Rumblings From Harley?

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A few months ago, in April, the May edition of Cycle World magazine (link unavailable, it was print) printed a rumor on page 24 that Harley-Davidson was working on a V-4 power plant for…something.  Even Cycle World didn’t know:

Harley-Davidson is rumored to be working on a new V-Four engine. It is unclear whether the engine is for use in traditional H-D products and/or for Buell.

It was an interesting rumor, but nothing’s come out of it yet.

Now, there’s a new rumor floating around, which is that the MoCo is working on a brand new café racer bike.

There might be a pulse after all in the town of Milwaukee. A&R has gotten word that the Sultan of Slow is working on a cafe racer motorcycle, similar to the classic XLCR 1000.

If true (and not flubbed like the V-ROD), Harley-Davidson may have found the happy merger of maintaining its brand identity, and manufacturing a motorcycle for people that never owned a black & white television. We secretly hope this rumor is associated with the Harley-Davidson V4 rumor we heard not so long ago, but that may also then indicate Hell freezing over and the Earth collapsing in on itself like a dying star…

We’re always cautious about rumors here, and even more so when they involve H-D doing something right; so as usual, time will tell on this one.

I, for one, hope so.  H-D has such a great brand with so much potential energy, that they could be a powerhouse in motorcycling, if they’d just step out of the 60s.

2010 Honda Gold Wing

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Honda has announced their 2010 line-up of the Gold Wing model.  And for this exciting new year’s models, Honda has sent its top engineers back to the drawing board with this motorcycle, in order to come up with a number of big changes to the colors in which it is available. And why would they do anything else?  As honda puts it, “How do you improve on perfection?”

How, indeed.

This year, The Gold Wing is available in four colors instead of five:  Basic Black, Gunmetal Gray, Dried-Blood Red, and International Safety yellow.

As an added feature, now that the Marysville, OH plant has been shut down they’re guaranteed to be manufactured in Japan.

This is a very exciting time for Honda, I guess.

Anyway, you can see the new lineup here, if you’re interested.

2010 Confederate P120 Fighter Combat

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Confederate Motorcycles, the Louisiana-based maker of extremely high-end motorcycles, is all set to publicly unveil their newest model, on August 14th at “The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering” in Carmel, CA.  The new P-120 Fighter Combat is powered by a 1966cc V-Twin engine, that puts out 160HP and 145lb-ft of torque.  As you can see from the pictures below, this model proves once again that Confederate is not…um…enslaved to conventional concepts of motorcycle design.

It’s very…shiny.

No word from  Confederate on what the production number will be.  They have production runs of anywhere from 35 bikes to 150 bikes per model, but whatever the number is, it’s going to be a very small number.  And the price tag will be a very large number, i.e. in the 6-digit range.

Hmmm.  You’d think that when you shell out 100 grand for a motorcycle, you’d at least get wheels matched to the design of the bike, wouldn’t you?  Heck, for that kind of money, you’d kind of expect the motorcycle to have a rear brake, too.

Well, you’d be wrong.

A Rare Tactical Mistake, an Ongoing Strategic Problem

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Harley-Davidson, whatever the company’s faults may be, have gotten one thing consistently right: Marketing.  They are a marketing powerhouse.  When you buy a Harley-Davidson, you don’t just buy a motorcycle.  You buy a ticket to the “Harley Lifestyle”.  The company’s marketing is ubiquitous and effective.  But not perfect…

H-D’s CEO, Keith Wandell, admitted in an interview with The Business Journal that the company flubbed their forecasts of the recession’s impact on their customers’ buying choices.

[T]he company mistakenly thought the recession would push consumers toward Harley’s Sportster and other less expensive motorcycles.

The company increased production of those types of bikes, but retail sales “didn’t materialize,” he said.

Harley dealers currently have a glut of the mid-priced V-Rod models.

Instead, many consumers who have been buying Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been buying more expensive custom and touring bikes, Wandell said.

“It left us with a bigger imbalance,” he said. “We have a lot of inventory.”

As a result, Harley-Davidson will shut down final assembly operations of the Sportster and V-Rod motorcycles and V-Rod motorcycle powertrain production in Kansas City, and production of Sportster motorcycle powertrains in Wauwatosa, for 14 weeks this year, including all of the fourth quarter.

