Opinion The Game

Woe to Victory, the unloved child of Polaris

I miss this logo.

My father was his mother’s favourite son. As the offspring of said son, my brother and I were always able to pick this up in subtle ways; the affection we got from our grandmother seemed a little more effusive. But a guest to the house might have picked it up as well, just by looking at the walls. 

In the living room, in plain view of any conversation, was a large, framed photo of my father taken in his senior year of high school. In the afternoon, the sun would hit the photo just right and my father’s radiant 18-year-old face would beam with the same intelligent smile that later helped him win a job as a television anchorman.
On an adjacent wall, tucked into a corner that got no sunlight, and not generally within one’s line of sight, were two smaller frames containing the senior pictures of Dad’s younger brothers. No one ever drew attention to this reality and it is a credit to both my father and his brothers that there has never been any bitterness from them nor air of superiority from him.

I’m sure if you had asked my grandmother about it she would have claimed to have loved all her sons equally. But sometimes it didn’t look that way to me. And that’s a situation to which I feel certain members of the Polaris family could relate.

Minnesota-based Polaris is, of course, the parent company of both Indian Motorcycles and Victory Motorcycles. Victory is Polaris’ own offspring, whereas Indian is adopted. So, it is inaccurate to describe Victory as the red-headed stepchild, but goodness me, that does seem to be how it’s getting treated. As Indian continues to wow customers and investors alike, helping increase Polaris’ motorcycle revenue by 79 percent in the last year, Victory, it seems, is being shuffled into a small corner.

A few months ago, I got really excited over leaked images of the bike we now know to be the new Indian Scout. At the time, though, just about everyone assumed these images of a water-cooled V twin were of a forthcoming Victory. It made sense. After all, hadn’t Polaris VP Steve Menneto told Forbes that Victory planned to focus on “performance and innovation” in the wake of Indian joining the family?

“When we acquired Indian, that allowed Victory to really go all out,” Menneto said.

Those of us with a bit of a crush on Polaris dared to dream of Victory really, really going “all out” and producing not just better cruisers but maybe the kind of bikes that are popular in NotAmerica: ADVs, sport tourers, or even just a standard. But let’s take a look at what Victory has actually done since Polaris acquired Indian in 2011:

Motorcycle design by Ryan Black-Macken. Is it a future Victory
or an abandoned Scout design?
  • For its 2012 model year line up (announced in 2011), Victory introduced… uhm… no new bikes. It did, however offer the Cross Country, Vision, Hammer, Vegas and Cross Roads with 8-Ball and Ness paint schemes.
  • For its 2013 model year line up, Victory brought out the Judge and the Boardwalk. Both bikes carried the Freedom 106 engine that had been introduced in 2010 — the same engine used by all Victory models.
  • For the 2014 line up, Victory gave us the Gunner, a stripped down version of the Judge, and made the Judge indistinguishable from other bikes by scrapping its mid-mount pegs.
  • For the 2015 line up, Victory put a massive wheel on the Cross Country and called the “new” bike a Magnum. It scrapped the Cross Roads, Judge, Jackpot, Hammer and Boardwalk. It changed the paint scheme for the High Ball almost unnoticeably, dropped the last of the Ness paint schemes and reduced the 8-Ball offerings to just one machine: the Cross Country.

This is going all out? This is performance and innovation? Really? To me, it seems as if Victory is being left to whither on the vine. All the technology and passion is going to Indian. That’s OK, I guess — I want to see Indian succeed — but as someone who has long held goodwill toward Victory, it is very disheartening. I feel most badly for those poor souls who got Victory tattoos.

And when you think about it, it’s hard to guess where Victory can go, what it can do without stepping on the toes of (or, more accurately having its toes stepped on by) Indian. America’s First Motorcycle Company, as it likes to call itself now, has big plans. In an interview last year, Indian Director of Product Gary Gray told CycleWorld: “We don’t want the brand to pinned down into cruisers, baggers and touring like everyone probably expects. We want to go beyond that. That won’t be a quick process. It’s not going to happen next year, it’s going to happen over fives and tens of years.”

The Scout suggests a first step in that direction. Yes, the Scout is still a cruiser, but very definitely not the cruiser that people would have expected. Meanwhile, in a different CycleWorld interview, this one taking place last week with Scout design team leader Rich Christoph, you get a tiny glimpse at the fact Indian is not looking only at Harley-Davidson when it thinks about competition. Christoph also mentions BMW.

