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Reaction to Harley-Davidson Street 500 and 750

Harley-Davidson Street 750

Remember this summer when Harley-Davidson was going into convulsive fits of self-congratulation because of Project Rushmore?

“A whole new ride starts now,” the company proclaims on its website. 
Rushmore, they said, was the biggest leap forward in the company’s history. Huzzah, huzzah, fireworks, blaring guitars, etc. I didn’t really see what the fuss was about.

The announcement the company made this week, however, is far more profound. Harley-Davidson is soon to release 500- and 750-cc liquid-cooled bikes. As far as I can tell, this is the first time Harley have offered a 750 or lower in roughly 30 years (someone please correct me if I’m wrong).

The machines, of course, are a response to the great big pink elephant that resides in the Cult of Harley temple: the median age of Harley riders is 47. And although 47-year-olds are awesome (I’ll be one soon enough) and perhaps more likely to have the cash for the latest WTFBBQROFL Cock Monster Special Classic Deluxe Supreme (a), they are also dangerously close to that age when some guys start to feel that their hips, knees and hands aren’t really up to the demands of motorcycling.

In other words, it’s a demographic you don’t necessarily want to build a business on. Or, at least, not the whole of your business. And in fairness to Harley-Davidson, the company has made laudable efforts to extend its appeal to women and minorities with initiatives like Iron Elite and Los Harlistas. But arguably those initiatives are just variations on a theme: appealing to people whose idea of safety begins and ends with a leather vest, and who enjoy riding enormous and expensive machines in straight lines, slowly.

And if that’s your thing, you keep on rockin’ mi amigo. To be honest, it’s sort of my thing, too. Minus the bit about no safety gear. Would that I could live out my daydreams, my life would be spent astride a Victory or Indian, trundling here and there across the great North American continent. But as Gary France points out: “Motorcycle riding is very different depending where you are in the world and what is right for one market is very wrong for another.

You, too, can be as cool as this Asian hipster.

It’s not just geography and road layout, though. Mindsets are different. Many people — both in the United States and out — have little or no desire for the typical heavy machine we’ve come to expect from Harley-Davidson. People like me in the real world, for example. When I test rode the 883 and the 1200 Sportsters back in August I loved the idea of them, but came away feeling it unlikely that a Harley would be my next motorcycle.

As I said at the time: “Although the XL1200 is brilliant in straight lines, it feels sluggish if you try to throw it around. Filtering straight past a line of cars came easily, but I would never attempt to weave this bike up through traffic.”

Yes, I’ve seen one or two 883s navigating the London mess, but I think most people who live in urban areas of the sort we have in Europe — and India, where the new HD Streets will be made (b) — would prefer something a little more nimble. And Honda’s tremendous success with both its 250cc and 500cc range of bikes suggests a market for “smaller” bikes very much exists in the United States, as well.

For the most part, I like the idea of the Harley-Davidson Street, with one reservation. But before I get to that let’s take a look at some of the main points that have come up in reaction to these new machines:

  • They’re from India. And? Truthfully that’s not really an issue. Sure, I have sighed wistfully at the fact the bulk of Triumph’s machines come from Thailand, but I don’t think that has any bearing on their quality. Indeed, there isn’t one bike in the Triumph range — even the intolerably ugly Street Triple (c) — that I wouldn’t love to have as my own. Besides, no existing Harley-Davidson is truly American; like a “British-made” Triumph, the “American-made” Harleys consist of mostly foreign parts assembled in the target country.  
  • It’s “small.” Shut up. 500 cc is not small. 750 cc is definitely not small. Especially considering that the engine in the Street appears to be a variant of that used in the V-Rod (a). With three of the five initial markets (U.S., Italy, Spain, Portugal and India) being in Europe, I would expect the 750 to produce the 47bhp maximum allowed for the A2 license (d). Especially since A2 license holders (people under the age of 24) are a big part of the target audience for this bike.
  • It’s got a radiator. God-forbid Harley-Davidson should build a modern machine. I’ve never
    Yip yip yip. Nice radiator.

