A new from the ground up Harley Davidson doesn’t just happen every day. This is their first new platform in 13 years. They’re going to be assembling them both in the US and India, and I’m not all that sure where most of the parts they are assembling them come from (The engines will be built in both locations). As a former Harley Sportster owner and motorcycle salesman I view these new bikes with more than passing interest. (An odd little side note is they are again building Indians in the US, while there are now Indians building Harley Davidsons.)
First off, if you took the badge off the tank, I wouldn’t peg it as a Harley. It looks to me more like the Harley clones the Asians have been selling for 30 years or so. I read one review of a Honda Shadow in the 80’s comparing it to the then current Harley Sportster where they said something to the effect of: “Viewed objectively, it does everything better than a Harley Davidson, except BE a Harley Davidson.” Objectively, these new bikes could be better performers than the Sportsters and might do all the measureable motorcycle stuff better than the current Sporty. But this is nothing new, the Japanese have been doing it for 30 years. They won’t be successful (or not) based on how good they are as motorcycles, but how they are viewed as Harley Davidsons.
Harley has been making the V-Rod series of motorcycles for about a decade now, and they haven’t exactly been a big hit, particularly with the Harley Faithful. And they really weren’t good enough or unique enough to attract enough people who weren’t attracted to the rest of the Harley line into the fold.
I’m wagering that these new bikes will have the same problem. This bike shares something with the Japanese cruisers in that it looks contrived, it tries to look like something it’s not. It shares no mechanical DNA with any Harleys of the past, it didn’t evolve from the bikes of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, nor does it look the way it looks for any functional reasons: it’s been styled, not designed. They do make an attempt to catch some of the Café Racer appeal of the XLCR from the 70’s, but that bike wasn’t a big sales success for Harley back then, and most of the people they are trying to market to weren’t even alive in 1977.
The big, ugly radiator is one of the least elegant and integrated attempts to integrate such a device into the “cruiser” (Or should we call it a Cafe Racer?) school of styling and will look god awful if Harley offers the bikes in any color other than black or possibly white. The attempts to show kinship with the Sportster XLCR, like the fairing and the seat are likely to be lost on anyone under the age of 50. (and look odd with the wide bars).
What is going to be the kicker though, is the sound. The 500 and 750’s motors have the cylinders splayed at a 60 degree angle as opposed to the traditional 45 degrees, and no matter what you do to the exhaust it will only sound louder and certainly not like any other Harley, save for possibly the V-Rod. That strikes me as odd, as Harley was willing to go to court at one time to try to prevent other manufacturers from making bikes that sounded like Harleys.
Harley had a chance to do something new and fresh and they end up making a bike that looks like a 15 year old Japanese Harley clone mixed with styling clues from a bike that was a major sales failure? It looks less like a Harley Davidson than does Yamaha’s new Bolt does. Since it ushers in no new technology and breaks no new ground stylistically, the only reason someone would choose to ride one is because of the badge on the tank.
In the end though, we’re talking fashion here. People don’t buy this sort of motorcycles because of any functional reason, and even if these two turn up to be fun to ride that won’t be the reason for their success or failure. I’ve read that this bike is aimed at a new generation of young urban riders that aren’t necessarily interested in the whole “Harley Lifestyle”. I’m too old to be in the target market, so my opinion isn’t the one that counts. What is going to matter is if enough people who want to wear a costume that looks good with this bike manage to find a way to buy it.