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ADV BikesWill the Harley-Davidson Pan America Be a Big Hit or Bust?

Will the Harley-Davidson Pan America Be a Big Hit or Bust?

 Harley-Davidson seeks adventure off the highway and improved sales.

Published on 08.17.2018

The sky is falling, or so it has seemed over the past decade for several motorcycle dealers and manufacturers. Motorcycle sales in general began falling rapidly in 2006, leveling off a bit between 2009 and 2016 before starting the slide anew. But a few manufacturers have enjoyed significant success. KTM, BMW and, of course Honda with the new Africa Twin, have proven the rumors are true that Dual Sport/Adventure riding is the fastest growing segment of the U. S. motorcycle market. And, if anything, it’s picking up steam. Now, Harley-Davidson, which has suffered significant losses during the decline, is about to throw their hat in the ring with the advent of their…wait for it… ‘Pan’ America Adventure Bike.

Old Harley riders will get the reference to the ‘Pan Head’ and others, perhaps its association with the Pan American Highway, which has no doubt seen many an adventure bike crossing hemispheres. The Pan America is scheduled for release sometime in 2020 but details of the bike’s specifications remain sketchy. In an interview with Cycle World, Harley-Davidson Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Michelle Kumbier said the Pan America will have “a lot of advanced technology,” a vague reference to what likely includes traction control, advanced ABS, dynamic damping suspension, wireless interface with headsets and GPS, and perhaps a next generation TFT dash.

Born With A Large Burden

Harley-Davidson Pan America Adventure Motorcycle
Sketch of the Pan America Adventure Bike revealed by Harley-Davidson.

Does this mean that Harley is going after the biggest bull in the pasture, BMW’s R1200GS, which will sport a 1250cc motor in its next iteration? If so, the motor company is staking a lot on the successful outcome of that challenge. The Big Twin experts in the off-pavement genre—BMW, KTM, the Honda Africa Twin, Suzuki V-Strom and Yamaha Super Tenere to mention a few—have a significant head start over the Milwaukee-based Chrome-and-Steel-bent biker club. Triumph, with their triple threat Tiger XC models will no doubt have something to say as well.


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Harley’s stated goal is to bring two million new riders to motorcycling by 2027. By adding the 1250cc Pan America and, a year later a 975cc version, they may be taking the right steps to turn things around. They also plan to release a more road-oriented Streetfighter in the 975 displacement along with other models in the 500cc and up range. But before we see their new adventure mounts, they say they will jump start their own brand of electric bikes as soon as August of 2019.

Harley-Davidson Livewire Electric Bike
Harley-Davidson has shown it is looking to the future and capable of developing innovative designs with the planned release of their Livewire electric bike.

Like them or not, Harley-Davidson has been brilliant in their marketing in the past. But they have also tried and failed in the adventure segment before under the Harley-owned Buell brand. If they are to pull this one off, a change of image is in order. And while this battle of the beasts rages on, many manufacturers are shrinking the size of their adventure mounts to lure younger and entry-level riders beyond the pavement’s end with lighter, lower cost and tamer machines for the long haul into the backcountry.

For decades, Harley-Davidson has ridden a wave of Baby Boomers who grew up drooling over chrome and graphic art on fenders and tanks. Relatively few of these leather-clad bad boys and girls—often actually doctors, lawyers and other well paid professionals acting out their alter egos— have an interest in going off-road unless it is riding the last quarter mile down a dirt road to a biker rally. Harley’s rebel image and terrorizing neighborhoods with loud pipes may be an exclusive draw for their own kind but a distinct deal breaker in this oncoming age of the Prius.

Aspirations of the current generation of buyers are changing and motorcycle sales have sagged as a result. While the cruiser culture has carried the motorcycle scene for decades, the decline seems to be gaining momentum. Harley-Davidson’s global retail motorcycle sales (242,788 units) fell 6.7% in 2017 compared with the prior year, with U.S. sales down 8.5%. One writer opined that in the United States, Harley and other motorcycle manufacturers are caught between two customer demographic trends: Millennials who aren’t widely embracing the motorcycling lifestyle, and Baby Boomers who are aging out of riding.

Harley-Davidson-powered Buell Ulysses XB12X Adventure Motorcycle
The Buell Ulysses XB12X adventure bike, powered by a 1200cc Harley-Davidson motor, had a production from 2005-2010 but never really gained mass popularity.

