Scrambling for hearts and minds
Six or seven years ago, at the EICMA "Milan Show" David Robb, a Bostonian who was Head of Design at BMW’s motorcycle division at the time, unveiled a modular, customizable roadster prototype concept that after some years of hesitation went on to eventually see production two years ago as BMW’s increasingly popular 1170cc air-cooled flat v-twin "Boxer" engined R Nine T.
Initially its launch was a tentative toe-in-the-water, and evolution of a limited production "Nine T" that was built to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the aircraft maker's post WWI/Treaty of Versailles rebirth as, initially, a motorcycle maker.
That was in 1923, and the bike concerned, the R 32, has since become an iconic and highly prized and innovative piece of motorcycle industry history - the first "Boxer" style engine with shaft drive to be fitted into a motorcycle chassis.
It was only later, in the 1950s, that BMW became known primarily as a car maker that also sold motorcycles - its entry into motorcycle manufacturing pre-dated its start as an auto-maker by some six years.
death by multiple cuts
Currently BMW is riding high on all fronts, not least in its motorcycle division, with seemingly every month of the past five years seeing it set a new production and sales records - sailing past the 100,000 units a year mark for the first time two or three years ago, and just posting sales of over 121,000 units (+11.5 percent) in the first ten months of this year.
Some 8,600 of those units were R Nine Ts; it would have been more except that the existing production capacity is already working flat out, and the model is back-ordered with dealers.
Recently the company took the unusual step of hosting a press conference the week before the 2015 EICMA "Milan Show" in November, at which it outlined a five year plan that will see it target production and sales of 200,000 units by 2020.
That growth is slated to be achieved with further capacity increases and brand extensions - the tactic that in the past 15 years has seen BMW deploy a case-study of excellence when it comes to redefining the meaning, reach and relevance of a brand previously associated with Dads and Grandads; and doing so without leaving their core customers as fodder for other manufacturers (how's your brand strategy going Harley?).
It plans to achieve this next stage of growth, this further reinvention and redefinition of its brand message, with a number of simultaneous and mutually beneficial strategies - entry into the sub 500cc market with the new G 310 R for example, more 'Urban mobility' models, more E-bikes and E-scooters, more sport bike models, more Adventure Tourers (where's yours Harley!), more of everything in fact.
Not least, however, and fulfilling David Robb's promise and AMD’s forecast, with more "heritage" models, as BMW terms them!
Speaking at the recent press conference, BMW Motorrad CEO Stephan Schaller (also appearing in this month's Bradley Report in his capacity as President of ACEM, Europe's Brussels based international motorcycle trade association) announced that "based on the R nine T backbone, we are going to create a new family of air-cooled boxers.
"The Heritage models, with their wide range of customization options, have great potential, in the U.S. market in particular. Thanks to our own heritage and long-standing experience, we see growth opportunities for this market, especially in the cruiser segment."
There is more. As many manufacturers scramble to get a stake in the 'Scrambler' turf (Ducati, Triumph, Yamaha etc) add BMW to the list: "At the EICMA Show we will celebrate the official debut of the next member of our heritage family: the R nine T Scrambler."
Where's your Scrambler Harley? Of course, historically Harley-Davidson is no stranger to the middleweight, scrambler-esque flat-tracker "niche", and in theory it should have an understanding that such models would have youth appeal written into the DNA of its corporate memory.
The problem is that Harley appears to have some kind of "early onset" where corporate memory is concerned - increasingly new CEO Matt Levatich is surrounded by men and women who make his 21 or so years mark him out as an industry veteran.
The company certainly has access to the platforms, engineering brains, manpower and production capacity it needs to be able to be a part of this particular "Game of Thrones" - even if acquisitions or open-market technology buy-ins would be the order of the day - but it appears to lack the understanding its corporate DNA should have garnered from the Honda and AMF years.
Just as BMW has successfully managed to avoid allowing its core customers to fall prey to rivals for the riding Dollars their brand appeared to own, nobody can any longer bet the farm on believing that the now aging boomers can't be tempted by rival offerings.
It is happening already to Harley's core customers with Indian and other brands, and who is to say that R nine Ts and other new entrants coming down the pike won't render the foundations, on which Harley has been so successful for so long, even less stable than they clearly already are.
The R nine T may not be the principal threat, but we already know it isn't the only one. It doesn't need to be a single knock-out punch - death can come by multiple cuts … ask Julius Caesar!
In failing to seek engineering solutions for changes in the riding and ownership experience, demands of consumers, young and old, in favour of unreal world digital outreach solutions and paint jobs, are Harley's foundations going soft on them?
As yet another sector of the altogether different motorcycle market of the 21st century looks like it is about to emerge from "niche" into mainstream, is that the sight of another opportunity I see sailing over the horizon as I gaze longingly at the future from the Milwaukee shoreline?
While on the subject of the EOCMA 'Milan Show', as reported in our cover story this month Polaris' re-deployment of the Victory brand continues apace with a December new model announcement expected to start the firing gun in its race to weaken still further the tenuous grip Harley has on the "American Muscle Bike" market with a new 1200cc.
Expect to see what, in Harley's hands, has been a niche to also move center stage as Victory pounds yet more pavement that Harley should have had all wrapped up for themselves years ago.