Sales of street motorcycles in Canada are falling. They dropped more than 7 per cent in the first half of this year compared with the first half of last year. Just 28,348 street bikes were sold across the country, a decline of more than 2,000 from the same period the previous year.
Increased sales of dirt bikes, dual-purpose bikes and scooters almost made up for the loss, so the industry wasn’t hurt too badly over all, but street bikes still make up about 60 per cent of Canada’s engine-powered-two-wheeler sales.
For Harley-Davidson Inc., however, they make up all the company’s sales, and its devoted customers are aging out of the market. As they move on to riding more stable three-wheelers, or even as they hang up their jackets for good, those riders are not being replaced at the same rate by new, younger fans.
It’s the same everywhere for Harley-Davidson. In the first six months of 2019, sales of its motorcycles dropped in all the world’s markets by an average of 6.6 per cent over the same period in 2018, to about 121,000 bikes. The biggest market drop was in Canada, Harley’s third-largest country for volume (after the United States and Germany), where sales fell 11.2 per cent to 5,227 motorcycles.
What’s to be done?
“We’re expanding the portfolio to be able to offer something to almost everyone,” says Scott Winhold, Harley-Davidson Canada’s new managing director, appointed in June after 20 years at General Motors, BMW, Kia and Porsche. “That’s anyone who’s interested in two wheels and in having the freedom or the thrill of riding something with two powered wheels. In the future, we’ll have something for them.”
Harley’s biggest bet is on electric mobility. It’s just launched the LiveWire electric motorcycle, which is praised by those who’ve ridden it for being a high-quality, fast and fun machine, but also criticized for its limited range of up to 235 kilometres in the city and just 152 km in combined city and highway riding, and for its relatively steep price of $37,250.
“I would say [it’s] worth every penny,” Winhold says. “This is the first time that we as a brand have introduced an electric motorcycle and we only had one chance to do it right. And you don’t do it right by cutting corners. And you don’t do it right by investing minimal amounts of money. You do it right by building the best thing you can do, and that takes a lot of expense in [research and development] and technology.”
He points to Tesla, which entered the market in limited quantities with the Lotus-based Roadster, and then the expensive Model S, in order to get the technology right before bringing down the price with the Model 3. In coming years, Winhold says, Harley-Davidson will sell a broad range of electric two-wheelers, and they’ll appeal to a much wider audience than its current fan base.
Harley’s own website has a section for “future concepts” and they include electric bicycles and scooters. In the next few years, Harley-Davidson Canada says it plans to open glass-fronted satellite dealerships in downtown hubs, right next to commuter lanes and bicycle paths, that offer electrified two-wheeled alternatives to traditional urban transportation.
This will not just be in Canada. Two years ago, the company announced a 10-year strategy of attracting an additional two million new riders in the United States, launching 100 new motorcycle models that include sport bikes and adventure bikes, and selling 50 per cent of its products in countries outside the United States.
To this end, it now has an assembly plant in India that builds smaller bikes for that huge local market, the world’s largest, and it’s partnering with a Chinese company to assemble bikes for the growing market there. It also makes smaller bikes in Thailand that sell elsewhere in Asia, and that can be exported to Europe at much lower tariffs than U.S.-built machines. EU tariffs for American-made bikes jumped last year to 31 per cent from 6 per cent in response to tariffs imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump on imported steel and aluminum.
Winhold is adamant, however, that Harley-Davidson will not lose sight of the traditional biker who has stood behind the company for more than 100 years – who still wants a gas-burning, V-twin-powered motorcycle for cruising somewhere on a desert highway.
“I’m 100-per-cent convinced that doing one thing well doesn’t mean you can’t do many things well,” he says. “There are many [automotive] brands that successfully introduced very different products. The Smart car was launched by Mercedes-Benz, and they continued selling S-Classes, and they still sell just as many S-Classes as they ever did. Porsche introduced an SUV, and the ultraluxury manufacturers like Ferrari and Lamborghini introduced SUVs, and it’s not hurting their supercar sales.
“We can and will continue to do the things that make us the great brand that we are, but we’ll also do things that will help us expand our access to new customers, with new products.”
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up for the weekly Drive newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free. Follow us on Instagram, @globedrive.