The Harley Davidson Pan America is here! It’s not just a new bike; that’s obvious, brah. It’s much more than that; it’s a culture change. Not just for Harley’s customer base, but its dealerships and sales network also. Will it succeed, or will it be a canary in the coal mine (ala Suzuki’s Hayabusa)? Either way, this is going to be fun to watch.
FIRST THE COMEDY
Let’s start with a merry tale.
A guy not fitting the typical Harley Davidson demographic steps onto a Harley dealership’s front door landing (no, this is not a joke, but it might just be comical). Let’s call him Jeff. He has ridden there on his Suzuki V-Strom and is replete in his adventure textiles, his peaked adventure helmet in hand.
His mate Johnno, identically clad and having just clove hitched his BMW R1250GS (that’s how cowboys used to tie their horses up in old westerns) in between a Fat Boy (the bike) and a Breakout (the bike, not pimples) tags sheepishly just behind. The look on his face is circumspect, and he nervously plays with the velcro on his cuff to disguise the fact he is checking his watch.
Curiosity, more than anything, drives them. What is this Pan America all about then?
Curiosity, more than anything, drives them. What is this Pan America all about then? The problem is they’ve never ridden a Harley, let alone stepped in a Harley dealership. They risk being de-friended by just being there.
Our hero Jeff takes a breath, cranes his head back towards his mate for some reassurance (gets none), and with some trepidation, gently pushes on the dealership door. It creaks slightly as the whoosh of the synthetic anti-dust seal slides along the floor. Cool airconditioned air rushes over them as he takes his first steps inside. Time stands still.
Before him is a galaxy of shining stars. Chrome wheels and engine covers, peanut-shaped tanks and dozens of low comfortable seats spreading out into the yonder like a herd of sofas in a furniture showroom. At first, he is blinded and confused; his eyes not sure where to focus.
He wipes his brow on a handkerchief he fetches from one of his 15 textile pockets (on his jacket alone). His backup? Well, he’s disappeared in the direction of the toilet. He grimaces. ‘Never should have married his sister’, he laments.
Our hero’s eyes dart all around in desperate search of an anchor to fix them upon. And there, far off in the distance, beyond the sea of low chromed Softail’s, Sportster’s, Tourer’s and CVO’s, sits a single Pan America 1250. It’s head towers above everything around it like a giraffe on the savanna. His eyes stop for a moment, squinting.
He is looking upon the forbidden land where outcasts are banished. The part of the dealership where no one dares tread. The place where new models resembling anything other than a traditional Harley wind up. The Badlands.
Next to the Pan Am is a lone dusty Livewire many metres from a power outlet, sitting low and afraid; an unwanted mongrel dog. Next to that is a small space reserved for the Bronx (should it ever work up the balls to show its face) or any other foreigner that fails to look or sound like a Harley. We don’t take kindly to your types ‘round these parts.
Just at that moment, his thoughts are interrupted by a burly Harley salesman in a black t-shirt, jeans and slick backed hair. He materialises before him, his eyes burning with contempt.
Our hero returns the blazing gaze of the salesman. “Are you lost, traveller? Need some directions?” asks the salesman, motioning toward the door with a raised nod of the head. A thin bead of sweat lines the top of his upturned upper lip. His handlebar moustache follows the raised contour of his lip and his 10-inch beard shakes with disdain as it senses that textile is near, much like a threatened rattlesnake.
We don’t take kindly to your types ‘round these parts.
Jeff takes a casual glance around for his backup. ‘Don’t show fear’, he says to himself. ‘Damn!’ His trusty sidekick is still locked in a toilet cubicle somewhere, conveniently suffering from an upset tummy thanks to a dodgy vindaloo the night before. They had pizza together. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have come here’, thinks Jeff to himself. ‘Should have listened to my wife for a change’.
Gathering the courage to reply, he stammers awkwardly, “ahh, I hear, um, the Pan Amerca comes, umm, with a chain?”
The heads of the other salespeople swiftly turn like question marks in Jeff’s direction. He half expects them to keep spinning like a poltergeist in a scene from The Exorcist. Their mean squinting eyes pierce Jeff’s forehead in sniper rifle fashion. And then chaos.
NOW THE SERIOUS BIT
Let’s interrupt our story to add some context to what is happening here.
Culture determines everything you build and how you sell it. Now, if I was to ask you to think of a motorcycle manufacturer that trades on culture and tradition, I’m sure Harley Davidson would immediately come to mind.
What is Harley’s culture? Cruiser lines and lifestyle. Harley Davidson has been doing this for more than a hundred years. That means everyone in the company, from the designers to the dealerships, is deeply programmed to sell Harley’s tradition.
