How to Save Harley-Davidson

How to Save Harley-Davidson

Harley-Davidson is important to all motorcyclists.  Even if you’ve never owned one, or ridden one, or wanted to do either, H-D is still important.  As the owner of a competing dealership shared with me, the end of Harley as a company would be a disaster for all brands and all motorcycle enthusiasts.

And yet, following a decades long compilation of unforced errors and organizational deafness, that may occur.  What can be done?  Here is an idea.

I’ve never owned a Harley, but in the ten years I worked for a Harley dealer in customer relations I rode about 80 of them – several of every model.  I particularly liked the Road King, and rode one every time I had an excuse.

The roots of the current debacle go back well over 35 years.  Following the purchase of the company by its own management from AMF in 1983, Harley blossomed into a must-have lifestyle accessory for a booming class of the newly monied. Soon, Harleys were selling for over MSRP.  Eager customers put down a healthy deposit and were called when a model came in. If they did not like the color, on to the next in line.  Most customers added expensive trinkets to their new bike before delivery, and it was common for customers to brag about how much they had paid. It was a different world.

From the late 1980’s until past 2000 Harley profits were enormous. Cracks began to appear in the early years of this century.  The bikes received small improvements each year, but most of the changes were what was termed “BNG,” which stood for Bold New Graphics.

An aside that is completely off the topic, but that I find fascinating. Do you know the difference between an acronym and an initialism?  An initialism is a series of letters that pronounced as a word, with each letter pronounced separately.  Examples would be FBI, STP, CIA, and BNG.  An acronym is a series of letters pronounced as a word where each letter stands for a complete word. Examples would include NASCAR, NASA, WHO, etc.  Ignore for a second that NASCAR stands for North American Stock Car Auto Racing, and that NASCAR has not raced anything remotely close to stock for 50 years.

Harleys were all, in those days, heavier and slower than most of the competition. They did not handle or brake as well, and were not as reliable, and yet were more to far more expensive than rivals.

The handwriting was on the wall, and Harley management chose to not look up. They were warned of what was coming by scores of people, from amateurs like the high school marketing students I worked with in 2003 who had a video conference with the Harley marketing people, to semi-professionals and enthusiasts like me, to all sorts of media and motorcycle experts of long standing. Harley chose to ignore all of those not ensconced in their snug bunker.

They did make some grudging attempts to modernize, but did not really commit to any of them.  The purchased the talent and company of Eric Buell, and then never gave him the resources to develop the “real” engine his design, chassis, and suspension acumen deserved. He was forced to carry on with mostly Harley Sportster engines, which were designed literally a half a century before.  After 20 years, Harley folded the Buell tent they had never fully erected, without every making a profit.

The introduced the V-Rod, a modern power cruiser. The engine, reportedly designed with assistance from Porsche, was fabulous, albeit heavy.  However, most customers were not informed it was not a traditional Harley engine and tootled around at under 3,000 rpm, never unleashing the performance and enjoyment to be had above 5,000rpm. I thought it to be on the verge of awesome, although dragging my left heel in the first corner was a first, and a warning. They made a sport bike, which had tremendous potential, and then failed to tell anyone about it and stopped after one year.

They made a sort of adventure bike under the auspices of Buell, and the Ulysses was pretty impressive in the 1200 miles I put on one, particularly on rough and rutted pavement.

In recent years, things have gotten worse. Much worse. They trotted out at least two concept “adventure bikes,” and have produced neither.  They purchased a leading company in the burgeoning field of electric bikes, and sold it within a year.  Most recently they introduced the “Live Wire,” their own completely electric model. A friend who is an early adopter of all technologies was ready to buy, expecting a $20,000 price and 300 miles of range.  Harley reversed those numbers, and he was out, as were, evidently, almost everyone else.

With their stock price crashing due to political back-stabbing by the Trump administration, their traditional customer base “aging out,” (politically correct way to say ‘becoming dead’), and a line of bikes that are beautiful but woefully out of date,  things are rapidly turning from bad to much worse.

What to do?  Take a lesson from the car industry, and do some corporate raiding!   Have you noticed that the reliable and economical cars and trucks flooding our shores from Korea have suddenly begun to be much better looking?  That is because Hyundai saw a weakness and solved it – by throwing a lot of money at exalted designers from Europe and putting them in charge of handling and, most importantly, styling.  When Ford purchased Jaguar a couple of decades or more ago, they also got access to Ian Callum, famed designer of many Aston Martins and Jaguars.  That is why the nose of my 2016 Ford Focus, and many other Ford models, looks like it took a detour through a factory in England.

I received in the mail the other day a full color many pages brochure from Indian, touting seven different Indian motorcycle models.  As I looked through it, I wanted to ride all of them!   The new BMW 1200 roadster, with the nose now taking styling cues from the S1000RR sport bike, is lust provoking. 

The suite of high-tech fripperies on both the BMWs and my Triumph Rocket 3 were designed by men and women.   Cannibalizing the design talent from a competitor is a long-established path to success in many industries.  It is time for Harley to abandon the old guard who refuse to change or listen, and go get some fresh talent.

If you were a talented designer, would you want to take on the challenge of making Harley relevant again?  It would be the opportunity of a career. IF you were given the authority to make real change.

Here’s hoping, that in their desperation they reach out and snag a bright designer or two and save the motor company. For all of us.

Ride safe, ride fast, and ride often!

Copyright 2020                     David Preston

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About david

I am a 74 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020), a 2020 Triumph Bonneville, and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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