The Harley-Davidson Surprises

Touchscreens, voice control and women bikers

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To some, any tampering with the classic Harley-Davidson is tantamount to sacrilege. Nonetheless, the iconic motorcycle company, which celebrated its 110th anniversary over the weekend, is tweaking its products and marketing to woo the next generation of bikers.

Many companies had a rough go of it during the Great Recession. As disposable income shrunk and any semblance of job security disappeared, consumers immediately scaled back spending on purely fun, luxurious, “adult toy” items in particular.

Like high-end motorcycles.

During the fourth quarter of 2008, Harley-Davidson’s global sales dropped 13 percent, profits decreased by 30 percent for the year, and its stock price plummeted 70 percent over a 12-month period.

But Harley has been enjoying a comeback lately, as consumers have grown more comfortable with the idea of splurging on pricey purchases such as sports cars, jewelry, vacations, and motorcycles. According to a spring 2013 report from CNN Money, Harley sales rose about 6 percent from 2011 to 2012, and another 6 percent bump is expected for 2013. Shares of Harley stock (the company’s perfect stock market initials: HOG) recently topped $60, after dropping as low as $12 in early 2009.

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Even with its recent successes, the oh-so-traditional company is clearly not content sticking with the same old, same old. It just introduced Project Rushmore, what Harley calls “the largest scale new model launch in the company’s 110-year history,” featuring eight new 2014 model bikes with liquid-cooled engines, synchronized front and rear braking, and color-screen Boom! Box infotainment systems that can be controlled via touchscreen, joystick, or voice commands. It’s the latter hi-tech features that riders could use for GPS navigation, music, and texting friends that have generated the most attention—and a bit of controversy.

Brian Nelson, the lead stylist for Project Rushmore, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he felt like “we were messing with the Holy Grail of motorcycles” when the company asked him to helm the hi-tech makeover that’s been four years in the making.

“This is truly a monumental mentality shift,” Matt Levatich, Harley’s president and COO, said of Project Rushmore to Bloomberg News. “There was 107 years of inertia.”

Even so, Nelson said that while some change was necessary, the new bikes remain in line with Harley’s most important tradition: high quality.

“We don’t do trend bikes or fashion-statement motorcycles. We try to make something that will last forever,” he said. “But we also have an obligation to move the brand forward, to make it look and function better.”

To the classic Harley rider — someone who it would be hard to even picture using a word like “infotainment” — touchscreens may not seem like a natural fit on a hog. On Harley-Davidson forums, some Harley fans have been grumbling that the availability of things like touchscreens and voice controls defeats the purpose of getting on their bikes. “Why? Why? Why?” one rider commented. “I get on my bike to get away from the phone and junk.”

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Another way that Harley-Davidson is breaking with tradition, in the hopes of broadly expanding interest in their products beyond the core customer base, is by actively trying to get more women into the largely guy-centric world of motorcycles. The company operates a website just for women, and sponsors special “garage parties,” in which women are invited to Harley dealerships so they can ask questions and learn basics like getting on a bike in a low-pressure, no-guys environment. In 2012, the company launched Triad Bad Lasses, a one-market pilot club strictly for female Harley riders at a North Carolina dealership.

“Women riders are among the most important demographics for Harley as it cultivates the next generation of motorcyclists,” a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article summed up. “The company has worked hard to overcome stereotypes that have kept women out of motorcycling, including the notion that a petite female can’t handle a big, powerful bike.”