In 1917, Fred Deeley Sr. got the franchise to sell Harley-Davidson motorcycles in Canada.
The timing wasn’t great. Canada was still deeply involved in World War I, roads throughout the country were few and far between, and in Halifax, the biggest man-made explosion ever recorded had just leveled half the city. 1917 was, in some historian’s eyes, one of the worst years in Canadian history.
Nonetheless, Deeley persevered and along with CCM bicycles and BSA motorcycles, sold Harleys out of his shop on Granville Street in Vancouver. His son, Fred Jr., assumed control after his death, and grandson, Trev, took over the reins of the company – Harley-Davidson Canada – in 1953. Until two years ago, Trev Deeley Imports was the sole distributor for Harley-Davidson in Canada.
It hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk. Yes, Harleys exploded in popularity in the late 1980s – early ‘90s, but along the way, the company has had to deal with legendary unreliability (real or imagined), a management shake-up that came within a whisker of destroying the company in 1983, relentless competition from off-shore rivals, an uncertain economic environment, and changes within the industry that eliminated virtually all of the company’s domestic rivals.
But 100 years later, Harley has prospered, accounting for at least half of the heavy cruiser market in Canada, year after year. For many riders, the combination of classic styling, attitude, Harley’s enthusiastic acknowledgement of its past, and the unmistakable “potato-potato” rumble of the company’s trademark V-Twin engine is irresistible. Few motorcycles have the presence of a Harley-Davidson…. hard-core riders love them enough to have the company logo tattooed on their bodies.
But big changes are in the wind for “The Motor Company”. The traditional customers base – male baby boomers – that has kept the company in business is…well, disappearing. Buyers that routinely purchased that new Heritage Softail are moving on to tamer conveyances….electric scooters and tricycles, for example, and shifting demographics, regulatory changes in the industry in the form of emission requirements and noise abatement laws, are putting the kibosh on Harley’s outdated technology. The iconic V-twin engine that so many enthusiasts cherish – others, less so - actually can trace its existence back to the 1920s. Absolutely, there have been numerous changes along the way, but any motorcycle engine with pushrods is on the endangered species list. Traditional Harley riders have resisted change, but it’s coming, nonetheless. Harley’s "outreach" program, for example, is specifically aimed at attracting customers aged 18 to 34, including women, African-American, Asian, and Hispanic riders.
“Definitely, the kinds of people visiting our showroom are changing,” explains Trev Deeley’s marketing and promotions manager, Sean Wilkinson. “Younger riders, for sure, and urban riders, who may be in the market for smaller bikes and for who parking may be an issue are leaning towards models like the Street 500 or Roadster.”
The Street 500, in particular, is a significant departure for a company synonymous with heavy-duty tourers and boulevard cruisers. It’s smaller, more nimble, and aimed at a completely different demographic. Along with its stablemate, the Street 750, it’s the company’s best-selling brand outside North America.
Another noteworthy model is the Street Glide Special, a “bagged” tourer that features the company’s new Milwaukee Eight engine. What’s new here is that this engine has four valves per cylinder….a big deal for Harley, but an engineering innovation that has been commonplace in the industry for years. Younger, tech-savvy buyers aren’t interested in a bone-jarring ride and outdated technology, and the Milwaukee Eight is a huge – if belated - step forward for Harley-Davidson.
But, according to Wilkinson, that ain’t all. “Harley realizes that it’s going to take more that the Street series to appeal to younger buyers,” he says. “The company has a whole slew of significant models that will be released over the next 10 years. Stay tuned.”