20 years of American spending power, in Harleys

Dailies -



As an expensive, discretionary luxury good frequently purchased on credit, there’s perhaps no better indication of the health of the American economy than sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Tonight, as President Obama prepares to lay out his plan for economic recovery, let’s take a look at what Harley can tell us about how bad we’re hurting.

This graphic illustrates domestic shipments of all Harley motorcycles by year from 1991 to 2010. As you can see, it dovetails nicely with historical GDP data. Why the discrepancy between the GDP increase and Harley sales decrease in 2010? Maybe that’s those jobs everyone keeps talking about.

Illustration: Grant Ray

  • Ilya

    Retail sales graph would be an even better illustration. Do you have it?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      This is what Harley releases, but yes, we understand the discrepancy between shipments and sales.

  • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

    Not even Evel Knievel himself could land off a jump like that…

  • GoFasterPB

    Hmmm… That last bike is heading for a rough landing unless 2011-2015 sees HD’s further demise.

  • Mark

    Nice. You’ve got a whole Easy-Rider-meets-Thelma-and-Louise thing going with that graphic. Funny how the adjacent years that are closest together are the last two. It almost makes you think that 143-144k units/yr is the new normal. Seen in the larger context, that wouldn’t necessarily be bad, but I doubt if it would make H-D’s management dance in the halls…
    The larger message here is that the Bush legacy (aka recession of ’08-’10) basically pushed ctrl+alt+del on the U.S. consumer. That makes it all the more important for the motorcycle industry in general, and H-D in particular, to inculcate a new generation of consumers. I’m more excited about Honda, Suzuki and Kawi with their tidy road-going 250s; about a scooter resurgence; about the e-moto scene, etc, in terms of bringing in those new riders. Still, with new bikes like the XR1200R, I’m not writing H-D off yet…

  • http://www.lloydvintage.com lloydvintage

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this graph resembled the Japanese manufactures figures as well.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

      For the US market, they might be worse. The difference is that the US market is not very relevant these days to Honda or Yamaha in terms of Global production.

  • Joel

    I would guess that graph tracks pretty well with housing prices. There was a bubble – people spent more than they should have on all kinds of things (Harleys included). It’s the sad state of American fiscal responsibility.

    • robotribe

      And just like the housing industry of the past decade, power sports enjoyed and now continue to suffer from what was the probably the most patently FALSE market run-ups they’ll have seen for a long time to come. Be it Harleys or Gixxers, many manufacturers are facing the sad truth that their sales and respective output from roughly 2002 to 2008 were the result of artificial consumer wealth that has since shriveled up and isn’t going to return anytime soon.

      Correction hurts. It’ll be interesting to see who survives.

  • Deltablues

    This graph mimics the amount of Harley’s for sale in “Cycle Trader”. I have some friends who bought Harley’s on long-term (72 month) high interest credit with very small down payments. Nothing cooler than a Harley sitting under a tarp parked in front of a rented trailer. Damn, that is depressing.

    • Deltablues

      Should have said the graphs were inversely proportional.

  • 2ndderivative

    +1 tassles.

  • Johndo

    It’s still 100 000 more bikes then in 1991. Quite surprising for a company continuing to sell basically the same bike models year after year. Maybe some innovations could make that graph look better in the next years…

  • Pete

    This single illustration actually makes me feel a little better about things now (as much as a single metric can). The “boom” years of ’02-’07 were clearly unsustainable. Money was so cheap back then it simply made no sense. As the other commenters have mentioned, being able to put $1000 down on a $15,000+ extraneous recreational vehicle is nearly insane. Combined with other manufacturers taking an increasing market share of the higher end clientele (see BMW), Harley was due for a correction.

  • Cheese302

    ouch. although i agree i dont like the comment about yamaha and honda. Though i am glad i am looking to buy a triumph

  • Barry

    Would explain why a friend of mine that’s a junior Harley tech is currently hoping he dodges the third round of layoffs in a month at his store…

  • David

    The H-D correction sure was nice for used prices–I finally have a rigid-mount sporty-based dirt tracker lookalike in my garage for under $4k.