By comparison, BMW claims it set an overall company record for worldwide sales, with 164,153 motorcycles sold in 2017. This represents BMW’s seventh consecutive year of sales growth, and an impressive 13.2% increase over the 145,032 units sold in 2016. The R1200GS was BMW’s most popular model, with over 50,000 GS and GS Adventure bikes sold worldwide.

KTM is really on the move claiming a scorching 28.8% increase in units sold above their 2016 street bike sales. And beating HD at their own game in the cruiser market, year over year in terms of retail sales, Indian is up about 16%. Harley has been the big dog for a long time, enjoying about half of all new motorcycle sales in the US over 600cc, but without a change in strategy, they risk being knocked off the haystack.

In the end, the Pan America will be born with a large burden, right out of the chute. Along with their new electric bikes and other street-oriented machines, their bid for a true adventure platform needs to turn heads and move the tide. Folks who swore they would never go there must walk into those giant, often corporate-owned dealerships, make their way past the bling and give credence to the new kid on the block. How will this new machine look in person?

First Impressions

Harley-Davidson Pan America Adventure Motorcycle

Aesthetically, the bodywork, engine and chassis will take some getting used to. The images we’ve seen appear somewhat like a die cast model with impressions of components suggested in the form, but they seem soft and muted relative to the hard-edged, all-business bits and pieces glaring out from the established rulers of the current camp. The chunky, nacelle-type fairing appears to hail from the Jetsons era. Flashers built into the hand guards are a turn-off for hard-core adventure riders, as they will be the first casualties in a rocky tip-over and no doubt cost “Harley Bucks” to replace. Comments from the adventure riding community about the Pan America’s styling have trended negative, but perhaps Harley designers are attempting to appeal to the cruiser crowd.

What we have seen in sketches and prototype photos suggests a few compelling features for an adventure-bound heavyweight. Structurally, it appears HD will use the engine as a stressed member of the frame. Alloy construction in major components like the double-sided swing arm and the tubular steel, trellis-type subframe are encouraging signs that Harley has done their homework. A dirt bike-style linked rear suspension is a good omen and the image we’ve seen in early press releases, Photoshopped in a deep woods setting perched on Michelin Anakee Wild tires, gives hope that the Pan America could be a player. The tidy, 60-degree, liquid V-Twin engine will no doubt be a torque monster, but can it compete with other 1250cc motors in the class ranging from 150-160 horsepower?

Harley-Davidson Pan America Adventure Motorcycle

It’s easy to pick on the new guy so there you go. Harley has a long way to fall from the pinnacle of success they’ve ridden for so long, but they are teetering. Will the new Pan America help keep them on top? Will it push the others aside with impressive handling, gut-wrenching acceleration and graceful long distance manners? Will the cultural divide be a factor? These questions will all be answered in due time. Meanwhile, it’s a great time to live for folks who are looking for a new adventure.

Author: Bill Dragoo

The adventure lifestyle permeates all he does, providing grist for the writing mill. Bill owns and operates DART (Dragoo Adventure Rider Training), an Oklahoma based school for folks seeking to improve their off road skills, primarily on big motorcycles. He is a certified BMW Motorrad Off Road Instructor and actively writes for several adventure related magazines. His work expands to the four-wheel overlanding community as well, as he and his wife Susan explore Mexico and the American West in their fast and light travel vehicle dubbed the Tacoma GS after the Gelande Strasse (Land and Street) line of BMW motorcycles.

Author: Bill Dragoo
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Comments
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41 thoughts on “Will the Harley-Davidson Pan America Be a Big Hit or Bust?

  1. Unless Harley realizes there’s more to motorcycles than heavy and V-twins, they will continue to fail. Adventure bikes have to be lighter in weight, and Harley doesn’t know the meaning of that term. I personally hope to see them fail miserably and disappear forever, along with their dirtbag/pirate-type riders who refuse to wear helmets.

    • @RobG Wow!!! I hope the general public doesn’t judge the ADV community by your ignorant comments. As a lover of all bikes ( Harley’s, Duc’s and ADV’s, which I own) I would never feel so embolden as to judge another motorcycle group with the ridiculous comments you have made. But, then again when you have no idea how the industry is all tied together you can make those stupid predictions. We are all bike lovers here but when you have 1 guy telling you yours is full of dirt bags……well just look at the source. I am sure you are proud of your statements, but I would like to hear from others telling this idiot he does not speak for most of us. Oh, if people didn’t like or love Harley’s they would out sell all other manufactures 2/1 in the US. Hope I NEVER see you on the trail.