Let me put on my MBA hat here.  (And yes, I do have one.  An MBA, I mean.  I don’t actually have the hat.  But, I’m thinking of getting one made.)

Harley’s real problem, however, is not the occasional tactical marketing error, but a more fundamental strategic error that the company keeps compounding.I’m kind of stunned that the MoCo would make such a mistake about the buying habits of their customers.  Sportsters certainly have their fans, but general, people buy a Sportster because they want a Sportster. I can see how someone wanting a Softtail might settle for a Dyna, but not a Sportie.  At least with the Dyna they still get the Big Twin engine.  Surely the company must know that the Sportster is called the “baby Harley” and “girls bike”.  They must have some inkling that salesmen at dealerships constantly advise prospective Sportster buyers that they’ll quickly outgrow the bike, and want a Dyna in a year or so, so why not buy a Dyna that you won’t outgrow instead?

People who want a Big Twin–and often they already have a Metric big twin they’re looking to trade off–aren’t interested in scaling down to a smaller motorcycle.  They want one of the big dogs.

And as for the V-Rod…well, I don’t know what they were thinking when they thought they’d see an increase in sales there.  It’s a nice bike but it certainly isn’t the company’s most popular product line.  Not by a long shot.

It’s strange to see the company make such an unusual tactical error, and now the employees are gonna pay for it, as the MoCo cuts production to align inventory with customer demand.

Harley’s real problem, however, is not the occasional tactical marketing error, but a more fundamental strategic error that the company keeps compounding.

The brand is an absolute icon for the baby boomers.  Among the Gen-X set and younger riders…well, not so much.  The MoCo has a serious strategic problem when it comes to marketing, in that younger riders just aren’t attracted by the Harley brand.  Harley obviously knows that their customers are aging, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve started producing factory trikes, so that their customers can keep riding long after the ability to hold up a 750 lb. hunk of steel fades away.

But Harley’s challenge isn’t to figure out how to keep an aging band of retirees buying their products, but rather how to entice younger riders to the brand.  It’s clear that, looking at the advancing average age of H-D customers, they haven’t figured it out.  Or rather, if they have, they’ve declined to implement the obvious solution.

To properly understand the problem, we need to look back at a bit of history.

If you were born in, say, 1980, Harley-Davidson has never been the Big Dog motorcycle.I was born in 1964, so that makes me the very last of the baby boomers.  When we were growing up a “superbike”–the term didn’t really exist back then–was a Norton Commando 800.  A Harley-Davidson was a massive motorcycle with an ungodly large 1200cc engine.  You started riding motorcycles with a Montgomery-Wards 125cc thumper, maybe graduated to a BSA 500cc, then you finally got the money to get one of the Big Dogs, a Harley.

In the 70s, that all started to change.  The Japanese began producing game-changing bikes like the Honda 750Four, and the Kawasaki Z-1.  Performance increased dramatically.  By 1984, when Yamaha introduced the frighteningly powerful (for the time) V-Max, real superbikes were available. The mid-80s explosion of Sportbikes, like the Kawasaki Ninja, raised the bar forever in terms of new motorcycle riders’ perceptions about what a powerful motorcycle was.

Harley’s response was, and continues to be, incremental increases in engine displacement from 1200cc air cooled twins to 1600cc air-cooled twins, along with incremental improvements to frames, suspension, and, thus handling.  But the styling and riding characteristics of the company’s products remained mainly stuck in the 1950s-1960s.

1965 Harley Davidson FLH1200
1965 Harley Davidson FLH1200

Don’t believe me?  OK.  Compare and contrast the two bikes shown here.

Can you think of any other product where so little styling has changed in the past 44 years?

So, if you were born in, say, 1980, Harley-Davidson has never been the Big Dog motorcycle.  It’s been a manufacturer of heavy, slow, low-performance cruisers.  You’ve grown up in a world of 150+HP superbikes–a world that did not exist when the boomers were young.  Younger riders have an entirely different mental impression of how the motorcycling world is put together.

