Harley-Davidson announced last Thursday that profits were down 84 percent. Then on top of that the world’s principal manufacturer of traditional motorcycles also announced it intended to get stronger by eliminating its Buell brand. “We’re going to be able to grow the company more quickly,” Harley Chief Executive Officer Keith Wandell explained, “by investing in the power of the Harley Davidson brand.”
Obviously, Wandell is stupid. Everybody knows it is not his job to grow Harley-Davidson. It is his job to save Harley-Davidson. And, it is hard to see how he is going to do that by eliminating Buell.
All of Harley’s management seems to be increasingly divorced from reality. Reality is, the company has only been successful because it has been riding a particular demographic boom.
Harley’s V-Twin motorcycles are integral to the identity of a dwindling and mostly aging sub-culture. Harleys are intentionally anti-modern. They are symbolic possessions at least as much as they are mechanical devices. People who spend $25,000 on a bike they only ride 1000 miles a year are buying symbols, not motorcycles. People who buy “authentic Harley-Davidson apparel” are buying symbols, too.
The problem is that Harleys symbolize a lot of things that mostly only old people still think. Things like: “Death before dishonor;” “My country right or wrong;” “Kill them all and let God sort it out;” “Don’t Bogart that roach;” “Give me weed, whites and wine and show me a line;” “Fuck the police;” and “Buy American.” Hardly anybody under forty talks like that. Nobody under forty except maybe your nephew or your son gives a damn about John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Peter Fonda, or The Wall. And, not even your son listens to “Head Out On the Highway” or “Roll Me Away.” Not even your wife cares what kind of bike Bruce Springsteen rides.
Nobody likes aging but there is a difference between aging well and aging poorly. All that long list of platitudes and personalities and old songs in the paragraph above is what Harley means when it talks about “brand.” When you see a Harley you are supposed to think “Born To Run.” And, just like Bob Seeger and Bruce Springsteen Harley is growing old. The problem is, Harley is not aging well. When a 24-year-old see a Harley he thinks AARP.
Even the Huffington Post can see Harley is terminal. The Huffington Post! In an online article posted Tuesday in the Post, automotive writer Steve Parker compares Harleys to Hummers:
“Hummer, which became an iconic brand in just a few years, has been sold to a Chinese industrial manufacturing company. Now H-D, which is for many a Hummer-like example of housing bubble-fueled consumer product overkill, seems in danger of going down a similar road,” Parker predicts.
“Harley-Davidsons, like Hummers, are overpriced, overweight and overwrought. Buyers who wanted a Harley would accept nothing less, though, similar to Hummer buyers, and with fast and easy cash pouring through the economy starting in the 1980s and continuing through the end of 2008, the bikes sold in record numbers.”
The steps Harley must take to avoid becoming a Chinese company like Hummer seem obvious. In the first place Harley needs to sell vehicles, motorcycles or not, to the Department of Defense and to American police departments. Cops are bad enough. There is no excuse for an American cop to ride a foreign bike.
And the second thing, the most important thing, Harley needs to do is start selling motorcycles to young American men; to men who will still be buying motorcycles 30 years from now.
What is wrong with these kids and their crazy rap and their lack of respect for forty years ago does not matter. Whether young American men are as bold and anti-authoritarian and mechanically inclined as they were back in the golden yesterday is beside the point. Like it or not, most young American men don’t have a 60s or a 70s or an 80s soundtrack playing in their heads and they don’t have $15,000 to spend on a motorcycle.
Until last week those young men had a choice. They could buy a Kawasaki Ninja for about $9800 or they could buy a Buell Lightening for about a $1000 less. Or they could buy a Sportster. The Buell can run with the Kawasaki. The Sportster cannot.
If you were 24-years-old and just back from Iraq which bike would you buy? Apparently, Harley-Davidson does not care enough to even ask that question anymore.