Polaris Industries scores points by reaching into the past to shape its future, says Robert Smith. April’s acquisition of the venerable Indian marque has prepped the Minnesota manufacturer for another run at Harley-Davidson.
When I read that Polaris Industries had acquired Indian Motorcycle in April, it suddenly seemed such an obvious business move that I wondered why they hadn’t done it before. Here was Polaris with a sound balance sheet, modern mass-production capability, and a widespread, committed dealer network—all things that Indian lacked. And while its Victory Motorcycle line has established a small but loyal customer base, the brand has so far failed to achieve a level of recognition and acceptance in the heavyweight class that comes even close to the brand leader. If you don’t know who that is, it’s time to go back on your meds.
The reborn Indian company, meanwhile, has struggled through financial collapses, ownership changes, and at present has only one dealer in Canada. Most recent owner, UK-based private equity company Stellican, has taken a good stab at building the company, but probably concluded that the combination of a shrinking demographic and a waning American economy would make their task almost impossible. The chicken-and-egg challenge of attracting sales while building a dealer network in the present economic climate probably looked insurmountable.
But in terms of recognition, acceptance, image and status, Indian carries as much power as any motorcycle brand. Hence the sale to Polaris, who, no doubt, expect some form of synergistic combination of their business resources and the Indian name. But how will Indian fit with the Victory range?
I recently put a couple of thousand miles on a Victory Cross Country touring the high passes of the Colorado Rockies. The X-C is Victory’s top touring bagger( apart from the Vision with its love-it-or-hate-it Buck Rogers styling). It takes careful aim at the Electra Glide buyer, offering a similar level of equipment, including a vast trunk and gizmo-laden handlebar fairing, paired with the new 106 Freedom motor. And that’s where the main differences lie.
While H-D’s Twin Cam engine continues to evolve from its well-documented roots, Polaris’s engineers clipped a new sheet of paper to their drafting tables, sharpened their metaphorical pencils and started from scratch.
The result was a unit construction V-Twin powertrain with overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, gear primary drive, balance shaft and thoroughly modern design criteria, especially in terms of manufacturing ease. I’m told by someone who claims to have seen inside both powerplants that a Victory engine uses a total of eight gaskets to seal the entire power unit, while H-D’s unit needs 63 gaskets and oil seals. The former is a thoroughly modern motor that serves up haul-ass power and tarmac-rippling torque, yet does it in a smooth, sophisticated fashion. And that could be part of the problem …
Riding the Cross Country reminded me much more of, say, a Kawasaki Voyager, Yamaha Stratoliner or Suzuki Boulevard C109 than a big Harley. And while Victory’s products are authentically North American in design and execution, the overall feel is … well, Japanese.
There are those (myself included) who would argue that the Freedom powertrain outclasses the Milwaukee mill in many regards, but lacks its visual presence and sensory assault: the huge primary case, external pushrods and vast chrome air cleaner; and the shuddering idle and open-pipe rumble (does anyone keep the stock mufflers on a Harley?) are such familiar and powerful indicators as to have become almost vernacular.
So Victory has built a better mousetrap that, on the surface, ticks all the right boxes, yet fails to resonate with its target market, which is, I’m sure Polaris would admit, existing Harley owners. Their minds may appreciate the more modern technology, but their hearts go with the tried and true—and that also buys them instant ownership to a club that manages to be both select and broadly inclusive. Faced with the option of continuing its Herculean task of chipping away at a market whose brand commitment is so strong that it’s often permanently engraved on skin, Victory seems to have decided to try another tack.
It says something for the durability of the Indian brand that its golden age was before WWII, fully three-quarters of a century ago—and about the time H-D introduced the engine that would evolve into the Twin Cam. The reborn Gilroy, California Indian of 1999 took square aim at H-D in using an S&S engine, itself modeled on the Evolution, then replaced it with its own, equally traditional Powerplus plant, but never had the resources to fully exploit the brand. Now it does.
So Polaris has two marketing approaches available: for the more sophisticated buyer who appreciates modern technology, it can offer the Victory lineup; and for those steeped in the traditional V-Twin experience, there’s the Indian. Expect to see Indian as a premium brand available through Victory dealers—and don’t expect to see an Indian powered by the Freedom motor, even if it is more powerful, more sophisticated and cheaper to manufacture.
They say one definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. Polaris is doing something different.