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.

____________________

(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.

Comments

  1. Where do I begin?

    1. I wish I had thought of some of these questions when I met Steve Menneto last week. Not that he would tell me much more than he's told everyone else, but I still wish I had asked him about Victory.

    2. Sturgis: We saw a fair balance of ages at the Rally. I would go as far as to say I saw just as many 20-30-somethings as I did 50-60-somethings. But the majority of people I saw seemed to be in their 40's. I could be wrong, but that's my impression. Regardless, I saw so many 20+ year olds on every bike you can imagine! Truly, Sturgis is for far more than the old fat guys you referred to in a recent article. ;) With over 150,000 riders in attendance, you'd have to assume this anyway.

    3. I was told by a few Indian reps in attendance at the Reveal that the Scout had been in production from Day 1 of Polaris taking ownership. It just took longer to launch because of designing the best Scout possible. It had always been their intent to release the Scout.

    4. Polaris makes the bulk of their profits from Indian. I recently read an article on their profits and to my recollection, nearly 80% of their profits come from Indian. Don't quote me, because I can't remember the exact percentage, but I'm sure it was well over 50%. When one line makes that kind of money, it makes good business sense to invest more into it. But I wouldn't count Victory out just yet.

    5. While they are both produced in Spirit Lake, they are certainly two very different brands. That being said, I've not heard good things from people who ride the Victory bikes. I've not ridden a Victory myself, so I can't say much. I've heard they feel much heavier and are not balanced the way the Indians are, which for most people, is the miraculous clincher in selling the bike. Once you ride them, you'll know what I mean.

    6. Lastly, I have no doubts that Polaris has big plans for Victory. If I get any insight, I'll certainly share it with you as soon as I am able. Seriously, you have to be their biggest fan!

    Smooches,
    Sash
    Sash-The Rude Biker Chick

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    1. I am very surprised to read your comments in bullet point #5. During my short time speaking to folks and researching the different ride reviews the recurring theme is that the Vics are VERY well balanced and feel lighter than they truly are.

      I have been riding for close to thirty years and I have predominantly ridden sport and sport-touring motorcycles (Lightweight, wider rear tires, tons of HP and acceleration, more aggressive riding position). This explains why I was excited and very interested when the Victory Demo Ride tour came to the local Victory shop. I was looking for an American made motorcycle (did not want a Harley...wanted something off the beaten path) and I was ready to make the leap to a cruiser.

      I liked the look of the baggers (me and a million other guys) so of course I was drawn to the look of the Cross Country. The younger, leaner, more pliable version of me (that exists in my head and in my ego only...) of course was being pulled to the Hammer and the Vegas. I had never ridden a bike with Ape hangers...not even mild ones such as the High Ball sports, so curiosity drove me to the outstretched, welcoming arms of the High Ball.

      Before the 2 days were out of the Demo Ride I had ridden many bikes, talked to many people, and asked a ton of questions. As well (and more importantly) I had made the decision to purchase a Victory Cross Country. The bike is well balanced, comfortable, and overall very rideable.

      The design of the Cross Country lends itself to a sportbike architecture with it's backbone frame (the engine hanging from the frame with no downtube or cradle) and the inverted forks. This design gives the bike an unparalleled balance that no other bagger can touch, making the bike feel much lighter than it's roughly 875 actual pounds. The biggest adjustment I had to make was getting used to riding with the floorboards as opposed to the typical sportbike rearsets. I was thoroughly amazed however at how well the Cross Country handled even with my feet placed FLAT...OUT IN FRONT OF ME as opposed to tucked under and riding on only the balls of my feet. Even in that more relaxed, less aggressive riding position the Cross Country BEGS to be thrown into the twisties!

      I would be curious to know the cross section of people you spoke with that reported the bike to have a heavier and unbalanced feel. As well, which generation Victory were they riding? Victory is on it's 3rd generation engine and second generation transmission. Remember, they started out 15 years ago with a 5-speed transmission and a 92 cubic inch engine. Fast forward 3 years and the 100 cubic inch engine is introduced linked to the 5 speed transmission. In 2009 Victory made the leap to the Freedom 106 engine and the 6 speed overdrive transmission. I have not had the fortune to hit the road on either of the first 2 generation bikes so I cannot say how well they are balanced HOWEVER my 2013 Victory Cross Country rides like a dream and I have no regrets.

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    2. Sash Walker got that information from people who test rode both the Victory and Indian bikes. Polaris had set up test rides for both lines of bikes at Sturgis. Literally, you could test ride an Indian, and then test ride a Victory, immediately after, and really give each line a good comparison.

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  2. I don't know who says Victory doesn't have a great balance and feel they have the best of any of the large bikes. I have a Cross Country and it flies through the curves like a crotch rocket. The Indian rides well too but it's designed more for people that like an old fashion look to their bike. While the Victory appeals to riders that want a more modern and clean appearance. Everyone that sees me out riding my Victory always comment on how clean and modern it looks. The balance of the bike really attracted me I have a bad bike and the larger cruisers have always been a hassle for me to get of the stand. Not the Cross Country I just lean it right up no pain.

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  3. "I've not heard good things from people who ride the Victory bikes. I've not ridden a Victory myself, so I can't say much. I've heard they feel much heavier and are not balanced the way the Indians are..."

    What I take away from this is you've never actually talked to the owner of a Victory X bike. No where have "I heard" that anyone who's ridden an Indian could compare the handling and balance to a Victory. Granted I am referring to the X frame bikes (Cross Roads, Cross Country & Tour). I own a Cross Country Tour and it is so exceptionally quick handling that I compare its "tip in" to that of a sport bike sans the 60 degree lean angle. So what you have "heard" is BS plain and simple. The Indian would have to be something extraordinary to even compare and I doubt exceed the handling characteristics of the big Vics.

