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Blue Dog Diaries: The elephant in the room

By Terry Roorda

There is an impressive diversity of wildlife species indigenous to the Black Hills environs, but until the official presentation by Indian Motorcycle on Monday following the gala unveiling the previous night at the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, no one knew they included elephants. But there one was in the briefing room at the Alex Johnson Hotel in Rapid City, hanging back from the proceedings but all ears—which elephants are—and the pachyderm’s name was Victory. Remember Victory? “The New American Motorcycle”?

That’s the slogan the company pushed for its first dozen or so years of existence, and one that was dropped only relatively recently in favor of the enigmatic if not meaningless promo line of “Fuel it.” That was about the time Polaris was quietly in the process of acquiring the then-struggling Indian marque. Now after months of the “Choice is coming to American Motorcycles” campaign building up to the current “Choice is here in American Motorcycles,” it’s pretty obvious that they’re not talking about a choice between Indian and Victory. (And you can almost hear the elephant in the room responding to the Indian hoopla with “Hey! I can hear you! I’m standing right here!”)

No, they’re talking about Harley-Davidson, and it no doubt comes as something of a rude awakening that Victory was apparently never an authentic choice. There’s no way this could have turned out other than awkwardly for Victory, and the quiet abandonment of the bold pronouncement that the company would issue an entirely new model every six months made only two years ago was no longer in evidence for 2014.

In a “New Kid in Town” kind of reversal of fortune, Victory finds itself somewhat marginalized—and on its 15th birthday, to compound the cruelty—while everyone swoons over the Indians and projects a golden future and a popularity and competitiveness that the elephant was never able to achieve, and the numbers do tend to bear that out.

Despite years of rosy double-digit growth report cards issuing from Victory headquarters in Medina, Minnesota, the brand is still a bit player in the big-bore cruiser and tourer categories where Harley-Davidson controls roughly two-thirds and three-quarters of the markets, respectively. Victory remains stuck in the low single digits and is outstripped in the touring segment by not just Honda and Kawasaki, but even Can-Am. This has no doubt been an irritating disappointment for the likes of Polaris Industries, which positively dominates virtually every other powersports segment they compete in.

What does all of this bode for Victory? They’re certainly not going away, not after 15 years of dedicated brand establishment, but they just as certainly have an opportunity to change their focus, and a cryptic remark made by one of the Polaris spokesmen during the press presentation that the Indian launch would allow Victory the freedom to follow its own direction may hold the answer. That could mean a lot of different things, and in wildly speculating about the specifics it might be helpful to have a look at what Polaris has been doing in recent years.

For one thing they’ve been swallowing up electric vehicle concerns at a blistering pace.

After the limited success of their in-house designed NEV E-vehicles, they went on a buying spree and acquired in short order Global Electric Motorcars from Chrysler in 2011, followed by the purchase of French firm Groupil Industries, producers of ultra-light electric/hybrid utility vehicles some months later. Most tellingly, they bought a big stake in electric motorcycle manufacturer Brammo the following year. Could a Polaris E-bike be in the offing?

Or how about entry-level or middleweight street machines in the vein of the well-received Vision 800 concept bike in 2006, a machine that had many commentators even back then speculating on the company’s move away from the big V-twin cruiser slugfest with Harley and toward a more versatile position. At the time, Polaris industrial design guru Greg Brew (the same ingenious designer responsible for the new Indian models’ retro looks and thoroughly modern outfitting) was quoted as saying, “We constantly study global design trends, as well as today’s motorcycle consumers to better understand, and deliver on, their expectations of the future.” That particular concept bike didn’t pan out at the time, but there’s no reason to suspect that they haven’t had something of that ilk in the oven waiting for market conditions to go that way—and with the Boomer demographics they’re currently catering to continuing to age, that’s the only way it can reasonably go.

Adventure bikes—dual-purpose mounts like the lamentably extinct Buell Ulysses—offer another possible avenue of exploration. It’s a growing market that they could move into without breaking a sweat considering their vast experience and expertise in the off-road vehicle world they predominate.

We can’t entirely discount a foray into scooters and luxo step-through commuters either. Why not? Those are both robust growth sectors with unquestioned potential in the increasingly complex urban transportation constellation.

All of which is to point out that Polaris has the chops and resources to take their brands in any direction they opt for, becoming in the process a much more broad-spectrum company with a diverse product line akin to those out of Europe and Japan manufacturers—while still sporting the priceless “American” cachet.

This is, again, all wild speculation and in the near term there’s no reason to suspect that Victory won’t soldier on in their current configuration. The ultimate resolution of the issue will doubtless hinge on the revived Indian’s reception on the sales floor—but from where I’m standing, that looks pretty promising.

It’s all right here in the diaries…

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