To thrive as a company Harley needs a product that is connected to the modern era, as well as the past.  That doesn’t mean that Harley should jettison its classic styling completely.  There’ll always be a market for that, because it has a definite appeal to some riders.  But to grab younger riders Harley-Davidson–as a company, not a specific brand–has to have something else.  It has to have a line of motorcycles that appeals to those younger people who want more sport than cruiser.

And, interestingly enough, Harley already has that with Buell motorcycles.  And does almost nothing with them.

2009 Harley Davidson Road King
2009 Harley Davidson Road King

First, until last year, the entire Buell line–except for the now-defunct Blast–was limited to cast-off Sportster Evolution engines.  Erik Buell’s division tweaked them as well as they could be tweaked, but the XB series of bikes has never–and can never, from a technical point of view–compete with 600cc sportbikes like the Yamaha R6.  And I simply can’t believe that an old privateer racer like Erik Buell is satisfied with the performance of the products he’s been allowed to put out by his masters in Milwaukee.

And, to make matters worse, Buell doesn’t even have its own dealership network.  Instead, Buells are relegated to the dark corner of Harley-Davidson dealerships, and the sales staffs often know little about the brand…and care even less.  I’ve personally had sales people intentionally steer me away from Buells, to point me in the direction of a Softtail or Road King.

H-D needs to move beyond the cruiser world if it wants to compete in the future. And that means letting Buell have some more leeway to operate beyond the Harley-Davidson cruiser world.

Companies survive by making products the public wishes to purchase.  They don’t survive on tradition.  They don’t survive on selling lifestyles.They need to break into the younger markets by producing bikes that can compete with the Gixxers and Ninjas. That means giving Buell the go-ahead to dump the Thunderstorm engine in favor of water-cooled twins and V-4 or I-4 engines.  Buell has some fascinating design ideas for sportbikes, but one of the reasons they’ve never been accepted is that, performance-wise, Buells suck compared to the Japanese brands. Buell needs a powerplant to mate with their technical innovations.  The 1125 is a good start.  Now, they need to make the next step.

They need to liberate Buell from the H-D dealership network, and open up dealerships where Buell enthusiasts work.  It doesn’t matter how good the bikes are if their sales network doesn’t want to sell them.  Making the customers force the dealer to sell them a Buell is silly, and it needs to stop.

Harley also has MV Agusta, the venerable maker of Italian sportbikes, including the F4 312RR, the most powerful production motorcycle in the world, as well as its parent company, Cagiva.  Maybe figuring out how to get those Italian brands over here would be helpful as well.

Companies survive by making products the public wishes to purchase.  They don’t survive on tradition.  They don’t survive on selling lifestyles.  The reason the MoCo’s customer base is aging and shrinking is because they aren’t making products the younger generation wants to buy.

But Harley owns the brands, and has the capability to make the bikes that will attract the younger generation of buyers.  It only remains to be seen if Harley will continue to rest on the laurels of the brand’s prestige, or if it will become determined to compete in the new markets that the Japanese currently own.

2010 V-Max Released

Yamaha’s Star brand of cruiser motorcycles has announced that the new, monstrously powerful 2010 V-Max is on sale as of today.  Sporting a 1679cc liquid-cooled 65° V-4 engine putting out 200 Horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque , the V-Max is the 800-pound gorilla of cruisers.

There’s a downside to this power, though.  27MPG fuel efficiency off of a 4-gallon tank means a refueling stop after less than 100  miles, unless you want to push it.  And the handling, while reportedly improved over the pre-2009 models, is still less than optimal.  So, no touring or twisties for this beast, just simple hot-rodding.

There’ve been no changes to the V-Max from 2009, except the new Cherry red paint.

2010 Indian Motorcycles

Indian Motorcycle is America’s oldest motorcycle brand–although not, it should be pointed out, the oldest continuous manufacturer, due to an unfortunate number of bankruptcies.  The venerable brand keeps being revived though, and in its current incarnation, the company has unveiled its 2010 lineup of Indian Chief motorcycles at Sturgis.  Top among them is Indian’s version of a dark custom motorcycle, the Dark Chief.

A special model for the 2010 year is the Indian Chief bomber, a motorcycle whose styling is based on World War II aircraft.  According to the company:

Inspired by WWII aircraft, the Bomber is a limited edition Chief model and will only be available for one year. The Bomber is available in Military Green and Silver Smoke finishes. The pin-up girl tank artwork is inspired by the Bomber nose art of that era. The leather used on the seat and saddlebags are reminiscent of the feel and color of an old bomber jacket.

