Harley-Davidson continues to make announcements that indicate their willingness to move past the traditional market boundaries of the 116-year-old company in search of new riders.
At the all-important EICMA motorsports show in Milan this past week, The Motor Company officially revealed two widely rumored and expected new motorcycles that operate far outside the usual cruiser segment H-D is most associated with. The new bikes follow on the heels of the beginning of series production of the $30,000 LiveWire electric motorcycle, introduced earlier this year. They also come at a time of slipping sales and stock performance for Harley, although there was finally some good news in the most recent quarter as international sales gave the company a boost. Will these two new bikes, aimed at markets and audiences not typically associated with Harley-Davidson, catch on and bring those highly coveted new riders into the fold? It looks like 2020 will be a key year in Harley-Davidson’s long and colorful history.
The Pan America: Harley Gets Dirty
The first and most controversial machine (LiveWire excepted) is the long-rumored Pan America, a heavyweight “dual-sport” or “adventure” motorcycle with off-road capability. For the uninitiated, adventure (or “ADV”) dual-sport motorcycles are able to be ridden both on and off pavement, but they aren’t “dirt bikes” in the traditional sense. Feature-laden, comfortable, tough and typically large, they’re the Range Rovers of the motorcycle world. Helped in part by their high level of utility and all-terrain capabilities, ADV or “adventure motorcycles” are some of the most popular machines being sold today, even if, like many SUVs, they never turn a tire in actual dirt. With the Pan America, Harley will be taking on entrenched ADV bikemakers BMW, Honda, KTM, and relative ADV newcomer Ducati, among others, in the ever more crowded segment. Will the Pan America be able to hang with machines that have had years, and sometimes decades, of dirt-tested refinement?
The key ingredients appear to be in place on the Pan America. It will use a liquid -cooled 1250cc V-Twin motor call the Revolution Max that is almost diametrically opposite in spec and expectations to the thundering, air-cooled engines in Harley’s expansive line of cruisers. With 145 liquid-cooled horsepower and 90 pound-feet of torque, the Max motor spins faster and makes more power than anything in the cruiser lineup, and it matches up well with the competition, where engines in the 1200cc range seem to be the sweet spot between weight and power. ADV riders on epic world-circling journeys via roads less traveled tend to heavily load the bikes with everything needed to survive on their own, so power and carrying capacity are keys to success. A short video on the H-D website shows a skilled rider powering an unladen Pan America through a series of challenges in convincing fashion, and yes, it’s normal for the rider to be “standing up” on the pegs while riding off-road.
Harley says the Pan America shown at EICMA and on their website is a prototype, but it’s clearly close to production trim. H-D has come under fire from some corners in regards to the look of the bike, but to be fair, ADV bikes tend to be the ugly ducklings of the motorcycle world, seeing how they need to be tougher than pretty since they inevitably spend some time on their sides while traversing the wilderness. However, the Pan America is missing a “beak,” or an abbreviated front high-rise fender found on much of the competition, which was certainly no accident. Instead, the Pan America has a fairly conventional fork-mounted fender above its heavily knobbied front tire. Styling miss? Debatable.
Price and a more precise release date have not been announced, but expect a farkled Pan America to likely come in close to the $20,000 mark to compete with similarly capable BMW and KTM machines.
Don’t Fight The Future: The Bronx
The next machine to be shown off at EICMA is the Bronx, perhaps the most “modern” motorcycle the company has produced thus far. Featuring a 975cc version of the Pan America’s liquid-cooled Revolution Max engine, the Bronx (naming score: 100) is a high-tech sporting machine unlike anything else in the H-D lineup. Styled in the “streetfighter” vein of stripped-down, high-performance machines typically seen from European and Asian makers, the Bronx’ engine will reportedly make 115 horsepower and 70 pound-feet of torque in a compact physical package that will tightly focus on speed, agility and rider tech in ways no Harley really has before. In time, a larger, even more powerful 1250cc version will likely be added to the mix.
Like dual-sport machines, streetfighters are immensely popular, especially with young urban riders. Streetfighters combine speed, handling, a dash of style and a rational, comfortable riding position. They are sometimes referred to as the new “standard” motorcycle, echoing the all-around abilities of motorcycles from decades ago before the industry split into specialized niches in the 1980s. Harley says the Bronx will go on sale later in 2020 and so far, no pricing has been announced. There will be no shortage of competition.
