The positive reviews are pre-orders starting to add up for what is certainly the most this year … unexpectedly good new motorcycle model: Harley-Davidson’s freshly made adventure (or “ADV”) motorcycle, the Pan America. In a typical motorcycle model year (the last of which was 2019), bikers would typically see a lot of new, updated, and expected adventure machines from multiple brands, but in 2021, the Pan America not only stands out. for being a Harley, but also for how it can signal changes within the legendary American brand.
First of all, Pan America is a long shot: a brand new, brand new, whodathunkit offering away, far outside of the typical areas where Harley-Davidson plays. There’s not a speck of chrome on the Pan America, no cooling fins on the engine, no shoulder-height handlebars, no leather tassels. Pan America’s all-new Revolution Max liquid-cooled engine produces 150 horsepower, which dwarfs the power of any other bike in inventory. It’s packed with tech, including a large touchscreen, sophisticated suspension, everything is adjustable, and innovative options like auto-lowering ride height, wire wheels, and eye-gazing headlights. The look is unusual, but it’s driven more by design than style.
But what’s also striking is how fully commercial Pan America is, focused on its ADV mission, and very different from anything the company has attempted – or built – in its nearly 120 years of operation. ‘history. Equipped with aluminum saddlebags and other accessories, it looks set to roam any continent with confidence, and not just lazily sail to the rendezvous of local pilots. And these criticisms? They range from the warm to the brilliant of PA capabilities, technical sophistication and innovation. This is one of the most anti-Harley Harley. So how did this mysterious machine come about?
After the Pan America revelation, I spoke at length with Paul James, senior director of public relations at Harley-Davidson. We all know what PR and “marketers” do: make the product look the best it can be, even if that means putting lipstick on the pork, so to speak. But Paul is a little different. He’s a die-hard runner and has worked his way up the ranks at HD for nearly a quarter of a century. He also worked in Harley’s product development team. He’s seen Harley-Davidson go from near death in the 1980s to reign supreme in the cruiser market in the 1990s to slowly slide in the last few years.
James has been involved in many major product launches – including the LiveWire electric bike – and product cancellations, including the V-Rod cruisers and Buell sports bike efforts. He has been there as CEOs come and go, and he has observed that the motorcycle market has changed and evolved. He has the long lens of recent Harley and motorcycle market history in his pocket, and it was interesting to talk with him about Pan America through that lens.
James said the decision to take on the Pan America Project did not come from an Executive Order or a focus group, but from research and recognition of “markets in which we don’t.” were not. Adventure tourism is a big market, a global market and a growing market in the United States, ”he told UKTN.com, and when the company re-evaluated its mid-weight offerings, it became It was clear that adventure motorcycles were popular not only with the general public, but also with Harley. owners as well, who often had an ADV bike parked next to their Milwaukee irons.
Would they be interested in a competitive performance ADV bike from The Motor Company? According to the Harley riders that James and his team spoke with, they would. But James said that’s really not what Harley is really looking for with Pan America. “Really, we were targeting customers who had never been to a Harley-Davidson dealership before – and saw no reason to. It is a motorcycle that is intended for them. Something they see each other on and will give us a chance. Because it is an exceptional motorcycle and very competitive in space.
And while it might seem logical for any motorcycle manufacturer to jump into a growing category like adventure, it’s a trickier window for a company like Harley-Davidson, which has a dedicated, hyper user base. loyal and vocal who expect certain things, and may also reject products that do not meet expectations, regardless of their quality. According to many accounts, this has been a factor that has hampered the success of the high tech liquid cooled VRSC / V-Rod machines.
V-Rod bikes were more modern, faster, more manoeuvrable, and more powerful than traditional air-cooled bikes, but they met resistance from loyal Harleys and even some dealers. Confronting what would likely be a backlash from both Harley fans, industry pundits and the skeptical ADV rider realm made Pan America’s success even more difficult. Let’s face it: Harleys have a reputation for rebellious, badass (and girlish). It is, to a certain extent, a baggage you get with a Harley that you don’t get with a Honda. James said this issue was a factor they certainly took into account. When the bikes were revealed, it was interesting to see photos from Pan America showing that the brand was … minimal, with a large but rather abstract logo and no obvious Harley-Davidson badge on the tank as usual on cruisers. A recent announcement that Harley’s new e-bike business will be dubbed Serial 1 was followed by another revelation that the electric motorcycle’s namesake, LiveWire, will be the umbrella for future electric models. Reduced luggage all around.
James also said that in their research with Harley owners and riders, they were open to Harley moving to other as yet unexplored spaces, which may have been embodied by the launch of the LiveWire electric bike. It’s clear that with the separation provided by the Serial 1 brand and LiveWire, they’re hoping to attract new riders to The Motor Company, but maybe through a side door so to speak. James said LiveWire, Pan America, and upcoming new models (details to be determined of course) are part of this larger effort. “It is our intention to attract runners who have never been to our showrooms before,” he said.
On the dealer side of the equation, other changes: a big effort has been made to educate staff about the Pan America driving experience and the people who will walk through dealer doors for the first time to ask questions of this subject. Many of the dealership staff went to off-road riding school on Pan America models so they could understand the questions this specific – and non-traditional – Harley rider might have, including how the bike compares to competitors from BMW, KTM, Honda and others. It seems a long way from the V-Rod era. Public demo events are also part of the awareness, but if current estimates are correct, it looks like Harley has a hit on the hands with Pan America as the bikes are purchased as soon as they arrive at dealerships.
And what about the new bikes based on the powerful Revolution Max engine? James said that while Harley has talked about possible future products in the recent past (the Bronx streetfighter to name just the most high-profile example), they are giving up on promising anything specific for the time being while future plans are developed. But James said that successfully venturing into the ADV space with new hardware “opens doors” to other markets for us, without, of course, being too specific. But with an engine like this, it seems unlikely that Harley-Davidson will continue to expand its offerings with new models – and less similar to Harley’s. Stay tuned.
Look for a full long-term review of Pan America this summer on UKTN.com.