This Roadster’s heritage brings Harley back to the future
When Bill Davidson made his first-ever visit to Port Dover on May 13 to unveil the new Harley-Davidson Roadster, he could have travelled via jet, as any time-crunched, high-flying executive does. Instead, he chose to arrive on his bike, cruising the 700-plus kilometres of pavement from his home near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to small-town Ontario.
“I rode here just like our customers do,” he said at the time, explaining that it’s a way to get closer to the people who buy the bikes. “It’s a really neat feeling.” Bill, the Harley-Davidson VP in charge of the museum in Milwaukee had met up with his California-based sister, Karen Davidson, to catch their very first “PD13,” the gathering held every Friday the 13th in this otherwise sleepy little town on the shores of Lake Erie. The pair are part of Harley royalty, great-grandchildren of H-D co-founder William A. Davidson, and children of the legendary bike designer “Willie G.”
Their trip to Canada was to unveil a bike more significant for the 113-year-old company than it might appear at first blush. Although the familiar 1200 cc Evolution V-twin makes it instantly recognizable as a Harley, the Roadster is edgier than many of its recent forebears: urban, hip, ready to rumble. Cleverly, its nod to heritage lets it tread the fine line between the things Harley owners have always loved and what the company thinks the next generation of owners are going to want. It’s also highly affordable, listing at $12,999.
The Roadster joins Harley’s Dark Custom lineup, and is the third “urban contemporary” product to hit the Canadian market this year. The other new urban cruisers are the mid-priced Low Rider S and the nearly $30,000 CVO Pro Street Breakout. Collectively, the bikes represent not only a beachhead in Harley’s assault on the rapidly growing urban rider environment, but also a bellwether of the company’s future.
Lighter, cooler, more agile. Not your daddy’s hog. Anoop Prakash, managing director, Harley-Davidson Canada, notes that three-quarters of Canadians now live in urban environments, and the Roadster is “a natural fit for riding in the city.” Prakash says this new generation of riders, including Millennials, are looking to do things on their own terms. Many are coming to motorcycle ownership for the first time; it might shock you to learn that fully one-third of Harley’s buyers in the U.S. in 2015 had never owned a motorcycle before. Prakash himself is somewhat representative of the group; he didn’t start riding until he joined the company in 2009, but now does his daily Toronto-area commute on a bike, when riding is in season.
Harley is making it easier for them, offering eight models in Canada under $13,000, with the entry-level Street 500 one tick under $8,000. Once viewed as pricey in Canada, Harley now represents “incredible value for your money,” says Prakash.
Urbanization is happening around the world, says Bill, and, “We have to cater to those demographics.” In fact, in 2009, Prakash led the charge into one seemingly unlikely market – India. The move was successful in spite of punishing tariffs, and Harley opened a factory in Gurgaon, Haryana, in 2011.
“India has been nothing but a positive move for us,” says Bill. It’s a kind of re-internationalization of the brand, which actually sold in 68 countries during the heady years of growth back in the 1920s.
The Roadster is neither as radically un-Harley as the late, great Buell café racers nor as futuristic as the controversial Project LiveWire electric prototypes. Yet, the Roadster still signals that it is a rider’s machine: It has 43 mm inverted single-cartridge forks up front with tri-rate springs, offering nearly 8 cm of travel. The rear suspension features gas-charged emulsion coil-over shocks and adjustable preloads on its tri-rate springs. Torque is rated at 76 ft-lb (103 Nm ) at just over 3,700 rpm. It leans, too, with an angle of more than 30 degrees on either side.
Its chopped-short fenders, low-rise handlebar and mid-mount foot controls give the rider an “aggressive” riding position. It comes dressed up in stunning colour choices that could’ve come straight out of The Dark Knight – Vivid Black, Black Denim, Velocity Red Sunglo and Two-Tone Billet Silver/Vivid Black.
Ben McGinley, industrial designer for H-D, also came to PD13. In a statement, he said the company wanted to give the Roadster “some of the DNA” from the high-performance KHR models of the mid-1950s. “These bikes have fenders cut to the struts, the small fuel tank, and were stripped to the bare essentials.”
“This is definitely aimed at the younger rider,” agrees Bill.
For all its cool, the Roadster still pays homage to the lean-bike tradition of the Sportster line of stripped-down street bikes, with detail right down to the cast-alloy wheels that are reminiscent of the spoked wheels from back in the day.
Heritage is one of the “most powerful” ingredients of the Harley brand, says Bill. “The things we put into the foundation of the company, we still have today. People are looking for substance.”
Karen says that same appeal to heritage is what drives the apparel brand, which last year clocked in at a staggering $250 million in sales. “Our customers know this brand is real,” she says. “People are looking for accreditation and history.”
Even so, the clothing is evolving as fast as the bikes. Karen’s design team is focusing on creating gear that is more comfortable and versatile for those urban riders, attire they can leave on when they get off the bike.
Harley is also putting on a push to update its relationship with Canadian riders. Last year, it terminated its 99-year-old distribution relationship with Vancouver-based Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada and began to market and distribute directly. It then immediately addressed a long-standing Canadian grievance by slashing prices to achieve parity with the U.S. The new arrangement also enables the company to deliver bikes faster and at lower transportation costs.
Harley is also bolstering its 69-dealer network, with plans in the works to add dealerships in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver so it can be “closer to where our customers are,” Prakash says.
Not So Different
I ask Bill if Canadian riders are any different from Americans because we have to endure long, frosty winters. My question evokes a guffaw.
“We’re from Wisconsin,” he snorts, noting all bikers tend to be tough as nails. He tells of one rider who recently dropped into the museum in Milwaukee. He told Bill he’d taken a Harley Dyna, outfitted with outriggers and tire studs, across the Arctic. Overnight temperatures got as cold as -57 C, forcing him to warm up the crankcase with a torch before he could start the bike.
Prakash, however, believes Canadian riders are different in one important way. With shorter summers on average than those in the U.S., “The Canadian riders hold the riding season more dearly. They’re more careful in planning their season.”
Karen and Bill say their first PD13 was like a trip back in time. The friendly, unpretentious atmosphere “reminds me of the early days of Sturgis,” says Bill, referring to the annual motorcycle rally in South Dakota. “You don’t know a soul, but you feel like you’re family.”
This step back, however, also signals a step forward for H-D. Nobody is relegating the grey ponytail set to the rest home just yet, but Harley clearly sees a new path to its future.