Friday, 6 December 2013

Rider Ramble #2-The Harley-Davidson Street 500 & 750

Spy shots on just about every automotive portal for months & rumours about Harley-Davidson targeting India as a major market eventually got confirmed when it culminated into the official reveal of the Street 750 & Street 500. Bikers everywhere rejoiced at the prospect of getting a low-cost American legend and talks of the Indian market boom were up again. Lower displacement editions from premium brands are a trend that has caught on with multiple motorcycle makers, because at the end of the day they seem to act like Viagra  a catalyst for sales charts. In joining this particular bandwagon however, has Harley-Davidson tried to sell their legendary legacy as opposed to getting buyers because of it?

Let’s have a look at what these siblings have to offer. Both have a 60 degree twin cylinder engine labelled the “Revolution X”. They are still belt-driven and mated to a 6-speed transmission. Instead of dual exhausts they have dual bend-pipes that join into a single exhaust and the brakes are single caliper disks, which means ABS won’t be an option.  The 500 is expected to be priced at around Rs. 4.5 lakh while the 750 will empty your pockets by just over Rs. 5 lakh. Pricing wise Harley met with expectations. If you wanted to be any cheaper then obviously you aren't supposed to buy one and I’ll tell you why at the end of this piece.

Like most cult brands, Harley Davidson has its fair share of hard-core loyalists who have a pre-set list of what a Harley is and isn't. A person riding an Iron 883 or a V-Rod would know that there are many who label them as “sell out” models of the family and often face flak. The same goes for Royal Enfield. The UCE engine is better, more efficient, lighter and more reliable than the cast-iron, but lacks the one thing that RE was known for, the thump. Similarly with the Street 500 & 750, Harley Davidson is sure to see a remarkable rise in numbers, but has made the people who made the brand what it is feel less special. Cult brands have the same appeal as classic cars. If everyone has one, it’s hardly as valuable.

You might argue that they will still be great performers since they are Harleys. Though the official figures aren’t out yet, sources say that the Street 750 will have a maximum power output of 54 BHP and max torque at 44nm. The Street 500 will have understandably lower credentials. Keep in mind that the Continental GT puts out 29.1 BHP and 44nm of torque. Royal Enfield is far from popular for its engineering prowess and for a Harley-Davidson to not outperform it while being over twice as expensive is an embarrassment. In the process you may get a showroom that’s overbooked, but it’s the same deal as the management quota in Indian educational institutions. You got your money, but the quality of students degrades.

Now coming to the part about ownership. This is a part that several high end brand buyers fail to recognize and a problem that their service centres understand best. People have no problem in taking out a loan and coughing up over Rs. 30 lakh on one of the German big three. It is a big deal to say you drive a Mercedes or an Audi and that’s something that only money can buy. However, they have their pride sputter like tadka when their regular service cost comes up in five-figures. The labour costs involved make you wonder if you should take up the job of the guy fixing your car part-time. One thing every car/high end bike buyer needs to understand is that manufacturers make their big bucks after you’ve bought the car. Spare parts and consumable always have a heavy mark-up, because the manufacturer doesn’t make a huge margin on the car sold after the cost of production, dealer’s cut, tax etc.

Take the example of the Toyota Echo. This was a car that found incredible sales in the middle-east. The car turned into a best seller and you couldn’t go a day without seeing at least 10 of them either parked, being driven or both, but the car was soon put out of production. Why? Because it was too maintenance free! Toyota service centres rarely got an opportunity to fix any parts and hence made a bare minimum margin on their highest selling car and this is what everyone who plans to buy a Street 500 or 750 needs to know before that test-ride.

These motorcycles are cannot be treated like a Hero Honda or Bajaj. These motorcycles are not meant to be taken to your local roadside mechanic. They don’t have cables and bolts that can be victimized to jugaad and be temporarily replaced by the same parts as a Kinetic. They are not motorcycles that can be parked in the vegetable market without the rider being worried that some miscreant will see the fuel tank as a canvas for his house keys nor can you get away from a traffic cop easy because you ride a bike that carries a brand name that he can’t even pronounce right. Their service costs will make you realize why Harley-Davidsons and other high end motorcycle brands are status symbols and also get you back down to earth.

So to sum up, the Street 500 and 750 will find a lot of buyers. They will be adequate performers and be the pride of many owners and will get a lot of heads to turn, but in the process of boosting sales Harley-Davidson runs the risk of making its own loyalists feel ridiculed.  The biggest thing that any prospective buyer needs to know is that the 4-5 lakh price may be attractive, but the reason why Harley Davidsons are expensive is because the person who buys one can afford to look after it as well. I would personally love to own either one of these machines, but I know that the cost to buy them is one thing and the price to own one is another.

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