The changing demographics of motorcycle riders is causing Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG) to rethink its motorcycles. Harley is launching 13 new models as part of an ambitious product-development program that promises to bring as many as 100 models to market in 10 years, and has surprisingly killed off two existing ones.
It might not be as dramatic as Polaris Industries (NYSE: PII) ending production of its Victory brand of bikes to concentrate solely on the Indian Motorcycle nameplate, but Harley-Davidson's decision to fold the Dyna line into its Softail line and quietly shelve the V-Rod is every bit as significant.
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Looking to gain traction
Harley-Davidson's motorcycle sales hit a five-year low last year, and when the company reported second-quarter earnings results in July, U.S. sales had fallen 9% for the period and were down 8% over the first six months. The dour report left the bike maker with little choice but to revise its full-year shipment forecast lower while also cutting production and firing workers.
It had been clear for some time that Harley was riding the disappointing sales trend wearing rose-colored goggles, and it's possible that it's still being too optimistic. Harley has suggested it can ship as many as 49,000 motorcycles in the historically weak fourth quarter -- a feat it hasn't achieved since 2011, when it was rebounding sharply out of the recession.
But it's equally obvious that Harley-Davidson knows it needs a change. With middle-aged males not buying bikes in the same numbers they used to, focusing on the younger, more urban demographic, including female riders, needed to take precedence. The introduction of the 13 new models, with their lighter weight, Harley's new Milwaukee-Eight engine, and better handling, is a direct attempt to appeal to this class of riders.
The death of Harley's "bad boy" image?
To that end, Harley eliminated the Dyna, which has always been something of a step up from the Sportster line. First introduced in 1991, the Dyna arguably best expressed the raw experience of riding a Harley-Davidson, with an exposed rear suspension that connects the swingarm to the frame and motor mounts that transferred the engine vibration to the rider.
Unfortunately, with the debut of the Milwaukee-Eight engine last year, the writing was probably on the wall for the model since its chassis was unable to accommodate the new Big Twin. Harley folded the Dyna into the Softail lineup, which includes the Fat Boy, Heritage Classic, Low Rider, Softail Slim, Deluxe, Breakout, Fat Bob, and Street Bob.
The Softail has always been built for long-distance rides, so its engine mounts muted the vibrations and its rear suspension was hidden, but Harley revamped it as well, unveiling a new monoshock frame that eliminates the Softail's dual-shock suspension. It might not erase the brand's outlaw image, but it certainly smooths it over and tones it down, something that may also appeal to the new demographic.
Equally monumental was the death of the V-Rod, a racing-style, liquid-cooled sports bike that was introduced in 2001 but never really fit in with the cruisers, touring bikes, and yeah, even the Sportsters and Dynas. And it never really caught on with U.S. riders, either, so as Harley turns to its new target demo, slimming down and merging models onto a central platform will help it control costs, a task just as critical in this period of falling sales.
Not giving up the fight
CEO Matt Levatich has stated that he wants to bring 2 million new riders to Harley-Davidson by 2027, and that means attracting the younger rider. The bike maker definitely needed to shake up its lineup, because even though it still owns half of the big-bike market in the U.S., Indian has been slowly nibbling away at its market share by introducing new motorcycles that appeal to customers in this subset. As an example, its latest introduction, the Scout Bobber, evokes the same raw feel as the Dyna.
Harley-Davidson's task to turn around falling sales won't be easy. Reuters recently reported that the used-bike market is providing an overhang that might not weigh out for another five years, which is why a classy and sporty upgrade such as that from the 2018 model lineup could be the surprise that could spark the change the market needs.
It's still going to be a tough sell, but Harley-Davidson realized it needed something different, and the motorcycle world got it. Now Harley just needs the new rider demographic to get it.
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