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Harley's Hindi HOG

Can an American motorcycle icon decode Indian culture?

“The strong Indian economy, the growing middle class and the government’s investment in infrastructure makes this the perfect time for our entry,” Harley-Davidson president and COO Matthew Levatich was quoted as saying at the New Delhi launch.

India is indeed adding a network of fast highways, such as the so-called Golden Quadrilateral road network that links Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Its younger population is traveling more fore leisure. And the sizzling economic growth of recent years has boosted spending on lifestyle luxuries such as sporty motorcycles (the flashy Italian brand Ducati entered India last year).

But for Harley-Davidson, based in Milwaukee, WI, there may be a sour mango in the basket. With India refusing to drop import tariffs, the price of an entry-level Harley-Davidson bike in India is expected to be $14,000, or twice the sticker price in the United States. 

So in India, the world’s second largest market for motorcycles after China, that pricing does not exactly compare favorably when Japanese motorcycles manufactured by their Indian joint venture partners in the country are selling for $2,500.

These motorcycles are as popular a mode of transport in rural India’s uneven roads as they are in busy city streets.

Additionally, Indian car manufacturers like Tata are trying to entice motorcycle owners into the car dealerships. Tata has recently launched a bargain-priced car called Nano for about $2,500, the same price as a motorcycle. So it is unlikely that the high-priced Harley-Davidson will become a hot seller motorcycle brand in India anytime soon.

Still, for an affluent slice of the population including motorcycle buffs like Bangalore’s Girish Desikan who have been content riding souped-up versions of local bikes, the entry of Harley-Davidson could not have come a day too soon.

“Bikers crave the Harley-Davidson experience,” said Desikan, an accountant, who frequently hits the highway in his Japanese bike to feel the wind in his hair.

That there is room for marketing to the top layer has already been demonstrated by purveyors of luxury brands like Jimmy Choo shoes, Louis Vuitton luggage and BMW cars.

Some Indians will want bragging rights as being part of India’s first HOGs.

But most, like the dozens who chased the Harley-Davidson fleet through the streets of New Delhi on launch day, will have to be content with just looking. And, of course, listening to the roar.