IT IS GOING to be half a century next year since Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, long-haired and wild-eyed, straddled their Harley-Davidsons across the American landscape searching for freedom. Easy Rider (1969) was a landmark moment in cinema, and you can see why. It was through that film—the bad boy leads, the ideas they espoused and the thunderous roars of the bike’s V-twin engines pounding down the American highway—that the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s found its best cinematic expression.
Only one bike is believed to have survived that film—Fonda’s so-called ‘Captain America’ chopper, and it became inarguably history’s most iconic motorcycle. It was auctioned for $1.35 million four years ago, although some believe the bike is probably a replica and the original was destroyed in a fire. According to one motorcycling legend, the stars worn by riders of the infamous Hell’s Angels group on their leather vests are actually stars cut out from gas tanks of the Easy Rider bikes.
One thing, however, is certain. The film didn’t just capture the essence of that era. It also gave Harley-Davidson—or at least significantly contributed to—an identity: a motorbike for the tough and rugged, somewhat antisocial but utterly American in its machismo.
This is the stone on which the company built its church. Harley-Davidson has become such a strong emblem by churning out large, muscular machines. The company has also pulled off one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the last century: the idea of finding oneself through a motorcycle journey.
It’s an enduring cliché that persists. But people have been riding motorcycles for years and failing to find themselves, or returning to the same person before the journey. They have been embarking on motorbike trips across America or places like India, only to find out how uncomfortable it is, especially when more pleasant alternatives are available.
Times do change. The rebellious youngsters of the Easy Rider era are financially-sound members of mainstream society today. They may buy T-shirts, keychains and other Harley-Davidson products, but they are too grizzled to get on a motorbike for a genuine road adventure. And besides, motorcycles do not sing to us of freedom like they once did. There are more efficient ways to get around. Millennials may be many things. But foolish, they are not.
Motorbikes are going through a crisis in the West. Sales of Harley-Davidson bikes have been declining year on year. According to a Bloomberg report, motorcycle sales in the US have dropped from over 716,000 units in 2006 to just 371,000 in 2016, many of them no doubt Harley-Davidson bikes. The company has also had a bad first half this year—according to a Fortune report, the company’s domestic sales fell 6.4 per cent in the second-quarter compared to the same period of 2017—and things are likely to get worse.
The company needs millennials to take to its bikes. And it especially needs to cater to large markets outside America, in places like India and China, where Harley-Davidson bikes have high brand recall but little or none of the all-American, bad-boy-cool appeal.
For such markets, though, adaptation is key. So the company has just announced that it will make a range of new bikes. These bikes sound nothing like its traditional line-up. They include electric scooters and two-wheelers in the 250-500 cc engine bracket, aimed especially at India and other price-sensitive Asian countries where fuel efficiency is a major concern. It’s a shift that is both pragmatic and dramatic. As the company’s CEO Matt Levatich told Los Angeles Times, “We are shifting our mindset from ‘we build bikes’ to ‘we build riders’…. This whole plan to create new riders is a bold… and bordering-on- audacious goal. But there is no other option.”