Harley-Davidson | The ‘Cool’ Factor

H-D Dark Customs

As a co-host on the Motorcycle Radio Network I’m often approached by listeners of the show to answer a multitude of motorcycle related questions. Most of the time these questions deal with the V-Twin industry and more specifically Harley-Davidson; our savvy listeners know I’m an ex-Harley dealer with a unique if not sometimes offbeat insight into the American motorcycle manufacturer.

Recently, I pulled into my local Starbucks Coffee drive thru for my morning brew and gave my order to Bruce, a very pleasant guy in his fifties and proud owner of a Heritage Softail. I then drove up to the window and a young lady in her twenties hands me my drink and asked if I found her a motorcycle yet? "Are you ready for a Harley?" I asked, and her response was, "No way! Harleys aren’t cool!" That got me thinking, "Has H-D lost its cool factor?" That one is a definite "Maybe." Bruce and I are close in age, and we both are at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation – the generation that was responsible for the huge amount of growth in the V-Twin industry and the generation that catapulted Harley-Davidson from a mediocre motorcycle manufacturer in the late 1980s to the most successful and fastest growing motorcycle producer of the 1990s.

Owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle became a status symbol to the Boomer generation, but what was cool for one generation might not be considered cool for another, which accurately sums up Harley-Davidson’s problem today. How do they attract the next generation of riders? It is my own opinion that new and innovative models drive customers to the brand. Harley’s own history backs up my thoughts – in 1981 it was the FLT-80 Tour Glide, 1984 saw the introduction of the FXST Softail, 1986 the FLST Heritage, 1990 the FLSTF Fat Boy, and in 2002 the VRSCA V-Rod. These revolutionary models were all exceptionally successful motorcycles for the Milwaukee manufacturer. The pattern is clear and it is definitely time for a new innovative model to be unveiled to the next generation of riders.

Harley-Davidson is having some success selling to a new counterculture of riders with its line of Dark Custom motorcycles like the 883 Iron and the hot new Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight introduced last month. According to Mark-Hans Richer, Harley-Davidson Senior VP and Chief Marketing Officer "we now sell more to this generation of riders than to the young adult generation before them."

I’m not sure what else Harley has on the drawing board, but if I could make a recommendation in what might be the next cool bike to roll down the assembly line it would be a true chopper. Choppers are timeless and considered cool by most of the younger generation. Honda, the most unlikely company to build a chopper, did just that with the 2010 model year introduction of the Fury. Don’t think for one minute that some at Harley-Davidson felt a little slighted by our Japanese friends. Honda beat America’s oldest manufacturer to the punch and built a very nice classically styled chopper, but now it is Harley’s turn to show the next generation (and the rest of the world) what a true chopper should look like. Choppers were born of the American culture of the 1960s and were brought to prominence in the 90s by numerous new motorcycle companies who have since disappeared, not because the chopper model wasn’t cool, but instead due to poor service, inferior parts and a tough economy.

In my 46 year old mind I’m 26 so Harleys are still cool, but to some of the younger generation of riders I do think Harley-Davidson has lost its cool image and needs to find a way to get it back. I can’t think of a better way to do it than too build a really cool chopper. I’ll even lend a hand with its design if asked.