      • You are correct. To say “pirate” gosh, such an insult. LOL. Actually I think it’s stupid to make comments as he did in general because helmet or no helmet and do rag or not a person can ride a bike legally in many states without a helmet so let them. As for wanting to see Harley go away then just wait and you’ll see all other brands of bikes double in price in the U.S. once we lose the HD motor company and Polaris will take over. Although my Victory was one of my best bikes ever.

    • Dirtbag should’ve been used for the person wanting to see a great American company fail. Leave America if you wish but don’t ever wish us to fail. DIRTBAG!

  2. Bib, big bust!!! Remember xlcr? Remember buell?? Remember the v rod??? Stay in your loyal market, Harley!! The new street models??). Not bad bikes, but not going to be successful.

  3. I’m with Rob G… Harley riders are dirtbag’s riding around town with nothing but a wife beater Tee-shirt on. with there women on the back with shorts and flip-flops. makes all motorcyclist look bad. .
    ADV riders have all the gear and helmets on then a Harley rider pulls up next to you and you feel like in Idiot wearing all this stuff. That’s why I’m switching to the Harley ADV when it comes out so I don’t have to wear nothing but shorts and Flip Flops on my Adventures. I will sell my BMW GSA it just goes to coffee shops anyway.
    Yep a whole new life awaits for me.GO Harley GO…

    • Wow is all I can say, you adv bike guys are dicks or at least the two on here Yes I ride a harley and I do wear all the gear and I’ve owned a triumph tiger 800. My friends also ride harleys and wear gear. Your part of the problem of hate in this country today…if you dont like something you beat down with insults wow

      • Yep, and this is why on the Tail of the Dragon we have other idiot motorcyclists who want to run over you when they come speeding through. Not all motorcyclists are kind and considerate. I agree Andrew. No reason to insult us HD guys. My other bike is a BMW Scrambler and I ride many brands and love them all.

      • Calling adv riders Dicks you are the Hater go ride your Harley and shut-up. The do-gooder’s like yourself are the problem Virtue signalling. Yep your the hero go ride and save the world while you join Antifa.

  4. It is safe to say that the new Pan America is stirring some strong opinions, judgments and of course the usual brand based sarcasm. They are off to a good start. Now if they will listen to the style police and make the bike looks as businesslike as most of the existing leaders (It only needs a few tweaks) and invest in product testing with real adventure riders on board who will provide honest and intelligent feedback based on their experience, maybe they will build us another major player in this incredible sport. I am also eager to see the lighter, 975cc version down the road.

  5. I’m surprised to see the vitriol the Pan America is generating, but I say go Harley and go Pan America! The more competition in the market the better. I can’t wait to hear more about the specs.

  6. Seems like the biggest hurdle are the difference in ride style. Not even the bike. Me personally, and politely say that the “adventure” market is far too saturated, with alot of big players with more industry experience. Play to your strengths, the Harley markets pretty strong as it is….youll never see honda or bmw stickers on the back window of a jacked up truck.
    Big question is, will Harley devotees enter the adventure style market? Many do criticize adventure ride style…..I could be very wrong

    Hahaha, and yes, the pan am looks disgusting, like a land whale shark. New design hopefully before it hits market

  7. Looks like its got everything— just make sure that seat works for long haul and I dont know about that toaster looking fairing.

  8. I’ve been telling my dealership that HD needed to build a single thumper ADV bike to get the younger kids into. All American made too. I’ve been on the HD Advisory Panel a few times as I buy many new bikes from them. They keep showing us oil can designs and stuff like that. Ask me the hard questions. I’ll tell you what you need to make. Get the kids into your brand while they are young and you’ll keep them there.

