Just checking … no, it's not April 1. During its 110-year anniversary celebrations, iconic American manufacturer Harley-Davidson has dropped a couple of brand-twisting bombshells – firstly that it's building a 500cc learner bike, and secondly that an electric Harley is under serious consideration.
Here's an interesting tidbit: if you search Google, you'll find 12,700 results that contain both the word "Sportster" and the defensive phrase "not a girl's bike." Try the same search using the Honda Shadow, another mid-level cruiser, and you get just 965 results.
The Sportster, of course, is the current mid-capacity cruiser line in the Harley-Davidson range, with 1200cc and 883cc engine models. That's bigger than most sportsbikes, but not big enough to escape the ridicule of certain big-bore Harley owners (1400cc and upward) who seem to think 883cc isn't hairy-chested or noisy enough to be considered a "real bike."
And that's the market into which Harley-Davidson is planning to release a 500cc learner machine, ostensibly to replace the excellent 492cc Buell Blast which was scrapped, along with the entire innovative Buell brand, back in the depths of the global financial crisis in 2009.
Despite any flak new riders might face, the move opens up several new markets for H-D including restricted-license riders throughout Europe and Australia, and aspirational customers through India and Asia, where a cheaper, 500cc Harley would still be bigger than most things on the road.
H-D's COO Matthew Levatich, speaking at the company's 110-year anniversary celebration in Milwaukee, said the as-yet-unnamed bike is "nimble, light weight, has a low seat height and supple throttle and braking. I’ve ridden it – it looks great, sounds great, it’s a Harley, and it’s priced right.
“We want to get it out as soon as we can, but it’s got to be right. New engines are complicated, and we’ve got to get everything right from a durability, reliability and confidence perspective. On the other hand, chassis and other things are a lot more straightforward.”
He also hinted that it would likely be built in India: "The American qualities of a Harley are very important to people,” said Levatich. “The literal ‘where does that shock absorber come from’ part of it is less significant, but it has to have the spirit and soul of America. We have Harley-Davidson factories in India and Brazil – can we leverage those facilities and expertise so it can get to the, for example, Indian consumer, faster?
“These are things we are becoming more open-minded to, but we understand the importance of ‘made in America’ – the American quality, spirit and integrity that matters to the customer."
And if a 500cc Harley-Davidson wasn't enough of a brand-twisting bombshell, Levatich went on to talk about the possibility of an electric Harley that ditches the combustion engine altogether.
“I am sometimes asked … whether there will be an electric Harley,” said Levatich. "People would say ‘hell no’. But why not: our engineers are quite intrigued with the idea of what an electric Harley would look like, sound like and feel like. And would it be visceral, would it be emotional, would it be luscious. And there’s a way to do that I believe, and it would be very exciting.”
Baby Harleys … electric Harleys … if Milwaukee pulls this off, it'll be a bigger shift in brand perception than when BMW shrugged off its old-man-bike reputation with the S1000RR. What are your thoughts?