Analysis: Why These Bikes Are Being Made
Harley-Davidson has tried for success in the “more performance” or muscle-cruiser segment of the overall cruiser market before with their line of V-Rod liquid-cooled machines, which were co-designed with Porsche. But that 17-year effort was quietly terminated in 2018 as the LiveWire ebike and the entry-level (and more internationally appealing) Street machines were spooled up. The V-Rod bikes just didn’t catch on like Harley hoped they would. And to be clear, the more-capable V-Rod bikes were still cruisers and nothing like the Bronx or Pan America. There are no shortage of stories of customers who had no interest in the capable but decidedly more modern V-Rod bikes, and more tales of dealership sales staff who had little interest in selling them.
While H-D is tiny in terms of comparable market cap to say, Apple, Harley-Davidson’s real power rests in its brand, one of the most recognized, recognizable and valuable in the world, and perhaps one of only a few with customer loyalty so strong that fans will tattoo its logo on their skin. However, wavering from their traditional offerings of air-cooled cruisers has clearly proven to be a difficult sell to the Harley faithful, even when presented with products like the V-Rod lineup that featured superior performance. Indeed, “performance” is a complicated dynamic for Harley-Davidson, which has traditionally been much more strongly associated with style and sound than handling and velocity.
But after decades of strong growth following the historic recovery from a near-death experience in the early 1980s, this most iconic of legacy Americana companies has found itself facing renewed competition from Polaris-backed and thoroughly modernized Indian, a slumping stock price and quarter after quarter of sliding sales in recent years as that core group of loyalists gets older and leaves the motorcycle market. Meanwhile, young people, many of them living lean while paying off student loans and working gig economy jobs, don’t seem as interested in riding Harleys while also having a multitude of inexpensive transportation (and entertainment) options literally at their fingertips, including rideshare services, car sharing, urban scooter rentals and a quickly growing segment of affordable electrified transportation options, including electric bicycles, skateboards and other interesting mobility inventions, each of which helps to negate the attraction of an expensive luxury purchase like a Harley – or any large motorcycle.
At some point, Harley management had to make the call: Hope and pray marketing efforts would lead to new customers who would somehow discover, love and buy the often expensive legacy machines, or strike out in new directions that hardcore loyalists may view as anathema but untapped buyers new to the brand could better identify with. The decision was – and is – clear, with expected (and perhaps unexpected) repercussions. Along with the electric LiveWire bikes and the beginner-friendly Street machines, the Pan America and Bronx are part of the company’s More Roads to Harley-Davidson vision of the company’s more diverse future, which will also include electric bicycles, with several prototypes shown at EICMA. In the future, expect more machines outside of the cruiser sphere to join the Bronx and Pan America – providing the sales figures show support for them, at least eventually.
And while the new models may be met with more indifference or even blowback from hard-line Harley fans in the U.S., the company has been working hard to build the brand – and some of the bikes – beyond American shores in countries like India, a strategy that appears to be bearing some fruit, despite the additional setbacks due to the current trade wars that are making Harleys much more expensive to buy in some of those now crucial markets. Thus, the understandable if unpopular push to build and sell bikes in those countries to avoid the tariff maze.
The bottom line for those who criticize the Harley-Davidson brass for building bikes outside of the U.S. and gambling the company on ventures such as the LiveWire, Pan America, Bronx and other ideas is this: As it sat, there was little chance that legacy cruiser sales were going to suddenly surge, especially since the numbers were continually sliding while the U.S. was experiencing a robust economy and record employment numbers. It was past time for the Motor Company to not only chart a new course, but to do so in a way that expanded ridership both at home, abroad and into the future. These new bikes – and bicycles – are the tip of the spear in that effort.
If they succeed, you can bet there will be more ADV machines, streetfighters and electric bicycles to choose from, and really, Harley fans and investors who might chafe at these actions would be wise to take a closer look and consider supporting these plans. Are the new bikes any good? Time will tell but given the thorough modernization the Motor Company has undergone over the past decades, it would be unusual and unlikely for them to put out products that underwhelm or fall far short of the competition. And as long as there is gas to pump, Harley-Davidson won’t ever stop making the brilliant and beautiful cruisers that so many people own and cherish, but The Faithful need to understand that their beloved icon of open-road freedom cannot survive on chrome and finned air-cooled cylinders alone.
Forbes hopes to review the Pan America and Bronx machines – and the electric bicycles – once they become available.