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What's it gonna take? Pt. 3

Some people weren’t reading close enough.
After posting my last blog, a couple of readers took me to the virtual woodshed for blaming the downturn …which is putting it mildly… in the motorcycle industry to the proliferation of Harley-Davidson “clone” motorcycles. Nope, that’s not what I said, or meant. The dozens of clones that cluttered the roadsides were not the cause of the market fall, just one of the more visible indication that things were going to hell in a hand basket.

Several decades ago I worked for a con artist (I didn’t know that of him at the time) in the real estate timeshare biz. He had managed to grow several small fortunes for himself, in various industries, by applying, what he said was a basic business principle. To wit, “When you’re green, you’re growin’. When you’re ripe, you’re rotten.” What he meant was, find a business segment that is hot, get in early, hit hard, and then dump it as soon as it begins to plateau. To a large extent, this principle was applied repeatedly in the motorcycle biz during the 1990s and several years into this century, and while I’m not ready to place all the blame on this principle, I am comfortable with hanging a large Post-it note on its back that reads, “Kick My Ass.”

Let’s back up a little bit…
In the late 80’s, Harley-Davidson began showing some serious signs of market life. A big reason for this is that either by luck or design Harley discovered that it’s customer base was more interested in looking back, rather than forward. Men who had grown up in the 50’s were now in their prime earning years, with a large number of them looking to realize the dream they had when, as children, they watched the local aging “juvenile delinquent” putt by on his stripped Hydra-Glide or XLH, sporting engineer boots, greasy 501s, and a DA haircut. They had the dream, they had the money, and Harley had the bike. And for reasons I’ll leave to others to discern, the economy also started to flex its monetary muscle. With all these ducks in a row, the 1990’s became a dream decade for the motorcycle industry.

Seeing Harley’s success with big cruisers, the Japanese followed suit with ersatz hogs. I’m tempted to call the various iterations of Shadows, Intruders, Vulcans, and Viragos clones, but the fact is they were —and are— quite good motorcycles that generally outperformed the Harleys of the day. What they didn’t have, and to a large extent still don’t, is cachet. In other words, they are not Harleys.

No matter, as for several years the marketplace seemed to have an insatiable appetite for two-wheelers. And this situation brought the “When you’re green you’re growin’” crowd sniffing about. This was particularly true in Harley World as that’s where the money was being made; dealer margins on the bikes were the highest in the industry, and if an H-D dealer couldn’t make 40 percent on an accessory …well, why bother? “Green” indeed, but it also planted a seed that turned “rotten.”

More on this next week.

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