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Blue Dog Diaries: The year of the Indians

By Terry Roorda

History ain’t what it used to be, and neither is what passes for hard news in these media hype-saturated days. A case in point is the promotional video released by Indian Motorcycle in December featuring American Pickers star and Indian celebrity pitchman, Mike Wolfe, enthusing to the viewer, “I’ve never been able to witness history in the making, but today we’re going to do that together. You’re about to actually hear the sound of the all-new engine that’s going to power the next generation of Indian Motorcycles. They’ve been working hard to give the next bike a brand new heartbeat. Now it’s your turn to listen. Here we go.”

And then we’re treated to the sound of an unseen motorcycle starting and idling and accelerating through a few gears. The sample is 23 seconds long, and frankly the experience reminds me of listening to the first track on the Legendary Harley Road Songs CD, which is of a bike starting and idling and accelerating through a few gears—for exactly 23 seconds.

So maybe the heavily hyped sound bite is kind of a silly publicity stunt and stretches the definition of historic, but let’s face it, it also offers some comic relief in the deadly serious high-stakes game of modern motorcycle marketing.

It also serves as a stark reminder that the Indian Motorcycle wigwam is now pitched deep inside the Polaris/Victory tent, and while ostensibly an autonomous operation separate from everything else going on in there, it’s clear some Victory marketing strategy DNA has rubbed off.

Victory is renowned in the industry for their practice of teasing out any new product development for months, issuing press releases and offering sneak peeks, and milking as much attention, innuendo and ink as they can from whatever it is they’re up to, newsworthy, historical or whatever. The most notable example of that type of fan dance intro was the Vision luxo-tourer that took a year and four press events before it was completely revealed and made available to actually ride. Speculation ran rampant, which was the point, but that point is starting to wear a little thin.

In the case of the “next generation” Indian model, the next teaser will come during Daytona Bike Week, we’re told, and then we can expect something more substantial, hopefully, come Sturgis.

Meanwhile, the more intriguing Indian narrative, for my money, concerns the actual country of India, and specifically what Harley-Davidson has been up to on the subcontinent of late.

As we recall, Harley-Davidson got access to the huge Indian motorcycle market—second only to China in ownership and annual unit sales—on the heels of the historic “mangoes for motorcycles” trade war treaty of 2007. By 2009 Harley-Davidson India had been instituted as a wholly owned subsidiary of The Motor Company, and company spokesmen announced their plans to build an assembly plant in Haryana, emphasizing that the operation was established simply to skirt onerous import duties, and stating at the time that all parts used in the assembly would be U.S. sourced. They would be supplied in kit form known in the trade as CKDs—complete knock-downs. In essence the facility would be not unlike Santa’s workshop staffed by elves assembling IKEA bunk beds.

And then last year things started getting interesting. Very interesting. You see, whereas Indian Motorcycle is known for letting out details about product development in a steady trickle like a leaky faucet, The Motor Company has hewed to an entirely different philosophy wherein they have historically and steadfastly refused to comment on anything they’re up to, and refused to confirm or deny any rumors that may circulate about their business. To violate that policy wasn’t just a firing offense, it was a hanging offense and the landfills of Milwaukee are reputedly bloated with the remains of MoCo blabbermouths.

But when Harley-Davidson made the move into India, something got lost in translation, and despite the earlier company assurances that the CKD facility would be operated without locally sourced parts and services, unnamed sources from within the operation were spilling bean after bean to reputable media outlets in India. The thrust of the leaks was that Harley-Davidson India was designing a motorcycle specifically for the Indian market, and that the model would be entirely manufactured in that country.

The leaks got ever more specific, claiming that the supply and dealer groundwork was already being laid and that the bike would be a V-Twin in the 500cc displacement range. It would sell for about $6,300 and be introduced to the world at the 2014 Delhi Auto Expo next February.

That’s a lot of detailed chatter, which, as you would expect, has gone largely ignored by The Motor Company in keeping with their cardinal rule of tight-lipped nondisclosure.

But then something changed when, in mid-January, Harley-Davidson President Matt Levatich—who just happened to be in Mumbai at the time—was asked point blank by Livemint, the Indian affiliate of the Wall Street Journal, if Harley was “looking at developing an India-specific motorcycle,” and rather than deliver the stock “We don’t discuss future products” response, Levatich gave this cryptic reply:

“Product development is a significant investment for any company and our strategy is not to develop any market-specific model. We don’t have any in our portfolio today and we don’t have any plans to. However, when we decided to enter the Indian market and going through the planning process, we started incorporating new answers about the market into product planning, which is a long-term process, which addresses the needs of the Indian buyers, so that our models make sense for this market.”

That answer leaves much room for interpretation, but the one that jumps out is that a small bike is indeed in the works in India, though it won’t be exclusively for that market. It could, in fact, end up being the post-Blast! generation of training bikes for Harley’s Rider’s Edge program.

When we asked our contact at Harley about that possibility we got this response:

“Harley-Davidson is committed to meeting the needs of its Rider’s Edge program, but will not talk about future products.”

Ah, now that’s more like it.

It’s all right here in the diaries…

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