PRAGUE, Czech Republic – One hundred fifteen years. That’s how long Harley-Davidson has been producing motorcycles. The American motorcycle maker celebrated its 115th anniversary in Prague last weekend, and will follow up later this summer with another celebration in its hometown of Milwaukee on August 29 to September 2.
The company was founded at a time when other household names like Buick, Cadillac, and Ford also first saw light. Aside from these four companies, no one else in North America has been making vehicles for as long. Only Indian predates Harley as a motorcycle manufacturer — by two years — but unlike Harley, that company cannot claim an uninterrupted timeline.
Harley has witnessed two World Wars (and had survived them financially by producing motorcycles for the military), has survived the Great Depression, and the more recent economic collapse of 2008 — without a government handout — along with countless other historic milestones since the three Davidson brothers and single Harley rolled bike Number One out of a small shed in Milwaukee in 1903. The company has made alliances with European motorcycle companies Aermacchi and MV Agusta in the past, created and folded the Buell sub-brand, and at one time even owned RV manufacturer Holiday Rambler.
Harley has also changed hands in the past, most notably when it was acquired by sports equipment maker AMF in 1969, whom throughout the 1970s attempted to compete with the influx of higher quality, better performing and less expensive motorcycles from Japan by increasing production and cutting costs. This had a detrimental effect on quality, and Harley-Davidson nearly folded in the early 1980s, as its reputation, along with its sales, took a beating. In an attempt to save Harley, a group of 13 investors that included company executives and Willie G, Davidson, the grandson of cofounder William A. Davidson, bought the company from AMF in 1981. They succeeded in turning it around, and Harley hasn’t looked back since.
Many factors have contributed to the popularisation of the storied V-twin motorcycles since the purchase of the company by its 13 saviours, including celebrity endorsements, appearances in movies, and monumental improvements in quality. However, the strengthening of the brand can also be attributed — at least in my mind — to one model: the Softail. Well, that and the Regan-era tariff imposed in 1983 on Japanese bikes displacing more than 700 cc, a tariff that Harley had requested to help combat the flood of Japanese motorcycles into the U.S. at the time, many of them styled very much like Harleys — this was the time when the Japanese cruiser was born, after all.
The Softail was introduced in 1984, and with its hidden rear suspension it harked back to Harley’s past with styling that mimicked its suspension-less, rigid-famed bikes from decades earlier. It was the original retro bike, and it became a huge success, particularly because it enticed non-Harley riders to the brand. For a long time it was Harley’s bestseller, until the company’s touring bikes began outselling its custom bikes about a half-dozen years ago. Countless models have been spun off the Softail platform, and it enters its third generation this year, completely redesigned.
The globalisation of the brand has grown the company, and sales in Asia and Europe promise even more potential for growth. A recent trade war initiated by the current U.S. president, who imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, have forced retaliatory European tariffs on some U.S. products, including on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. To counter the potential increase of about $2,500 per unit due to this tariff, Harley has announced it will transfer the manufacture of bikes destined for the European market, to Europe. European sales represent about 40,000 units annually for Harley, so sales lost due to forced price increases in the region can hurt the company, which anticipates producing about 235,000 units this year, down from almost 243,000 units in 2017. Sales for the brand peaked in 2006 with a staggering 349,000 units delivered worldwide.
Making bikes abroad is nothing new for Harley, as it also has plants in Australia, Brazil, India and Thailand. But this European plant announcement has struck a chord with the President, and he has threatened to tax the company “like never before” and that moving production abroad (which it has done already) will “be the beginning of the end” for Harley. Harley has been through worse.
But all this bickering is of little consequence to the thousands of Harley owners who rode into Prague for Harley’s 115th Anniversary celebrations. Here, an eclectic group of riders from 77 countries came together to celebrate the iconic brand, and to take part in four days of festivities that included stunt shows, live bands, and riding games among other frivolities, culminating in a 4,000-rider parade on the closing day. It was striking to see motorcycles with licence plates from different countries brandishing paint jobs with American flags, and riders wearing Harley-Davidson branded riding gear head to toe, and even getting the brand tattooed onto their bodies. If there’s one thing Harley has done very well, it’s to have exported not only its products, but also the American biker lifestyle abroad.
Harley’s future depends in its ability to entice new riders to the brand, and that’s no easy task, since millennials have shown varied interest in motorcycles, and less so in premium American motorcycles. According to Harley-Davidson Canada’s Karen Mayberry, the company’s current objective isn’t to focus solely on millennials, but to look ahead and recruit future new riders from the up-and-coming Generation Z, who will probably be old enough to ride in about a decade. Also part of H-D’s strategy toward future growth is to push eco-friendly and possibly more socially acceptable electric motorcycles, confirmed by a recent equity investment in California-based electric motorcycle maker, Alta Motors.
“We reiterated our commitment to build the next generation of Harley-Davidson riders, in part by aggressively investing in electric vehicle technology,” says president and CEO of Harley-Davidson, Matt Levatich.
In 115 years, Harley has created a very loyal customer base, but that base is now aging. The company has faced many hurdles over the decades, but it now faces perhaps its biggest challenge: to create a crop of new riders that will hopefully prove as loyal as the outgoing bunch.
If you want to take part in the anniversary celebrations closer to home, head out to Milwaukee in late August.