    I will be a lifetime owner of a Vic tourer even without updates. It is, after all, hard to improve on perfection. I've had this bike for a year and 9,000 miles and it still makes me giddy to rocket in the twisties or slog it down the boulevard. I wonder if the novelty will every wear off?

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  4. I can't agree with the comment about Victory being unbalanced and if you look at the overall design and framework of the Indian Chief you will be surprised at the similarities. With over 100K miles and owner of 4 Victory models, my experience is that you have missed the mark with that evaluation. Those of us who form the market notice much more. For example, the 21" front wheel, bag mounted speakers and mini ape handlebars of the Magnum are in response to the market. These are huge trends among the younger urbanites and many owners have been converting via after market parts for years. Refreshing your line up does not have to mean completely reinventing the bike every year, just pay attention to what customers want.

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  5. Not sure whether your column indicated you have or have not ridden a Cross bike, I can tell you that anyone calling them unbalanced or poor handling needs immediate lessons in dental hygiene to counter the bullshit coming from their mouth. I have owned a Kingpin, a Vision, and now a Cross Roads, and I find them to be much more than equal in the handling department to any other bike professing "cruiser" or "bagger" status. This includes the Indian Chieftain, which I have tested specifically for that virtue.

    That said, I agree that Victory has sucked hind tit from Polaris for several years, and determined that weak minded superficial updates to existing models is sufficient for the "NEW!" model moniker- as the Motor Company has done since the 50s. I can only hope Steve and Scott can change their focus for a little while. After all- Victory IS the firstborn.

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  6. I'm guessing this post got mentioned on TheVOG.net or similar because I suddenly had a whole bunch of people posting comments about the same thing. Welcome, dudes. If TheVOG.net didn't insist on using white text with black background (here's why I won't read sites with that set up) I'd definitely spend more time there. A few things, though:

    1) There are some comments I've chosen not to publish because they were anonymous, addressed exactly the same thing, had very similar spelling errors and all arrived at the same time. This makes me think it was one person trying to create the impression of many. Another comment I deleted had a name but was slightly racist. Sorry, fella; rethink your wording and I'll be happy to publish your opinion.

    2) Tread carefully when addressing Sash, y'all.

    3) Only Sash and one anonymous comment have really addressed anything I said in the post. Everyone else seems to be keen to jump all over Sash for saying Victory bikes are heavy. They are heavy, yo. I'm a huge fan of Victory but I am under no delusion of their bikes being light.

    4) Meanwhile, the issue of Victory resting on its laurels remains. Read through the comments here and only one bike stands out: the Cross Country. Firstly, that's a bit worrying, that Victory fans are only able to point to one out of nine existing models as an example of quality. Secondly, the Cross Country has been around since 2010. I agree that it is awesome, and would like one myself (here's my ride review of the Cross Country), but it is not an example of Victory moving forward in the wake of Polaris acquiring Indian.

    5) Those of you comparing the Cross Country to a sport bike have clearly never ridden a sport bike as it is meant to be ridden. I have a 600-cc Honda with a de-tuned CBR engine (in other words, mine is not a true sport bike) and I could smoke a Cross Country in corners. As I say, I LOVE the Cross Country, but don't lie to yourself about what it is.

    6) I'm not sure I wholly agree on the point of Victory bikes having a modern look. As compared to Harley-Davidson, maybe, but not against what else is happening in the world right now. Look at the bikes being produced by top custom shops like Roland Sands, Deus Ex Machina, Blitz,et al. Do Victory bikes look like that? The Gunner and High Ball, sort of, but things like the Vegas and the god-awful Magnum look to have been pulled from the Orange County Choppers sketch book of 10-15 years ago.

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    1. Thank you Chris. I appreciate your support.
      I have only this to say. I interviewed about 8 people who had test ridden both the 2014 Indians and 2014 Victories for a project I was working on. These were all Harley owners and after the test ride they all were eager to jump ship. . . and buy an Indian.
      Thanks again Chris! Smooches!

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  7. I spent about 6 months in Milwaukee in 2012. At the time, I had a BMW K1200R and a HD Sportster 1200.
    There was an announcement of Victory test rides to the dealer in Milwaukee (or one of them), anyways, I've spent all my Saturday test driving all of them that I could.
    I tried also the big bagger. I was told they all used the same engine. It was quite intimidating at first (brand new huge motorcycle), but those things were extremely well balanced. My BMW had a very high center of gravity, felt very top heavy (try the LT), so these Victories seemed so easy to maneuver.
    The engine pull was very strong too, and tractable. Very docile, and the vibrations were of the good sort.
    The brakes were not terrible, but I'm used to BMW's... so, not so good.
    It was a very pleasant experience, and the machines even though having the same engine, felt very different in character.
    Never felt unbalanced, in fact, I marveled and wondered if they had a hidden gyroscopic unit.
    That was very fun, but not fun enough to buy one. The ecosystem is too narrow.
    Triumph has it down to a science with all their good cruisers, ADVs, sport bikes, tourers, you name it. They have it, and their cruisers are top notch.
    I liked the different look of the Victories, I wish them well.

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  8. I agree with much of this speculation around Victory, As a Victory owner for over 12 years, it is troubling to see the brand kind of just treading water while such big things are happening in the room next door. The favorite son analogy seems spot on in that regard.

    One thing I do disagree with...and it really is just a personal nit to pick...but why the heck does everybody keep saying the Gunner is a stripped down Judge? The only thing it has in common with the Judge is the tires. It's a goddam Vegas with different wheels. Why are those dots so hard for everybody to connect?

    Oh, and Vics are heavy...and they handle like a dream :)

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