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This Is the Future of Harley-Davidson?

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Eighteen months ago, iconic American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG  ) announced plans to enter the 1 billion-strong Indian consumer market. Three months ago, the company announced that it would build just its second-ever international assembly plant in the country. Today, the company has effectively placed a huge bet on India, a country that is truly in love with the motorcycle.

Unfortunately, as I spend more and more time here in India, I realize that I cannot see this company thriving in its markets. Worse, I fear that Fools could feel the painful brunt of Harley's overly ambitious expectations.

The Hog ethos
When I think Harley-Davidson, I think open road, fresh air, and a cool breeze tearing through the nostrils of an over-the-hill, balding baby boomer. Thanks to a sustained economic boom, I think there are folks who fit that description and would be willing to shell out $20,000 on a new toy. But I seriously wonder if any of the actual joys of riding a Harley will ever come to the small few who can afford it. And for everyone else, it's simply not a reality.

Still better than I-95
The hard truth for Harley is that driving in and around major cities in India has relatively little to do with open road, fresh air, and the feeling of freedom. In fact, the best way to describe road travel in urban India is adrenaline-inducing ... and not in the good way.

The majority of one's time is spent idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, as pedestrians play a terrifying game of Frogger between taxis and giant, overstuffed transport vehicles. The remainder of one's time is spent accelerating as fast as possible to jostle for position at the next bottleneck.

Jostling for position on a hot Mumbai highway.

One has to seriously wonder how appealing Indian purchasers will find the Harley-Davidson lifestyle when unable to enjoy this very expensive product in the way it was naturally intended to be enjoyed. It's analogous to asking how much you'd love your Kindle if you were only allowed to use it in the dark.

The wrong market
Roads certainly aren't clogged everywhere in this country. But the vast majority of eligible consumers live in major cities where they are. For these people, accessing free-flying highways is no trivial matter. Open roads could be hours away -- even if they exist in the same city.

Not a small market
In Harley's defense, India is undoubtedly a huge market with lots of potential. As the second-largest motorcycle market in the world (behind China), India purportedly hosted somewhere around 37 million motorcycles as of 2002. Compare that to the U.S.'s 7 million registered motorcycles (as of 2007) and you can clearly see why Harley is licking its chops.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Indian motorcycles are not discretionary, luxury purchases. I won't even get into the economics of how difficult it would be for 99% of people here to afford an object of that price -- but it's not inspiring.

Inches away from a passing cycle.

Motorcycle's here are not toys, as they are for most Harley owners in the States. They are a primary means of transport, often for entire families. And they are generally simple, straightforward, cheap offerings sold by names like Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , Maruti Suzuki, and others.

Therefore, unless you're talking about an extremely small sliver of the market, Harley-Davidson and fellow luxury manufacturers like BMW and Ducati don't stack up favorably. If Harley is, in fact, only targeting the super-rich, let us not forget the aforementioned product satisfaction issues. Either way, making meaningful inroads should be an issue.

The Foolish bottom line
Harley-Davidson is expecting foreign sales to account for more than 40% of total sales by 2014. Today, foreign sales represent just $1.2 billion of the company's $6.2 billion in annual revenue. Clearly the company is expecting big things out of its international divisions and much of that will undoubtedly need to come from fast-growth markets like India. But I'm not quite so optimistic about its chances here.

For some that can afford a luxury item like a Hog, the brand has a shot. And as the country grows richer and infrastructure improves, Harley's potential here could be significant. But my investment money would be focused toward entities that are trying to work within existing realities to succeed here. After all, a Hog isn't a Hog if you can't own the road.

Fool Nick Kapur has no position in any security mentioned above. He's in India for the next several months reporting from the scene. You can follow his Twitter feed right here.

Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2011, at 10:46 AM, buckyh wrote:

    There is another Harley demographic that most observes haven't picked up on yet: the youth movement. There are a lot of 20-somethings buying Sportsters and Dynas these days. The new "Dark" bikes are aimed directly at that group and are selling well (at least here in Houston). My daughter (20) and her boyfriend (24) both ride Sportsters and wouldn't consider another brand.

    I rode 40+ years before I got a Harley, and now I am a stockholder (just for full disclosure).

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2011, at 11:03 AM, bobesherman wrote:

    With 2 billion people between China and India HOG only has to grab a small percentage of the population. I would not ignore these markets.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2011, at 3:24 PM, andiquote wrote:

    The thought of a Harley costing $20,000 is not unrealistic given that they sometimes sell upwards $30,000 for some custom models. However, as buckyh noted, currently the most popular model in India is the Sportster which generally sells for $8,000 to $14,000, thus making them more attainable to the average consumer who desires to travel on an iconic motorcycle. One thing to remember about cult stocks is that the numbers do not always add up. "Cult" followers are not always logical, just loyal (to a fault).

    Example of an "educated" investor's opinion:

    Michael Schulman~

    "I see the upside as quite limited – maybe $42"

    I do own HOG. However, my position in HOG is worth only 1/14th the value of my Fatboy.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2011, at 3:56 PM, LadyLiner wrote:

    I am going to just assume that no one here who has posted has ever been to India. If you have been, please pardon me as you know then of what I speak. It is literally take your life in your hands on the streets. There are bikes, cars, cabs everywhere in no logical order. Almost like every man/woman for him/herself.. There are upwards of 3 to 4 people on a scooter or a smalller cc'd motorbike. Half of these people don't have 2 nickels to rub together. Good luck HD is all I can say in getting $20,000 out of these people..

  • Report this Comment On March 01, 2011, at 8:48 AM, Mistie217 wrote:

    Actually, Harley will probably go the way of most companies. Make their product in India cheaper and sell it at inflated prices in the U.S. Just like now, Harley prices have become so ridiculously high. I was looking at a trike and the thing cost more than my brand new car! They will be pricing themselves out of the motorcycle market in the U.S.

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