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Why Harley’s ‘Not A Cruiser’ Gamble Will Work This Time ‘Round

Company seems to be addressing factors that undermined Buell Motorcycles

Erik Buell is the Harley detractor’s version of Hillary Clinton’s emails. No matter how far the Milwaukee company manages to move from its admittedly not-so-distant past of delivering overpriced butt jewelry, to a state of being a dynamic motorcycle company making bikes that are actually good, the Harley hater will hold fast to the name of the company’s most famously wronged engineer.

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Buell’s name has come up a lot in recent weeks, ever since Harley-Davidson announced plans to deliver at least two motorcycles (and more thereafter) that are definitely not cruisers or cruiser-like touring bikes. The 1250cc Pan America and 900cc Streetfighter represent all-new territory for Harley, but, of course, it’s not totally new because Buell.

2008 Buell Ulysses XB12X

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Buell Motorcycles was a wholly owned subsidiary of Harley-Davidson. Its 984cc Lightning XB9SX was marketed as a streetfighter, whereas the 1200cc Ulysses XB12X was an adventure-touring motorcycle – emphasis on touring (it was marketed as “the world’s first adventure sportbike”). Ultimately, both bikes were flops (the Lightning less so) and Buell itself was shuttered in the wake of the Great Recession.

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That previous statement is oversimplified. There are a lot of recriminations to be had, a lot of “would have,” should have,” and “could have,” but ultimately the point is that Harley has, for all intents and purposes, tried this before and it didn’t work. So why do I think it will work now? Roughly a decade later, what’s so different that Harley will finally succeed in becoming a dynamic manufacturer?

Erik Buell Isn’t Involved

One of the things Buellistas tend to dance around is the fact that no Buell motorcycle was ever really great. Over the years, the sportbike-loving engineer produced a handful of innovations that were eventually adopted by other manufacturers but, overall, Buell machines were always known to be uncomfortable, glitch-prone, and given to weird compromises.

2006 Buell Lightning XB9

Again, we can get lost in the minutiae of blame but the end result is that no Buell machine ever served as legitimate competition to other bikes of the time. Some may have been as good as the competition, or possessed the kind of character that allows a person to overlook shortcomings (Never underestimate the value of character), but no Buell was actually superior to all others in its class.

Add the fact Buell bikes were ugly and competing against established names; in light of all this, even if Harley-Davidson had offered stronger moral support/belief in the product, Buell still would have struggled.

But, of course, support for Buell from within its own ranks wasn’t as strong as it should have been – especially at the dealership level. Harley dealers wanted to sell Harleys to Harley guys. Ultimately, that was bad thinking, which helped create the situation Harley is in now: quarter after quarter after quarter of decreasing sales.

So, inadequate product + ugly design + boneheaded thinking = failure.

Harley-Davidson Streetfighter – expected in 2020 or 2021

How will things be different this time? Well, first and foremost I get the real sense that Harley recognizes – from top to bottom – that it fucked up past efforts. It took the wild success of the 90s and early 2000s and dropped the ball, pulling the “cash cow” blunder that every MBA student learns about in his or her first year (see: the BCG matrix). It didn’t invest in new product/audience and that strategy ended up biting the company in the ass.

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Over the past five years – ever since the launch of Project Rushmore – it seems Harley has been playing a game of catch-up, bringing its bikes more into line with the standards folks have for other manufacturers’ bikes. Some of this has been driven by competition from my favorite brand, more of it driven by changing expectations of what a bike should be and what it should be capable of doing.

To its credit, I feel Harley has managed to catch up quickly. Harley-Davidson makes damned good bikes these days. Good brakes, good suspension, immaculate fit and finish, and an engine with enough character that you don’t care about inherent limitations of the cruiser/big-twin genre. That Harley has been able to move so rapidly from the not-great bikes it was making in 2012 to the damned good bikes it’s making today tells me it has people who actually know what they’re doing. It has the necessary talent pool.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 – expected in 2020

I believe that talent pool it is also capable of making good non-cruisers – bikes that will be as good as the competition. Meanwhile, we already know the bikes will be better looking than those produced by Buell Motorcycles (I mean, yes, the Pan America is still ugly but not as ugly as the Ulysses). And – most importantly – these bikes will carry the Harley-Davidson badge.

The new bikes are only one element of a three-part plan to change Harley’s situation, the other two being “broader access” and “stronger dealers.” As best I can tell, “broader access” means “new and easier ways for people to buy branded T-shirts,” whereas “stronger dealers” appears to actually mean “stronger control of dealers.”

Harley knows its dealerships’ lackluster support played a huge part in the failure of Buell. It also knows there a lot of riders out there who remain opposed to the brand because of negative experiences they’ve had with dealerships in the past. And it knows that some of its dealerships (particularly those in certain parts of the United States) are stuck in outdated ways of thinking.

