Follow the Leader

“Everyone else is doing it, so I should too.”

A phrase that works on multiple levels today; one, I’m jumping on the bandwagon of weighing in on the latest announcements from Harley-Davidson, and two, it seems that phrase is what led the project brief for the 2020 models Harley announced on July 30th.

The ol’ Bar & Shield out of Milwaukee was, until fairly recently, the undisputed king of the motorcycle jungle. Now, despite a loyal following, it seems Harley-Davidson is struggling to find their footing in, and adapt to, the modern market.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though. Over the last 50 years or so, the engineers and designers for motorcycle companies in Japan and Europe have maintained diverse product lines with wide appeal across multiple demographics, and have continuously experimented with and refined both purpose-built and versatile do-it-all motorcycles. They have done so utilizing a variety of engine configurations, styling cues, and technology packages, and innovation and engineering have often remained at the forefront. Even Polaris with their Indian and now defunct Victory lines have experimented, taken risks, and put an emphasis on engineering, performance, and innovation, proving that these qualities are not dead among American powersports companies.

Harley, on the other hand, painted themselves into a corner with their success over the last 25-30 years. It is no secret that H-D fans are diehard adherents to the brand. While it’s praiseworthy to build a strong brand to garner loyal customers, dedication and loyalty is often resistant to change. Harley only added thicker coats of wet paint around their feet with a strategy where style reigned over substance and image was more important than engineering. Resultingly, they didn’t leave themselves much room to keep things fresh and relevant, let alone take risks, experiment, and be disruptive. The friction and static from customers and industry alike whenever the Motor Company was perceived as deviating from their norm prevents innovation, diversification, and agility in their product line and marketing strategy. They became a victim of their own myopic hubris and conservatism.

So now, Harley struggles to find relevance outside the cruiser segment, with a younger generation of riders (and killing the Dyna certainly didn’t help with that), and the majority of their moves to do so come across not as innovative or exciting, but as uninspired attempts to play catch up with what other manufacturers have already been doing for years. While H-D is keeping most specifications and details on the new models close to the vest at this point, the three new models for 2020 appear to be chasing trends, rather than innovating within these market segments, or disrupting the industry altogether by creating an all new segment or style. If anyone should be capable of reinvigorating the motorcycle industry, it should be the company that effectively created it.

So what we’re left with is Harley seemingly trying to capitalize on three current market trends.

The urban brawler/bobber/tracker trend…

2020 Harley Custom 1250 looks like it is ready to take on the Indian Scout.

the adventure-touring trend…

Can the 2020 Harley Pan America take on the BMW R1200GS or KTM Adventure line?

and the sporty hyper-naked roadster trend.

The Streetfighter 975 will be stepping into the octagon with the likes of the Yamaha MT-09 and Ducati Monster.

All of which are styles which are executed by other manufacturers with years, if not decades of refinement and experience behind them in these segments. That’s not to say that these models can’t, or won’t be successful, but that Harley is fighting a significant uphill battle with them. To put it lightly, these bikes have no traction. They’re a deviation from the norm that isn’t readily accepted by H-D diehards, thanks to the aforementioned corner-painting Harley did. To those who are more brand agnostic, it’s highly likely that other brands do these styles of bikes better, more cost effectively, and in a proven manner. Basically, there’s nothing to care about. The end result is fanfare and celebratory ads from Harley that merely shrouds what is ultimately white noise and a shrug.

All things considered, this is a good step toward Harley-Davidson shedding the baggage of their often crippling legacy and image, especially as their core customer continues to age out. If they deliver the goods on these bikes, they could do well. My prediction: it’s a new (likely modern) engine platform, and the design of the bikes (not necessarily aesthetically, but in terms of the frame, geometry, etc.) and components looks great, which will appeal to the emerging younger enthusiast market, especially if it’s competitve on price and performance. Additionally, over the last few years, Harley has taken steps toward shaking up their paradigm with the Street platform, the Milwaukee 8, the new Softails, and the impending release of the Livewire. My prediction is that uptake won’t be immediate, and I suspect it will take 3-5 years after launch for there to be any decent traction, but it will be there.

Tangentially, since the closure of their Kansas City plant, I have predicted that the Sportster will be killed off in under 5 years. I have a hunch that it will be sooner than that, and the Sportster will be dead by 2020. I think the Street platform, and it’s Revolution-X engine will join the Sportster on the chopping block. They’re both older engine platforms (ancient, in the case of the Sporty’s now 34 year-old Evolution motor), and represent the “old guard,” so to speak, at H-D. There’s simply no place for the current mid-sized Evolution or Revolution-X with this new modern modular platform entering the fray with its engine displacements of 500cc to 1250cc. There’s product line diversity, and then there’s unnecessary redundancy.

We’re on the cusp of potentially seeing a new Motor Company emerge. Are these new efforts going to be effective, or will it be too little, too late? Harley-Davidson is burning, but does that mean there will be nothing but ash, or will a phoenix rise from the flames? I think these new models, though they don’t particularly appeal to me (though I think the Streetfighter looks great), and as critical as I may be of them, objectively speaking, strike a good balance between something expected out of the MoCo (the tracker/bobber Custom 1250) and something entirely new (the Pan America), with the Streetfighter splitting the difference. Chasing trends, and following the lead of other brands is not innovative or fresh, but maybe we expect too much out of Harley. Perhaps being a trailblazing industry leader is simply a bygone era in Milwaukee, and we just need to come to terms with that.

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