Common Tread

Polaris, paint, and powersports predictions: Are domestic bikes about to change radically?

Nov 09, 2015

A week ago, bleary-eyed Lemmy was standing in front of a ZLA coffee machine trying to wake up. 

I began talking to our planning guy about Harley’s recent sales slide. I was having a bad day, and hearing about The Mothership’s financial woes was not the cure. The conversation wheeled around to Polaris’ recent earnings statement. I sat down at my desk and digested our dialogue. Analysis? I’m pretty sure American bikes are about to change. A lot.

Warning: There is a numbers paragraph on the way. I like numbers, but I don’t like being bored, so if you’re not an economist, stick with me anyway because I’m going to give you the quick and dirty version. Trust me, it’s interesting.

Polaris just posted its 23rd(!) consecutive quarter announcing record profits. Motorcycle growth, at 57 percent year over year, was second only to the snowmobile category. Long story short: They are raking in a massive amount of money because lots of people want their products. Many of the potential customers standing in line are looking to buy motorcycles, specifically.

Polaris also just bought a new paint facility. It’s actually the former Lehman Trikes building in Spearfish, S.D. It’s no secret that paint has been a bottleneck for Polaris, which was woefully unable to produce bikes like its new Scout in sufficient quantities to slake demand. They outsourced quite a bit of paint work and that took a bite out of second-quarter profits, but they still cranked out a record quarter. They’re slated to hire 80 employees to staff the joint.

Indian Scout
Polaris has already shown it's willing to break with tradition with the new Indian Scout. Why not a bigger break with tradition? RevZilla photo.

Now let’s look at the other domestic bike manufacturer.

We talked about H-D’s recent sales slip in a previous article. Now, for a dominant manufacturer like Harley, the sky is not falling but heads are going to roll. Chief Marketing Officer Mark-Hans Richer left the company last week.

H-D CEO and President Matt Levatich announced that one response to the weak sales is a 65 percent increase in the marketing budget. That proclamation was widely criticized inside the motorcycle industry and outside alike, mainly because H-D is already a very well known brand, not just to potential customers, but also to non-riders. Levatich also announced his intent to lay off 250 folks — three times what Polaris is planning to hire.

The Sportster is a handsome, fun motorcycle that hasn't really changed. Is that a good thing, or no? Harley-Davidson photo.

What wasn't talked about all that much was Harley’s game plan. The Sportster drivetrain has not changed appreciably since its inception in 1986. Yes, it’s gotten fuel injection, a five-speed transmission and the displacement has changed, but ultimately, a 2016 Sporty is pretty dang close to one manufactured 30 years previously. The Big Twins are no better. The Twin Cam has been with us since 1999. Harley customers tend to be conservative and like to see little deviation in models from year to year, but air-cooled pushrod motors present challenges in meeting current and future noise and emissions regulations. Governmental requirements seem to be forcing H-D toward an engine design that flies in the face of what they're known for producing.

Now, after juxtaposing these industry morsels, let me give you my take on things. Harley — my beloved Harley — is stumbling. I don’t think they’re about to shutter the windows, but it seems like the near-magical stranglehold they have held on the American motorcycle market might be loosening just a tad. Polaris seems to be getting customers on board with the fact that an American bike could be a little different from what we've been offered for quite a while. Maybe an American bike might have liquid cooling or more than two cams. They raise my hopes for a return to the glory days of motorcycling, back when Americans got on American bikes and went out and competed and won. Just look at the Project 156 bike or the Pro Stock bike they’re running in NHRA. What’s more American than going racing and kicking some ass? Isn’t that what Harley used to do up until 1969 or so?

Could a bike like the Project 156 machine make it to dealership floors? Could a successful Polaris sport model force Harley to offer something similar? Victory photo.

Because of these recent efforts, I have this hunch that Polaris has some goodies up their sleeve. I'm not suggesting that the future of domestic bikes is in racing. In fact, I think racing's gravitas is declining at warp speed. But I do think we’re going to see a sporty American bike soon. The market seems ripe for it. Hell, look at the prices of a used XR1200.

I'm not talking about a warmed-over bike with a cruiser engine (coughBuellcough). I am expecting an honest-to-God standard or sporting machine that gets up and goes, and I'm betting Polaris is the manufacturer to plant a stake in the ground and produce one.

And why shouldn’t they? American motorcycles led competitive events for decades. I think Polaris knows that there are some red-blooded American outlaws left out there. I think they also know that a lot of those guys want to ride an American bike with real power.

Cruiser-hate (Harley-hate?) always reaches a frenzy when articles like this come out, and it usually centers around one of two things: Lackluster performance by the bikes, and the guys who ride them. Here’s the chance for Polaris — and possibly Harley — to fix both of those issues. Put different riders on fast-ass bikes. Problems both solved.

Polaris is raising the stakes right now. Read my lips: This is good for everyone. We’re going to get faster, more modern bikes that still have that ridiculously good American fit and finish. If I'm right and this happens, the excellent part is that other manufacturers will have to respond. Polaris could singlehandedly force American bike manufacturers into competing in market segments that have been ignored for too long.

We’ve seen an American bike manufacturer concentrate too heavily on one thing and try to get by on the same engine year after year, and they failed. The ironic part? It was Indian. Wouldn't it be all too fitting if a new Indian spurs Harley to get off their laurels and make competitive bikes again? Talk about reviving the brand heritage, amirite?

Harley’s not going under any time soon. Polaris isn’t going to take over the top slot in the heavy cruiser market this season, or even next. I've got no dog in this fight. I have enough old American bikes to last me several lifetimes.

In fact, the only thing I really need is an excuse to buy a new American bike.