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Harley's Hindi HOG

Can an American motorcycle icon decode Indian culture?

A family rides a motorcycle in Pushkar, Rajasthan, June 24, 2009. Harley-Davidson wants to move in on a market dominated by names such as Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

BANGALORE — Imagine a motorcycle designed for cruising on U.S. highways traversing through potholed roads while dodging quick-footed street vendors, assorted stray dogs and ambling cows.

That is no incongruity. The iconic, heavyweight Harley-Davidson motorcycles will soon thunder through the traffic-clogged streets of India, one of the world’s largest motorcycle markets, where an estimated 100 million bikes are already on the roads.

The American classic’s entry into India, long embroiled in diplomatic parleys about tariffs and emission regulations, was finally cleared in a 2007 trade negotiation famously termed the Mango-Motorcycle deal. The quid pro quo agreement allowed the import of Harley-Davidsons into India, in return for the export of Indian mangoes to the U.S. 

Heralding the motorcycle brand’s arrival in India last week, two dozen classic Harley-Davidsons roared through downtown New Delhi, in streets dominated by Japanese brands such as Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki.

Eager Indian bikers will be able to buy the first of the motorcycles from dealers in 2010. The bikes will be manufactured and assembled overseas and imported to India.

For Harley-Davidson, which has battled flagging sales in Western markets and has attempted to boost revenues through events and aggressive brand licensing, India is attractive territory.

The aspiration level of India’s middle class is rising. These consumers increasingly covet foreign brands in all product categories ranging from clothing to sports shoes, deodorants to, Harley hopes, HOGs (the porcine acronym for the company's devoted members club, Harley Owners Group).