I’ve been doing research on the passing of the Victory brand of motorcycles since shortly after the announcement. As Publisher and Editor of Motorcycle Times magazine people like to talk to me about things when we meet at events. They share things openly and freely, things about motorcycles, themselves, the industry, their rides and experiences…and frankly, I love it. However, this topic was always tough to talk about. The thoughts and feelings are sometimes hard and raw and run deep, as you will see when we get to that.
Here in part one, are my words and basic hard facts I’ve uncovered. Having a basic understanding of the brand’s background is important to your understanding as we look into the events that led to this fateful decision. I’ll keep my personal opinions to a minimum so you can make your own determinations.
We really must begin at the beginning, and that is deep inside Polaris Industries, dominator of snowmobile design and sales since practically forever. Polaris is well known for their ATV and UTV Industry as well, and when they initially decided to enter that market it was after a long period, several years in fact, of studies and scrutiny. They entered the market late, in 1985 in fact, and the market was already totally dominated by Big Red; Honda. However, the plans were made and laid and to this day, one can argue that Polaris – the late comer – is now the leader in the ATV/UTV industry. I mention this insight because that is the same careful planning method used in the Victory brand, and once again they would be late to the party.
For some reason, Polaris decided they wanted a share of the American built motorcycle market and that they could switch some amount of Harley riders to their brand. The think tank was tasked with creating a motorcycle that would compete with Harley in both volume and quality. Perhaps wisely, they focused on two main cues, Style and Quality…with performance looming large. So, quality was established and never suffered. As testament many of the bikes are still on the road today, even the earliest ones. Just like Harley…though not as purely old in many cases.
All in all, Polaris looked at, over, around, under and through the motorcycle industry in America and indeed the entire world; to some degree; for as much as 8 years (according to some sources) before releasing the brand. The company was creating its own motorcycle brand and wanted to cover every base and be sure it was done right. The top minds known to them were reassigned and/or hired and assigned to the think tank. They focused on what fuels that Harley mystique and that Harley loyalty. They even studied the Harley imitators success and fails. They simply wanted to know what made it all tick, why riders throw a leg over that brand more than any other, what makes people people twist that grip?And they wanted to know how to distill all that into their own new brand.
If this is starting to sound like business a usual, that’s because it is – in a way. Polaris Industry principals sincerely believed that by offering a well thought out, superb quality, high performance, reliable machine at competitive prices they would attract customers not only from Harley but other makes as well; to include the burgeoning aftermarket. This would give Polaris the opportunity to enter a new to them market and expand their enterprise. So, yeah, make more money by selling more products. Business as usual in that regard.
The research was complete and the financial foundation was finally laid so attention was turned to what would arguably become the most critical element of it all. Style. Well, beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. The early bikes were somewhat art deco style, with gangster car style fender cues and various artful references to earlier times and swoopier designs wrapped around an engine that many reviewers stopped short of calling butt ugly. One particular reference comes to mind…”it looks like a compressor.” Being the largest displacement proprietary motorcycle engine ever offered in a mass produced motorcycle suddenly did not matter. The wonderful chassis and excellent brakes did not matter. Predictably, the fickle public still stubbornly wanted big motors coupled with traditionally good looks. Go figure. As a result, Victory splashed about in the shallow end of the design pool as it’s intended target companies looked on with amusement and a wonderful engine was very nearly overlooked by history. In my personal opinion, if that engine had sported a nicely designed Ham Can air cleaner nestled between those huge jugs things might have been different. It’s one of those cues that just needs to be there. But it isn’t.
Indeed, Victory stylists were simply throwing various ideas upon the canvass and declaring ART! in their effort to be unique. Meanwhile, their chosen competitors simply continued producing exactly what customers loved. The public’s initial reception of the Victory brand was mild to say the least. Various model designations mattered not. All that planning was barely moving the needle. Money was not being made.
The first Victory motorcycle was born on the 4th of July in 1998 at the Spirit Lake, Iowa, production facility as serious production was undertaken. Here is a visual representation of the model and one of it’s competitors. You will readily see that Victory missed the bulls eye they planned for, but really not by that much. But it was enough to cool the fires.
As a result, it was a little over 4 years before Victory turned a small profit. While that is not unusual in itself, this one was supposed to make money right off, due to all that careful planning. However, Polaris had committed to making this work, and one brilliant move was when they had kept Victory as a division rather than creating it as a stand alone company. If it were it would have surely been little more than a flash in the timeline’s frying pan. So this way the brand still had Polaris’s enormous financial wealth to prop it up…for now. Victory motorcycles very nearly withered on the vine before it ever really had a chance. Again, business as usual, right?
The flagship of any motorcycle line is usually the touring rig (if there is one) and there was soon to be one. And what a one it was! Completely unlike anything ever before seen in the motorcycling world style wise, the Victory Vision arrived on the scene. Part Jetson’s, part Art Deco, part Cadillac it challenged your eyes every time you encountered it. If Victory’s stylists had been starving artists before they now had Andy Warhol type visionaries (pun intended) and this crew hit the mark. Or didn’t. This bike was bon-a-fide art in that regard. As with art it is up for interpretation. Alas, most of the public interpreted this highly advanced motorcycle as simply weird, and so it too didn’t sell it’s intended capacities. Again, a visual is offered. You will see it’s not that far off in some regards, while also wildly off cue in others.
So, most riders never got to experience the superb chassis and motor combination. Or the amazing all day comfort. For most riders motorcycling is a passion and therefore a soulful and soul filled and soul filling experience. The middle picture above looks more like a cartoon animal screaming at you than man and machine fulfilling any sort of divine inspiration to track down the meaning of life, or at least a cold beer. The question begs. With all that planning how could they miss it? Remember it’s not just my smart aleck comments. Sales figures do not lie. History is a cold and uncaring mistress.
So I’ve established the background, the financing and the style problem Victory had in the early years. In part two I’ll share what I’ve been told and what I’ve discovered about how Polaris Industries endeavored to save their investment with other models closer to the mark and with some help from a couple of motorcycling’s Top Guns.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Please share your comments, especially if you are a Victory owner – or were one, or like me, really wanted one but just never got one and now likely never will.