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Harley-Davidson : The Plan Before the Official Plan

(Long before Harley-Davidson put an official name to it, we were already talking about the changes to come for the iconic brand as this story from 2018 shows. It seems they may have given their plan a couple of catchy names – the Hard Wire and the Re-Wire – we just went for plain old “plan”. Most of this came true with exception of the, so far, lamented non-arrival of the Harley-Davidson Bronx. Also on the unfortunate side of the equation, the beautiful FXDR proved very short-lived. ) 

The Harley-Davidson Plan

Domestically and globally the challenges for Harley-Davidson have begun to pile up. For The Motor Company to continue its long history of success, a serious rethink was in order. And now, we have some insight to Milwaukee’s road ahead.

As the subject is Harley-Davidson, it is appropriate the rumblings were heard a long way off and continued to build until the recent crescendo. Looking at the road in reverse order it has been a convoluted journey. Last year the Dyna models were dropped to condense the lineup to fewer families. Before that the introduction of the Milwaukee Eight motor that some traditionalists initially felt was a little too refined and polished—losing some of the visceral presence that had so marked the engine of a Harley-Davidson. 

There was the introduction of the Street 500 and 750, a pair of bikes that came to North America with low prices but desperate for more of the polish and flash that is the Harley-Davidson tradition—as we know it. 

Getting to be a distant memory now was the first version of the LiveWire; the electric alternative, if not the electric future, of the brand.  It came, it toured; it disappeared.  

While the last few years have been rife with change for the black and orange brand it was within recent months that things got ugly. No brand is more wrapped in stars, stripes and eagle feathers than Harley-Davidson, which made the some of the broadside attacks from in-country incomprehensible. 

The counter-tariffs from the European Union resulted in the acknowledgment that some production of previously US-built bikes would have to move overseas.  

And then there was the Indian Motorcycle problem—an upstart brand that wasn’t constrained by the responsibilities of history, traditional and millions of loyal but aging owners that managed to eat Harley’s lunch on the flat track and was making every intention of doing so in the showroom.

The plea from many was, give us some good news. The 2019 model intros began with the 2019 FXDR—and frankly, the picture below tells the story. Intro shots of a Harley on the racetrack — not the racetrack as in a convenient place to shoot photos without traffic and prying eyes but a racetrack as in this bike is at home on the track or, if not at home, at least more comfortable on the track. This was almost unprecedented. Many Harley models handle far better than the typical track rider might give them credit but actually putting the bike on the track was something else again. 

The FXDR 114 appears to launch close to the spot where the V-Rods departed. The long low lines, inverted forks, dual discs up front and relatively fat 240 rear tire are reminiscent of the latter. The Milwaukee Eight 114 found in the machine is good for a smidge over 100 horsepower and torque is said to be 119 foot/pounds at 3,500 rpm. What you do with the specs from there is your business but the engine and platform will be capable of more courtesy of the aftermarket or Screamin’ Eagle bolt-ons. 

Weight isn’t your friend on the track so to minimize mass of the FXDR, a new aluminum swingarm and subframe were designed for the FXDR with the swingarm connected to an adjustable mono shock. The sticker starts at $26,499. That is the here and now of Harley-Davidson. 

What dwarfs this news is the future of Harley-Davidson, which the company announced at about the same time. For a company that has always kept its cards pretty close to its leather vest, they have given us a look into the next few years with two “Coming” models for 2019 and 2020 and a handful of “Planned” models for 2020, 2021 and beyond. 

The new LiveWire is imminent but that was announced back when the company bought a stake in Alta Motors looking to grab some of that small company’s strong battery and energy storage technology. The 2020 LIveWire looks a little different from the bike we saw a few years ago but with a few updates. No specs have been announced but as Alta was known for its batteries we can hope that the range of the new bike will be extended. The LiveWire will be a premium model (read expensive) but will be followed, as is the plan, by a series of smaller electric bikes that presumably will be more cost effective.

Next up in the “Coming” category is the most jaw dropping of all proposed H-D new models: the Pan America. The PA as we are going to call it is a big 1250cc, liquid-cooled ADV machine. The bike comes complete with knobby tires, a trellis subframe, engine guards, pull handles, a high seat, mid-mount controls and a fairing with a family resemblance to the Road Glide. 

Details are slim to non-existent beyond what can be discerned by the pictures but the bike does not look like a prototype. Much like the Moto Guzzi V85, this ADV bike looks ready to hit the road. It needs to be ready because the category is a challenging one to join — ask any company that is not BMW or, to a slightly lesser extent, KTM. The BMW R1200GS and GSA set the standard. 

Unless you are going to build a good bike for less money, the V-Strom, or head further off-road, the Honda Africa Twin, you really have to know what your segment and pricing will be. Sure the BMW GSA is expensive but it is justified by its proven capabilities. It is the further details of the Pan America that will truly tell the tale.

Planned for 2020 is an intriguing naked streetfighter. Not since, dare we bring up the name, Buell, has there been so blatantly a sport-oriented bike from Harley-Davidson. It isn’t a sporty cruiser; it is a sportbike. 

It is reminiscent in styling to the LiveWire but without the electrons. Back when the original LiveWire was disappearing into uncertainty we thought the chassis with a V-Rod motor would go over well. Seems we may be getting our wish. The streetfighter will be powered by a 975cc engine that is part of a modular platform that ranges in displacement from 500cc to the 1250cc of the Pan America motor. The streetfighter segment is an easier nut to crack than the ADV segment so this bike will quickly find fans.

The Harley-Davidson pan goes on in a treatise aimed at looking further into the future and beyond its traditional maturing markets. The future will include 250 to 500cc motorcycles built with a partner in Asia to serve emerging markets with regional products with particular attention paid to developing the market in India. 

In the buying and selling arena, the company plans to develop increased e-commerce capabilities to grow customers and to open small urban stores to expose Harley-Davidson to consumers that weren’t looking for or considering the brand. 

Finally the company pledges to keep its dealer network happy and involved by allowing dealers to drive ideas and innovations for both themselves and the brand, which makes sense because the dealers know what customers are looking for and inversely, what they are not looking for.

Does the Harley-Davidson plan put the company back on the road to success? In some ways it is the only road to success. Building and selling bikes outside North America has to be done. North Americans may not be begging for a spectrum of small displacement, inexpensive Harley-Davidson models, but globally that is what the majority of riders are looking for. 

The apogee of cruisers in North America has passed. It might return because trends almost always come around again. The problem is that demographics are against it. If Harley wants to survive it has to diversify the product line and give customers everywhere what they want. Just the fact that they are willing to take these risks is proof positive they aren’t planning to ride out the wave of heavyweight cruisers until it ends. With the “other” American motorcycle company a growing concern it was imperative that Harley-Davidson appeared proactive rather than reactive to the market, which is possibly why they gave the world a look at the future against all their tendencies from the past.  

The company has a plan for the future and wants riders to know. No other major brand was locked so tightly to a single segment of the market and that will no longer be the case. It will be interesting to see where Harley-Davidson plan  goes with an inclusive effort to diversify its offerings. The Motor Company once dipped its riding boot in the pool of change with Buell, but this time it is a case of necessity. 

• John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #339


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