While Everyone Was Complaining About The Numbers, Harley-Davidson Has Executed A Gigantic Pivot

This is not the place most people would point their shiny Harley cruiser, but it is the place … [+]

Full disclosure: I don’t own a Harley-Davidson product or a single share of HOG stock. That said, I do watch the stock and the brand’s activities very closely, as it is of course a massive presence in the motorcycle industry, and as of late, has had its struggles.

So why, after consecutive quarters of declining sales, mostly dire earnings reports and leadership shuffles, is Harley’s stock riding high in the mid-$30 range after sinking as low as $15 per share during the pandemic-fueled market implosion in March? Because while pundits have been complaining about the brand’s sales and other financial performance metrics and both critics and fans have been grousing about the new bikes either coming out or on the horizon, the people who actually work there have been slowly, steadily, and even doggedly turning the good ship Harley towards the future, even if it’s a future many loyalists readily admit they wish would never come.

Well, too late now.

Future Bike Number… Two?

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Harley-Davidson is an Americans icon thanks to many factors, including its longevity, the products they make and their hardcore fan and buyer base. When it comes to motorcycles, many riders won’t buy another brand. Period, end of discussion. It’s a brand many of the “Harley faithful” have tattooed on their skin. That’s loyalty. And right now, their loyalty is being tested as “The Motor Company,” as it’s also known, tries mightily to break out of its own self-made air-cooled cruiser bike confines.

Last week, Harley-Davidson, now led by turnaround specialist and new CEO Jochen Zeitz, introduced the Pan America, a Harley that’s about as non-traditional a Harley as another one of their most recent new products, the all-electric LiveWire fully electric motorcycle (aka Future Bike Number One). The Pan America, if you’re not hip to the latest trends in motorcycling, is known as an “adventure touring” bike, or “ADV bike.” It’s street legal, but it can also be ridden off road, and is designed to ridden long distance while loaded down with luggage and everything needed for maximum self-sufficiency. You may have putted around in the dirt on a relative to a bike like Pan America as kid, back when they were called “enduros.” Same idea, just vastly modernized and enlarged. These guys are pretty famous for their adventures aboard BMW’s popular ADV variant. The segment is extremely popular now, with many feeling the dual-sport or ADV bike is the new “standard” do-everything bike.

The Pan America Special rings in at $20,000 and is loaded with tech. The unconventional front … [+]

The Pan America features a whole new engine, a 150 horsepower liquid-cooled V-Twin known as the Revolution Max motor. For Harley, the new power plant is indeed a bit of a revolution, despite having put powerful liquid-cooled engines (with a bit of help from Porsche) into their V-Rod line of muscular cruisers decades ago. The V-Rod line recently came to a close as the numbers just weren’t there any more. Will they be there for the Pan America? Time will tell and the competition, which is stout and well-established from companies including BMW, Ducati, Honda, KTM, Triumph, Yamaha and others, makes market entry into the segment a definite challenge. But the Pan America is also loaded with a heaping helping of cutting edge tech as well, including some features not seen on bikes from the other players. Don’t expect it to suddenly own the ADV segment or outsell entrenched adventure bike players like BMW and KTM, and it will hopefully be a player. But really, that’s not the long-term goal of the Pan America, anyway. This bike is, in truth, the tip of a new spear for Harley-Davidson.

Just as car companies have often done, it’s the engine that’s the thing for the Pan America – and a big part of Harley’s future. That 1,250cc motor, as modern as most any V-Twin on the market, will find its way into any number of new models for Harley in the coming years, if the company can sustain itself. In their presentation video for the Pan America (below), the company shows off a concept sport cruiser with the same engine, and while it isn’t the hoped-for Bronx model, it does show that at least for now, the long-term plan is for more higher-performing bikes that will sit next to the classic air-cooled cruisers that currently dominate the now slimmed-down conventional lineup. Making room, perhaps? I’d bet on it. “We plan to build upon this platform going forward,” Harley-Davidson chief engineer Alex Bozmoski says in the video.

If the Pan America is one new road for H-D, the LiveWire electric motorcycle, first officially revealed in 2019 after years of rumors, is yet another. While Harley has not said how many of the electric machines they have sold at almost thirty large a pop, again, I don’t think that’s the point. The all-electric LiveWire (check out Jason Fogelson’s full review for Forbes.com below) really represents another big branch on the tree Harley is trying to grow, and in press briefings, new CEO Zeitz has said he plans to stay the course on electric bikes.

Say what you will about the LiveWire’s price tag, give Harley credit for getting out in front of pretty much every other legacy OEM bike maker to bring a competitive fully electric machine to market. Even if they’ve only sold a handful, the process of production and refinement is now in place, and I guarantee you the next LiveWire model will be better, faster, have longer range and cost a lot less. That is the nature of electric vehicles; like computers, they will get better as they get cheaper. It is a new era, and H-D, somewhat shockingly but perhaps also very strategically, is now out front in this niche that will become an industry unto itself. And that’s where the third new arrow in the quiver comes in: Electric bicycles.

In 2020, Harley-Davidson took another brave step by introducing the sub-brand of Serial One, their electric bicycle division. The bikes are handsome and tech forward, as well as on the high end cost-wise, but again, expect more products at cheaper proces from Serial 1 if the category perseveres. But here’s the special thing about electric bicycles: As I’ve said in many ebike reviews, it’s important to see electric bicycles for what they really are: low-powered electric motorcycles. This is likely the long view of Harley via Serial 1, and they are certainly hoping that buyers of their ebikes get used to the idea of rolling around under electric power, and what might it be like to level up the experience to, say, an electric motorcycle? Well, Harley may have some ideas around that, especially in a few years as more models are produced.

So yes, there’s been a fair bit of red ink and bad news around Harley’s hallowed brand, as well as some retrenchment around emerging markets (goodbye, India) and culling of models like the lower-tier Street machines that weren’t doing so well anyway. That sounds about right for Zeitz, who has said he plans to build on Harley’s strengths and core product line. But the more you look at it, it appears their “core” product line is becoming the varied outreach tool to new riders the company needs. It’s not going to happen overnight. It may not even happen as planned. But I don’t think they are shooting in the dark with the Pan America, Live Wire and Serial 1 product lines. As an admitted electric bike owner and adventure sport rider, I have to say: They have my attention. It seems that more than a few investors are likewise intrigued.

Writer, photographer and technology evangelist. I’m also an avid motorcyclist, car enthusiast and chronicler of the ongoing evolution of mobility technologies.

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