I received this essay from a person working in the motorcycle industry. I like the content, it reflects my considerations to the now famous FortNine video and it moves ahead the conversation on the future of motorcycling. For these reasons I’m making an exception to my usual blog’s policy and am publishing without modifications, allowing the author to remain anonymous.
iHogs for everyone?
“Nice riding bikes that do not break and are fun and enjoyable.” – John G, friend, age 86 and still riding (coast-to-coast, Four Corners, and for daily transportation). He purchased his first Harley in 1955.
Here is a link to a recent fourteen minute YouTube video about “How Harley Davidson Killed Itself” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOwxxsPaogY . As I write, it has over 1.62 million views, an incredible number for any motorcycle-related video.
The YouTuber who created it has been posting good motorcycle videos for years, but none has come close to being as widely watched as this one. He deserves this wide recognition because mostly the video gets H-D’s business history right, and because he projects one possible future reasonably well. It is also an important video here in America because Harley Davidson is still the famous ‘900-pound gorilla.’ It has been the dominant company in American motorcycling for a very long time, so long that most riders today don’t know otherwise. Only old guys remember the ‘You Meet the Nicest People’ and ‘Kawasaki Lets the Good Times Roll’ marketing campaigns of the 1970s, which was what existed during the motorcycle sales boom that occurred before Harley took over.
Harley is in fairly deep shit, partly because of some very smart decisions they made over the last thirty years. Those decisions were absolutely business-correct at the time and helped them grow not just quickly but exponentially. They saw an opportunity in American culture, a need by large numbers of ordinary people to recreationally enjoy the experience of being a ’safe’ rebel (a classic oxymoron — two words that express ideas which are so opposite that they cancel each other out) and they pursued this opportunity brilliantly. Now they are hoisted on their own petard, to use another famous phrase. They are caught in a cage partly of their own making.
Side note: Why millions of nice successful people all over the world enjoy being ‘safe rebels’ is another story, and an interesting one. Good books on this have already been, and more will continue to be written. Let’s just say it’s in our DNA.
The creator of this video is probably correct when he suggests Harley shouldn’t try to sell H-D bicycles, electric scooters, and mini-bikes to today’s kids because this young generation associates H-D as an old-person’s brand, and because of that they want nothing to do with it.
What the creator of this video gets wrong is that H-D has few viable options. They remain on the top of the world’s most recognizable brands, and just like Coke, Levi’s, Nestle, Toyota, and McDonalds, there’s a lot of power in having that kind of brand recognition, even if in H-D’s case it currently is generally associated with older people. Brands this powerful seldom go totally bankrupt, though it does happen. Market-dominant businesses like Nokia, Pan-American Airlines, and WordPerfect, are examples.
This YouTube analysis hugely underestimates the ‘sticky-ness’ of the brand, and the endlessly eternal appeal to millions of average, normal people aspiring to be slightly bad-ass and a bit different. Plus, there’s the core endorphin and dopamine-producing and highly-addictive nature of riding itself. Harley would have to commit years of really bad business mistakes (like spending money creating and producing an expensive ‘halo’ ebike, another ‘adventure’ bike, and minibikes). They’ve just gotten a new president. It will be interesting to see what he does.
I think H-D ought to do what the Apple computer company did when it nearly went bankrupt. At the time co-founder Steve Jobs had been kicked out of the company that he’d co-founded, and it was being badly run (in some ways) by a guy named John Sculley. Against incredibly fierce competition it was busily making dozens of computers with minor variations to fill every little marketing niche imaginable and were running out of money doing it. Steve Jobs came back and cut the product range back to only about five models, take-it-or-leave-it, and then promoted the heck out of the best one.
Of particular importance was their new iMac, the first little computer optimized for the very compelling and also-new internet. This machine probably saved the Apple company. It was cheap, worked well, and sold by the ton. https://www.macworld.co.uk/news/mac/imac-facts-history-3682354/
If I were running Harley, I’d cut the product range back to only four or five models, one of which would somehow be an all-new (on the outside) product like the iMac was. I’d cut the size of the factories, the distribution centers and the number of employees. I’d stop trying to sell ‘motorcycling’ and instead try to sell the heck out of this one all-newest model, the ‘iMac’ of Harleys.
This is what it would be (a bunch of guesses):
- 750-800 cc. version of the sportster/Evo engine (a durable, near-maintenance-free engine).
