The Struggle Continues For Historic American Motorcycle Brands

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American manufacturing is all the talk among artisanal brands, with the custom moto scene enjoying another year of its revolutionary rise. But sales are down again for Harley-Davidson, while Excelsior-Henderson—one of the Big Three American bike makers in the early 20th century—is seeking a new owner, and the long-forgotten but storied Curtiss motorcycle brand is hoping to return to prominence as an electric bike company this May.

Polaris’ Indian brand is chugging along, introducing new models based on Indian’s nostalgic history. Despite this, the struggle continues for most historic American motorcycle brands.

1931 Excelsior-Henderson KJ.

1931 Excelsior-Henderson KJ.

Excelsior-Henderson Archives

Can Excelsior-Henderson make a comeback?

As I reported last week, the top 10 bikes sold at the Mecum auction in Las Vegas were dominated by Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Henderson, with eight bikes fetching a combined $835,450. The storied Excelsior-Henderson brand didn’t meet its minimum reserve, so a new owner is still lurking in the shadows. Or is it?

“I don’t think that auction story is finished, it’s just a matter of bidders coming to terms with Dan Hanlon (who owns the brand), and vice versa,” auction expert Paul d’Orléans said. “Mecum has a lock on brokering the name for the next six months, so stay tuned.”

2018 Curtiss Warhawk

The 2018 Curtiss Warhawk, the first and last V-twin introduced by the company formerly known as Confederate.

Curtiss Motorcycles

Curtiss changes its course.

Last year, Confederate announced plans to rename the company after motorcycle and aviation hero Glenn Curtiss, jettisoning its Southern skin (and over-the-top internal combustion engine models) to partner with Zero Motorcycles and introduce the Curtiss Hercules, an electric motorcycle, in May 2018. But the company just introduced the Curtiss Warhawk, a muscular twin brother of previous ICE Confederates. I asked design director Jordan Cornille what the thinking was.

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Glenn Curtiss

The 4,000cc air-cooled V-8 engine was actually designed for aircraft use, but Glenn Curtiss deemed it worthy of a land speed record first.

Glenn Curtiss Museum

“In 1901, Glenn Curtiss began manufacturing motorcycles,” Cornille said on Friday when the 2018 Curtiss Warhawk was introduced. “In 1903, he invented the American V-twin motorcycle, the most iconic motorcycle platform in history. In 1991, our team began working to perfect Glenn’s invention. Our Curtiss Warhawk is the most optimized air-cooled American V-twin ever. The Curtiss Warhawk features enhanced airflow, cams, ergonomics, and more. While being the greatest V-twin motorcycle we can create, the Warhawk also pays homage to Glenn’s invention that changed the entire landscape of American motorcycling.

“The Curtiss Warhawk will be the last chance to own Glenn’s perfected invention. As you know, from May onward, everything changes!”

Harley-Davidson Livewire

Can the upcoming Harley-Davidson Livewire electric motorcycle turn the company’s fortunes around in time?

Harley- Davidson

Harley plans to go Live (Wire) within 18 months.

Harley-Davidson released its full year results for 2017 on January 30, showing a worldwide sales drop of 6.7 percent against 2016, broken down into an 8.5 percent slide in US sales and a 3.9 percent drop elsewhere. One of The Motor Company’s strategies to bolster sales is the LiveWire, a production e-bike based on the concept it trotted around the country four years ago.

“The EV motorcycle market is in its infancy today, but we believe premium Harley-Davidson electric motorcycles will help drive excitement and participation in the sport globally,” Matt Levatich, Harley-Davidson’s president and CEO, said during an earnings call recently. “As we expand our EV capabilities and commitment, we get even more excited about the role electric motorcycles will play in growing our business.

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“You’ve heard us talk about Project LiveWire,” he added. “It’s an active project we’re preparing to bring to market within 18 months.”

What do you think is the challenge these iconic American motorcycle makers face? Are electric bikes the future to gain new riders? And can a simple electric motorcycle turn around the fortunes of one of the most popular brands on the planet?

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