True Timing

That Harley-Davidson never swam with the motorcycling tide is no secret. Even when it finally embraced the spirit of adventure as a part of motorcycle touring ethos, it did so at a time of its own choosing. So, this time around, has Harley-Davidson timed it right or is it too late to the party?

Jul 02, 2021 ANINDA SARDAR No Comments Like

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In the world of motorcycles, the idea of experimentation with the machine’s styling didn’t really start in earnest till the 1980s. It was only around this time that motorcycle styling started to move away from older ideas of round instruments and headlamps and a general theme of minimalism. Although the laurel of becoming the first motorcycle with a factory fitted fairing as standard, goes to the BMW R100RS back in 1976, should you Google the model you’ll realize that it was nowhere close to the outrageous designs that were to follow. In just about half a decade all of that would start to change with the introduction of fully faired race replicas such as the Suzuki RG250 Gamma and the Honda VF750 F. By the mid 1990s, motorcycle styling had become a riot of ideas – fully faired, half faired, adventure touring, naked street bikes, ét al

However, one motorcycle manufacturer that refused to play ball, was Harley-Davidson. Although excessive in many respects, the styling of the motorcycles to proudly wear the bar and shield logo always harked back to a simpler era. A time when round analogue gauges and headlamps were the norm. In fact, in many ways the brand was almost stubborn in its efforts to cling on to an earlier time in the face of technology’s relentless march. For instance, while the rest of the motorcycling world was going to great lengths to showcase their technological advancements through their motorcycle’s designs, Harley actually developed the Softail range in 1984 to disguise the fact that the motorcycles had a rear suspension! The idea was to retain the styling of yore even if the technology had to remain hidden. 

All through these years if there was one motorcycle manufacturer that remained staunchly loyal to the ethos of an earlier time, it was Harley-Davidson. And it worked too, for up until recently, Harley-Davidson, was one of the most profitable motorcycle manufacturers in the world. In fact, it worked so well that companies around the world emulated their strategy of having products that hark back to a simpler time. In Europe, Ducati has the Scramblers, Triumph has its own range of modern classics and BMW has its R nine T. Here in Asia, we have the mighty Japanese with their range of classics. Yamaha has its Sport Heritage range with motorcycles like the XSR 700 and V Star 250, Honda’s arsenal includes the CB1000R and the CB1100 and Kawasaki has the W800. Then of course there is our very own Royal Enfield that wrote a fantastic scrap metal to gold dust story with its own range of motorcycles that hark back to an earlier, simpler era. In fact, the whole modern classic form of motorcycling, what I call ‘nostalgi-biking,’ has become such a rage that the idea of a nod to an earlier era is filtering down to the less premium end of the biking spectrum too, at least in India. Recently, Yamaha India, launched the FZ-X, a 150cc premium commuter, with retro minimalist styling, as a selling point. Meanwhile, four out of the eight product line up that Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India (HMSI) sells under the Big Wing Honda umbrella are modern classics. 

All of this begs the question, whether Harley’s decision to launch its first ever adventure touring motorcycle, the Pan America 1250, now, is a well-timed business decision or is it that old doggedness to swim against the tide. Personally, I feel that Harley has outdone itself with the Pan America. From what I’ve read about the motorcycle itself, the Europeans sound mighty impressed with the machine. That says a lot, since the Europeans and all those who followed that line of thought have forever found Harleys to have more bark than bite. There was always that feeling (not always without bias) that there was too much of leaning on the idea of simplicity and a general reluctance to embrace technology.  

The American icon has turned all of that on its head with such enthusiasm that in an 8-page press release you cannot find a single line, let alone paragraph, on the bike’s incredibly out-of-the-box styling. Even in the world of outlandish motorcycles with asymmetric headlamps and bird like beaks, Harley’s first ever adventure motorcycle stands out by a country mile and a half. Yet, not a word on it. After all these decades of harping on classic styling cues and trying to present the American way of motorcycling as somewhat purer than everything else that money could be, it seems the legend from the land of Uncle Sam has hung a U with a proper power slide, tail hanging out. 

You’ll find that press info packed with talk about the technology that has been employed, the all-new liquid cooled 1250 V-twin, the all-digital instrumentation and that much talked about active ride height adjustment feature that has reviewers raving. But of that squarish LED headlamp? Not a word. It’s actually a very smart move, for two reasons. 

First, and this is a significant one, with the Pan America 1250, Harley will be locking horns with motorcycle makers like BMW and KTM, who pretty much dominate the entire market with Ducati, Honda and Kawasaki following some distance behind, leaving the rest to mop up what’s left. To be able to even get a toe hold in this market, Harley would need a brand-new weapon in its arsenal. That they seem to have with the motorcycle itself. However, I suspect that alone won’t be enough. For any hope of success the Americans will also have to take an entirely different approach from what they have used so far. By shifting the focus completely away from styling and shining the spotlight on the sheer amount of advanced techno wizardry that the company has packed the bike with, Harley is letting adventure motorcycle enthusiasts know that this is no half-hearted effort that will rely on smart styling and smooth talking. This bike is as full of substance as the best in the business.

Secondly, of late, Harley’s fortunes have been flagging. With the global motorcycle markets shifting to newer geographies (namely, South Asia), the company’s product range has become more of a hard sell than the company might have imagined. Here, people want retro and classic but packed with modern technology, and the latter doesn’t need to be disguised. In fact, motorcycles like the CB1000R and the XSR 700 are perfect examples of reinvention of classic styling. One could argue that Harley might have tried something similar, but that would have probably meant a dilution of the company’s core ethos. A move like that would certainly alienate the loyal band of purists who form the backbone of the bar and shield. Instead, this allows the company to strike out on an entirely new bearing without losing the base. Me thinks… why not?

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