To many, the image of the outlaw biker blasting down a desert highway on the back of a big, fast, loud Harley-Davidson motorcycle is as American as baseball and apple pie. For decades, Harley-Davidson made its fortune selling that image to America's Baby Boomer generation. But Boomers are aging and vehicle markets have become global, which means that Harley-Davidson faces new challenges as it tries to appeal to younger buyers around the world. A new product is the next step for Harley. Even so, for a brand as iconic as Harley-Davidson, that's a lot easier said than done. Any new motorcycle has to meet customers’ needs, but it must also be convincing – a real Harley. It must be, to quote the company, “True.” Enter the new-for-2015 Harley Davidson Street 500 and Street 750. These are the first all-new Harley-Davidson motorcycles introduced in over a decade. As such, they’ll face intense scrutiny from consumers, from dealers, and within the company.
On the Street?
The 2001 Vrod, the last model released, set the bar for Harley-Davidson motorcycles in terms of styling and acceleration. Harley's new Street models are at the opposite end of the spectrum. At 500 and 750 cc, respectively, they carry the smallest displacement engines of any Harley-branded offerings since 1966. Finally, much of the design of the new models is focused on the needs of customers halfway around the world in India.
Harley-Davidson’s new machine is part of a company effort to convince young buyers, many of whom are located outside the U.S., to look at Harley-Davidson motorcycles as machines rather than lifestyle accessories. “We felt there was a global trend toward urbanization ... and we have a much larger young generation with a different mindset [from our traditional buyers], which is more technology oriented, and they wanted a new generation of Harley-Davidson,” says Anoop Prakash, managing director of the company in India. To figure out who the “new generation of Harley-Davidson” riders were, the company launched “the most researched new platform development process ... in the history of Harley-Davidson,” says Prakash.
Harley-Davidson product planners interviewed more than 3,000 individuals from 10 different countries to get a sense of what the next generation of Harley buyers wanted. They found that consumers wanted a bike that was “better suited for riding in urban environments [than the traditionally large, heavy H-Ds] due to traffic congestion.” Similarly, the new Harley would live in the city rather than on the open highway, so a more compact bike with a lower seat and better ground clearance was needed. There was something else, too, that respondents asked for: a liquid-cooled engine.
With the exception of the 2001 VROD– a bike still considered “new” by many Harley traditionalists – Harley-Davidson motorcycles make do with air-cooled engines. As such, the bikes don't have radiators or coolant hoses, which contributes to the clean look and makes them a favorite for custom bike builders. To keep the bikes from overheating, Harley engineers have fitted the air-cooled engines with distinctive fins that wick heat away from the cylinders.
At highway speeds, the air-cooled Harley engines work well. In traffic, however, it's a different story; riding on crowded streets puts a different set of demands on a motorcycle engine. And liquid cooling can’t easily be be added on to an existing engine. “[Harley] concluded that it was more feasible to develop an all-new engine,” explains Prakash, “[that] coincided with the character and dynamics of the new bike – and, thus, the Revolution X was born.”
“Revolution X” is the name of Harley's newest engine family. It is a revolutionary new product for the brand: It shares not a single part with H-D's existing engines.
The differences between Revolution X and the Twin Cam engine (released in 1998) used in other Harley models go far beyond nuts and bolts. Harley set aside many of its traditional or classic design features to create the new engine. The Revolution X is still a two-cylinder, four-stroke gasoline engine with its cylinders arranged in a V formation, but the similarities end there.
The Revolution X splays its cylinders 60 degrees apart, compared to the traditional 45 degree V, which creates more space between the cylinders. More space between the cylinders means that Harley engineers were able to replace the traditional carburetors with a more advanced, computer-controlled fuel injection system, which allows for easier cold starts, cleaner emissions, and better fuel economy, all important to young buyers.
That 60-degree angle also allowed engineers to make the new Revolution X an over-square big bore engine, which means that the diameter of the cylinder is greater than the vertical distance it travels during combustion, also called the stroke. Harley's traditional engines, like the diesel engines found in big commercial trucks, have a smaller bore and a longer stroke, which is great for getting heavy loads moving but less than ideal for carving up urban traffic. To remedy that, Harley engineers fitted four valves to each cylinder rather than two, allowing more fresh, oxygen-rich air to enter each cylinder. Those extra valves help make the Revolution X a significantly more efficient pump than the larger Twin Cam engines, allowing bikes equipped with the new engine to be more responsive to the rider's throttle inputs.
All these hardware details work in concert with the electronic fuel injection system and allow the new Revolution X engine to rev up to 8,000 RPM, a stratospheric number for a Harley. That makes the new Street models feel zippier than their big Harley brothers in low-speed environments, despite the Revolution X's smaller displacement.
PRODUCTS FROM THE BIKER NATION
On paper, the Street 750 model promises to be a capable performer thanks to a peak output of some 47 horsepower (HP). Armed with the new Revolution X motor, as well as a new, close-ratio six-speed transmission and a relatively lightweight frame, the new 2015 Harley-Davidson Street 750 model should easily be quicker than Harley's own 883 Sportster (the next model up from the Street in Harley's line in size and price), which has to make do with “just” 45 HP from its old-style, air-cooled engine.
So the newest, littlest Harley-Davidson is going to be a capable machine. But will the light, agile Street 750 model steal sales from the 883 Sportster? Prakash isn’t worried. “I don’t think so, as the Street 750 and the [Sportster] will appeal to a different customer base altogether,” he explains. Harley believes that these new bikes are paving the way for a new generation of Harley buyers: “We feel all the bikes can co-exist simultaneously.”
Maybe they can, but if Harley wants tomorrow's motorcycle buyers to buy in to the “Harley lifestyle” the way their parents did, will the fact that so much of the new H-D Street is manufactured in India get in the way? Harley-Davidson doesn't seem to think that a component's birth certificate will matter as much as that word, “True.” And to that end, Harley introduced its 2015 Harley-Davidson Street 750 model to the world with these words: When the street is where you live, it starts to live in you. True of a rider. True of a motorcycle.
Time will tell, then, whether a revolutionary new engine and a fresh way of looking at its clients will lead to a sales revolution for the storied brand.