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Harley-Davidson - A bold new direction

1st Aug 2018 4:43 pm

Harley’s future plans are wild and radical, but did the brand really have any other choice?

Is there another motorcycle company out there with a stronger set of purist enthusiasts? I don’t think so. But even a brand that is so steeply driven by heritage rather than modern technology eventually has to sit back and take stock. And you know Harley has to have been doing that for a while because it’s been a difficult few years for the American icon. Profits have been dropping and its common knowledge now that the problem is not an easily fixable one. Essentially, the average Harley-Davidson customer is ageing and not enough youngsters are being drawn into the brand to replace them.

In this age of smartphone-addicted zombies, getting fresh riders on motorcycles is a big challenge. But it’s not the only one, and Harley has to attract riders from other brands as well. The new Softails have been a step in this direction, but not a big enough one – they’re all genuinely pleasurable to ride, but they’re still very ‘Harley’ at their core.

Now I won’t lie and say I was expecting to see the company unveil an ADV bike or a sporty streetfighter – I don’t think anyone outside of the brand saw it coming. But on some level, a drastic move was expected; there was no other way, really.

So let’s go through what we know. The fun begins in August 2019 when Harley launches the production-spec LiveWire electric bike. This will be a premium and halo entry point to the Harley EV range, but smaller and more affordable e-bikes will subsequently be added. Colleagues who have ridden the LiveWire concept a few years ago have all come back with high praise, so I’m quite looking forward to this.

But the LiveWire is not fresh news and far more feathers have been ruffled by the Pan America ADV-bike and the as-yet-unnamed streetfighter model (although I’m quite certain it will be named the Bronx, a name Harley trademarked in late 2017). Both of these are hugely popular styles of motorcycles internationally, but they are almost completely alien to the American brand. Nevertheless, these models will be a part of a new modular family that will span 500cc to 1,250cc, a segment that Harley refers to as mid-sized. These engines will be brand-new, 60-degree, liquid-cooled DOHC motors. The departure from the favoured 45-degree V angle, pushrods and the complete lack of fins on the engine cases shows that Harley is well and truly freeing itself from the shackles of tradition. The company has done this to some extent in the past with bikes like the V-Rod, Night-Rod and Street family, but never with a big chunk of its mainstream line-up.

However, the biggest news for us is the one that Harley has said the least about so far. That would be the new small-capacity motorcycle that will be built in alliance with an ‘Asian manufacturer’. You can be sure that Harley has been closely watching Royal Enfield’s incredible success, especially since the American brand was overtaken by RE in terms of global sales numbers a few years ago. To respond, Harley needs to come up with a small-capacity motorcycle that offers the brand’s core appeal but at a palatable price. I’d like to believe that this bike will be powered by a V-twin motor that displaces between 300-400cc, but, to be honest, it’s far too early to say. 

What I find more intriguing is the question of who Harley-Davidson will select as the alliance partner. Manufacturing alliances are all the rage these days, and BMW, KTM, and Triumph have all famously announced partnerships with Indian manufacturers. But the big difference here is that none of them have a local manufacturing plant in India, whereas Harley does in Bawal, Haryana, where it produces the Street family of bikes. A key line to note in the Harley press release reads, "This new product and broader distribution is intended to fuel Harley-Davidson’s customer access and growth in India, one of the largest, fastest growing markets in the world, and other Asia markets". Going by that, India certainly seems to be a priority, but other Asian markets are important too, so this partner should have a strong presence in Asia.

That rules out Hero MotoCorp, since the Indian giant’s focus is on Central/South America and Africa. In fact, a vast part of Asia is dominated by Japanese manufacturers who specialise in the region’s affordable two-wheeler of choice – step-throughs. Of course, numerous other brands have a strong presence here too, including Kymco from Taiwan and a number of Chinese manufacturers as well.

A few decades ago, the thought of Harley-Davidson tying up with a Japanese brand seemed unthinkable. After all, it was affordable Japanese bikes, especially from Honda that very nearly ran the American brand into bankruptcy in the early '80s. But these are very different times, and if a global giant like Toyota could join hands with a rival like Suzuki, anything’s possible, really. In fact, here’s a cheeky thought: Remember when Honda said they’re working on a Royal Enfield rival? Perhaps, this could be it!

We’ll just have to patiently wait it out for complete clarity, especially regarding whether the partner will be from India or overseas. But I’m really excited about the direction the brand is heading in. The company will, of course, continue to develop and sell its traditional Touring and Cruising line of bikes, but it is finally taking a deep dive into the future. Here’s hoping that Harley pulls it off and adds many more successful decades to its storied 115 years of existence.

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