  9. Hi Bill. Mark Mares here from your class a few years ago. I was on the super clean Yellow GS.
    Great article. Could imagine you speaking as I was reading it. I have owned many many motos in my life, but never a Harley. Their designs and executions don’t typically appeal to me, but I am thankful they produce what they do. I am also thankful that Indian is here to give them a run. We all win. I liked the Buell Ulysses. Almost bought one years ago. I am happy to see Harley considering other markets and applying their vision and Engineering to the segment. Again, we all win as competition improves the overall breed. I have stepped away from the ADV segment as their is no bike in the segment that currently serves my needs and meets my expectations. If I had to guess I would suggest there are 2 primary ADV buyers. Those that really want to ride a 50/50 bike and those that want to ride down smooth dirt roads every now and again, or at least look like they could. Both equally valuable and important buyers. I am the former. I want: 425 pounds wet, smooth twin cyl. engine designed for torque and control-ability, roughly 70 ft TQ and 100 HP, 250 mi range, Tubeless rims of sizes that allow both street and dirt applications, fully adjustable suspension without electronics, chain drive, (Belt maybe??) truly capable off road without me spending another $5K, bullet proof simplicity and reliability. My sense is the market is ripe for a middle weight that is truly capable and light while retaining true long distance street capability.. KTM has a real shot at this with their upcoming 790. BMW had a shot with their new GS and missed. The KTM 790 could revolutionize the market. I mention this because you mentioned your interest in the 975 version. Harley could choose to position their bike in a space not currently well served. Maybe even smaller than a 790.. And lighter. Much much lighter. I follow the Lotus Cars Engineering Mantra “Add Lightness.” Thanks Bill for the super article and widening our view.

    • Hello, Mark. It’s great to see you chiming in. Experts of your caliber should be on the design team. Yes, you have a great plan for a middleweight machine for adventure riding. We’ll see what KTM comes up with and it is a chance for Harley to get a jump on the rest too if they dig deep and pay attention. I still lean toward the heavier machines for my style of off pavement exploration. The new BMW Rallye is proving to be an incredible mount.

    • Hi Mark;
      You wrote: I want: 425 pounds wet, smooth twin cyl. engine designed for torque and control-ability, roughly 70 ft TQ and 100 HP, 250 mi range, Tubeless rims of sizes that allow both street and dirt applications, fully adjustable suspension without electronics, chain drive, (Belt maybe??) truly capable off road without me spending another $5K, bullet proof simplicity and reliability. My sense is the market is ripe for a middle weight that is truly capable and light while retaining true long distance street capability..

      Wait for the proposed Guzzi 850TT. It should tick most of the boxes for you…L

  10. Complete bust… Harley riders wont want to stray to far from the classic aesthetic and ADV riders wont be caught dead on that bike… Just saying, I doubt there will be a market for this.

  11. My first Harley was an ‘83 Roadster. My first ADV was a Yamaha 100. I love all bikes! Current ride is a ‘96 BMW 1100GS with 115,000 miles. Going to Alaska soon on it, 9000 miles! Hears the catch, BMW and Honda have parts all over the world with an established network. Not so much with Harley, especially new. That being said, parts… ADV goes through parts! And I must say, the Harley community has really changed now. I broke down in Arizona, fouling plugs and such. A guy on a new Harley, in boat shoes, came buy after an hour. I asked if he had spare plugs to get me to next town, I would pay. He said he did but might need them and drove off. Later, and older Harley, ‘73chopped and raked sporty pulled up and asked if I needed help. We switched one of his good plugs and one of my bad. Both back fired all the way to town, I bought him drinks all night, and in the morning the store opened and I bought a case of plugs, half for him and me. Never saw him again… Harley guys nowadays need to be doctors and lawyers just to afford the bikes, but they don’t know the culture, they just call someone.

  12. Unfortunately HD is still at the bottom of the list in quality for bikes 700 cc and above.Until HD improves to the level of other motorcycle manufacturers, sales will be cool at best.

  13. Hey Bill,

    Halfway through this article I knew it was your writing style, and then low and behold, your name was at the bottom! Lots of differing opinions here, and after owning several Harleys, I may never own another. However, HD is closing their plant here in Kansas City and their target market is aging. They have to try something different, and the ADV market is booming. Many adventure bikes will never see the end of the asphalt,so why not have HD throw their hat in the ring? A couple of points about BMW that hopefully this audience will consider:

    1. Not many people thought the first BMW R80GS was the prettiest girl at the dance, but it got the job done in both off road racing and sales. Remember the BMW tag line “form following function?” It started the ADV revolution decades ago with a fairly odd looking motorcycle, that most of us would cherish in our garages today.

    2. BMW also went through a period where their target market was primarily the middle age and up touring rider, and their sales and image were suffering. BMW broadened their target market by creating the S1000RR, F and G series roadsters and GS bikes, and now the G310 series of entry level two wheelers for sub $5K. BMW’s market share is exploding, and its because they took a hard look at their failures.

