[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ay, way, back when this industry was a minuscule size compared to what it is now, a man named Soichiro Honda came up with these small motorcycles that had fast revving small engines that he decided to sell in America. At the time, there were very few motorcycle dealers, and the bikes built back then were not, shall we say, a great example of reliability. Soichiro made some remarkable sales claims, and was laughed out of many offices.
We all know what happened after: he created a dynasty of remarkable, great selling, relatively good handling and fast motorcycles. His company has sold many millions of motorcycles in the past 50 years; never mind the units that Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki have also sold. Many of the existing manufacturers at the time died a slow death once these upstarts came along.
GM was at one time one of the largest corporations in the world, but by holding on to old technologies and ignoring current realities, they went into bankruptcy. So did Chrysler for the same reasons. Honda (again), Toyota, and now Hyundai and KIA and others, have created a new reality, where quality and engineering are king. You won’t see a single pushrod engine in any of those lineups.
Harley-Davidson has, for the most part, sputtered along over the years, finally achieving success after Willie G. and his gang took over and created not so much a motorcycle as an image that has sold millions of motorcycles over the last 35 years or so. They’ve done very well.
I’ve been a fan of Harley bikes for many years, but as time goes on, I’m becoming afraid for the brand. Why? Because their sales seem to be slipping somewhat. They are stagnant. Their existing client base is growing older, and they don’t seem to have anything to attract the new generations; generations that have grown up driving small cars with high revving, modern engines. A 20-something-year-old fellow was in my store recently, and he called Harleys “old man bikes.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Maybe it’s just that all dynasties have a finite life. Maybe I’m being Chicken Little. Recently, there has arisen two relatively new players in the American motorcycle market. They are, of course, Victory and Indian. Victory, as we know, is a subsidiary of Polaris Industries, a snowmobile and ATV manufacturer. Indian has come and gone several times and has had several iterations, until it too became a subsidiary of Polaris.
Victory has had a somewhat speckled past, in that it has had many ups and downs in its short history. Indian, however, even though it’s a relatively new company, with new products, has been rapidly increasing its sales.
They have bikes that look similar to motorcycles built decades ago, they are modern machines with modern engines and technology. Their sales seem to be taking off, and they are making full use of the American motorcycle theme. A lot of Indian’s cachet is coming from its storied name.
I believe Indian to be H-D’s biggest threat, as it is making full use of all of the technology at its disposal. Take a look at Harley’s odd use of “Liquid-Cooled.” Instead of building a new engine with a fully liquid-cooled cylinder, it uses an existing engine and added a liquid-cooled head. This seems to me to be an inexpensive shortcut that has not been all that successful. Surely they can build an engine that has a water jacket and still look like a traditional H-D engine.
“But they have a liquid-cooled engine!” you say. Yes they do. The V-Rod seems to have a great engine, but for some reason Harley has never put that engine in what I would call a traditional cruiser. They have kept it looking like the red headed stepchild. Imagine: a modern engine in a bike that has heritage in its design. It looks like their competition is doing exactly that – to great effect.
A lot of you are saying “So what? Harley is king, and that won’t change.” You may be right. However, I predict that they will have a problem in the future, and that future isn’t as far away as we all might think – unless they change. The question is: will they?
Norton, AJS, BSA, and many others laughed at Soichiro, and looked what happened to them. Let’s hope that the name Harley-Davidson is not the obscure answer in a future Trivial Pursuit question.
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