Saturday July 27, 2013

Back in 2003, Harley Davidson turned 100 years old. It seemed like the biker community was in a year-long ecstatic state. I got on that bandwagon and placed my order for a 2003 Road King Classic, but when I found out what the factory decided to do for their loyal customers, I cancelled my order. At that time I owned one Harley and had owned another years earlier, so I could be considered a bonafide HD customer. I was expecting to be able to order a 100 year Anniversary model in a color of my own choosing. Harley decided to let the company culture of greed and customer abuse take over and chose to paint the bikes in black or gun metal, the only colors available except for a red and blue choice for just 5% of the buyers. They also flooded the market with the over produced ‘03’s, making them anything but collectible. As previously stated, order cancelled.

In the ensuing years, Harley Davidson’s deeply ingrained culture caused it to completely kill one of its divisions, the Buell Motorcycle Company. Started by HD engineer Erik Buell, the Buell was a line of performance motorcycles based on HD mechanicals. When the Great Recession hit, HD panicked and shut Buell down to evidently stop some cash hemorrhage. Instead of trying to market the company, they shut it down and did not allow Erik Buell to buy back the name. Whether that was by contract or not, they could have relinquished the name if they weren’t going to resurrect the company in the future. Once again, heavy handed management seems destined to repeat its history over and over. What history am I referring to? The practices HD employed back in the days when they were neck and neck with America’s first motorcycle manufacturer, Hendee Manufacturing of Springfield, MA, AKA Indian. In the 1920’s and 30’s, HD was known for competitive practices that were less than admirable. Buying up and junking used Indians to get them off the market, bully tactics with dealers, and on and on.

Technically, Harleys are just "OK" motorcycles with really good paint and chrome. They sound great, and like any motorcycle, fun to ride. In my opinion they are over-priced and are a bit crude and nowhere near as reliable as many other brands. However, I liked the Harleys I owned, and regardless of their practices, I still like the actual machines. Nothing looks like a Harley, and no other manufacturer can claim as many parts, accessories, and clothing items in its retail offerings. I do not currently own one, having given up my ‘06 Street Bob for a Triumph Bonneville, a technically better bike than any Harley I ever owned, and steeped with every bit as much history and lore as HD. Now here we are approaching 2014, and Harley Davidson’s old nemesis has come back from the dead for another round. Yes, Indian is back.

It has happened more than once since 1953, when Indian ceased production in Springfield, MA. A series of underfunded groups with stars in their eyes have tried to bring Indian back, only to fail and fail again. The history of these attempts is so complicated that I couldn’t begin to unravel it all. However, the rights to the Indian name were purchased in 2011 by Polaris industries of Medina Minnesota. Polaris makes snowmobiles, ATV’s, Victory motorcycles, and now Indian. Polaris is successful and has paid dividends to its stockholders for 18 straight years. It is a multi-billion dollar international company with the money to make Indian successful. Will they bring Harley Davidson to its knees? No. However, they’ve got better than even chances to grab a chunk of market share. Why? Lots of reasons.

Polaris already makes the Victory line of motorcycles, which owns 5% of the American heavyweight market. That’s nothing compared to Harley’s 57%, but Victory is a relatively new brand that makes a well regarded motorcycle. Polaris Industries has the money to make Indian work, as well as the manufacturing expertise and capacity. Finally, the most important factor- Americans loved the Indian brand. It has every bit as much cachet as Harley Davidson. Folks want this brand to succeed. I’m one of them, born in the year they ceased production, but excited because my dad owned a couple of them and spoke lovingly of those machines. The Harley/Indian competition should be good, and we all know it makes things better. Rivalries aside, its nice to see an American original revived in America, providing jobs and opportunities right here. We’re rootin’ for ya Indian!

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.