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Let’s Tell Harley-Davidson What to Do

Iconic company has been continuously producing motorcycles for more than a century but seemingly everyone thinks they can do better

You might have noticed a number of stories in recent days – both here and elsewhere across interwebs – addressing the apparent unsteadiness of the Good Ship Harley-Davidson. As good Americans, we find this troubling.

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First there was the news that the iconic brand’s sales are continuing a four-year slide, with grim expectations for the immediate future. Then there was the announcement that some 800 people will be put out of work when the company’s Kansas City, Missouri, plant shuts down in summer 2019.

It’s news that appears to run in contrast to best-ever results of other premium-brand competitors like BMW, Indian, Ducati, and Triumph. And it’s news that has been met with undisguised glee by some folks – along with a flurry of pontification as to how the company got itself into its current situation and what, if anything, can be done to return the company to its former dominance.

Meanwhile, it’s a well-established fact that the boardroom boys and girls in Milwaukee read TMO on a regular basis, hanging on its every word. So, it occurs to me that we have here an opportunity to provide a public service. It’s pretty simple, really: we should just tell them what to do.

Your dream of a Harley entry in MotoGP is silly.

Because another well-established fact is that internet commenters are geniuses. They definitely know how to run a business better than a company that has been constantly producing motorcycles through two world wars, the Great Depression, and roughly 20 US recessions. And right now that company needs our help.

I’ll get the ball rolling, but hopefully you’ll be willing to throw forth your two cents in the comments below. If you were in charge, what would the world’s most iconic motorcycle brand be doing to stave off financial ruin?

First, though, let’s set some ground rules:

Anyone who includes a supermoto or sport tourer in their solution is automatically removed from consideration. Yeah, I know you dig those types of bikes – I do, too – but sales of those two genres suggest you’re in a minority. Harley is not going to get richer by making something most people don’t care about. In that same vein, let’s also not waste time talking about sportbikes. Your dream of a Harley entry in MotoGP is silly.

The founders of Harley-Davidson: Arthur Davidson, Walter Davidson, William Harley, and William Davidson.

Secondly, let’s not get too lost in masticating the past. What Harley has done previously is obviously relevant here, but as my grandmother used to say: “That was a thing that happened.”

Things that have already happened can’t be undone. In addressing what someone should do, there’s not a great deal of value in working to death the issue of what they should have done.

RELATED: Harley’s Bad News Could Be Worse Than We Think

Anyhoo, the first thing I’d note is that Harley-Davidson is still selling hundreds of thousands of bikes – tens of thousands more than the companies mentioned above who are experiencing their best-ever years. So, this whole idea of Harley struggling needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It’s not doing as well at the moment as it might like, but it’s not going anywhere.

That said, a lot of the pontification on what Harley should be doing seems to center on the word “Millennials” and Harley’s understanding of it, or lack thereof. The basic premise is that the kids these days ain’t got no money, and that Harley needs to heed the advice of OT Genasis: “Your price is way too high, you need to cut it.”

Certainly anecdotal evidence suggests there’s some truth to the first part of that statement. Riding in my old stomping grounds of Minnesota’s Twin Cities last summer I was delighted to see that the claim of motorcyclists growing ever older is not necessarily true – not in the urban areas, at least. An annoyingly small percentage of Minnesotans wear helmets or adequate gear, so I was able to see that most of my fellow riders were younger than me – lots and lots of dudes and dudettes in their 20s. More than I remember there being when I was in my 20s. But here’s the thing: the bikes they’re on are ancient. Ninjas from the 80s, Yamahas from when friendship bracelets were a thing, and sooooooooo many antediluvian Honda Shadows.

So, it seems there’s a mighty disparity between what manufacturers are asking and what new riders can afford. Perhaps some manufacturers are getting it; the only new bike I saw ridden by young people was the Honda Rebel 500 – probably the most all-round useful machine on our recent list of six bikes for less than US $6,000.

To this end, many people will say Harley should slash its prices. But we’ve talked about this before – that ain’t gonna happen. Harley is, at its heart, a premium brand and part of what makes it as such is the fact its prices don’t go down. It can offer incentives, maybe. But cutting prices would ultimately be detrimental.

So, if I were Harley I’d… keep doing what it’s doing right now.

Model Year 2018 New Model Photography. INTERNATIONAL ONLY
The Sportster Forty-Eight is one of Harley’s most popular models in Europe.

Especially what it’s doing in Europe.

Despite a drop in sales in 2017, the EMEA has generally been an area of growth for Harley-Davidson in recent years, where Harley carries less of the Old Man’s Brand stigma. Indeed, it’s been my experience in recent years that it has done a very good job of connecting with younger riders.

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Go to the hip parts of London, Paris, etc, and you’ll see any number of Iron 883s and Forty-Eights rumbling through the streets alongside all those Triumph Bonnevilles and Thruxtons. Go to a motorcycle show and the Harley area is all DJs and stylish clothing. Harleys are cool. No, really. And with the Street Rod the company has taken a solid step into the world of true Not Cruiserdom. The price is right, it is a marked improvement over the Street 500/750 in terms of build quality, and in Europe it comes better-equipped than in the United States: ABS, an immobilizer, and a security alarm all come standard.

I’d like to see Harley continue down this path with a greater sense of self-belief. I’d like to see a Street Rod with the fit and finish of a Forty-Eight: creating a bike that is knee-bucklingly good-looking and equally fun to ride. Work to develop a rival to the Indian Scout Bobber engine and put it in a chassis that allows it to shine. Don’t be afraid to offer more useful technology on bikes; look at what Triumph is doing. And use your influence to encourage tire companies to provide better tire options – tires that can actually tolerate wet roads – to improve the all-round usefulness of the product.

2018 XG750A Street Rod. Street Rod. INTERNATIONAL ONLY
The Street Rod is a good bike, but I feel Harley has the ability to make it look better.

Of course, don’t abandon the big twins (because, damn it, the Milwaukee Eight-powered Road Glide is lovely), but perhaps work toward a future where something larger (and more expensive) than a Street Bob is a lesser part of your portfolio. And, you know, perhaps finally put the V-Rod’s Revolution engine to good use. Put it in a sport tourer or something.

Oh, damn it…

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