play out for The Motor Co. “It’s going to be an exciting year, full of incredible adventures.”