Reader Question: Is Motorcycle Culture Dying, Too?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Dex asks: I think Harley is dying because Harley riders are dying. Whenever I see a Hog, I see gray hair. I realize this is anecdotal, but I suspect it’s an accurate representation of the state of things. I still see non-AARPers on sport bikes, but even these riders seem to be on the far side of 30.

My reply: I know you’re right about Harley because I have seen the stats. The demographic stats. The average Harley rider is a middle-aged guy. But the reason the average Harley rider is a middle-aged guy is on account of the fact that – for the most part – only middle-aged guys can afford a Harley. HD screwed itself by focusing on high-end  bikes that almost by definition only older, affluent guys can buy. This is ok while there is an ample supply of older guys who wanted a Harley when they were younger guys. But today’s younger guys have no emotional connection to Harley – because they are unaffordable – and so don’t care about Harleys.

Thus, when the current crop of graybeards dies off or gets too gray to ride, Harley will find itself without buyers. Which is why Harley jumped on the electric bike bandwagon. HD thinks these bikes will appeal to the youth – but the same problem remains. These bikes are also too got-damned expensive, especially for the youth.

The same problem is burgeoning with other bikes, too. They’re not as expensive as HD bikes, but they are much more expensive than they used to be, chiefly because of all the electronic gadgets being grafted onto them. A liter-class sport bike’s MSRP is now about the same as the price of an economy car. And most youths can’t afford the bike and the car – but most need the car.

Which means forget about the bike.

The whole thing is predicted on an unsustainable model of debt/credit that is going to crash as inevitably  as an overloaded airplane with empty gas tanks that’s too far from the runway.

. . .

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  1. Was able to check into some sales figures for 3 Harley Davidson dealers in Texas.
    This is not to say there is, or is not a sales slump, but to relay what is actually happening here.

    First important metric is sales of prior year models. (i.e: selling a 2018 or 2019 model with no miles in 2020)
    The three dealers had prior year bikes some of the time in the past 10 years, but were always gone by/before May of the year.
    This year, two dealers each had 2 2019’s left as of Jan 7.
    So based on the number of ‘last years’ models for sales in the last 10 years, HD is doing excellent and does not have much prior-year inventory to move.

    The next metric to consider is who is buying new HD’s. Current finance is by ‘Screaming Eagle’, and they do make loans for all types, including poor credit and just out of school.
    This finance company has some ‘interesting’ ways to offer someone a premium for their used HD.
    The trade-in price and some other loan items make the bikes very attractive to anyone and easier to get into than most cars at this time.
    The biggest sales are in the lower-cost bikes such as the Sportster variants and the bobber versions, but we are still talking in the 12K to 17K range. (baggers are pushing 20k, so yes, not as many sold)
    And half the sales at Cowboy Harley Davidson were reported as being to the under 55 crowd.

    From my personal experience with the group rides and others I have met, I can say that you will see all types on an HD here in Texas. Many of the bearded 30-somethings make up the group and it is not a sea of grey hair as one would expect.

    I would not say that an HD is for old folks, and I would suggest that in the better climate states HD is probably doing just fine.
    In Texas they have had fairly consistent sales and its a mob scene every weekend at the dealers unless its raining.

  2. I’ve been riding Harleys since the 70’s. Other brands as well but I always came back to HD. Biker culture has changed. New Harleys have always been too expensive for a blue collar guy. That meant getting a used bike and wrenching on it yourself. That alone brought one into contact and sometimes into a subculture that defies parallel in today’s world. Many dabbled in it but it was a lifestyle for a few. Outlaws (not the club), people on the periphery of outlaw culture and wannabees sustained Harley through a period of time when by all rights HD should have failed. HD wised up, they upgraded, retooled and redesigned and put bikes on the market that got progressively harder to fix for a garage and shade tree mechanic. An AMF generation shovelhead would soon need a top end job (valve train and cylinders), and a couple of seasons later a complete rebuild. Doing that ones self with the exception of the machine shop work was the mark of a seasoned biker. Then came the modifications. Gone are the days when a V twin riding stranger would pull over to assist a fellow rider. Example, replacing the battery in my 2011 Hog required a computer hook up to disable the alarm, reactivate the alarm and integrate the battery into the bikes onboard system. A road trip on a Harley used to mean being able to cope with a breakdown ( hence riding in groups and possibly being trailed by a support vehicle). Last summer I threw a leg over my bike and did Minneapolis to Boston and back without a hiccup. So yes, Harley culture is dominated by us gray hairs with a smattering of youngsters. Oldsters and RUBS (rich urban bikers). Law enforcement has long made bikers a target (deserving or otherwise) and that has deflected a lot of folks as well. This is getting long. Thanks.

  3. Yeah, liter bikes are awesome, wondrous machines; hell, they’re better than the RACE BIKES of a generation ago! Look at what Eddie Lawson raced on, and you’ll see what I mean. But yeah, liter bikes are EXPENSIVE! Even if that weren’t a problem, because they’re so capable, most riders can’t utilize even a fraction of the capability they offer. Even if they could afford to buy ’em, they can’t ride ’em to anywhere close to their limits; even if they were on a track, they don’t have the skills or knowledge to ride up to their machine’s capabilities. Sooo, why buy one?

    If you want machines that get back to the BASICS of motorcycling; if you want machines that can do it all; if you want machines that are reasonably priced; then look at Royal Enfield. They offer smaller and middleweight bikes that are affordable, basic, and FUN! Between their Himalayan and their 650 twins, they’re getting a lot of attention right now. If I were in the market for a bike, I’d be down at a RE dealership in a heartbeat…

    • Don’t say that too loud, there might be a Victory rider out there who’d disagree… I’ll never own another Polaris product, which by the way is the company that owns Indian.

      • Hi JD,

        I like all bikes – but only own Japanese bikes. I’ve found – after many years of dealing with bikes of all makes/models – that the Japanese are built better and more thoughtfully, usually. There are a few that can be hard to work on – but only if they need work – which is seldom. My ’83 Honda Silverwing is a good example. If the water pump goes, you have to take the engine out – but the damned thing is almost 40 years old and has yet to require that service!


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