Oct 26, 2017
The look, feel, and sound of the American motorcycle is changing. This isn’t because it wants to, but because the new American motorcycle rider demands it.
Not only have ridership levels decreased significantly over the last decade, but those that still answer the call to “head out on the highway” are no longer looking for loud engines, big steering columns and minimal creature comforts. Instead, they want fuel efficiency, nimble handling, and aerodynamics that provide a smoother ride. This transition was evident earlier this year when, after 18 years, Polaris ended production of their Victory brand.
Victory was simply not as popular as Harley-Davidson and not as economical as its foreign competition. Sales had dropped by nearly 50 percent over the last decade. However, when Polaris announced the end of Victory, they also unveiled plans to infuse more resources into revitalizing the legendary Indian brand, and in particular, an electric Indian bike. Electric models have become a critical focus of motorcycle research and development with their promise of eliminating weight while maintaining performance and improving environmental impact.
Following this news was the largest unveiling of new bikes in the 115-year history of legendary motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson. In August the company unveiled eight new bikes In an attempt to reverse lagging sales. They all feature lighter frames and an overhauled suspension system to help improve handling, along with engines that focus on acceleration over top speed.
At nearly 40 pounds lighter than their predecessors, these bikes are nothing like your dad’s Harley – which is the point. Instead of making the pipes rumble, these bikes are looking to impress new riders with anti-lock brakes, digital instrumentation and USB ports.
Finally, Honda recently unveiled their 2018 Gold Wing with a series of interesting design changes for this legacy cruising bike. What an Escalade is to an SUV, a Gold Wing is to a motorcycle. Historically, they’re larger, comfort-focused bikes meant to stand out.
However, the new models focus on a more aerodynamic shape that’s lighter and allow the rider and passenger to sit further forward, so the windshield deflects more of the wind. A horizontally-mounted six-cylinder engine, and six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmission promise higher fuel efficiency. The entire bike is nearly 15 pounds lighter than the previous model, which allowed Honda to reduce the gas tank size by more than a gallon.
In a microcosm, these changes reflect how a product has evolved to meet customer demands. In a broader sense, they showcase how American manufacturers need to embrace the voice of the customer. While making decisions that shake the traditional pillars of a company are difficult, they will prove necessary in preserving its future competitiveness.