If you want an Indian, be prepared to shell out some serious cash.  The price for an entry-level model starts at $25,999, and goes up from there.

Economic Pain

The global recession just keeps on hurting.  Yamaha Motor Company announced that they have some problems, financially, and they substantially cut their profit forecast for the year.

Yamaha Motor Co., the world’s second- largest motorcycle maker, fell the most in nine months after the company quadrupled its forecast to a full-year loss of 182 billion yen ($1.9 billion).

The company dropped 9.9 percent, or 120 yen, to 1,096 yen at the close on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Yamaha, based in Iwata City, Japan, had previously forecast a net loss of 42 billion yen. It posted a loss of 74.7 billion yen in the first half.

The motorcycle maker cut its sales forecast by 12 percent as rising unemployment and falling wages reduces demand for Royal Star cruising bikes. Yamaha plans to close three factories in Japan over the next three years. The company cut its forecast for motorcycle sales in North America this year by 35 percent and lowered its prediction for European sales by 8 percent.

On top of the news from Yamaha, Honda also released some bad news today.

Honda Motor Co.’s domestic production of motorcycles is expected to fall 40 per cent on the year in fiscal 2009 as a result of stalled demand in Japan and delayed inventory adjustments overseas.

Honda’s Kumamoto plant, now its sole domestic manufacturing base for motorcycles, plans to produce 181,000 units this fiscal year, compared with slightly more than 300,000 units in fiscal 2008. The fiscal 2009 figure is also less than half of the facility’s annual output capacity of 460,000 units.

About 50 per cent of the motorcycles manufactured at the Kumamoto plant are for the domestic market, while 90 per cent of the units shipped overseas are for the North American and European markets. Owing to the global economic downturn, overseas and domestic demand has dropped sharply since last autumn, with midsize and large motorcycles among the hardest hit.

It’s a tough time to be in the pleasure/recreational vehicle business.

Roehr 1250 Gets EPA Certified

For quite a while now Roehr Motorcycles has been readying themselves to build a single product.  Their dream is to produce an American-made, 50-state legal, superbike that can compete with the best from Japan, Italy, and Germany.  They’ve now moved one step closer to fulfilling that dream.  The Environmental Protection Agency has certified the Roehr 1250sc as meeting the environmental requirements for sale in the United States.  That makes the bike legal for sale in 49 states.  Approval from the California Air Resources Board is expected shortly.

This means that a real American superbike is almost ready for sale in the United States.

The Roehr 1250sc is powered by the water-cooled, Harley-Davidson Revolution engine, which, with the addition of a proprietary supercharger developer by Roehr, that provides an output of 180 HP at 9100 RPM, and 115 lb/ft of torque at 7600 RPM.

The 1250sc is ready for a track day right off the showroom floor, since it comes stock with and Ohlins 43mm fully adjustable upside-down fork up front and a Ohlins fully adjustable linkless monoshock in back providing the suspension.  Stopping power is provided by 2 x 330mm semi-floating discs with radially mounted Brembo 4 piston calipers on the front wheel and 245mm single disc with 2 piston Brembo calipers on the rear wheel.  The exhaust system flows through dual Akraprovic carbon-fiber performance mufflers.  The final drive is a 520 O-ring chain in the single-sided swingarm.

The dry weight of the 1250sc is a claimed 432 lbs (196kg).  Wet weight won’t be all that much more, since the fuel tank only holds 3.2 gallons, which kind of limits the bike’s street potential.  You may find that the price does too, since all those premium components come with a $50k price tag. But, people buy the Ducati Desmo, so there’s no reason they can’t buy this, too.

More information about the 1250sc is available at Roehr’s web site.  And if you’re really interested, and will be in the Santa Monica, CA area, you can set up a test ride.

9100 RPM

Honda Ends US Motorcycle Production

For the first time in 30 years, Honda motorcycles are no longer produced in the United States.  The Marysville, Ohio plant opened by Honda in 1979 has shut its doors.  All Honda motorcycles for the US market will now be imported from Japan.  Honda blames the closure on the global economic recession, and the tighter credit environment which has stifled demand for cars and motorcycles.

