Harley-Davidson 'hogs' ride into India

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Iconic motorbike maker Harley-Davidson is revving up to go full throttle on India's famously potholed roads.

The big-engine bike manufacturer has opened its first three dealerships and is planning to launch two more this year in the country of 1.2 billion people where motorcycles are far and away the most popular transport.

The Milwaukee-based firm, which has been battling weakening US sales, is hoping to exploit what it sees as a virgin market for its heavyweight bikes in the world's second-largest two-wheeler market after China.

"We see this incredible motorcycling culture here that is waiting for this new category of heavyweight motorcycles," Anoop Prakash, managing director of Harley-Davidson India, who fell in love with the bikes when he was a US marine.

But the bulky bikes - known as hogs to loyal fans - won't come cheap.

The range of 12 two-wheelers start at 695,000 rupees (15,000 dollars) for the least expensive model and range up to 3.5 million rupees - double the US price - due to import duties.

Harley-Davidson doesn't expect a rush of orders in India where the average cost of a motorbike - seen by most buyers as a transitional vehicle between a bicycle and a car - is around 1,500 dollars.

But the company hopes as luxury car sales boom in increasingly affluent India so will the market for its snorting high-end bikes which boast 883cc to 1550cc engines.

"We feel there's great demand for global brands here," Prakash told AFP.

"This bike is my boyhood dream," said Umesh Anand, 47, a company chief executive who bought a monster wide-seated Heritage Soft Tail Classic last week at the Harley-Davidson's New Delhi glitzy showroom.

The firm already operates in over 70 countries and aims to boost international sales to 40 percent of revenues by 2014 from 33 percent now.

But India is the only country where it is building its own dealership market right away rather than piggybacking onto other distributors, Rod Copes, Harley-Davidson senior international sales vice president, told AFP.

"Going into India this way is a real vote of confidence in what we believe is the market in India," said Copes.

The India venture is key for the company which is in the throes of a massive restructuring to cut costs and increase profitability.

Managing director Prakash is reluctant to name sales targets but he says he has big plans for the company in India where he has tied up with the country's second-largest lender, ICICI Bank, to offer buyers financing.

He also plans to set up Harley Owners Groups - whence the hog moniker - famed in the United States for members riding and partying together while swapping biking tales.

Harley-Davidson's competition on Indian roads in the cult bike stakes is the Royal Enfield Bullet - known as the Thumper for its signature thud-thud four-stroke engine that has been cruising Indian roads for over half a century.

But the engine power of the Royal Enfield - and its cost - is much lower. The Royal Enfield ranges in price from 90,000 rupees to 150,000 rupees.

"The Royal Enfield was the first cruiser (in India) but I think at 500cc and below it is an entire different experience from our higher performance machine - there's room for both of us," said Prakash.

Harley-Davidson says it believes its bikes can easily stand up to the rigours of India's unforgiving roads which are some of most bone-jarring and congested in the world with an eclectic mix of transport from cars to camels, trucks and elephants.

"I've ridden these motorcycles on roads that could break trucks but we keep riding them," said Harley Davidson Indian service manager John McEnaney.

Still, Royal Enfield believes it has an edge over Harley Davidson in the servicing department.

"You can find yourself in any corner of India and there will be a mechanic who can put your Royal Enfield together," Royal Enfield product marketing manager Praveen Prakash told AFP.

pmc/ft

 

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