Harley-Davidson won’t be abandoning its traditional clientele; this is the future Sportster 1250 Custom

Here’s how Harley describes the “Stronger Dealers” strategy: “We plan to implement a performance framework to significantly enhance the strength of the dealer network and the customer experience, enabling the best-performing and most entrepreneurial dealers to drive innovation and success for themselves and Harley-Davidson — while providing the premium customer experience the brand is known for across an increasingly diverse product and customer base.”


Read between the lines there and what I’m seeing is: “We’re going to take the best practices of dealerships that connect with the new audiences we’re trying to reach, and require other dealerships to do the same.”

In my opinion, then, Harley-Davidson is addressing all the key factors that led to Buell Motorcycles being scrapped 10 years ago. But there’s one more factor to consider this time around.

Harley has rapidly improved its bikes, to the point that I adore the 2018 Street Bob.

Kids These Days

If you’ve read my Five Whys you’ll know I was inspired to return to riding by a website that allowed me to see motorcycling is far more diverse and interesting than I had perceived it to be back in the ’90s (when I first got my license). That site isn’t really around anymore, so I try to replicate its enthusiasm here on TMO.

Neither of us were around during the hey day of Buell. Although 2005 was defined as the “Year of the Blog” by Time magazine, I think it’s fair to argue that true internet saturation didn’t occur until the boom of social media. And that time didn’t come until after Buell Motorcycles had been mothballed.

Buell Motorcycles existed when it was difficult for a manufacturer to reach riders and potential riders existing outside the traditional channels of dealerships and motorcycle magazines. We’ve already acknowledged that most dealerships did disservice to Buell, but even those that might have been gung-ho on the brand would have found it difficult because, by and large, a person traveling to a Harley-Davidson dealership would have wanted to buy a Harley-Davidson.

If a person visits a Harley-Davidson dealership, what brand of bike do you suppose they’re interested in?

By the time a customer went to the trouble to drive to a dealership, walk in, and shake a salesperson’s hand, the opportunity to influence him or her to buy a Buell would have more or less passed. I mean, imagine the sales pitch: “Hey, I know you came in here having been inspired by the big, shiny, loud machines you’ve seen rolling through your town on summer afternoons, but can I interest you in this plastic-looking thing? It goes fast.”

Motorcycle magazines, meanwhile, were (and are) riddled with challenges for any manufacturer attempting to introduce a product. Buying a magazine – placing yourself in a shop, picking up the magazine, walking it over to the shop counter, and actually producing the money for said magazine – is an act of commitment that dramatically reduces the pool of potential customers. I can’t remember how much a typical magazine cost in 1994, when I first got my motorcycle license, but I do know it was more than I ever spent on motorcycle magazines.

I was enthusiastic about riding but my impression of moto mags was that they were for the hardcore, written by the hardcore, and offering nothing but boring stats – engine capacity, horsepower, torque, bore, stroke, rake, compression ratio, etc. It may have been that a few were telling good stories, but that’s not something I could guess from cover images of indiscernibly similar sportbikes with forgettable letter-number names.

November 1993 issue of Cycle World

Meanwhile, if I saw a bike out on the street that I thought was cool and wanted to know more about it, learning via magazines would have been challenging. I would have had to drive to the library, hope the library carried motorcycle magazines in its archives, hope that the librarians had been thorough in their cataloging of the magazines’ content, and have enough pre-existing information (eg, a bike’s make, model, and year) to allow me to search the archives.

I’ll admit that is indeed something I would have done, but I was a weird kid. The overwhelming majority of people would have simply let the moment pass. Fast forward to today. Imagine someone walking down the street, spotting a really cool “old” bike that draws her attention enough to get close and read the words written on its tank and battery cover: “Triumph Bonneville T100.”

Intrigued, she pulls out her phone while standing in line for coffee and types those words into Google. Instantly, she’s able to find my review of the Bonnneville T100 for free. She’s able to watch my video review of the bike for free. The amount of effort and commitment she’s had to put in to gain access to all this information is nominal in comparison to the effort and commitment of purchasing a magazine, and infinitesimal compared to an old-school jaunt to the library.

2017 Triumph Bonneville T100

The presence of websites like TMO has helped inspire manufacturers to offer more dynamic line-ups because suddenly those manufacturers are able to access new customers in new ways. Indeed, it is highly likely that our imaginary Bonnie-loving girl would also check out Triumph’s website and its various social media channels, thereby giving Triumph unfettered access to a potential customer. Ten years ago, manufacturers weren’t able to connect this effectively with casual potential customers.

So, along with presenting new non-cruiser bikes that will meet people’s standards and wear its iconic name, Harley-Davidson will this time around have the advantage of being able to interact far more directly with the people who might be interested in those bikes. And if there’s one thing Harley does better than everyone else it’s marketing. I’m pretty sure that if the Streetfighter and Pan America are halfway decent, Harley-Davidson will be able to find plenty of people willing to buy them.