Motor Companies, Misunderstandings, and Me

I was cruising (no pun intended) on Harley Davidson’s website when I saw something that just irked me. I decided to write a blog post not about bikes, but how as a company I felt that Harley just doesn’t “get it” when I realized they’re not alone. This is not a post to pick on anyone, but to tell three Motor Companies I hold a deep affinity for where I think they’re going wrong. I could be wrong, but the whole point of this blog is that it’s my opinion. So if I were given control, here’s what I would tell these guys…

Not Grandpa’s actual car, but a dead ringer for it.

Ford. I’ve had a deep affinity for Ford ever since inheriting my grandpa’s ’65 Fairlane 500, and their refusal to take the US Gov’t bailouts of 2008 only deepened my love for them. When I was selling used cars (circa 2005) the Fords just seemed to hold together better than GM products, with nicer interiors and fewer squeaks and rattles. But FoMoCo isn’t perfect nor my love for them untainted. Every time I’ve test driven a new Mustang, I’ve bought something else within a short period; first a 2004 Civic Si, and most recently a used 2005 (987) Boxster S. So why is this and what would I change?

  • It’s time to kill Mercury. There’s just not enough reason to manufacture the same cars over again in a “mid-tier” brand where little changes but the badging. A Ford can be optioned up to be as nice as a Mercury (leather, etc.) and a base Lincoln covers the nicer end of what Mercury can offer. It’s time to pare down and simplify the offerings, and killing a worthless extra tier is the way to do it. Like Honda/Acura, Nissan/Infinity or Toyota/Lexus, Ford needs to be the core brand and let Lincoln take fully over the “premium” segment without Mercury cannibalizing sales as a middling agent. The SVT division and branding is sufficient for performance vehicles, and when the time is right the Mercury name could be resurrected as an entry trim level for certain Lincoln vehicles. But all it does now is repeat the efforts of Ford and Lincoln, so it’s time for it to die.
  • Bring the European versions of Ford small cars to the US domestic market. In the states, the Escort has a terrible reputation as a boring and underpowered econobox. Overseas, the Escort was used in rally racing and was available as a quick small car before the boy racer fart-can exhaust phenomenon of The Fast and The Furious was a glimmer in Hollywood’s eye. I had an XR3i when I was stationed in England, and I was amazed at how much better a car the Escort was overseas. And while the Focus was used overseas for rally racing (and the British police’s squad car which I may or may not have ridden in the back of), Ford all but missed the small car horsepower wars of the 2000s (think Dodge Neon SRT-4, Chevy Cobalt SS, Honda Civic Si) with a short-lived SVT Focus that still depended on Saleen to be nitrous ready. 100hp per liter and 30+mpg are achievable in fun-to-drive chassis, and Ford needs to start delivering.
  • No more fake interiors. I love the interior design of the Coyote engine Mustangs,  but when closer inspection revealed the “carbon fiber” trim was just a vinyl sticker, I backed away. Fake wood trim veneer was tacky in the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s not any better now with a more space age appearance. Porsche charges an arm and a leg for their options, but at least the carbon fiber doors or leather covered dashboards are real. Leave the tacky impostor parts to Auto Zone.

click to embiggen

Harley-Davidson. The screen shot I’m including here was actually the impetus for this post. H-D has a remarkably good website and the Softail Deluxe pictured here just might be the prettiest bike in production today. The problem is the resolutions available for you to download this gorgeous photo as a wallpaper. Only two, both of them oddball. One is a 4:3 aspect ratio, the other is a grossly antiquated 5:4. This, in an age where most computer screens are 16:10 and increasingly 16:9, as HDTV screens and computer monitors continue to converge. I understand most H-D riders are likely crotchety old farts (I mean that both lovingly and jokingly), but the mistake in their thinking here is that they only need to be selling their wares to those who’ve already bought into the H-D brand. They’re thinking backwards, selling to a clientele they believe will have old dusty CRT monitors and forgetting the people they need to sell to are the younger crowd, with more advanced technology. To that end…

  • “Un-girl” the Sportster. It earned it’s name for being the sportiest offering in Harley’s lineup. It earned it’s reputation because H-D didn’t defend it, and does stuff like having Marisa Miller do ads for it. This is at least a start in the right direction, and trying to broaden the brand’s appeal. But since killing Buell to focus on the core brand, and suffering falling sales anyway, H-D needs to rethink their strategy. Women are 10% of the motorcycling community. Younger, and non-white males are a much larger percentage. Give them the performance they crave with style that’s second to none in a Roland Sands-esque cafe racer, straight from Milwaukee. Maybe even an off-road variant. Then sell them. Because let’s face it: people don’t buy Harleys because they’re the best bike on the road; they buy an image that’s been marketed to them. Harley could market a real performance bike if they wanted to, and not dilute the “heritage” they live off of now. The problem wasn’t Erik Buell, but that H-D executives didn’t know what to do with the best thing they had this generation.
  • No more use of the “1” logo until they re-enter competition of some form and earn it. Anything else is false advertising. Give young American racers and speed junkies something to be proud of from their native land.

BMW Motorrad. For a company making some of the most exciting bikes on the road today, you’d never know it because of their reputation for being so dang stolid. BMW could take more than few lessons from Harley’s marketing department. The S1000RR was a landmark bike that kicked the crap out of the Big 4’s liter rockets in it’s first attempt. Where was BMW marketing this outside their dealerships and motorcycle magazine reviews? Why weren’t they taking out dramatic ads in Maxim and Stuff magazine? They seem content to own the adventure touring market after bikers saw Long Way Round, but letting the other excellent bikes accumulate as ancillary sales is wrong. The S1000RR is a GSX-R, R1, and CBR killer. And they’re fixing to make a big mistake with the new K1600 bikes, as well. The K1600GTL is a Honda Goldwing killer, but they just don’t seem to be marketing it aggressively enough. In GT trim, it is a true Gran Tourismo, a better sports-tourer than the current VFR (long reigning champ in this market) offering performance to let you hunt down pure sport bikes, with comfort approaching that of full-on cruisers. So why are the brochures so… sterile? (And don’t get me started about the awful music in their promo videos.) BMW has had several nods for “Bike of the Year” in past few years, but it still seems like most Americans don’t even know they make motorcycles. It’s time for them to start talking themselves up, because they certainly have the machinery to back it up.

I have a lot of love for these companies. This is just what I would do if I had to the power to correct their course as I see fit. Honestly, I view these as mostly small changes to make good companies that much better. Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Motor Companies, Misunderstandings, and Me

  1. Funny coincidence. Last night, before I read this article, I was at Auto Zone to get a gear shift knob for my decrepit Ranger (BTW, I got the one with blue LEDs…don’t judge me). I noticed a roll of “carbon fiber” adhesive and wondered “who would want to put this on their doors”. I also noticed an anxious young man pacing up and down the same aisle, talking as if to someone, when no one (except me) was there. He was simultaneously lamenting that “Auto Zone sucked” and asking himself something like “what can I do to my car?”. I wonder if he found the carbon fiber adhesive.

  2. The problem with Harley is that they feel they don’t have to broaden their line up to include off-road bikes or true racers. In fact, they feel those types actually dilute their brand. The ugly truth is that Harley doesn’t want people like you and me buying their motorcycles. They want the American Chopper fans, the Retiring line workers, and the middle-aged doctors and lawyers having a mid-life crisis buying their bikes. That’s who they get.

    What we need is another American motorcycle company that has no preset image to make the true racers, the off-road bikes, and the 250 standards without shame and apology.

    Let me know if you find one.

  3. Pingback: Son of a gun… | eric.r.shelton

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