    really understood the archaic love some people have for air-cooled bikes. I mean, I understand it, perhaps, in a romantic sense — in the same way as I understand a love for horse-drawn carriages. But in a real-world way I don’t get why you’d be so religious about it. The initial markets for the Street are places that can get quite hot, especially if you are stuck in the urban environments for which the bike is intended. Radiators will make the bikes more comfortable, more efficient (and thereby more environmentally sound) and faster. I will admit, though, that the oversized nature of this particular radiator is a bit silly and makes the bike look just a bit like an alien from Sesame Street.

All in all, my own response to the Street is favourable. The most orthodox elders within the Cult of Harley will moan for the sake of moaning, but, to be honest, no one really cares what they think anyway. The whole point of the Street range is that those old guys will be dead soon. Harley-Davidson is with this bike reaching out to not only a younger audience, but a different one.

And that’s the whole thing about motorcycles: it’s your personal freedom, your tool for independence. Someone else’s opinion of that tool is only relevant if you’re trying to lure them into bed with you (and even then, not really). By and large, if Harley-Davidson puts legitimate marketing muscle behind them, I would expect the Streets to be quite popular.

To that end, I would expect the days of the 883 Sportster are numbered. When I rode it and the 1200, I couldn’t really feel a major difference in performance or handling. Although the 883 is certainly a popular machine (searches for it are the no. 1 source of search traffic to this blog), I think it makes sense to drop the “smaller” of the Sportsters and have the 1200 serve as the next step up from a 750 Street.

I do have a serious complaint with the bike, however: it lacks antilock brakes. Which is just stupid. It’s stupid because ABS is a brilliant asset for both the new and urban riders at which this bike is targeted. But it’s especially stupid because in Italy, Spain, Portugal and the rest of the European Union, antilock brakes will be required as standard on all motorcycles (above 125 cc) from 1 January 2016.

Needs antilock brakes.

Considering it will have to do so within two years, Harley-Davidson should have offered ABS as standard on the Street from the very beginning. They could have spun things to make it seem they were being innovative and ground-breaking. Instead, they will just be keeping up.

So, I wouldn’t be getting a Street until at least 2016. After that, well, I’ll be getting getting closer to Harley’s existing age demographic and will probably focusing all my attention on an ABS-equipped Victory Judge (e). But never say never.

    (a) The names given to Harleys are ridiculous and too often sound like rejected names for condoms.

    (b) HD claims that the Streets sold in the United States will be manufactured in Kansas City. When journalists asked the follow-up question of whether the bikes will, in fact, simply be assembled in KC using parts from India, the company went tellingly quiet.

    (c) Apologies, Lucky, since your bike looks pretty much the same. But as I say, even though I think it’s ugly I would love to have one.

    (d) All motorcycle licenses in the European Union conform to the same requirements. An interesting fact related to that is that in the riding test the emergency stop is supposed to be executed at or slightly above 50 kph. However, in the UK, we don’t understand kilometres. Translated to our ancient way of thinking, the stop has to be executed at or slightly above 31.06 mph. Which, of course, creates a nonsensical challenge for a person riding a motorcycle that has the classic needle speedometer and who lives in a country where the urban speed limit is 30 mph. So, in the UK, it is allowed that people do a 30mph (48.2 kph) stop in their test. But, hilariously, this means that technically we are not meeting EU standards. As a result, every time a rider passes the test with an emergency stop speed between 30 mph – 31.06 mph (i.e., less than 50 kph) it means the UK government must pay a small fine to the EU.

    (e) I’m assuming that Victory will get with the times in 2016. I’m really hoping they will and that by then I’ll have the money for a Judge. My fear is that Victory will decide to just pull out of the European market — I have only ever seen one Victory on UK roads.