Is Harley-Davidson Stepping into the 21st Century?

Now that the hype around the Harley-Davidson Livewire has cooled down a bit, it’s time to ask some decent questions regarding what path the MoCo may follow in the future. For starters, I have already met some rather disappointed H-D fans who said that the “death of a legend is nigh” in case the electric bike made it into production. Now, it is so?
Those who decry the fact that H-D is taking its first steps into the e-bike world are, however, opposed by those who salute such a move. This could easily turn into a “who’s a truer Harley fan” debacle, but the real facts are the only ones that matter this time. Harley is a public company, and it ceased to be the brain child of several men years ago. Its stockholders want to make a profit and couldn’t care less about the feelings of the customers as long the customers’ ranks fork out money to get shield and bar products.

Harley has been selling a lifestyle instead of motorcycles for more than half a century, and the fact that the mojo was conveyed via motorcycles is pure luck, as an older ride once told me. Harley stopped selling bikes a long time ago and replaced them with the almost mythical feeling of belonging to the HOG. Now, the big question is whether H-D will be able to craft the same mojo and embed it into its electric bike(s) as well… And if the answer is “yes”, how will the two kung-fu’s get along together?

The conservative Harley fans, namely most of the Harley fans (no offense meant) fear that the brand will lose its identity once the electric H-Ds start rolling on the street. With most of the bikes in the Milwaukee manufacturer’s current lineup being still air- and oil-cooled machines, a jump in the e-bike bandwagon seems like much too much, some say. Even more, the move almost feels like some sort of a betrayal of the good-old Harley principles.

Still, the modern Harley lovers are exceedingly happy seeing their fav company finally making such a daring move and testing out the electric market. Most of them, including myself, firmly believe that the Livewire will not be a real product, not now, and not in this trim. This looks more like a prototype sent out into the market to test the reactions of the potential future customers. Will H-D manufacture a production electric bike? Possibly, there is not THAT much to lose by trying, and I mean for a large corporation like Harley, accounting for more than 50% of the bikes sold on the North American market. That is, if the stockholders and the boards will ever agree to this test…

Fact is, Harley-Davidson will still sell its classic bikes to its classic customers. Really, no matter how much PR work and sweet-tongued, carefully chosen talk is used to present the old machines as new ones, the H-Ds will remain pieces of 50-year-old machinery. Again, no offense meant. Denying this statement is denying the whole H-D philosophy and hitting hard in the very basis of the Harley owners’ creed, as most of them are buying MoCo because it’s MoCo, and not because they want modern bikes. And Harley is offering the perfect machines to meet such demands… It’s a closed circle.

And this brings us to another important question: since the success Harley-Davidson has been thoroughly enjoying over the past decades is strictly based on supplying “the right bikes for the right customers”, how will a motorcycle which collides with the traditional preferences of traditional H-D customers be received? And even more, what will happen when the population segment which buys Harley massively is dead?

Truth be told, the average Harley customer is not exactly young, to say the least, and someone at the MoCo knows this. That’s one of the reasons behind the Street 750 and the Street 500, two machines which would have been considered as blasphemous several years ago, before the crisis. Some wise guys in Milwaukee understood that it was time for Harley to slowly change, but the jackpot was to do this while preserving the HOG allure and the “mojo”.

The Street bikes will surely sell well on emerging markets, still thirsty for a piece of the legendary awesomeness of owning a Harley, but $30,000 bikes will not exactly sell like hotcakes in those countries. Willy-nilly, Harley MUST get ready for the future, as conservative as it has been for decades. Times are changing, and H-D is not immune to this process.

We might get to see marketing specialists hired by H-D putting up efforts to create the “new H-D lifestyle,” an alternative to the classic one. A different, but not opposing type of lifestyle aimed at a less conservative, younger crowd. Possibly with a different dealership network and a completely different approach to selling bikes.

H-D knows too well that it must supply its classic customers with the bikes they want, and as long as these guys are happy and cash is flowing into the pot, everybody is happy, including the stock holders. And all this time, H-D can play at e-bikes whichever way it wants.

Finally, each of the words above might very well be futile in case the Project Livewire turns out to be just smoke and mirrors, a move made to lure younger customers into the dealerships in a (pathetic) attempt to convince them to buy classic Harley bikes or the new Street ones, as some paranoid (in a good way) people believe. We’ll see what the cat drags in…
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