From being the self-proclaimed “Other American” and locked-in-step rival to Harley-Davidson, the once-lofty ambitions of Victory Motorcycles now lie in ashes. Here we reflect on the brand’s fast and early exit.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision for me, my team, and the Polaris Board of Directors. Over the past 18 years, we have invested not only resources, but our hearts and souls, into forging the Victory Motorcycles brand, and we are exceptionally proud of what our team has accomplished.”
-Polaris Industries Chairman and CEO Scott Wine
It seems not long ago we went down this road and again reaction to the news was more akin to that of the other shoe finally dropping than stunned silence. The end was not as dramatic as a tearful Eric Buell announcing that Buell would no longer be operating as a subsidiary of Harley-Davidson. In that case we had long known that the Buell label was not always popular with those who wear the Bar and Shield but the feisty group had persevered with the bikes evolving from quirkily different to competently modern. The more focused and high performance the Buells became the more the machines seemed to distance themselves from Harley-Davidson’s core customers. A brash, loud Lightning powered by a modified Sportster motor was a long way from a supersport propelled by a liquid-cooled Rotax.
No doubt many will mourn Polaris’s decision to end Victory Motorcycles even though news of its demise came in a short, professional news release expressing the difficulty of the decision and the commitment to seeing customers through the next 10 years with parts and service. Time to move on. There was never anything concrete upon which to foresee this ending, it was always more just a vague feeling.
Polaris’s shuttering of Victory is a disappointment but it was a storm that always seemed to be brewing just over the horizon. Years ago while I was sitting in a conference room listening to the state of the Victory brand, percentage growth was touted and there was a lot of numbers that included many millions but it seemed that there was no mention of actual unit numbers.
It was a trend that would continue for a number of years with “How many are they actually selling?” being a popular refrain. The wondering was supplanted with speculation upon the purchase of Polaris’s golden child, Indian Motorcycle. The winds quickly blew the storm overhead. Polaris now had two big subsidiaries in the cruiser market. From a simple marketing perspective it was going to be tough juggling both “The Other American Motorcycle” (as Victory promoted itself) and “America’s first motorcycle company,” Indian.
Polaris executives were adamant—at least publicly—that the two divisions would operate as separate entities and continue to move forward. And they did… for a while. But the company acknowledges in this announcement that Victory had trouble achieving a substantial market share and that was much of the problem.
To Polaris’s credit they gave Victory a long time to build momentum. They came into a fight back at the start of the century with a product that was going to compete with the undisputed king of cruisers protected by an intensely loyal customer base. That is to say nothing of all the Japanese manufacturers who were at the time knee deep in their own excellent and extensive cruiser lineups.
There was no doubt in the first decade of the millennium the cruiser was king and the market was going to boom as had not been seen in decades and the boom would last for years—until it would end with a shuddering and definitive locking of tires. Polaris was practically the only company with deep enough pockets, and the technical prowess and production capacity to jump into the market from a standstill.
Canadian Biker’s introduction to the brand was very early in the game on a road trip from Victoria to Kamloops, where one of the few Canadian Victory dealers at the time was located. The bikes on loan to us from the dealer were the Victory 92C and the 92SC, two of the company’s original models. Utilitarian but competent the machines illustrated that Polaris could engineer a motorcycle even if the styling left much on the drafting table. Though the bikes had officially been available for a year or so, these were the first two Victory models that we had seen on the road and would remain the only Victory machines we would see for several years to come. Sources told us that only two Victorys were sold in Canada that first year. Accurate or not you were hard pressed to find one parked at the local Tim Hortons. Polaris may have been selling thousands of ATVs and snowmobiles but motorcycles weren’t the bread and butter for the company. It has only been in the last five years that Victory has become a (more) common sight on the road—here in the Victoria area as well as several other cities across Canada, Victory motorcycles are among the assets of local police motorcycle units.
The eye opening moment came in 2003 when the Victory Vegas was unveiled. It was and still is a fantastic looking machine and lived up to the company’s claim of being the other (and perhaps different) American motorcycle. While Harley-Davidson had the heritage segment sewn up, the Vegas arrived as a fresh, modern cruiser and an obvious production bike in fit, finish and execution.
