U.S. motorcycle: From sex appeal to green machine?

Tue Aug 25, 2009 2:37pm EDT
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By Basil Katz

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The bad boy image of motorcycles helped drive sales for decades in the United States, thanks partly to Hollywood rebels like James Dean and Marlon Brando or Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider".

But now, with the industry facing sharply declining sales, some riders and advocates are trying to sell a different, greener image of motorcycles as the environmentally friendly alternative to cars.

Despite a tax rebate for motorcycles included in February's economic stimulus package, combined sales of the top 12 brands were down 46 percent in the first six months of 2009, compared to the first six months of 2008, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC). That's worse than the 35 percent drop for auto sales over the same period.

The slide was particularly worrying for Harley-Davidson, whose large, loud and powerful machines have become emblematic of the free-spirited American biker. It also accounts for nearly half the U.S. motorcycle market share.

In July, the company announced plans to ship 25 percent to 30 percent fewer motorcycles than in 2008, and U.S. retail sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles declined 26.1 percent for the first half of 2009.

Harley also announced it was eliminating around 700 positions in the hourly production workforce, on top of the 1,100 to 1,200 cuts they announced earlier in the year.

Harley-Davidson bikes get anywhere from 40 to 60 miles per gallon on the highway -- relative gas guzzlers among bikes but more efficient than nearly all cars.

NO HELL'S ANGEL   Continued...

<p>Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders parade through the streets to celebrate the 105th anniversary of Harley with five days of food, drink, and music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin August 30, 2008. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson</p>