KTM has surpassed Harley-Davidson in global unit sales, which means the Austrian firm has stolen the crown of top non-Asian manufacturer by volume. (KTM does produce motorcycles in India, but they are not based there.)
There’s more to the story than KTM’s aggressive rise and Harley’s shrinking sales. While KTM sold around 30,000 more motorcycles than H-D last year (Mattighofen’s 261,454 against Milwaukee’s 228,051), Harley is hardly beaten. Even with fewer bike sales, Harley tripled KTM’s revenue figures. (That’s five billion in bikes and related merch, plus another $750 million from Harley’s financing wing, versus $1.75 billion for KTM.) KTM sells plenty of small bikes, including very small models we don’t get here in the United States like the Duke 125. These models are tough to compare with, say, a CVO. But a unit’s a unit, and in that respect, KTM is looking strong as they continue to grow.
KTM’s success in the last year was bolstered by the release of their 800 cc platform, as well as the trendy Svartpilen/Vitpilen 701 series via KTM-owned Husqvarna. Many of KTM’s bikes are built in India through their partnership with Bajaj Auto, another power move that allows KTM to keep costs down.
Harley-Davidson has already announced plans to follow KTM's example and partner with a foreign company to build smaller motorcycles for the Asian markets. Aside from KTM's experience, Harley has plenty of incentive to tap that market to counter declining sales in the United States. Harley-Davidson also has to consider the impact of tariffs, which amounted to $23,675,000 in 2018, according to H-D’s earnings report. A partnership with an Asian manufacturer could work out well for Harley, as it already has for KTM, BMW (TVS), and others. At least financially, that is.
If it feels like KTM came out of nowhere, that’s because they nearly did. The Austrian company produced motorcycles for decades, but the founder’s death and subsequent bankruptcy halted production in the late 1980s. The brand’s current incarnation started in 1992, when Stefan Pierer bought the remains of KTM for around $7 million (adjusted).
“The quality at the time was so poor we were mocked,” Pierer told Bloomberg. “But every crisis is also an opportunity.”
The company's growth since then could be described as exponential. For the last eight years, KTM has shattered their own sales records, and now they’re eyeing Kawasaki’s spot in the sales standings. They’re also looking to pick up Triumph or Ducati, though Triumph does not seem interested in selling out any time soon. That’s a pretty incredible return on the original $7 million investment.
For both Harley-Davidson and KTM, this is no time to simply maintain the status quo. Decreasing ridership in developed markets, increasing regulation, international trade disputes, and cutthroat competition mean it’s more important than ever for these two companies to perform. If we’re lucky, that will mean some very tempting motorcycles to enjoy.