Will A New Lineup Be Enough To Save It?

Los Tiempos Van Cambiando — The Times, They Are A-Changing — this is the song that pops into my head as I peruse Harley-Davidson’s 2018 lineup. Conspicuous by their absence are the Dyna family models that replaced the FXR and the stoplight-burner V-Rod as they both were cut from the program. The Motor Company is instead focusing its efforts on the remaining five groups: Street, Sportster, Softail, Touring and Trike. What about the CVOs you ask? Well they’re just souped up versions of bikes that are already accounted for under the Touring bracket, so I don’t consider them to be their own group in the same sense as the others. So, with all these changes, where does Harley stand now?

Continue reading for my take on the Harley shift.

Where Is This Coming From?

Harley-Davidson Announces 2018 Softail Lineup
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Harley-Davidson Announces 2018 Softail Lineup
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2018 Heritage Classic 2018 Fat Boy
The market is skipping over Gen Xers and going straight to go the Millennials who are rapidly emerging as the next “buying power” group.

Let’s be blunt, shall we? The previous generations of Softails were emblematic of what ails the Company in general. Like a microcosm of the long-running H-D market strategy, the Softail traded handling and comfort for the imagery of the faux-hardtail frame. It focused on hitting the Baby-Boomer’s nostalgia button with frame geometry from the 50’s with kitchy variants like the Heritage Classic (one of my all-time favorite H-D designs, by the way), the Fat Boy that old Arnie made famous in “Terminator 2,” and the dangerous and wickedly uncomfortable Springer variant.

These models enjoyed varying amounts of success, but whatever cheddar they put in the bank was due more to the aesthetics and the brand loyalty of an aging customer base. Sound familiar? That’s been the language from detractors of the brand for long and long, and it isn’t entirely without a basis in fact. It was supposed that the Gen-Xers would inherit their parent’s taste in bikes, but due to myriad factors, the market is skipping over them straight to go the Millennials who are rapidly emerging as the next buying power group. Harley won’t be able to count on the inherited tastes or the natural — and naturally slow — evolution process to keep its products in line with popular demand.

Fits and Starts

2016 - 2018 Harley-Davidson Street 500 / Street 750
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2017 Street 500/750 2009 V-Rod Muscle
You can feel it, almost like a slow-motion seismic shift as Harley gets off its brand-laurels and realizes that it is time to wean itself off the Boomer teat.

To be fair, the Motor Company started trying to trend toward the progressive end of the spectrum all the way back in 2001 with its VRSC V-Rod and its “Revolution-X” powerplant. It was meant to bring the V-Twin engine into the 21st century with higher performance, lower vibration and liquid-cooling. A raked-out front end, perimeter-style frame and low-slung stature was meant to grab the attention of the folks who are on the fence between buying a sportbike and buying a cruiser, but it just didn’t quite pan out.

The Street 500/750 and Street Rod are sort of a continuation of the V-Rod line in miniature with contemporary looks, sporty handling and a water-cooled mill that’s a bit smaller than the full-size V-Rod’s lump and are more appropriate for first-time buyers and riders. No doubt this is a large part of the reason the Street line made the cut. Harley’s CVO program brought bigger-and-better to the table, but all of that yummy-goodness goes to the baggers and tourers with no gravy left for the cruisers.

What about the cruisers, you ask? Well, they’re all Softails now. No more Dynas of any sort. The faux-rigid cruiser that launched an era back in ’84 has finally been redesigned to incorporate a modern (albeit pushrod) engine, better-than-vanilla suspension and a redesigned chassis that delivers greater cornering clearance and flickable handling. Everything under the sheet metal got revamped to be more competitive in a contemporary global market — pretty much like H-D has done with its whole 2018 lineup. You can feel it, almost like a slow-motion seismic shift as Harley gets off its brand-laurels and realizes that it is time to wean itself off the Boomer teat.

The New Sportster

2015 - 2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom
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2016 - 2018 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight
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2018 1200 Custom 2018 Forty-Eight
As the race to the bottom continues and the struggle to grab the attention of the new market majority rages on, the lowly Sportster is emerging as an important player because of its entry-level-friendly demeanor and pricing point, paired with fresh-and-new, "not-a-mini-cruiser" design.

Even the venerable Sportster line is exploring new territory. Sure, the Superlow and 1200 Custom are fairly classic looking, and longtime fans of the brand may recognize some of the old “$4,995 Sportster” in the Iron 883, but the Roadster and Forty-Eight are definitely pushing into new, showroom custom territory with their short risers and bobbed fenders. It’s worth mentioning that while the Sportster mills are rather small compared to the current Big-Twins, they’re bigger than the Street models and are, in fact, Harley’s oldest operating engine design. The current complete Evolution Sportster engine has been around since ’86, and some of the elements in the bottom end saw production as early as ’84, so this is a well-refined design at this point even though they retain the external-pushrod layout from years past.

As the race to the bottom continues and the struggle to grab the attention of the new market majority rages on, the lowly Sportster is emerging as an important player because of its entry-level-friendly demeanor and pricing point, paired with fresh-and-new, not a mini-cruiser design. Not a lot of ground-up re-engineering to be found in this sector; the factory perfected the Sportsters geometry and handling long ago, but the new looks add a younger appeal to the line.

What’s Left?

Where Does Harley-Davidson Stand Now?
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2018 Street Glide Special 115th Anniversary Edition

More power, more Infotainment and refined looks target the subset that, back in the day, would have had to strip a dresser to achieve the same panache.

Well, we have the Touring line that is ever-heavier on the baggers that now outnumber the full-dress models. These bagger-tastic “boulevard bruisers” are gaining in popularity, and even if they weren’t enough to buoy an entire company (coughVictorycoughcough), bagger sales are a boon to both H-D and Indian with a number of foreign builders jumping into the mix as well. More power, more Infotainment (read: jams) and refined looks target the subset that, back in the day, would have had to strip a dresser to achieve the same panache. More showroom-custom hardware for folks who want something between a classic cruiser and full-on tourbike; in other words, younger buyers.

Bottom Line

Where Does Harley-Davidson Stand Now?
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The recently-revealed 2018 lineup proves that the MoCo is taking its progression very seriously, and I expect we'll even start to see traction control and adjustable suspension before too much longer.

And now, we’ve come full circle. The stick-in-the-mud company isn’t immune to feedback after all, nor are they oblivious to the shifting ground that is the current market. The recently-revealed 2018 lineup proves that the MoCo is taking its progression very seriously, and I expect we’ll even start to see traction control and adjustable suspension before too much longer. Well, hope does spring eternal.

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References

2018 Softail Lineup

Harley-Davidson Announces 2018 Softail Lineup
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See our look at the 2018 Softail lineup.

Millennials As The New Buying Power

Motorcycle Manufacturers Are Scrambling For New Riders
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All images featured on this website are copyrighted to their respective rightful owners. No infringement is intended. Image Source: harley-davidson.com, powersports.honda.com

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