First, can Harley-Davidson successfully build a small-displacement motorcycle? Answer: Yes, they can. Second, can Harley-Davidson build a successful small-displacement motorcycle? Answer: Apparently not, at least so far.
The difference between these questions is subtle but important. Successfully building a motorcycle requires the engineering and manufacturing tools to do so, which Harley has. To build a successful motorcycle, you need to have design and marketing abilities in place that understand the target market. When it comes to smaller motorcycles, I’ve yet to see evidence that Harley has these capabilities.
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From 1948 through 1966, Harley built nine small-displacement motorcycle models in 125cc, 165cc, and 250cc sizes. From 1961 through 1978, the MoCo sold rebadged Italian Aermacchi motorcycles in sizes ranging from 50cc to 350cc. All were reasonably successful.
After 1978, Harley-Davidson was absent from the small-bike market until 2000, when it produced the Buell Blast. This 500cc single-cylinder machine was a solid effort and produced a modest 35 horsepower. Standout qualities were its ease of operation and surprising competence when the turns got tight. Unfortunately, it was saddled with a cartoonish look that didn’t appeal to consumers, so it was discontinued in 2009.
Harley’s most recent attempts at lightweight motorcycles are the late and unlamented Street 500 and 750 models. Introduced in 2014, they were described by the moto press as “nice bikes,” damned with faint praise. Average in most every way, they managed to stick around through the 2020 model year. I live in a motorcycle-rich area, but I’ve yet to see either in the wild. I had a brief ride aboard each and was unimpressed. Additionally, the overall quality of the machines wasn’t up to Harley’s traditionally high standards.
H-D understands the importance of small-displacement and less-expensive motorcycles. Without them, the company could find itself in the boutique niche: very expensive motorcycles targeting only the fat-wallet crowd. So, what’s the plan, Harley?
I have zero insider info, but there are obvious clues as to what’s coming down the Harley pipe – specifically, the HD350 and HD500 models that will be manufactured in China via a joint venture between Harley and the Qianjiang Group. These motorcycles will be built using a modified Benelli model currently manufactured by Qianjiang, the owners of the Italian brand. The target market appears to be China and other Asian countries, but at least one of them will show up stateside.
A rebadged Benelli manufactured in China. Would it succeed here? Unfortunately, bias and geopolitics enter the picture. Slapping the Harley name and logo on the tank won’t guarantee success.
A big part of Harley’s small-bike dilemma is the strength of its name. Harleys are – in the minds of most – large, booming V-Twin motorcycles. Attaching the Bar & Shield to a small-displacement motorcycle doesn’t necessarily make it a Harley for traditionalists. Yet the market equity of the brand is unquestioned. The root problem appears to be how to market a Harley that isn’t a Harley.
My thought is to brand the smaller motorcycles something other than Harley-Davidson. For example, use a name from Harley’s past, like “Sprint.” It implies quick, agile, and small. The Harley-Davidson badge would still appear on the motorcycle, but it would be subordinate to Sprint.
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Triumph owns the name SPRINT, I believe.