- As lightweight as possible. Goal = 400-450 lbs. The lighter the better.
- Largish gas tank. Five U.S. gallons. Available in ten colors at no additional charge.
- Flat-ish saddle.
- Minimal fenders. Unpainted polished aluminum.
- Largish front tire (probably same size both ends).
- Single front disk.
- Spoke wheels (?)
- Effective muffler. Very quiet. Aluminum.
- Lighted buttons on the handlebar switches.
- Large (7-8”) headlight.
- Standard cargo rack (small) over rear fender.
- Aluminum flat-tracker type ‘pull back’ handlebars, but not quite so wide.
- Built-in long-range paging alarm system. Standard.
- Optional automatic shifting gearbox ($1,500-$2,000 more money).
- Styled somewhat like the custom ‘scrambler’ bikes which are so aspirational today (see ‘BikeEXIF’ for examples)
- Mostly made in Thailand for cost reasons. Complete tank, frame, fork/bar assembly, wheels, saddle, etc.
- Minimal final assembly in America for marketing reasons.
- More lightweight Japanese/Euro-ish controls.
- Slightly more rearward located footrests (than traditional H-D practice) with mounts in place for extra-cost optional forward controls.
- Trials-ey or ADV-ey tires.
- Place for dealer or owner installed optional screw-adjustable flip-lever friction throttle ‘cruise control.’
- Heated grips and saddle standard.
In other words, this would be a more day-to-day practical and useful bike, with a big H-D logo on the tank.
I’d forget about all of the traditional categories like ‘Cruiser’, ‘ADV’, ’Sport bike’, ’Scrambler’ and ’Touring’. This would be just a basic bike, the kind of bike the base Triumph twin and Enfield twin bikes are but done better.
Sometimes this sort of iMac thing works for a company, and other times it sinks the business that tries it. For Apple it worked because the internet was rising so fast, and everyone wanted to be on the internet. For other companies it doesn’t work.
I really don’t know if this tactic would work for Harley. It would be much riskier than the iMac was for Apple. And maybe I’ve got the engine size wrong. Maybe it should be a 500 or 600 cc V twin. The smoothest running V twin I’ve ever ridden was a Ducati 620 Multistrada. A two-year-only-model but it went about 115mph, got good mileage, and was super light and nimble-feeling. Maybe a Harley-ized version of that bike with a paging alarm and lighted handlebar buttons?
What I do know is that Harley’s decline after 30 years of being dominant means there is about to be an opportunity for something to come along and fill the opening. Maybe it means defining something new about motorcycling. Or maybe the ‘You Meet the Nicest People . . .’ stuff will come back. Whatever it is will be different than what is just now starting to fade. People will continue to find motorcycles-in-general cool and attractive, and despite the risks and discomforts they will always love riding. I just don’t know exactly what story will next become culturally dominant. It may not involve being a ‘rebel’ in a fringed leather vest and black chaps or riding a bike with too-loud open pipes, but it will be something equally charismatic and compelling.
Big cultural things like what the last thirty years of Harley represented don’t go away in ten years, or even forty, unless the company really makes a bunch of terrible business and financial mistakes. Harleys are aspirational, something desired one day. I know many young men of today who will continue to work hard earn money to buy Harleys far into the future. It just may not be quite as many as the number of baby-boomers who did this between 1985 and 2008.
Anatole, May 2020
PS – Harley stock in the 1980’s was $1/share, peaked at over $65/share and today is at around $22/share. The contrarian in me would buy some and hope current H-D management doesn’t completely screw everything up.
PPS – Bike-wise, I’ve always liked Harleys but have never owned or spent much time riding one. They are very good machines in so many ways. I always thought I might someday buy one along the lines of this custom model https://www.bikeexif.com/zero-engineering-type-9 , but never did. These were not genuine Harley’s since they used S&S engines, but they were an artful homage to Harley and to the cultural things that so many baby-boomers (like me) admire. This particular niche business closed last year after more or less successfully operating for at least 15 years. This is probably another consequence of the same broad trends that have been negatively impacting Harley, and which this YouTube video compellingly presents. If I owned one of these ‘homage’ bikes, or an actual Harley, I’d happily wear my black leather jacket and armoured jeans 99% of the time and would hugely enjoy the riding experience — like the millions of riders who did buy a Harley and who have been riding them happily ever since.