By James Macecari
Once upon a time, Harley Davidson use to be the mega force in the motorcycle industry. It was always at the top of the list for any respecting biker to want to own. To be in most motorcycle clubs, one had to have a Harley. A biker without a Harley wasn’t considered to be a biker, just some wannabee. All that has now changed. The once-mighty symbol of freedom and image has started to crumble. The company that used to be the king of the road is just a shadow of itself. The company has no one to blame but itself for its fall from grace.
Harley got to be where it was today from hard working blue collar workers, workers that went to work every day and busted ass just to be able to ride and raise hell on the weekends. Since the early 90s when the lifestyle started to change, different people usually not a part of Harley’s core customers came flocking to the lifestyle. Harley took advantage of this new influx and started to raise prices. This was a serious mistake on Harleys part. Harley started to price out its core customer base and relied on a customer base that wouldn’t stick with the company for long.
In the early 2000’s shows like Biker Build-Off, Orange County Choppers kept Harley riding high. Shows like those brought customers who never considered riding before into the mix. The Chopper craze was in full swing and if you couldn’t afford one of those a Harley was the next best thing. Harley started it’s decline at this point I believe. Harley started to focus not only on raising prices even more;They started pushing clothing and accessories as a bigger part of the company instead of staying focused on a better bike.
In 2006, most of the reality shows started going off the air and the recession was starting to loom. Those customers Harley relied upon started to get out of the lifestyle. Started selling off those bikes. The used market became saturated with all kinds of makes and models. That saturation continues still today. What happens when the used market becomes saturated with bikes? No one really wants to spend the 25,000 to get a brand new bagger. Shit, no one wants to spend 10,000 on a Sportster. When people don’t buy then production starts to be cut and people at the company get laid off.
Harley was lucky in its marketing. It had a loyal base from the Vietnam era that pushed an idea. If you were not riding a Harley then you were not a REAL biker. Some of that thinking still exist today but not like it use to be. The problem with that thinking is people started saying “If you’re on two wheels, who gives a shit what you’re riding”. I agree fully with that saying by the way. I got to that point when Harley started closing up factories here in the states and gave work to Mexico and India, started shipping production overseas I said “Screw This”. Just look at all the recalls that have started just last year. Quality might as well be made if China.
Since the Old Scooter tramps are now moving onto other things in life. A new generation has started to come up. That new generation has gravitated towards Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Indian and Victory. Why? Well, it comes down to those companies make a better product then Harley. Most have a better design and most important are way more reliable. No one likes being on the side of the road on a long haul because the ride they are on has design flaws.( Pictured below YAMAHA XV 1900 Midnight Star)
I sometimes found it funny when old timers would say “Yea they might make Hondas in Ohio but the money still goes to Japan”. I would just shake my head and tell them “Well, at least, some of that money is going into a hard working blue collar American who is taking pride building that bike”. Yea that usually shut them up lol. It was even funnier when that same old timer called me a couple weeks later asking for a tow because he and his Harley were on the side of the road. “You were saying about Harley again?”
Don’t think I’m here picking on Harley. I own a 03 Soft tail. I also own a Midnight Star. I usually ride the soft tail around town and the Star on long hauls. My personal preference is the Star rides a lot smoother than the Soft tail and my old ass need all the comfort I can get.
What does this mean for Harley when companies like Honda, Yamaha, Victory start putting out better bikes then them? Simple, the market share becomes smaller and smaller for Harley. Harley is starting to literally fall apart according to their financials. The only bright spot for Harley has been its 550 and 750 models that mainly sell overseas. While Harley was raising prices and putting out some bad bikes over these past couple years the competition came in and swooped up that blue collar base that Harley turned it’s back
Do I think Harley will ever get back to it’s original core, customers? If they don’t I think they will be in the same spot they were in the 70’s. They will be facing bankruptcy and this time, won’t have a loyal base to bail them out. Harley miscalculated who would stick by them in the 90s and 00s. They also miscalculated that everyone in the lifestyle just needed to have that Harley to live up to the image. The new Image isn’t about owning a Harley to be a true Biker. The new image is “Just ride” and who gives a crap what you are riding.