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Harley-Davidson doom or boom?

Phil Health Harley-Davidson doom boom

Critics have been lining up to foretell doom for Harley-Davidson for both being out of date with their pushrod ploughs yet too advanced with their expensive new electric bike.

But long-time Harley-Davidson expert Phil Heath (career bio at the end of the article) reckons the doom sayers have got it wrong and Harley is destined to boom in the years ahead.

We love a bit of controversy, so we present his case and invite you to leave your comments in the usual place. Doom or boom?

Harley set to grow

By Phil Heath

For a few years now, worldwide sales for Harley-Davidson have deflated and demand from the younger generations has generally not materialised. It seems that under their banner of “More Roads to Harley-Davidson”, the Motor Company has been launching trial balloons to find ones that might stay aloft.    

I’m sure, however, that there is a modernisation master-plan. It’s pretty clear, and will be extremely successful. Based on the slowing and eventual end of sales to baby boomers, which were just about “guaranteed” sales each year, the search for additional buyer groups is actually proceeding well.

Harley Street 500 uni course
MBW on the Harley Street 500

Beginning with the 2015 launch of the Street 500, learner and small bike buyers have an excellent bike to buy. The huge sales success of the Street is already bringing the Harley brand into the age-groups needed. And put a Vance & Hines slip-on muffler on to the Street and the “little” bike sounds unbelievably good!

The axing of the V-Rod and Dyna platforms caused plenty of online and in-store negative comment at the time, but that mostly blew over quickly. The reality is that with the launch of the Milwaukee 8 engine in 2017 Touring models, and the all-new 2018 Softails, the younger-than-boomer but still “traditional” Harley buyer can choose from the best Cruisers and Tourers in the world.

Because the Street, Softail, and Touring platforms are relatively new, the Motor Company has learners, restricted licence riders, and traditional buyers very well covered for a long time.

The next targets are widespread, and the success of the Street line shows how Harley can successfully grasp a new (for the MoCo) market segment. So who will be brave enough to say that the Livewire, Pan America, Bronx and its related models previewed, and all those prototype small electric vehicles, are going to fail?

I know that the keyboard experts are already saying H-D’s “lost the plot”, but I’m so old I can remember when people hated the FXR because it was rubber-mounted and had a “Japanese” looking frame. I remember people hated belt drive, hated electronic ignition, the cries of “ugly…what were they thinking” about the beautiful Deuce, and people REALLY hated the V-Rod! Only two years ago the keyboarders were never buying another Harley because some of the Softail fuel tanks were smaller, or because there are no more Dynas, or because the Fat Boy headlight surround was ugly.

Doom or boom?

Change is essential, and so is accepting change. New Zealand is an example of how progressive H-D dealers are embracing the new models, reaching out to younger buyers, and taking motorcycling and the Harley brand forward.

Comparing the NZ year-end totals from 2013 and 2018 (2019 figures not available yet) sales of all new motorcycles increased 36.1%, H-D sales increased 42.2%, and market share is 13.7%.

In Australia, despite great dealers trying hard, year-end totals from 2013 and 2019 show all new motorcycle sales have decreased by 21.2%, and H-D sales decreased by 21.3%. Market share is 7.2%.

Personally, I can’t wait to ride a Livewire, Bronx, or PanAmerica. And the MoCo’s plans?  The new models? Softails and Tourers? Over time, it’s all going to come together just fine.

About the authorPhil Health Harley-Davidson doom boom

Back in 2012 I semi-retired from a long career in Australia’s premier Harley-Davidson dealership. ​

I was honoured to be asked by several other H-D dealers to consult for them. Since then I’ve consulted and assisted H-D dealers in AU and NZ, established and managed an international office for one of H-D’s USA-based official licensees, worked full-time for other Harley dealers, and moved to New Zealand while retaining my Aussie home. ​

Now, after 40 years in the industry in AU and NZ, I’m again working in both countries for myself as Phil Heath Consulting. 

  1. I think Phil is right – people are too quick to write-off HD every time they do something ‘different’, and in the end that hurts the brand they claim to love – the negative press and attitude might just put a potential customer off.

    As a kid I loved the classic looks, but when it came to get my first Harley it was a v-rod that got this GPZ rider into the dealer (though I walked out with a Dyna Low rider!) and a decade later after moving to Aus it was a 1200 Iron that got me back into a dealer (though I walked out with an M8 Street Bob!) – the lesson there is you never know which bike is right until you ride it, and preconceived and ill-informed attitudes can hurt sales.

    I for one am excited to see the new bikes – both EV and more traditional, large and small. While I won’t be buying a new one any time soon (though I can dream!) I’d never discourage anyone from seeing what works for them.

    That said, I don’t think everything is rosy with HD when it comes to quality … I rode my Dyna for 8+ years, year round, in the Pacific NorthWest with never a spec of rust. My Street Bob is turning orange after 18 months (still waiting to hear back from the dealer after they took photos to send to HD AU) and the saddle feels like the foam is already giving up. The lack of technology adoption is also frustrating … when a bike costs more than a small car, riders today expect TPMS and connected apps and Airplay/Android Auto experiences… my Street Bob despite it’s great little digital dash can’t even tell me my tire pressures (and I know the new HD Connect app will offer some of this, the subscription model is just penny pinching on top of the cost of a bike)

    Oh, and HOG … In the US I loved the HOG member benefits, but here it feels like I’m paying more for less (and just the convenience of having roadside assistance integrated so you only had to pay one fee and carry one card was a big improvement)

  2. Sure they’ll survive, as the saying goes, there’s a sucker born every minute.
    The neoprene skull mask wearing brigade prove that.

  3. Harley isn’t harley and hasn’t been for awhile. The old tractor harley is long gone and replaced by semi modern technology and materials. Computerised electronic cold stone souls are what is on offer now. The days of working on your own bike are well past. Now its the drop the bike off and come back later and pay your money and ride on till next time. They are either very good or very bad depending on the odds of poor quality. If you get a sucker you are better off parking it in the street and hoping someone steals it rather than visiting the Dealership and hoping for a sympathetic listener. Having bought 9 in my time I am now going back to the future, selling all my computeried bikes and replacing with Evo engined bikes. Two new used bikes and two more to go. Back to the days of good quality control and built in america with Proudly Union Made decals. They have hearts and souls and live to bring riding pleasures untold. Motorcycles you put your heart and soul into building and maintaining. They were the engine that saved Harley a long time ago and they really did. How about you bring back a CVO that is an exact copy of the great Evo bikes that made the Corporation, Bad Boy, Night Train etc. They were the bikes that set the Corporation on track for the 21st Century, and then the Accountants took over. As for Phil Heath, a good man with a big heart and very switched on. But he has made his bed with the Corporation and will speak highly about harley because his bread is buttered by them. His business acumen is excellent and probably because of this New Zealand figures have not suffered as here in Australia. Having shown his class maybe Harley should get him to give talks to their executives here on smartening their act up.

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