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The Precarious Future of Harley-Davidson


Trigger warning: this blog may ruffle some feathers.

Ever since I published my previous blog on the Livewire, I’ve wanted to have this discussion. First this: I love Harley-Davidson. I love what they mean to the culture of riding, to the community, and to the history of motorcycles in the US. BUT, despite how I feel, IMO, Harley is in trouble. This is not a new argument, in fact you can watch a variety of videos on YouTube that have made solid arguments, similar to the ones I will make today. With Livewire marketing and preorders in full force, I thought it would be a good time to have this conversation.

Before I dive in, I want to preface this with the fact that I am not an economist, or a salesman. I am just a guy who loves motorcycles, and has an opinion. So, with that being said, let's jump right in.

Why do I feel H-D has set themselves up for failure?

1) They waited too long to start reaching out to a younger and wider demographic. Harley-Davidson sales and stocks have decreased pretty steadily since 2014, but it wasn’t until 2018 that they introduced the new Softail line-up and showed significant changes to the brand’s overall aesthetic, including some minor advances in technology. This was a classic case of too little, too late. Too little, in that so many other motorcycle manufacturers offer much more in terms of integration of modern tech into their machines, and too late, because in 2018, the company was four years into a slide in significant sales decreases.

2) Their attempts to gain younger customers are sabotaged by their price-point. I get that H-D is a premium brand of motorcycle, but even speaking with Harley dealers, they understand the urgency in needing to make changes. Something I’ve heard a lot in speaking with dealers is that so many of their repeat customers are buying their last bike. Essentially, these customers are aging-out. If that’s the case, nostalgia can only carry Harley for so long. With that in mind, if the goal is to bring in younger customers to stay relevant in the future, the company needs an affordable, approachable motorcycle that can introduce new and young riders to the brand.

I felt like the Street series was a side step. Was it geared towards a younger and different demographic than traditional Harley riders? YES, but was it going to get those buyers excited to get a new Softail or Touring bike? I don’t think so. The Sportster is still a great introduction to riding, but if you have no attachment to the Harley brand, there are more affordable options and at the same price-point ($9,000-$11,000 range), you can definitely get more bike for your buck.

3) By introducing and changing their classic line-up (Sportster, Dyna, Softail, Touring), they are not scoring with their core customers. This was lose-lose. H-D absolutely needed change. So, they made some modifications to classic lines (namely ditching Dyna), and consequently there was a lot of grumbling. But they absolutely had to do this. The brand was stagnant, and a major tweak was necessary. However, at the same time, doing this seemed to alienate the older generation riders, and like I mentioned earlier, a lot of these riders have already bought their last motorcycle.

I do applaud Harley for sticking to their guns, though, by going all in with new Softails, and it seems that sentiment towards the new line-up is shifting. So maybe, what seemed like lose-lose in the beginning could pay off in the long run.

4) Harley-Davidson has scratched the surface of updating their bikes, but they have not gone far enough. This is probably not a widely shared point of view, but with everything that has been introduced in motorcycle tech in the last 5-10 years, I have seen very little of that introduced into H-D bikes. For example, there is a lot of excitement around the FTR 1200, by Indian. Sitting on that bike in person, getting a first-hand look at the tech, and now seeing glowing reviews coming out, it seems to be living up to the hype. Harley’s answer has been the Livewire, and for all of the to-do coming from Harley themselves, I haven’t felt the same swell of energy from the riding community.

And that brings me back to price-point. The FTR 1200 starts around $15,000, and the Livewire starts near $30,000. Just so that I’m not being misinterpreted, I’m not suggesting these two bikes are comparable, but what I am saying is that they are geared towards a similar age demographic. MY demographic. But, while I love the idea of the Livewire, I couldn’t even begin to consider buying one. Not for thirty grand.

And, so the chasm grows larger between the company and its customers. They feel like we should pay whatever they ask for their motorcycles, and we’re simply saying no thank you.

I want to go back to what I said earlier. I love Harley-Davidson motorcycles. I’ve owned three of them, and will likely own another in the future. But, while the world moves ahead, Harley needs to stop reveling in the past and start planning for the future. They obviously aren’t going away, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see the closing of dealers and the slowing of production in the US. And, that’s not even mentioning worldwide, where the cost of a Harley is much higher, and tariffs have driven the prices to ridiculous levels.

The world changes so quickly now, and we need to know that H-D is willing to change quickly with it. Next year we are supposed to see the Street Fighter, but I haven’t heard nearly enough about it yet, or whether or not it is still on track for a release next year. Conversely, I’ve heard enough about the Livewire, and fatigue is beginning to set in.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens with Harley. I truly believe there is a way to listen carefully to the next generation of riders, while still paying homage to the traditionalists. It's in that middle ground that the company will find success. Dodge, Chevy and Ford have been doing it for years with the Challenger, Camaro and Mustang, and it has been working out for them. Let’s just hope H-D goes the same route, and that it pans out in a similar way for them. I’m sure I’m not the only one waiting and watching eagerly to see where they go next.