The Slow Death of Harley Davidson

By Brock McPherson

Harley Davidson has been around since 1907 and they’re indisputably an American icon. Their badge is instantly recognizable to just about anybody in the English-speaking world, despite the fact that their sales have been on the decline for a while.

At one time in history, this wasn’t the case. For the first couple of decades after the company was created in 1907, Harley Davidson was innovating and steadily expanding with their original engine design, the V-twin. This engine design was named the V-twin because it consisted of two pistons joined at the base and angled upwards at a 45 degree angle away from each other. This engine design made Harley stand out, and became so iconic that it’s still used today by both of the two major American motorcycle companies, Harley and Indian.

HD had the opportunity to expand even more when WWII rolled around and the United States military needed reliable and affordable motorcycles for use overseas. These machines, colloquially known as the “Liberators”, became popular after the war due to their affordability and availability. Having fulfilled that contract, they were able to gain more notoriety and increase production further. In fact, Harley Davidson still makes motorcycles for the American military and police today.

One of the problems they experienced, however, is that they pioneered the Japanese motorcycle industry by licensing tools and blueprints to a Japanese company Sankyo. This was very profitable for them at the time, however, it would grow to be a problem in the coming years.

Already facing competition from European companies such as Ducati and BMW, the Japanese motorcycles became a force in the American market. In 1963, Honda in particular began selling their Cub models to Americans using a friendly-looking ad campaign with the slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”. The very next year, in 1964, these new Honda bikes made up half of all motorcycle sales in the United States. In order to remain competitive, Harley Davidson had to lean into the tough biker gang image that they had tried to ignore up until then.

This worked in the short run, however, soon other Japanese companies such as Yamaha and Kawasaki began trying to tap into the American market. This led to Harley Davidson to petition then-president Ronald Reagan to impose a 45% tariff on all imported motorcycles, which he approved in 1983. This did help sales considerably, and they were sitting quite well for a while, but they ran into another problem as time went on. HD’s customer base was getting older.

While other brands, especially Japanese ones such as the aforementioned Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha were rapidly gaining traction with younger riders, Harley Davidson’s bikes, being overpriced couches on wheels, were neither as fast nor as affordable as their Japanese counterparts. Harley Davidson tried to draw in younger audiences with a subsidiary company started by ex-employee Eric Buell, known as Buell Motorcycles. However, HD dropped the company before it could gain any traction, due to the fact that it wasn’t making enough money yet.

The company tried once more to gain traction with younger buyers with a performance-based motorcycle called the V-Rod, which had an engine co-designed by Porsche. On paper, it seemed like a great idea to have a motorcycle which had the looks and attitude to satisfy older buyers, as well as the speed to bring in younger generations. Unfortunately, older customers said that it wasn’t a “real Harley” and the bike’s platform, despite a better engine, still had all the flaws that turned away younger buyers. In 2008, Harley Davidson stopped publishing the average age of their riders (it was 48 at the time), and in 2018 discontinued the V-Rod.

Over the last year, Harley Davidson looked like they were going to build a bike for the future, rather than living in the past. They showed designs for a new, small electric motorcycle known as the LiveWire. Unfortunately, in true Harley Davison fashion, the bike is slow, heavy and overpriced. It’s for these reasons that Harley Davidson may shut down in the near future.