OK. We get it.

Somebody at Buell’s marketing department must be so proud of his cleverness.  Buell has gotten the defunct 2010 crushed Blast into the Motorcycle.com specs listing.  They’ve replicated their  Book of Buell dismissal of the blast there.  “cause God knows that buying full-page ads in the mags, and putting up front on their web site wasn’t good enough.  No, they’ve got to show off their cleverness to the world.

Because they’re extreme, maaaan!

Hm.  Maybe for 2011 they should think about dumping their current boring product names, too.  There’s tons of great potential names out there.  The “Moody Loner”  The “Social Misfit”.  The “Outcast”.  The potential’s unlimited.

And, yes, I’m still planning on riding an 1125r.

Scooter + Ducati Monster = Scootster?

Italian motorcycle designer Oberdan Bezzi is convinced that Ducati will be revealing a new scooter at the Milan EICMA Motorcycle show in November.

Oberdan thinks the motor will be an 850 and offer a multi-mode transmission like the Aprilia Mana. That’s not a bad assumption; I just had a conversation with a source at Piaggio, who told me Piaggio loves to sell powertrain units to anyone who’ll buy them. “Would they sell one without heads so Ducati could install Desmo heads,” I asked? “Sure” was the answer. Oberdan’s drawing shows the Testastretta motor’s deep sump, so maybe that’s not what he had in mind, but it’d make sense, no? He also envisioned an “S” version, with Öhlins suspension and maybe some lightweight 16-inch wheels as well.

Bezzi also has a concept drawing of this supposed cross between a scooter and a Ducati Monster.

Ducati Scooster
Ducati Scooster

Huh. We’ll see.

What is Erik Buell Thinking?

I‘ve spent some time going over the new 2010 Buell Motorcycles web site that was unveiled today. I can’t say as I like it much.  And I don’t think much of the marketing effort they put into one of the main features on the new site, the co-called “Book of Buell“.

Something about the tone of the thing just puts me off.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  The Buell is a fine motorcycle, and Erik Buell really is a fine engineer and racer, who has contributed some fascinating ideas to motorcycle design.  Many of Buell’s design concepts seem spot on.  But the tone of the thing gets right up my nose.

SITTING IS NOT A SPORT

There is no World Champion of sitting.  No governing body to ensure that when two people try to out sit each other, they do it by the rules. Because sitting is not a sport.  Unfortunately, most people who buy sportbikes do just that.  They hit the starter button, raise the kickstand, and sit their asses off…

Actually, most people raise the kickstand, and then hit the starter button, because they have modern bikes with a safety interlock that won’t let you start the bike with the kickstand down.  If the bike isn’t in Neutral, at any rate.

…There’s nothing wrong with these people.  They just bought the wrong bike. A sport bike is not designed to be sat on.  it’s designed to be hung off.  Moved around on.  Constantly manipulated beneath the rider. A self-propelled platform upon which a sport takes place.  Before you buy a Buell, take a moment to think about what you really want to do on it.  If the answer involves sitting, you may want to consider something different.  A porch swing, maybe, or one of those floating pool chairs.

Well.  Aren’t we just a little too cool for the room?  But hey, while we’re on the subject of whether or not we should consider a sportbike, maybe we should also take a moment to consider if the sportbike we want has an air-cooled V-twin engine that was pulled off of a Harley Sportster, and puts out 103 horsepower like the XB12R, or has a water-cooled, I-4 Engine that spits out 178 horses, and is smooth as silk, like a GSX-R1000.  Even the 1125R is only putting out 145 horses.

So, let’s be honest.  If you’re looking at a Buell, your prime consideration is probably something other than the raw power of the motorcycle, and the ability to push it past 135 MPH.

The BoB continues:

ERIK BUELL DIDN’T BECOME AN ENGINEER SO HE COULD MEET OTHER ENGINEERS

The truth is, he’s made a career our of alienating them.  But this has never been his aim.  It’s just what happens when someone discards accepted principles in search of a better way.  Put gas in the frame, turn the swingarm into an oil tank, sling the exhaust under the engine, and develop a perimeter-mounted front brake…

…use an engine that was originally designed for a cruiser…

…and all of a sudden your invitation to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers annual golf tournament gets lost in the mail and that one guy from Poltech stops sending a Christmas card.

