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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

05 September 2010

Harley Davidson 2010: The Giant Awakens!

The 2011 Harley Davidson Sportster

The Harley Davidson Motor Company has always had a problem attracting young riders to its product. Especially lately, the demographic of the typical Harley rider has been...well...me (a 55 y/o boomer). This is a problem. If you don't have young riders coming in the front door, the old riders will eventually die off.

Part of Harley's bigger problem lies in the fact that the company really hasn't made bikes that young people want. Young guys want to go fast. They want sportbikes, like those loud, annoying, psuedo-racers you see terrorizing the highways and byways. With few exceptions, these are mainly from Japanese manufacturers, who have dominated that market segment since the 1980s.

Typically, young people don't go for slow, American "cruisers," which have always been considered "old man bikes." They think sportbikes (so-called "crotch-rockets") are more fun. But there are many reasons we ride motorcycles. "Going fast" is part of the fun, yes, but only a part. It's also about what we do with our bikes.

Harleys have always had a certain undeniable charisma and attraction, and H-D has always had the lion's share of the "cruiser" market, which has been their main source of revenue. In numerous attempts to compete head-to-head with Harley, the Japanese manufacturers have produced many blatant copies of the Harley design, with varying degrees of success. Today there are models from Star-Yamaha and Kawasaki that can even fool me at first glance - they are that much of a ripoff of certain unique Harley design cues (for instance, the two-cylinder V-twin engine with the air filter and exhaust system both on the right side of the bike, the big, flared fenders, etc.).

In 1995, Honda even went so far as to produce a Harley-clone (ironically called the "American Classic Edition" or A.C.E.) in which they actually designed-in some "extra" vibration because they felt the bike was "too smooth," a Honda trademark. But see, many bikers prefer to know they're on a piece of machinery and not a sewing machine or electric motor.

Can you tell them apart? Top: Honda A.C.E., Middle: H-D Heritage Softail, Bottom: Kawasaki Vulcan

Nevertheless, "cruiser" bikes (e.g. Harleys) never really found wide appeal with the younger generation. It is true that the majority of Harleys are the big touring (e.g. "Electra Glide") and cruiser models, but they also have the smaller Sportster, which is what I own, which is more what we used to think of as just a regular ol' motorcycle. I've always felt that Harley was missing the boat by not marketing the Sportster to young people as a fun, all-around, general purpose streetbike.

It took Harley a long time to figure this out, but they finally did. More than that, they decided to do something about it. When I first saw the following commercial on television, I was blown away. I stared at the screen thinking, "This is HARLEY advertising??"

Apparently young, cool, good-looking people ride Sportsters now! Apparently these young, cool, good-looking people hot-rod their bikes around in the dirt. And have lots of other young, cool, good-looking friends. And apparently hot chicks who ride Sportsters often spontaneously go skinny-dipping! What the...?! What are you, kidding me? Harley?! I want to hang out with these people! I want to be like them! I mean, I'm not...and I already ride a Sportster! (Notice that there is not a beer-gut in sight in that spot, and the only gray beard belongs to the jealous-looking cop.)

Don't get me wrong, it's great! It's just such a different direction for what has always been such a staid, conservative, laid-back company. Talk about aggressive marketing! NOBODY is doing this anymore: showing how much fun motorcycles can be. Which they are, of course.

Harley is in trouble, as are all motorcycle manufacturers. Motorcycles are pretty much thought of as a hobby. They are bought with discretionary funds that as we all know are pretty scarce these days. Instead of just sitting back and waiting for bankruptcy, Harley Davidson has decided to do something pro-active and go after a market they have traditionally been ignoring. (By the way, I *love* how Harley brought back the classic red, white and blue "#1" logo they originally used in the 1970's. Nice touch.)

I say bravo! I hope it works.


Greybeard said...

I read where Suzuki imported NO NEW motorcycles for 2010... the inventory of 2009 models still in dealerships was enough to satisfy customer needs. (Wonder how they'll handle someone who wants a title with the year 2010 on it?)
So Harley is not the only bike company feeling the pinch.

But Harley IS a puzzle. They obviously realized they had a problem when they produced the V-Rod... a gallant attempt but an odd bike that will appeal to only a small population of riders, and certainly won't appeal to someone just starting out in the sport.

I'm sure you've seen the Buell fiasco unfolding...
I'd love to see them beg Eric for forgiveness, bring him on board, and have him design something modern along the lines of the Moto Guzzi V7 or Triumph Bonneville to attract "first step" riders. If they don't wake up soon they'll find themselves in the same position they found themselves in when AMF bought (and very nearly killed) the motor company.

They need new ideas and new technology. The time to do that was 10 years ago when the money was coming in by the bucketload.
Is it too late?
I hope not.

Bob Barbanes said...

GB, wow, I just checked and Suzuki's offerings for 2010 were pitiful! The sportbikes are almost all gone. Whaaaat? I guess this tells us which markets have really dried up.

Suzuki may not have brought many 2010's over, but they sure have a complete line of 2011's to choose from at www.suzuki-bikes.com - unless you wanted a GSRX-something. Again, the Hayabusa is the *only* sportbike offered! It is true, the U.S. market is but a shadow of what it was in the 1990's and 2000's. All the manufacturers are suffering.

For its part, Harley has never known how to address and attract new and/or younger riders. Remember the captive-import line of Aermacchi bikes from Italy that H-D tried to get us to buy in the 60's/70's (of course you do)? Ugh. (They were okay bikes, but they were *not* Harleys.) Remember the Buell Blast? Double-ugh.

The Sportster is a great "first-bike." It's light, nimble, powerful (but not *too* powerful) and cheap to buy/own/operate. It's a pretty damn good all-around motorcycle at heart. But as I've said, the problem is, Harley always tried to make the Sporty out to be a mini-cruiser...a mini-Super Glide...with a big, fat rear tire and low, leaned-back, cruiser looks.

What they've done is fantastic: Turned the Sportster into a more-refined, more "accessible" general-purpose streetbike. It works well for the entry-level rider (IMHO), and it's one the rider can keep throughout his/her riding career. I'm evidence of that.

At most Harley dealerships, they have not taken down the Buell signage. Hints within the industry are that Harley is not completely done with Buell, that something "else" may be up. As you suggest, it would be interesting if he came up with a truly modern entry-level bike. But it would have to be one that would allow the rider to make a smooth transition up to a Big Twin, which is where the Big Bucks are for H-D.

Greybeard said...

Bob, don't know if you're tuned in to Dale Franks blog, but he's a good one to check now and then. At that link he showcases a couple machines SOME Harley dealers will be marketing...
V-Twins made by some outfit called Hysoung (Chinese? Korean?) apparently in 250 and 650cc offerings. I'm fearful they could easily turn out like your reference to my old Aermacchi "Sprint"...
Just awful.
But IF they take a hand in the design and quality control and, IF they get someone like Erik Buell on board to tweak 'em to handle well, they may have found their V-Twin entry bikes.

I don't want to see 'em fail as a company, so I hope they take this seriously and start competing with the rest of the world.