Harley-Davidson has sold 170,500 motorcycles and tricycles through the first nine months of 2015 and recalled 312,000 vehicles. Harley recalled 210,000 vehicles in 2014. Recalls averaged 94,000 vehicles annually for the decade that ended with 2013.
Harley-Davidson sold 171,079 vehicles in the United States last year. That total was up from 143,391 vehicles in the U.S. in 2010 and down from domestic sales of 218,939 in 2008. World wide sales of Harley-Davidsons were 267,999 last year and 313,769 in 2008.
Harley-Davidson’s current marketing strategy is called “fattening the tails.” It is an obscure metaphor that refers to a statistical Bell curve – which is a drawing on a piece of paper that looks a little like the Devil’s Tower outside Sundance, Wyoming; which is an analogy that may resonate more deeply with Harley’s traditional customer base than a reference to statistics. The highest part of the curve represents Harley’s traditional buyers – the one’s who have probably ridden through Sundance. The lines, or tails in marketing-speak, represent two categories of potential buyers to whom Harley is trying very hard to sell its brand. On the one side are “outreach” customers including women, members of racial and ethnic minorities who have not usually ridden Harleys and affluent buyers. The other side represents international sales.
During 2014, dealers sold 267,999 new Harleys worldwide, up 2.7 percent compared to 260,839 motorcycles in 2013. Last year Harley’s total international retail sales were 96,920. In 2008 international sales totaled 94,830. So all the hot air about foreign markets and “fattening the tails” and building the brand in India and China resulted in the sale of an additional, whopping 2,090 motorcycles per year.
In April, the Milwaukee company recalled 46,000 bikes that had potential clutch problems. Early in July, Harley-Davidson recalled 66,421 motorcycles with a misplaced brake line that could lock-up the front brake. Later that month, Harley recalled 185,000 motorcycles whose saddlebags had a tendency to fall off. In August, the company recalled 10,580 Street 500 and Street 750 motorcycles that had a fuel pump flaw that could briefly interrupt the fuel flow, which resulted in a loss of power, followed by an “abrupt restoration of power,” which was probably very thrilling for the non-traditional buyers for whom the new, little Harleys were intended.
In a story published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, Michelle Kumbier, Harley’s senior vice president in charge of manufacturing and suppliers, told reporters James R. Hagerty and Tom McGinty that the motor company “was studying its manufacturing, design, testing and sourcing of supplies to see how future flaws might be avoided.”
“We’re disappointed,” Kumbier told the Journal. “We don’t find it acceptable.”
The recall surge coincides with a decline in Harley’s market share in the United States market for motorcycles with engines displacements above 600 cubic centimeters. Harley’s share of all those sales has decreased from 54.0 percent of sales in 2013, to 50.3 percent last year and 47.5 percent so far this year.