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Monday, 13 February 2017

Comment by Editor-in-Chief, Robin Bradley

Personally, the only thing I ever rode in a desert was a camel…

Regardless of whether or not it was a move with “inevitable” stamped all over it, that Polaris Industries finally decided it  had to cancel its Victory program is still a great shame - on many levels.
Reminiscent of the financial force majeure that led Harley to can its ownership of Buell Motorcycles and MV Agusta (after just 12 months, and the kind of eye-watering expense that Eric Buell must have dreamed of), it is a sad commentary on the nature of our times that almost a decade on from the ‘Lehman Apocalypse’ our industry is still struggling.
In Polaris’ case, the issue with Victory was one of available investment capital in the face of brand losses and a corporate balance sheet that just couldn’t sustain those losses any longer or generate the kind of investment capital the brand needed.
When I interviewed Polaris’ President of Motorcycles Steve Menneto about the decision, we were both in agreement that in an ideal world it would not have been necessary, but as we all know all too well, market conditions are far from ideal at this time.
Many have seen the demise of Victory as inevitable. Inevitable in the context of what the brand could ever come to represent, and inevitable in the context of Polaris’ 2011 acquisition of Indian Motorcycle from Brit Stephen Julius’s Kings Mountain, North Carolina based attempts to resurrect it.
The orthodox view has been that once Polaris acquired Indian Motorcycle, Victory had become a red headed stepchild overnight – a brand in search of a definition. However, Menneto (and others I know within the Polaris motorcycle organization internationally) is adamant that the company did have a vision for the brand, and that far from there being no opportunities for it, if anything, the future danger might have been successfully resisting the temptation to use the Victory brand to do all the things that it was assumed would be inappropriate for the Indian brand – drag racing being a case in point.
But that is to underestimate just what exactly it is that is at the heart of the Indian legacy, and, conversely, to underestimate just what a largely baggage and heritage-free but still accepted and respected brand such as Victory could have become once shorn of the need to be a primary cruiser or touring rival to Harley.

‘why only respond, rather than lead?’

The Victory opportunity was to bridge the yawning chasm between what is assumed a domestic U.S. manufactured motorcycle brand needs to be (what is assumed it can only be) and where, in 21st century market opportunity terms, it in fact can and needs to be headed.
From their origins as race bikes, at a time when motorcycle racing (and automotive racing for that matter) was first being invented and evolved, and as all terrain transport at a time when paved roads were only just being invented, domestic U.S. manufactured motorcycles (a few honorable but long since deceased exceptions aside) continued to respond to conditions and opportunities by becoming the kinds of touring and cruising platforms they are associated with as needing to be today.
Once the newly invented concept of paved roads evolved into the freeway network that started to emerge in the 1950s, American manufacturers switched direction seamlessly in response to the changed riding conditions and opportunities now available to them.
So how come it is assumed that just because (despite Victory hype at the time of the ‘Octane’ launch) there actually is no tradition of so-called “American Muscle Bikes” in parallel to the Muscle Cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s that one can’t now evolve and emerge in response to contemporary riding conditions? Why is it assumed that a motorcycle manufacturer can only respond to rather than create and lead taste?
Regardless of what one thinks about how successful the ‘Octane’ was ever going to be with a Scout engine, there is an opportunity available to “out-Rod” Harley’s VRSC. The opportunity to meet the changed challenges of 21st century urban riding with a concrete-chewing, traffic-handling alternate to the cruiser undoubtedly exists – the success of the current generation of road-going adventure tourers is testament to the growing need for manufacturers to respond to the altered or new realities of the conurbation.
The traffic conditions that gave rise to the cruiser have now matured and morphed. Not in such a way as to suggest that the day of the cruiser is gone, it isn’t; but instead in a way that shows that there are additional riding style opportunities out there, and now that Victory has gone away, it is hard to see either of the remaining two volume producers embracing the kind of platform engineering that competitors are offering successfully.
The success that BMW has had with its adventure tourers, the immediate success of Honda’s returned ‘Africa Twin’, and the way in which everyone else from Yamaha and Suzuki through to Triumph and even Ducati are falling over themselves to stake a claim to part of that real estate should, surely by now, have registered with either or both of Harley and Polaris?
While trail and rugged terrain exploration, touring and racing (Dakar etc.) provide the ‘ADV’ sector with its sex appeal (just as Marlon Brando did for Triumphs just as the fifties dawned, and as Hopper and Fonda did for choppers as the sixties gave way to the seventies), in fact 95 percent of the miles ridden on such platforms are on-road.
Indeed, that vast majority of those bikes are destined never to see desert coyotes or herds of Wildebeest doing their thing; instead it is survival in the urban jungle that brings the best out of those platforms. They are 21st century street bikes.
So, having made it through the 20th century by adapting to, responding to, and sometimes leading expectations where the riding and ownership experience is concerned, where is it written that neither Harley nor Indian can’t be selling that metal as well as their core product? I must have missed that memo!