Because Erik is so extreme, maaaaaan! The Establishment shuns him!

Yes. Erik Buell’s ideas were so disfavored, and he was made such a figure of ridicule that all the other engineers felt  awkward in his presence because of his shunning.  And in his hideous shame, the country’s largest motorcycle manufacturer acquired his company, provided him with capital, manufacturing capability, and parts in order to build his crazy machines.

The next section is entitled, “A Buell Won’t Make You Any Friends”.

Many people buy sportbikes as a way to connect with other people who ride sportbikes.  Equipped with their new sportbike, they gain instant admission to a fun, freewheeling group of like-minded riders…This will not happen to you if you purchase a Buell. No one will understand why you’ve done what you’ve done.  In fact, they may even be disturbed by it…

And often, this includes the sales and service departments of  the local Harley Davidson dealer where you purchase it.

Because we don’t engineer motorcycles for acceptance.  We engineer them for performance. And we engineer them without mercy.

And frankly, because they have to engineer them without mercy, considering that they–the 1125 excepted–use an antiquated motor design that every other manufacturer discarded years ago in order to replace them with engines that deliver 60-70% more power.

Let’s be frank, here.  The Buell Thunderstorm-powered bikes are excellent motorcycles, considering what they are.  But all of the engineering in the world will never deliver the horsepower or anything like the top speed out of an air-cooled V-Twin based on the Harley Evolution motor that a modern I-4 engine of similar displacement will.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad motor, or that the Buell is a bad bike.  It isn’t.

But let’s not pretend it’s a CBR100RR with a top-gear roll-on from 60-80MPH that’s half a second faster than the XB12R, with a similar gap in quarter mile times, with the Honda moving 15MPH+ faster at the marker.

Anyway, it goes on that way for a bit more.  Then we get to the real kick in the teeth for some Buell customers:  The elimination of the Buell Blast.  You have to see the way they handle that to believe it.

They show a picture of a Blast crushed into a cube, and the text goes:

The Buell Blast was a cute little motorcycle.  It just never made much of a sportbike…Hey, there’s no denying the Blast’s aforementioned cuteness.  But there’s nothing cute about racing or riding a sportbike the way it was meant to be ridden.  And while racing and sportbikes have always been important at Buell, they are now officially the only thing that matters.  So the Blast will not be moving forward.

In other words, we never cared about this bike.  We thought it was dumb, and we are happy to dump it.  And if you are one of the stupid, poser suckers we sold one of these suck-machines to, then you got screwed.  Enjoy your cute little thumper, loser.  Because we’re all about being extreme now. And racing. And flipping off The Man.  The Blast didn’t give off that moody loner vibe we’re cultivating.  We not only don’t care what our competitors think, we don’t even care about what our former Blast customers think.

OK.  It’s a given that they don’t care what I think, then.  But I think, “Nice PR, Ass,” anyway.

Yes, Buell’s have been racing since the very beginning of the company.  They’ve been very successful in Thunderbike.  But when Buell really wanted to compete at the superbike level, they had to design a new bike from scratch, using an outsourced Rotax water-cooled motor.

The Firebolt is great in it’s available range, and in initial acceleration, and it will keep up with most sportbikes stoplight to stoplight.  But at the end of the day, it can’t put out the top speed of almost anyone else’s liter sportbike.  And we won’t even try to compare it to the ‘Busa or ZX-14.

Still, it’s a very good motorcycle, and personally, I like Buells a lot. Overall, I think Erik Buell outs out a very good product, with competitive street performance at anything less than “Go ahead and take my license and impound my bike, officer” speeds.  And I really think Buell’s whole design philosphy has a lot going for it. And Buell does, in fact, put out an XB-RR race bike with 150 ponies.  I bet if Harley gave him the green light to produce a bike with a modern I-4 powerplant, it’d be an absolute monster.

But the arrogant, too-cool-for-the-room, “I’m a rebel, man!” marketing really turns me off.  And the way they wrote off the Blast like it was some worthless POS just has a total lack of class.