    The fact is, Harley Davidson is NOT doing well at their traditional marketing target, or our plant in KC would not be ceasing operation. They need to go after new markets, or they will sink deeper into trouble. Their first entry into a new market may not be a booming success, or maybe it will. That picture may not even be the bike that hit’s the showrooms, especially after we get to see a sneak peak and submit our feedback. But they are doing something, and I applaud their efforts for the intended paradigm shift. It’s a large ship to turn, and may take a few completely new models to find the right course. And if they are looking to the future, they aren’t counting on their current “bandanna wearing pirates” to solidify their future.

    David
    MSF Instructor and BMW GS fanatic, but enthusiast of all Motorsports.

  14. Pan American Harley Please. Harley has tried to grow beyond it Rough Rider image of the big cruiser V-twin, kicked the Buell into the backroom like a red headed step child, dealer intentionally brought Buell to a premature end, they had a future Harley dealers wanted no part of it, so they kill the Buell. There are still many Buells on the road and they are a kick ass ride. The V-rod was the only successful variant to date.

    I’ve owned Harleys Old and new, once you get past the image, you will realize here are a thousand bikes that will do everything better. Once you get past the shock of Polaris dropping the Victory line, if you want a big cruiser, V-twin Tourer, you go Indian, quality down to the last nut and bolt.

    Having owned all the big Adventure bikes, one look at the new Harley Pan American, you know it will be left like a turd on the tarmac when it stands up to today’s Adventure rides.

  15. I triple dare HD to make the production bike even uglier. If there’s worse looking motorcycle headlight nacelle, I’ve not seen it.

    • Wow I am impressed about such hate I feel being reading french fora. This is not a compliment ( in french in the text ) What I could say is I was found of Buell Ulysses and could not by one. I am riding 2018 XRX Triumph Tiger 1200 and love it. guys stay tolerant : all bikes need interest. See you Eric from France

  16. Pretty ugly with the mono-brow. Harley style, It will be heavy, it will be low horsepower and it will be overpriced(atleast i my country) but it will be the perfect bike for All the pensioners who cant ride the cruisers etc No more because of oldage and riding position. I welcome you mono-brow Harley adventure Thing.

  17. I can understand why some don’t like Harley’s current output and what they’ve done in the past, especially if you don’t like cruisers, but what I don’t understand is someone hoping they fail. I’ve never owned a Harley and never really truly considered owning one, but I do hope this bike is a success. I want Harley to expand its product line and become an actual motorcycle company and less of a lifestyle company. I just hope the dealerships treat potential customers for this bike better than I was treated by them when I was in the market for a Buell Ulysses. I pretty much got run out of all the dealerships, treated like crap for being interested in Buell, and decided on buying from Triumph instead.

  18. The aesthetics of this machine are a bit… off-putting to coin the term nicely. If Harley could succeed with designing a 400 lb single cyl or parallel twin 500-800cc bike and buttress that with a 250-400cc entry level offering they would probably net more sales. That or focus on the hipster segment; push cafe racers and (dirt functional) scramblers like the Himalayan.

  19. I ride a Harley and a big ruckus scooter. No Harley riders give me the wave when passing me on my scooter. Only when I’m on my road King. What happened to “it’s not what you ride, it’s THAT you ride”? I find the adventure rider guys are more educated when it comes to the wave and riding!!

  20. Good article and I hope it succeeds! I don’t really care about the looks (I ride a Vstrom!), but it needs to perform. I prefer performance, so Harleys have never appealed to me, except Buells and the XR750. I did ride a V-rod once and was very impressed with the engine, but nearly crashed trying to go around a corner, it dragged everything!?! I hope they get it right, I wouldn’t mind riding an American bike.

  21. This stands a chance with just a few changes. Toss the stock bars for some “ape hangers” to provide that finite off road control. Then bling out the chrome preferably with the razor sharp pointed stuff to deal with the occasional wild life you may encounter. Next you’ll be needing an extended set of handlebar tassles to whip and keep the passenger in line. Finally “loud pipes save lives so open em up for that window rattling effect. Extra points for a strategically engineered crankcase leak so everyone knows you have a Real Harley.

  22. I don’t know what Harley is thinking using the existing engine they have. They need a fresh start in this endeavor and need a new engine or subcontract with another manufacture.I wish them the best, I think they are going to need it.

  23. The specs for the KTM 790r & the Yamaha Tenere 700 are in, and they are big, heavy bikes! I was expecting pretty svelte rides. HD can easily achieve those bikes’ numbers. Hell, Buell Ulysses’ dry weight was 425#.

    Based on the 2019 releases, I’m holding off on my next purchase until HD gets their Pan America on the road in 2020.