Getting future product information or specific plans out of Harley-Davidson has, historically, been nearly impossible. The company has treated things like bringing back the Tombstone taillight as though it was a state secret, and new motorcycle product is typically poised on trucks and dropped at dealers as soon as those models are announced.
So the fact that Harley-Davidson is going on record about its plans over the next five years in great detail is a shocking change in corporate stance.
But not nearly as shocking as the product it has chosen to show, and the information behind its plans to change how the company will interface with retail customers and how aggressively it will be pursuing growth in India, China, and other overseas markets.
“We have typically been very conservative,” Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Michelle Kumbier said. “This is very different for us to kind of just blow the doors off and tell you everything that we’re going to be doing over the next five years. It’s just not what we have done, but we are so excited about the direction that we’re going and all the different things that we’re doing that we wanted to get this out into the marketplace right away.”
It’s also a means of reassuring the world and shareholders that this $4.5 billion company is taking action to counter declining sales in its traditional touring and custom segments, and that it recognizes the changing world of transportation and importance of meeting customers wherever they are in the world on their terms, whether that’s an electric-assist bicycle in Belgium or a new Road Glide customer in China. Or a longtime customer in Duluth.
We’re here, of course, for the motorcycles. The new internal-combustion machines shown here are the harbingers of 16 new middleweight models using two all-new engines, one that will be 500 and 750cc and the other that will be 975 and 1,250cc, all liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-twins with DOHC. These will power adventure-tourers, customs, and streetfighters and put Harley-Davidson in segments it’s never directly competed in before.
The Motor Company was careful to point out it will continue to develop and evolve existing touring and cruiser models for its traditional customer base as it pushes aggressively into new areas on its mission to develop 2 million new riders in the U.S. by 2027 and increase its international business to 50 percent of annual volume. The company calls this overarching initiative “more roads to Harley-Davidson.”
2020 Harley-Davidson Pan America Adventure-Tourer
Harley-Davidson will produce a full-on adventure bike called the Pan America for 2020. It’s shown jumping in the video and doing things we expect a liter-class adventure motorcycle to do. Engine displacement will be 1,250cc using what Harley-Davidson describes as a modular middleweight engine platform.
“It’s rugged, it’s capable, and I think what’s important is we did it our way,” Kumbier said. “There are a lot of different adventure-touring products out there but certainly our style and our approach is truly Harley-Davidson.”
Aside from saying the bike will have “a lot of advanced technology,” specs are essentially nonexistent as the motorcycle shown is a prototype, just as all the other products shown are.
The new engine appears to be a 60-degree vee and dual-overhead cam and it’s highly unlikely that it will be anything but a six-speed gearbox.
Images reveal the Pan America is aimed at a pretty high spec with radial-mount brakes, tubeless spoke wheels running Michelin Anakee Wild tires, a stout inverted fork and single shock. Windscreen height is clearly adjustable, judging by the “tracks” the center section rides on.
It is interesting to note that in the video the first dirt-riding images shown at 1:17 appear to be the Sportster off-roaders built by neo-custom iconoclasts El Solitario for its Desert Wolves adventure in the Sahara and are therefore air-cooled and not Pan Americas as described in the press release.
2020 Harley-Davidson Streetfighter
There will be nine streetfighter models using the new engines and taking Harley-Davidson into a new, highly competitive, and lower-sales-volume segment of the market. While these models, ranging from 500 to 1,250cc, certainly will generate interest in the US market, naked roadsters—like the Pan America—will compete strongly in Europe. The first streetfighter will use the 975cc variation of the liquid-cooled V-twin.
Kumbier said there would be unfaired and partly faired models. In the video a street-tracker clay model is shown being worked on with an early XR750 in the background, while a compact half-faired clay model is framed with, and reminiscent of, the 1994 Harley-Davidson VR1000 roadracer homologation special. It’s a promising direction for sport-oriented riders who may not have looked to the Bar and Shield before. Like with the adventure bike, competitive execution and performance will be key to success.
I asked if the volume in the adventure and streetfighter segments were smaller and perhaps an acknowledgement that growth for Harley-Davidson would come in smaller chunks of smaller segments. “We’ve got a tremendous distribution channel that doesn’t necessarily exist for others that may be in this space,” Kumbier said. “So we think coming into the United States that there is growth opportunity. We don’t view it as necessarily small volume and we think that we can be a big player in this. And then of course globally you look at adventure-touring; there’s a tremendous market especially in Europe, as well as for streetfighters.”
The custom based on the modular engine platform is the most traditional offering of the models shown. It takes its cues from the visual playbook of “American” motorcycle with a “baby Fat Bob” treatment down to the chunky wheels/tires and rectangular headlight. The 1,250cc model shown was unnamed and said to be on the way in 2020. It is the first of five bikes in this range.
The silence was deafening in all of this as the word “Sportster” wasn’t part of the discussion. The likelihood that these new liquid-cooled middleweight twins are replacements for the Sportster line is low, so expect news in Harley-Davidson’s more traditional custom space. There is also the “adventure Sportster” shown in the video that suggests continued life for the air-cooled platform. “I wouldn’t jump to a conclusion that this product is necessarily a replacement for Sportster,” Kumbier said.