This was about the same time that Victory Motorcycles began a constant public relations campaign and media onslaught. The company was going to wow the world. It was an effort the likes of which we had never seen: loud, brash, and in your face. Launches at the House of Blues in LA. Press events that involved no riding but a lot of flash. The Peterson Museum. Events, rides, customs. Personal appearances and the subsequent relationship with the prolific Ness family giving the bikes some high-end custom appeal. This would continue to the end with new model launches in that most Harley of places, Sturgis.
The Victory Vision – A Bold Move
What was perhaps the boldest move in Victory’s short existence? It would likely be the Victory Vision. At the time the company seemed to acknowledge the difficultly in going up against the Road Glides, Electra Glides and Ultras when introducing a fully dressed bagger. The Vision was a unique interpretation of the dressed American cruiser. The only thing the Vision had in common with any American bagger was the giant, pulsing V-Twin that was placed like a “jewel in a setting” in the flowing bodywork. The look was confounding and controversial and few would agree on the machine’s appearance. It was love or hate. The back end was swooping and taut, the front end was somehow reminiscent of a late 1980s Gold Wing. Styling aside the Vision was an unusual option for those who wanted to eat North American miles in comfort with abundant storage space and an iPod input … and do it riding something that looked in whole like nothing else on the road. The Vision is still offered but the bagger offering become more traditional with the introduction of the Cross Roads and Cross Country, which to Victory’s credit still carried modern lines rather than heritage styling. It was a unique look but in hindsight perhaps not what the segment’s riders were seeking.
With the exception of the Vision, almost all the models that came out of Victory at the time seemed to be variations of the Vegas with changes in bodywork and improvements in power and performance. Fortunately the Vegas got it right the very first time. Extremely comfortable and attractive, the only downside was its weedy front end that could be forgiven because the rest of the bike was so enjoyable and that suspension could be improved. The Vegas was a good place from which to segue to the Kingpin, Jackpot, Gunner, Judge, Boardwalk, Highball and others. The company produced some 60 variations of its cruiser, bagger and touring bikes. They embraced the blacked out trend with the 8-Ball editions and blinded the eye with fanciful paintwork on both the Ness editions and stock offerings. Subtle they never intended to be.
Polaris continued to charge hard with the Victory line. Within the last few years Victory has campaigned an electric sportbike at the Isle of Man. It has raced up Pike’s Peak on a machine called the Project 156. They bought Brammo, the company that originally built the electric Empulse, which is now a Victory model. And most recently introduced what proved to be their last model, a sporty, liquid-cooled cruiser called Octane.
What will be missed from Victory Motorcycles is that sense that anything in the realm of motorcycles is possible as the company seemed willing to give a lot of things a try—and equally willing to tell the world about it when they did. If the money had continued to flow there is little doubt that there would have been more surprises. That was the advantage of having no heritage to live up to. No expectation of what should come next.
The Victory Motorcycles Replacement
Indian Motorcycles will now be the Polaris contribution to the two-wheeled world. It is difficult to see where bikes like the Empulse fit into a brand that is so steeped in and defined by its heritage. But much of this current decision may well reflect upon that heritage branding which carries a lot more marketability and instant credibility (and part and accessories dollars) than what Victory was able to drum up. Indian Motorcycle as a brand (if not as an actual producer of bikes) has been out there since the early 1900s whereas Victory is barely older than Hipsterism. It is extraordinarily difficult to get traction for a new brand and in the motorcycle world this is especially true.
What was our favourite Victory motorcycle? The Vegas of course is in the running but the vote has to go to the Hammer. It had what the Vegas didn’t with a beefy front end and a huge fat tire. Fat enough to have attitude but not too fat to undermine performance. Mean and muscular but not overly styled. We enjoy a good cruiser here at Canadian Biker and Victory Motorcycles made more than one with a fresh perspective. But today’s is a different motorcycle world than 2007. Many of the Japanese offerings have disappeared and Harley-Davidson is still the company to beat in the segment. Polaris obviously feels that the job is now best left to Indian.
The Vegas in the clear Mohave night, the Hammer in the Anza-Borrego desert, the Vision in a jaw dropping thunderstorm in Wisconsin, the Cross Country in Sturgis. So long Victory Motorcycles, it was an interesting ride.
by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #328