Opinion The Game

How to save Victory Motorcycles

About a month ago, Jason Avant wrote an article for RideApart titled “How Victory Motorcycles Can Save Itself From Defeat,” which is an issue that is sort of near and dear to me. I agree with almost all of what Jason says in his article but wanted to write a post on how I’d specifically like to see things done.
Jason, by the way, is a cool dude. Not too long ago, he put in a good word for me with the higher-ups at RideApart, suggesting me as a writer for the site. Sadly, I’ve never heard from those higher ups. I suspect that’s because whatever good words Jason might have for me are negated by my own words about RideApart
In my defence, I would say my criticism was directed toward a previous incarnation of RideApart. The modern site still has quite a few problems (I can think of no other “professional” website that is so littered with typos, bad grammar and spelling errors), but I’d rather be part of the solution than bitch.
That’s neither here nor there, however. It’s not relevant to the future of Victory Motorcycles. Like Jason, I carry a bias toward the company. Though in my case it is because Victory is based in Minnesota. Although more of my life has been spent in Texas, and I’ve now lived in Britain longer than I ever lived in Minnesota for any consecutive number of years (a), there is a strange part of me that thinks of the Land of 10,000 Lakes as home. And as such, I like to see Minnesota businesses succeed.
I’m also an American. And my competitive side wants to see American businesses not just succeeding, but dominating. At the moment, Victory is nowhere near that.

There are a lot of reasons why. First and foremost is the fact that you are never going to out-Harley Harley-Davidson. That company is very, very good at what it does. I guess there is some money to be had in offering up a Harley clone, true, but you’ll note that doing so isn’t the bread and butter of other companies. Honda doesn’t live and die by its cruiser sales; the Vulcan is not the only bike that Kawasaki makes.

Victory, though, has nothing else. And I really don’t think you can beat Muhammad Ali just by wearing the same colour of trunks as him. Being like Harley-Davidson (“Hey, we’re American, too. We’re also from the Upper Midwest. We also make nothing but V-twin cruisers and tourers.”) while still not actually being Harley-Davidson just doesn’t cut it.

Especially when you’re up against the Harley-Davidson of today. Its bikes have more features (e.g. anti-lock brakes, keyless start), better finish, higher resale value, greater clout among non-riders and offer considerably more customisation options. And most importantly, as one of the RideApart commenters pointed out, Harley-Davidson understands how to make the most of an experience economy. Victory does not –– especially outside of the United States.
All of this means that Victory doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is. I’ve talked about this before; there’s no real identity to Victory motorcycles.

I mean, if I ask myself, “What is a Victory rider?” I struggle to come up with a clear answer. That is to say, I struggle to come up with a unique idea of a person. Think about it: If I say that my friend will be arriving on a Victory Gunner, what sort of person are you expecting to show up? Male or female? Young or old? Race? Economic status? And are these attributes any different from those you would apply to the rider of any other cruiser?

Victory’s marketing offers no real clarity. It tends to be all over the place in terms of the demographics it pursues. I realise that all motorcycle companies pursue different demographics with different models, but Victory’s actions seem far more confused. More often than not, it seems to be chasing an identity rather than declaring one. What the hell is the essence of the Victory brand? I don’t think Victory knows.
You can see that in the manifestation of Victory’s biggest problem: the fact that it is falling ever more behind. Since 2010 it has offered nothing that is actually new or different. Instead, it has whiled away half a decade changing aesthetics or slightly altering ergonomics and hoping no one notices. In recent years, it has become clear that Victory has run out of ideas. Few things shout “We ain’t got nuthin” more loudly than the Magnum X-1.

If you haven’t heard about the Magnum X-1, it is a Cross Country with a comically large front wheel, awful paint scheme and 200-watt sound system. A sound system, y’all. A sound system. Let me repeat that again: A SOUND SYSTEM. Victory’s best effort in the world of performance motorcycles is to offer up a 5-year-old bike with a really loud sound system.

Because the Notting Hill Carnival crowd is such a vast, untapped market…

Things are bad. Victory has become the Impact Wrestling of American motorcycling; people are looking at it thinking: “OK, this is it. This thing is dead. It could have been so much.”
For a long time I had hope-believed that Victory would present us with a truly new machine at Daytona Bike Week. Now, I have lost almost all my faith in the company.

Almost. I’m clinging to the fact that Victory is planning to produce an electric motorcycle this year. So, I won’t sign the death certificate just yet.

Indeed, let’s be positive here and imagine that Victory is aware of just how bad things look, and that it wants to change, that it truly wants to compete. Here’s how I’d go about doing that:
Firstly, Victory needs to be thinking far into the future, while demonstrating in the immediate present that this thinking is taking place. One way to do this is to let people know what you’re working on. You don’t have to give specifics, obviously, but letting people know that there is stuff happening makes them more comfortable about sticking with you. A few leaked images, perhaps –– things to stir the rumour mill –– or even videos showing some engineers poring over schematics.
What Victory’s been doing over the past 5 years, simply changing the paint, would make me nervous as a consumer and I’d be concerned about buying a bike from a company that may not be around in another 5 years. If Victory were to be able to demonstrate that it really is thinking about tomorrow, that it is developing new technologies, new engines and new chassis, that would convey a sense of a company that’s in it for the long haul –– a company you can “invest” in with your purchase.

Secondly, Victory needs to figure out who the hell it is and what it’s about. I’m not entirely sure where I think they should go with things, but there may be some value in looking at how Triumph managed to pull itself out of the depths a few decades ago. Although, in fairness, Triumph in the 1990s had something Victory does not: a legacy.

And to that end, Victory should be working extra hard to establish its own legacy, its own solid identity.

In fairness, there are already some scraps of such a thing. A very subtle string that runs through Victory’s advertising is its obsession with the modern American West. By and large, Victory chooses desert landscapes for its promo shots. The exception to this is when it chooses Las Vegas as a backdrop. Without really saying as much, or indeed adequately embracing what it means to say such a thing, Victory seems to be keen to sell itself as the bike of choice for Nevadans.

This strikes me as a questionable strategy, considering Nevada is ranked 35th in terms of the states with the highest populations and very few outsiders have any idea of what it means to be a resident of the Silver State (heck, most people don’t even know how to pronounce the state’s name correctly).

But, you know, OK, fine. There are concepts within that which you can use in developing a real sense of what Victory is. Not just open road nonsense, but practicality and the tolerant nonchalance of true libertarianism.

Though, if you’re really going to embrace the Nevada mindset you’re going to need to develop an adventure bike tout de suite. Which leads to the discussion of what Victory should be doing in addition to or, perhaps, instead of cruisers. Again, Victory simply doesn’t have what it takes to lock horns directly with Harley-Davidson. Meanwhile, there is a huge, gaping hole in terms of American offerings of other bikes.

An adventure bike would make a whole lot of sense. Firstly, because Victory has the pedigree. Its parent company is Polaris, which makes some of the best offroad vehicles in the world. Secondly, it seems to me that unlike with sport tourers or supersports, there is an easy transition for the bulk of American riders (although Victory seems to offer better products in Europe, I’m assuming the United States remains the market it cares most about).

Most adventure bikes are twin-engined, offering a somewhat similar experience to cruisers, along with the same sort of roomy ergonomics. Check the owners’ forums of various adventure bikes and you’ll find that a surprising number of the forum members are former or current cruiser riders. And it’s a style of bike that fits with the American psyche: the image of explorers and pioneers.

To that end, I’m not sure I’d listen too intently to those people who think Victory should be producing stuff that rivals something like the Honda CB500X in price and displacement. The profit margin is too narrow and the demand for lower-middleweight bikes isn’t terribly high in Western markets (unless you’re talking about 600cc supersports, and even there interest has been in dramatic decline over the past several years). Victory needs to deliver a bike that can serve as an entry point to the brand, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of some cheap bike that would be better suited to Indonesia than Indiana.

Whatever Victory does, I think it needs to drop its blind love for everything the Ness family does. I respect custom builders, but it is the very nature of a custom builder to be niche, to only appeal to a certain style and taste. That’s part of what a custom build is: a bike that is keyed to very specific tastes –– the tastes of one, rather than 1,000.

That doesn’t mean they need to be bland, though. Victory already has a wholly unique design in the Victory Vision. That is a bike that looks nothing like a Harley-Davidson. Add more technological farkles (e.g., traction control) and figure a way to lose some weight and you’ve got a machine that can compete against pretty much all other tourers whilst remaining individual and unique.

I’d like to see Victory taking inspiration from the Vision and putting it into other models. It doesn’t have to be space age for the sake of being space age, but why not offer something that someone else isn’t already doing better than you?

I feel that Victory can turn itself around, but that will require a whole new level of thinking and some fearless leadership. Time will tell if Victory has those things. If it doesn’t, I fear it’s doomed to disappear in the wake of Indian’s success.

(a) I have left and returned to Minnesota twice. My longest consecutive stretch in the state was 7 years; as of July, I will have lived in Wales for 9 consecutive years. Breaking down all of my nearly 39 years of life, I have spent:
– 12 years in Texas
– 11 years in Minnesota
– 9 years in Wales
– 3 years in California
– 2 years in Nevada
– 1 year in North Dakota
– 1 year in England