2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire, Other Light Electrics, and an Electric-Assist Bicycle “We're going big in EV with a family of products that will range in size, power, as well as price,” Kumbier started off her discussion of the electrification of Harley-Davidson. “We just talked about the modular middleweight platform, and certainly adventure-touring and streetfighters are going to bring in new customers, but when you look at EV you know this is a whole new customer base that we are bringing in.”
The 2019 LiveWire is the “premium, high-power, halo model” of the H-D electric line and will be delivered in 2019. It brings the company’s high-level aesthetic and finish expertise to a segment historically lacking the design chops and budget to pull off a truly finished package. The 2014 LiveWire prototypes proved to be dynamically competent and fun to ride. Battery density has improved and cost has gone down since that time, so expectations are high for the 2019 production LiveWire.
“Our focus is around urbanization and really unlocking those urban marketplaces,” Kumbier said. “And, as we know, EV is easy to ride—it’s twist and go and it’s just kind of a visceral riding experience. We’re really excited about leaning into this space pretty heavily. We think there’s a tremendous amount of potential here.”
So much potential that Harley-Davidson’s push into electric vehicles is taking a much broader expression than just the LiveWire. The compact electric street-tracker is reminiscent of the Alta Motor Redshift ST concept and a compelling visual argument that compact electrics can and will be exceptionally cool. Kumbier described the two models, to be introduced in 2021 and 2022, as more “middleweight, if you will” as compared to the LiveWire, with “accessible power” and a lower price. Harley-Davidson announced in March 2018 that it made an equity investment in Alta, the San Franciso-based electric-motorcycle startup (read a tech piece on one of its models here).
The “lightweight urban” category showed three models to be introduced in the same 2021–’22 time frame: a pedal-less electric mountain bike-like vehicle, a utility scooter, and an electric-assist bicycle. “Launch with impact to inspire new riders ahead of product availability to seed demand,” said the provided material.
The electric-assist pedal bicycle has the potential to be the volume leader if it is mass marketed around the world, as this segment of transportation is growing rapidly. Many markets don’t require licensing or insurance for pedal-assist bikes, making the barrier to entry very low.
Small-Displacement Motorcycles In Asian Markets
The Indian motorcycle market is something on the order of 20 million new units sold per year, mostly under 200cc and primarily for utility. Prices are necessarily low and margins are tight, but the growing middle class in the country of 1.3 billion people has increased demand for more premium motorcycles and potential sales volume is huge.
Harley-Davidson plans to enter India through a strategic alliance in Asia within the next two years with 250–500cc meant to be low-cost but aspirational and a bridge to the company’s larger motorcycles. The strategy is similar in China, though the emphasis there appeared to be tipped toward existing product. “We know that we have a tremendous opportunity to grow our business in China to grow volume and market share,” Kumbier said. “We’re going to invest much more heavily there. We’re going to leverage our expanded portfolio, we’re going to leverage our Thailand facility because we’re able to get around most of the duties by assembling out of Thailand and shipping the product into China. Therefore we can lower our prices and more people will have access to the product because it’s more affordable. We’re going to establish a China distribution center, we’re going expand our dealer network there as well as improve performance of the dealer network and increase our marketing investment.”
Dealer Network And Retail Expansion
Ask any Harley-Davidson touring rider what one of the biggest benefits of riding The Motor Company’s products is and they are likely to tell you dealer support. On tour anywhere in the US, the chance that one of the 698 (2017 official count) dealers being nearby is very good. And there are countless independent shops that know the bikes inside and out.
Add to this the 811 dealers outside the US and any serious adventure rider would have confidence the ride would go on in case of any difficulty or service need. And there will be more: “We’re going to open 25 to 35 new full-line dealer points a year primarily in emerging markets, but there will be some opportunity in developed markets as well,” Kumbier said.
This large number of dealers gives Harley-Davidson massive brick-and-mortar retailing might versus competitors. Still, H-D recognizes the need to meet new customers in locations and ways it currently does not and plans to add “urban storefronts” and “new retail formats” along with heavily reworked online sales presence through harley-davidson.com and by “establishing strategic alliances with global-leading e-commerce platforms to extend access to Harley-Davidson to a pool of millions of potential new customers.”
Kumbier acknowledged that many details of this expansive program were still to be worked out, but it is clear from these initiatives across the company’s existing business and with aggressive new efforts around the world that Harley-Davidson is leaning into a new and diverse future, placing large bets to make it all happen. In terms of dollars, the company says it will make “operating investment through 2022 of $450 to $550 million and capital investment through 2022 of $200 to $250 million” to fund this new plan.
And it’s already made significant investment in the touring and cruiser lines with upgraded FLs, the Milwaukee-Eight engine, and all-new Softail models. Even with these, it still felt a bit like the company was on its heels as it struggles like the rest of the market with stagnant US sales. Just the fact that the company is putting all this out there is a significant moment in its history.