It’s easy to imagine, then, that Indian would like to become a true motorcycle brand: a company on par with BMW or Triumph, offering several types of bike under the same heritage banner. I’d certainly love to see that. I’d love for an American company to produce bikes that could compete outside of the AMERICA pastiche. But if that happens, what’s left for Victory but to die away?

And yet…

The thing is, I don’t want to give up hope. I want to believe that Menneto was telling Forbes the truth. Sure, Victory has spent the past four years giving us little more than bling and Jacqui van Ham (a), but good things take time, y’all. Especially when your parent company is busy re-launching a heritage brand that has the potential to kill you dead.

Design by Salvador Gonzalez

Maybe greatness really is right around the corner for Victory. Maybe Polaris’ first-born can still live up to its potential. And there are a few shreds of evidence to support such a belief:

Exhibit A: The whole retooling thing. I’ve mentioned this before; earlier this year Victory cancelled an annual event at its manufacturing plant in Spirit Lake, Iowa, because the plant was in the process of restructuring to be able to take on increased demand. I would suspect the increased demand is coming from Indian (whose bikes are also manufactured in Spirit Lake) but possibly this process has particularly affected Victory, not allowing them to move forward with plans for performance-and-innovation-related projects. Once the manufacturing lines have been transformed, maybe truly new Victory machines will come forth.

Exhibits B, C, and D: Those sketches we saw back in April. Along with the sketches of the bike we now know as the Indian Scout, designs for three other bikes were leaked a few months ago. The designs were all for a water-cooled V twin with a single front disc, so it is possible that the sketches by Rich Christoph, Ryan Black-Macken and Salvador Gonzalez were just rejected versions of the Scout. But maybe not. Certainly some of the designs seem to wander too far away from the heritage look that Indian would have almost certainly wanted from the very beginning. Perhaps one or all of the additional sketches are of future Victory models. Perhaps they have not yet been introduced because Polaris wanted Indian to get the credit for introducing a water-cooled middleweight.

Exhibit E: I’m not sure Sturgis is really Victory’s thing. There’s a general feeling — though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this actually stated by them or Polaris — that Victory would like its focus to be on younger riders. Occasionally you can see suggestions of this in Victory marketing and promotion, though it is very stop-start (b). If Victory really wants to get a younger audience, it’ll need to produce a few bikes that cost less than £9,500 (in the US, the cheapest Victory model costs $12,500). But I digress. My point is that my lamenting the future of Victory comes on the heels of an Indian announcement at Sturgis.

And with all due respect to those who attend, I wouldn’t really class Sturgis as a young person’s event. Take a look at photos of participants and there don’t appear to be a whole hell of a lot of them who wouldn’t remember the Gulf War. Well, OK, perhaps some wouldn’t remember, but that has to do with their consumption of adult beverages. You get my point. Besides, Indian seems keen to reclaim the event as its own, making its biggest announcements during the week of the rally. So, perhaps it is not that Victory has nothing new to offer but that it doesn’t want to offer it at Sturgis.

After all, such was the case with the reveal of the Gunner. It didn’t slot itself into the 2014 line up until early February.

Design by Rich Christoph

Exhibit F: These things take time. I’m not sure where I picked up this little factoid, but apparently the average time from concept to completion for a motorcycle is 5 years. So, if Polaris really did allow Victory to “go all out” when it acquired Indian in 2011 maybe not enough time has passed for us to see the fruits of that decision.

It’s been five years since Victory introduced the Freedom 106 engine, the powerplant behind all its existing models. That was effectively the last time it did anything more than aesthetic changes. Keeping in mind Victory’s past history of launching its new models late (its timing with the Judge was similar to what it did with the Gunner), maybe a new — truly new — machine will show up within the next six months. Maybe even a few new models: that could account for having taken the axe to six models for 2015.

If Victory doesn’t do this, however, I’ll be ever more inclined to fall in with the cynics who say Victory is in the death throes. You can’t build a prosperous future simply by slapping on a new coat of paint. Personally, I hope it pulls something out of the bag. Although I can’t quite picture what Victory could be were Indian to become a full, multi-bike-type brand, I’d certainly like to see it try.

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(a) Not that I’m complaining about the latter. I’ve got a crush on Jacqui van Ham.

(b) Additionally, there is often a latent sexism in Victory’s marketing that I’m not sure works well with younger crowds.