Harley-Davidson launches the 'little black dress' of bikes

The brand that was once synonymous with the male midlife crisis now has designs on women

For decades, it has been a standard of many men's dreams – escaping life's troubles on a gleaming Harley-Davidson motorcycle, accompanied by a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack and a partner of choice. From the highway to Hollywood, the motorcycles and masculinity have been synonymous – until now.

The American manufacturer Harley-Davidson has designed two new bikes specifically to appeal to women. Gone are the bulbous petrol tanks and the shiny chrome the brand is famous for. Other changes include smaller handle grips, lower seats and different foot peg positions. The result is what Harley executives are hoping will become the staple "little black number" in every woman's garage.

Called the Street 500 and Street 750, the new bikes, the company's first for 13 years, are serious performance motorcycles which they hope will persuade even more women to ride its machines. Industry analysts say that Harley-Davidson's efforts will help the brand challenge its Japanese competitors, especially Kawasaki and Suzuki.

Harley's move to attract more female customers has been prompted by its rising sales to women which have shot up 30 per cent in the past decade in the US alone. One in 10 motorcycles is sold to a woman.

The wider popularity of motorcycling can be seen by the fact that International Female Ride Day – set up to celebrate women riders in Canada in 2006 and held in May this year – is now celebrated in the US and UK as well as countries further afield such as India, Russia and Brazil.

The Street series is part of a long-running trend at Harley towards catering for a more varied market. In 1987, the average age of a Harley rider was 35. By 2006, this had risen to 47, and Harley ownership had become shorthand for male midlife crisis.

The company has held Women Riders Month every May since 2008 and has been holding "garage parties" to teach motorcycle basics to women – such as how to pick up a heavy bike safely – for eight years.

Even before the Street series launch, this approach seems to have paid off. In 2013, Harley-Davidson celebrated its sixth year running as the No 1 US seller of new motorcycles to what it calls "outreach" customers – anyone who doesn't fit into its "core" demographic of Caucasian men over 35.

It is a far cry from 2005 when the company had the dubious distinction of winning "the worst brand extension" in a poll, for its Harley-Davidson cake-decorating kit. The company stresses that the nearest the Street bikes will ever come to a Barbie pink version is a metallic dark red.

More recently, Harley dealers have been offering riding instruction to people new to motorcycles – many of them women. The company estimates it now has about 10,000 women a year going through the programmes in the US, according to Claudia Garber, the director of Harley's women's marketing.

Harley dominates the US heavyweight motorcycle market with a 62 per cent share, but the road isn't all smooth. Rival company Indian released a cheeky advert last year that showed a Harley owner lovingly cleaning his bike – then putting it up for sale.

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