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Common Tread

Today, Harley-Davidson begins new "Hardwire" era

Jan 19, 2021

A 114 Milwaukee Eight for the Street Bob. More chrome for the Fat Boy. A trio of revised Special models — the Road King Special, Road Glide Special and Street Glide Special — make their appearance, and new paint and sound systems grace the CVO line. These changes might not sound like big news stories, and that is the big news story here: Harley-Davidson has just entered a new chapter called “The Hardwire” after completing their “Rewire” restructuring plan, essentially shrinking in order to grow.

Years of declining sales led the Harley-Davidson board to call time on former CEO Matt Levatich's plans to grow the company. New CEO Jochen Zeitz, a member of the board himself, set a new direction. The number of models would be reduced by some 30 percent to improve manufacturing efficiencies, with an overall decrease in production that Zeitz hopes will boost desirability.  Additional investment in high-margin models, like the CVO line, could also help with profitability. Zeitz believes Harley’s offerings grew too complicated and expensive to continue under past direction (Levatich had promised 100 new models), so reorganizing the lineup is top priority. They’ve also realigned their global business with their most profitable markets and expanded their focus on the Parts & Accessories and General Merchandise segments of the business. 

"This enables us to invest in the products and platforms that matter the most while better balancing our investment in new, high-potential segments," Zeitz said previously. "In this context, we plan to expand our offering of iconic motorcycles, those which most embody the spirit of Harley-Davidson."

Harley-Davidson Street Glide
The CVO Street Glide shows off its new paint. Harley-Davidson photo.

New strategies, not new bikes, to kick off 2021

So when Harley-Davidson had its first virtual launch experience today, it’s no surprise that they stuck to the plan and did not unveil any all-new models. The refreshed Street Bob is now the lightest Softail with the Milwaukee-Eight 114 engine, and the Fat Boy has been updated with chrome to replace the satin finish it once wore on its powertrain, exhaust, and other components. The bagger Specials, Harley's stripped-down offerings in the class, can now be ordered with new two-tone paint options, plus black or chrome themes.

As for the CVOs, they now boast all-new Harley-Davidson Audio designed by Rockford Fosgate specifically for Harley applications. Harley says the 117 cubic inch Milwaukee-Eights are the most powerful engines ever fitted in their factories as original equipment. The CVOs also get the latest RDRS Safety Enhancements, previously just called RDRS, for a comprehensive suite of rider aids such as cornering traction control, cornering linked braking, and vehicle hold control.

Instead of new motorcycles, what we got from Harley-Davidson was a commitment to "The Hardwire."

“The right structure, leadership and principles are in place, and we are ready to execute our strategic plan, ‘The Hardwire,’ and continue our H-D #1 cultural journey to become a high-performing company,” said Zeitz. More details of the plan will be announced in time, possibly at their upcoming quarterly earnings report in about two weeks. 

2021 Harley CVO Limited
The success of the CVO line brought lush new paint and improved speakers to the CVO Limited ($44,099). Harley-Davidson photo.

The biggest strategic reveal of the whole presentation had to be a new line of motorcycles positioned even higher than the CVO line, called the Enthusiast collection, “marrying the best of Harley-Davidson’s innovation, evolution, and emotion. These models will redefine desirability and exclusivity. More information on these models will be released later in 2021.

That leaves plenty of loose ends, though. First and foremost is the all-new Pan America adventure-touring motorcycle, which will be unveiled later this month. Zeitz was tight-lipped on the new bike but assured viewers that he fully believed in the Pan America after testing it himself in Kenya. 

Then there’s the murky fate of the Bronx streetfighter and Custom cruiser models, both built on the new modular V-twin project that started under Levatich. On one hand, Harley has confirmed that the Bronx will not be released for 2021. However, my colleague Patrick Garvin noticed that concepts for both the Bronx and Custom appear in the “What’s to Come” section of the presentation, although the lightweight “338” concept wasn't mentioned, and the Livewire only appeared in the background. No information on an updated Sportster was provided, either. 

Harley-Davidson motorcycle
Harley's future rests on decisions made today. Harley-Davidson photo.

So what’s to come, exactly? 

Operations alone can’t save Harley; customers must also buy into the new direction. High-dollar Enthusiast bikes and refreshed CVOs are a safe play, considering the popularity of the CVO line among well heeled customers. Culling the lineup and delivering compelling future models will be a much more delicate affair. We’ll just have to wait and see if “The Hardwire” is the change Harley-Davidson needs. 

“We’ve been listening,” said Zeitz in his presentation. “We’ve worked hard to prioritize the things that matter to you, so that a hundred years from now, we will still be delivering the timeless pursuit of adventure and freedom of the soul for you and fellow riders around the world.”