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Friday, 30 September 2016

Comment by Editor-in-Chief, Robin Bradley

Preaching to the choir?

When I came into the motorcycle market in 1989, the Evo had already been “in-play” for some five years. As successor to the leaky-old Shovelhead it first attracted opprobrium from the righteously indignant, followed swiftly by deposit checks.
The then much smaller aftermarket was still developing key and strategic new product lines for the Evo even after five years, and continued to do so right up to 1999 (indeed still continues to do so to this day).
In 1999 the Twin Cam A engine (followed by the B motor for Softails in 2000) prompted a frenzy of new product development by a (then much, much, much) larger aftermarket that was distracted by the emergence of 100 percent aftermarket customs following Harley’s suspension of its crate engine program some time before.
Much changed between 1984 and 1999, and just as much has changed again since. A now smaller again aftermarket, but that is still way larger and, above all, way more capable than the one that was greeting the Evo, will be all over the new ‘Milwaukee-Eight’ (M-8) like a rash.
We can expect to have seen the first performance parts and accessories by the time we get to the V-Twin Expo at the end of January 2017, and can expect to see the new product development momentum accelerate for some years to come.
There’s no question that the new engine represents opportunities, but it spells “challenge” too…a further tightening of the patenting and copyrighting that Harley deployed with the Twin Cam, the M-8 is no doubt sewn-up tighter than a duck’s bottom.
The challenges won’t only be legal – is it a coincidence that Harley has settled its lawsuit with the EPA just as a new engine with a new ECU is announced? Probably not. One of the huge changes to have taken place since 1999 is the proliferation and development of the fuel injection management and ECM tuning market. 

 The Twin Cam is mid-90s tech

Prior to the Twin Cam A in 1999, fuel injection was something exotic with only a handful of “Gurus of Go” pioneering injected delivery on Harley V-twins – just as there were a mere handful of visionaries pushing twin plug conversions (Shovelheads most famously) and 4-valve heads (remember the Jim Feuling developed Rivera 4-valve heads?).
Unlike those pioneers, the preachers of the electronic fueling gospel actually had an aftermarket to go after once the Twin Cam was in-play, sales to drive their R&D investments, but with the changes Harley have made to the M-8’s ECU, just how far back to the drawing board are they going to have to go - to say nothing of the legal obstacles.
Equally, the redesigned exhaust positioning and configurations, the suspension improvements, the engine changes themselves and improvements to the charging system, and a lot more besides, all have opportunity writ large, but so too they have expense, legal and better-product obstacles writ just as large.
A better product? Well yes, actually. Sure the M-8 is flawed, all volume production engines that have to meet rigorous (international, no less) compliance standards, be practically and cost-effectively serviceable, meet a price-point and keep the manufacturer in business for the next 15-year cycle (or longer) absolutely have to have a back story of compromise.
But it nonetheless has to be a better product, and the M-8 absolutely is. At last, is this the Harley engine that won’t burn your legs, shake your teeth out and leave you last at the lights?
Well, somewhat – in the context of Harley itself, it is a major leap forward; but in the context of the competitive offerings Harley needs to sell against, and the new market opportunities that Harley needs to sell into, I’m afraid to say this engine barely even gets them a little bit pregnant.
The power output ratings of the current Indian and Victory Motorcycle offerings aside, this is an engine that preaches to the choir.
It offers a way improved ownership and riding experience to those who wish to buy into the existing Harley offer, but it will only attract a very few for whom the whole concept of the Harley ownership and riding experience is alien.
The possible implication in Harley’s own press announcements is that this may in fact not follow the 1999/2000 A/B pattern, and “just” after all be a better can opener for Harley’s existing tourer market. Which would be fine, nothing wrong with that, by all means look after the core customer first. But it is what happens now that is really, really important.
The recently almost obligatory deployment of mid-cycle announcements, the much needed “proof of life” where the Softails, Dynas and Sportsters are concerned and, above all, the much, much, much needed real outreach to people for whom the Bar & Shield is just a flag they pass at the side of the freeway, are all causes for optimism that there is yet more to come, much more to come, in the next 6 to 24 months.
The irony in Harley’s M-8 PR material is the implicit acknowledgement that the 1990s developed tech of the existing Big Twin and Sportster engines simply are not good enough. The Motor Company appears to be acknowledging that the existing engines simply will not sell in the third decade of the 21st century. The development ground work of what became the Twin Cam was done at least 20 years ago, and the outcome of that process of compromise cannot possibly remain a robust offer five years from now.
With Matt Levatich’s focus on “smart manufacturing”, short lead-times, versatility and flexible response to market opportunities, what we have seen with the Twin Cam, good though it is for what it is, cannot possibly be all there is. Even the investment community appears to understand that, with the M-8 announcement barely measuring on the Wall Street Richter Scale.
Indeed, just as the 1999 and 2000 Twin Cams were a start-point, Harley has acknowledged that they have left a lot on the table where this first iteration of the M-8 is concerned. With Screamin’ Eagle Stage I, II and III kits offering up to a 24 percent increase in torque over the stock engine, the charging system only just now starting to be acknowledged as an issue, Harley deliberately and unnecessarily leaving some vibrations in the drivetrain in order to maintain the “feel” of an engine on which the fins are approaching redundancy and the sound approaching track-day, yes, Harley realize they are only starting on a new journey with the ‘Milwaukee-Eight’, not arriving at their destination yet.
They also know only too well that combined critical mass of the markets they now need to reach are way bigger than the core touring market, so surely there just absolutely must be way more to come in the next 6 to 24 months?