Motorcycles are losing speed, and Harley-Davidson, the largest American motorcycle manufacturer, is looking to an unlikely savior: millennials. Since the recession, motorcycle sales have hit unprecedented lows, falling 41 percent in 2009 and another 14 percent in 2010. Harley-Davidson concluded that younger potential riders were turned off by the large, costly motorcycles dominating the market. The company is currently offering nine bikes for less than $12,000. They’re all small, sleek, and high on nostalgia. In a recent Bloomberg article, Harley-Davidson CEO argued these bikes cost the equivalent of $6 a day for a year, which is not really that much to save.
Still, the attraction of the motorcycle seems to be fading and it may be too late to seek millennial love.
Because they’re so expensive, difficult to maintain, and associated with ’60s and ’70s nostalgia, the sale of motorcycles has largely been made from older generations. By 2014, half of the motorcycle-riding demographic was 50 years or older, turning what was once a symbol of youth and freedom into a desperate attempt to cling to said youth. As this Bloomberg article explains, The move towards smaller bikes with wider appeal is completely transparent, considering a predominantly graying fan base with no indication of a replacement doesn’t inspire confidence in investors.
Harley-Davidson isn’t the only company to introduce starter bikes, either. Since 2010, the biggest names in the motorcycle industry have been designing and marketing smaller bikes geared towards millennials. Honda released their Rebel 500 last November, and Kawasaki released the Ninja 300 around the same time as one of Harley’s biggest millennial plays, the Street 500. The smaller, cheaper motorcycles have been the main focus of the industry for the better part of a decade, and Harley-Davidson in particular stands to lose everything if this tactic doesn’t work.
But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One major reason for the decline in motorcycles’ popularity—which Harley-Davidson has willfully ignored—is that millennials are well aware of the risk involved in riding. Safer and greener alternatives of travel such as non-motorized bikes and electric scooters are extremely popular in cities, a landscape motorcycles have never been able to master. In Brazil, where young riders are heavily investing in bikes, the motorcycle mortality rate reached more than 40,000 in 2012, with lax road laws likely to keep the trend ticking up.
Will the motorcycle still find itself a market? Sure. But it’s not likely to be a large one. The younger generation is already off to greener alternatives, which means the motorcycle may be finding its way to greener pastures.