A strange thing happened at Sturgis last summer. The Sturgis Rally and Races has pretty much been a Harley-Davidson festival since the 1970s, even more so than Daytona’s Bike Week. Sure, you’ll see some metric cruisers, a smattering of Victorys, a trickle of Gold Wings and a handful of sportbikes, but there’s no denying the overwhelming dominance of The Motor Company at the South Dakota rally. Look at the image above of Sturgis’ Main Street for visual evidence of the Harley lovefest.
By my purely unscientific estimate, I’d guess at least 80% of the motorcycles at Sturgis are Harleys. Maybe even 85%. It’s almost as if there’s an unwritten membership bylaw.
The Japanese OEMs began building cruisers about three decades ago, and they were generally disrespected by Harley loyalists for styling and execution that didn’t faithfully match up with the archetype established by the Milwaukee juggernaut. Abbreviated resurrections of Excelsior-Henderson and Indians never really made a dimple in H-D’s market supremacy.
More recently, Victory’s expanding portfolio of products have been elbowing in on The Motor Company’s territory, especially since the introduction of its Cross platform. The Cross Roads and Cross Country that debuted in 2010 have been the Minnesota company’s best-selling models, with a fraction of bar-and-shield faithful acknowledging the performance and touring abilities of the Crosses.
Helping gain acceptance is the fact that Victorys are built in the USA, which is a big deal to many American cruiser riders. Still, Victory is fighting an uphill battle against the iconic status of any Harley-Davidson, no matter how objectively good a Victory motorcycle is or will be.
Then, last August, the reborn Indian Motorcycle debuted its new lineup of Chiefs at Sturgis. There in Sturgis, likely the largest concentration of H-Ds on the planet, was a crowd eager to see the next generation of new Indians from its parent company, Polaris Industries, also owners of Victory Motorcycles. It was a little surprising to witness adulation for the new Indians from the Harley die-hards in the audience, which comprised the bulk of the audience.
The next day I rode all three models of the Indian lineup (Chief, Chief Classic, Chieftain) and was impressed by the capabilities engineered into the best chapter of Indian since the 1950s when the original company folded. They feel vintage but modern – a throwback (air-cooled engine, valenced fenders) yet a step into the future, what with their aluminum frames and ride-by-wire throttle control. Polaris learned a lot about cruisers and the market during its 15 years with Victory, and it’s put all those lessons into this new platform.
As I wrote in my Reinventing An Icon piece on the new Indians, “We are convinced the reborn Indians are good enough to steal some sales from the lucrative Harley market. The strong lure of the historic brand combined with a powerful, refined and lovely looking motor are the biggest attractions.”
But more interesting, and more significant, than the Indians’ road performance was the reaction from the Harley hordes to this new player that has the potential to threaten Milwaukee’s dominance in the cruiser realm. Instead of feeling intimidated by Indian, they, by and large, loved seeing this legendary brand get re-introduced to the market and had many complimentary comments about the bikes we were riding. This reaction was unlike any other previous cruiser contenders.
In a way, this was the biggest news story of 2013, as it’s impossible to imagine any other new brand of cruiser having this kind of positive effect on the Harley faithful. Here was an all-new motorcycle that broadly mimics the standard set forth by H-D yet was able to draw in those loyal to the bar-and-shield brand.
You might not have felt it, but a paradigm shift occurred last summer. Indian, despite the forgettable history of the past 60 years, has legions of devoted fans that endure along with its iconic status. Now we’ve got a new Indian with a large engineering company backing it fully. Harley needn’t worry yet, but it would be smart to keep an eye on its rearview mirrors.