Now throw in the Pan America. An adventure bike. Imagine the potential stress points this could introduce for the brand. Generally speaking, people resist change. Harley has tried something different before. It started with Buell and ended in failure.
Then there was the V-Rod, a tepid attempt to do something different (overhead cams, shock horror). It was kind of like a traditional Harley, in style at least. The traditionalists still despised it deep down, but at least it carried the Harley name, unlike the Buell bikes.
The Pan America is a whole new kettle of fish. Think about the poor dealerships. They have to pivot somehow on their one hundred years of solely selling ‘cruisers’ to include a chain-driven, pannier laden, double overhead cam, variable valve timing, trail jumping adventure bike. This won’t be easy for the fundamentalist brigade.
For this to work, Harley must build credibility where it currently has none. You can see them trying to do just that. Watch their introduction video. In it, they reference their early heritage during which Harley manufactured motorcycles capable of traversing the non-paved roads of the time.
But they seem to have forgotten that anyone building a bike in those days had to make ‘off road’ capable bikes. There was a distinct lack of asphalt back then. Despite this, I was surprised at the off-road history Harley possesses.
By the way, the video is a charming presentation in its own right and an interesting attempt to sew together two disparate motorcycle genres under one brand. How successful do you think they were at linking cruising/touring and adventure through Harley’s lineage and history?
Harley’s biggest challenge will not be making a case for the quality of their new bike (no sniggering, please). No, that’s the easy part. The hard part will be convincing hardcore Harley supporters to accept it, in addition to persuading non-Harley customers to buy it. They need both for a shift in culture to take hold.
By saying, ‘this is going to be fun to watch’, I am not mocking Harley. On the contrary. I am exulting in Harley’s steps towards a new and more diverse future. The Pan America is a brave step into the unknown. It’s going to be fun watching them traverse the potentially rough terrain ahead. Mainly to see how they go about it and what can be learnt from the experience.
BACK TO OUR TALE
Let’s return to Jeff and his mate. When we left them, chaos was about to ensue.
The bearded salesman continues staring at Jeff for a few long awkward moments. Complete silence blankets the dealership, save for the tiny tick tick tick of the wall clock above their heads.
And then, quite unexpectantly, he bursts into a fit of laughter. A mist of spit launches from his once pursed lips, rocketing from his now wide open mouth towards Jeff’s face. His double chins high five each other as the laughter ripples through his torso, and he cradles his stomach in an attempt to contain it.
He turns to a nearby comrade and shouts mockingly, ‘Hey Killer, he wants to know if the Pan America comes with a chain!’ His comrade, almost instantaneously, also bursts out in violent laughter, the force of which causes him to lean back too far in his chair, sending him crashing into a filing cabinet behind him.
By saying, ‘this is going to be fun to watch’, I am not mocking Harley. On the contrary. I am exulting in Harley’s steps towards a new and more diverse future.
The commotion of the filing cabinet, now toppled on the floor with draws spewing out their contents, triggers the remaining salespeople in the showroom. Like a riot of kookaburras spontaneously bursting into raucous laughter at dusk, the entire dealership is now an audience at a comedy show.
Out of stage left, Johnno comes running. “Where the hell were you?” shouts Jeff in anger. “I was in the toilet; the automatic hand drier didn’t work. Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
Like a couple of startled meerkats shit scared of a circling eagle, they both scamper out of the dealership, legs spinning like Fred Flinstone and Barney Rubble, never to be seen around these parts again.
Calm now in the aftermath; the dealership descends into a contented silence. The Harley salesman, hands-on-hips, looks smugly through the glass doors at the fleeing adventure riders. “Bloody tyre kickers”.
SO WHAT HAVE WE LEARNT?
Harley’s fate rests largely on the shoulders of the Pan America and any other genre-bending motorcycles they decide to release to market. That’s if they want to continue to grow and entice new riders to the stable. Let’s not underestimate the significance of this moment. The Pan America is a real litmus test of the brand’s ability to culture shift.
Their willingness to go hard in a new genre is to be applauded. Significantly, it seems the new 1250 platform will form the basis for a new direction in other areas. How does a reimagined V-Rod in 1250 guise sound? Will the Bronx return? Go to the 18min 45sec and 24min 25sec marks in their launch video for more clues.
I want all motorcycle manufacturers to flourish. To do so requires courage and a pioneering spirit. In many ways, our two characters in the story are also pioneers. They are the type of rider Harley needs walking into their showrooms. I do hope they smooth the road to the badlands for them.
I wish them luck; failure is not an option. This will be fun to watch.
P.S. Harley, I am the type of person you have to win over. Someone with little to no desire to buy a traditional Harley. Feel free to contact me anytime .