Harley-Davidson Unveils New Bike

Urging its loyal denim and leather-clad riders to "lean forward in the saddle," Harley-Davidson has unveiled its first new motorcycle line in a decade: a shiny speedster that veers sharply away from its treasured full-throated choppers.

Tagged the VRSCA V-Rod, the new motorcycle is an aluminum-clad, streamlined speed demon that boasts a liquid-cooled 115-horsepower engine, a top speed of 140 mph per hour and is intended to appeal to a new generation of Harley buyers without alienating the rest.

Marketing to women

Willie G. Davidson, vice president of styling, praised the V-Rod as a "rolling sculpture" as he presented it Monday before a rowdy crowd of more than 100 bikers at the Museum of Contemporary Art, some of whom were critical of the radical departure it represents.

Younger Bikers Wanted

With an expected retail price of about $17,000, the V-Rod is cheaper than some of the other Harley models, but costs about $3,000 more than its main competitor, the 106-horsepower, fuel-injected Honda VTX 1800 that came out earlier this year.

"It looks like a Japanese bike, like a car with two wheels," said Bob Phillips, 53. "Looks like they're trying to capture some of the rice-cooker buyers. My question is: How are you going to make a chopper out of that?"

The V-Rod marks Harley's attempt to ensnare younger motorcycle enthusiasts who have largely eluded the legendary motorcycle maker, which has seen its established customer base age as a result, analysts and company officials have said.

"I think it's a great bike, real slick," said James Bailey, a 50-year-old pilot. "It still looks a lot like a Harley. I'm sure they're going to sell lots of them."

‘Breaking With Tradition’

The dragster-inspired bike represents a break from the tradition Harley established with the familiar rumble of its four air-cooled families — Dyna, Touring, Sportster and Softail and executives have conceded it will not appeal to everybody.

In a recent conference call, Harley Davidson's Chief Financial Officer, James Ziemer called the V-Rod "a new motorcycle family" that "we believe will bring new customers."

Among those present at Monday's unveiling, many of them in Harley owners groups in the Los Angeles area, the immediate reviews were mixed with most enthusiasm reserved for the V-Rod's powerful engine.

"It's got beaucoup power and that'll be a good thing," said John Cherry, 48, who rides a Softail Deuce.

Who Let the Hogs Out?

The 98-year-old company is hopeful that the dragster-style V-Rod will attract new customers in the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America, a spokesman said.

Industry experts believe that the high-performance bike may improve sluggish sales in Europe, where Harley Davidson does not have the superstar status it enjoys in the United States and motorcycles are geared more to speed than style.

"I think the company saw an area in which BMW and Ducati were making headway and where they weren't being very competitive," said Michael Millman, an analyst with Salomon Smith Barney. "Harley hasn't done as well as it would have liked in Europe."

Milwaukee-based Harley Davidson is also hoping to woo customers away from competitors — particularly younger riders who have favored Japanese brands like Yamaha Motor and Honda Motor.

"I think there are going to be lots of easy sales with people who have always wanted a Harley but said 'I just wish they had something more fun for me,'" Millman said. "The V-Rod will make you feel like a real wild one as opposed to a Hell's Angel."

The new line, expected in showrooms by the fourth quarter of this year, should grow to represent a considerable share of Harley's overall sales, although the initial contribution to earnings would be small, Millman said.

Last week, Harley reported second-quarter earnings that beat Wall Street forecasts as net income rose 27 percent to $115.6 million.