Every armchair critic of Harley Davidson aims his first shot at buyer demographics. The common wisdom says everyone buying a Harley is old and buyers under 35 are getting a sport bike so Harley has no future. It's an easy shot with an element of truth from the not too distant past, but if you've been paying attention, you'll find things are changing.
"Our goal really was to be the No.1 seller of motorcycles to young adults in the United States," Chief Marketing Officer Mark-Hans Richer said. "We are now."
Since Wandell took over, the company has increased its share of the heavy-bike market under the age of 35 by more than a third. It now owns 48.6 percent of that market, according to R.L. Polk & Co. registration data, quadruple the share of its closest competitors in the segment.
Much of that success is the result of models on the low end of the price spectrum, like the Iron 883, a basic bike that gets a young guy on a Harley because he can afford it, because it looks like a Harley, sounds like a Harley and will most likely retain a lot of trade in or resale value when it's time to move up.
In one ad, equating the bike's operating cost to "about six bucks a day," the company said the 883's daily cost was "cheaper than your smokes, a six-pack, a lap dance, a bar tab, another tattoo, a parking ticket, a gas station burrito, bail, cheap sunglasses (or) more black T-shirts."
I don't think the exodus of young buyers from Harley that did take place in years past was because young riders didn't want one, it was just that they couldn't afford one and the Motor Company wasn't trying very hard to win them over when sales and profits were high with boomers buying all the bikes Harley produced. The economic downturn combined with a real change in demographics finally made the company shift focus or risk a market catastrophe.
If you want to point to Buell and say they had what they needed right there, you might be half right. A Buell was then, and with Erik's current company, still is, a highly capable sport bike, but if it was going to continue as a separate company, riders of that brand might not have transitioned to a big Harley later on, they may have, as easily, moved on to a big BMW or Honda or any brand at all, the next logical step wasn't a Harley bagger. With the economic downturn, Harley had to cut somewhere and Buell was done, with the now well known justification of concentrating on their core market. Buell riders and supporters will never be happy with that, but Erik is back now and they can support him in his new efforts.
If the "Harley faithful" don't like the new push into Sportster variations like the Iron 883, they're being short sighted. These bikes bring a new generation into the fold along with precious dollars. It keeps dealers in business while the company evolves to meet the current and future demands of the market.
A great way, at least in my view, to transition these Sportster buyers to a higher end and higher performing Harley would be to build a street tracker variation of those same Sportsers the young are already buying, just like Mule builds with his gorgeous bikes. Trackers would give the higher earning older buyer, looking to move up, an opportunity to buy a Harley before he transitions, if he ever does, to a big tour glide of some sort. As Richard Pollock has so often said, why Harley doesn't build something like his trackers is a mystery and I, too, wonder the same thing. The XR1200 seems like such a halfway measure, with a quirky design and too much weight. I wish Richard much success, but Harley could do very well in this segment if they really wanted to and, perhaps, it's on their radar already. We'll have to wait and see.
The bottom line is Harley is bringing new young buyers into the showroom who are riding out on Sportsters. That is great news for anyone looking for positive signs in the motorcycle market. It's also a sign that Harley is making the crucial and sometimes painful changes to move forward, something that is easy not to do when sales are good, but tough times punish the lazy and Harley seems to be working pretty hard to overcome missteps from the past.
This is another indication that motorcycle companies are coming back, changing their business models to meet the new markets and finding success in the process. Our story last week about Triumph bringing in record profit on growing sales is another. If we keep this up, who knows what might happen. I like it.