Cook's Corner, in Orange County, has long been a haven for area motorcyclists.
But the legendary Trabuco Canyon roadhouse was more jammed than usual Wednesday. Scores of bikers had gathered to get a glimpse of two new motorcycles unveiled by Harley-Davidson Motor Co. for the 2012 model year: a laid-back Sportster called the Seventy-Two and a Softail Slim retro bobber.
Harley-Davidson typically introduces all of its new models and updates at a single event in the summer. But with the market still soft in a tough economy, the Milwaukee manufacturer has in recent years wheeled out new bikes in the off-season.
Wednesday's event was the first time the country's largest motorcycle maker has introduced two models this time of year.
"It helps to bring a sense of excitement around the brand and to bring people into the dealerships to see the new bikes," said Harley-Davidson media relations manager Jennifer Hoyer.
The first quarter is a slow sales season for motorcycles. But the bikes introduced Wednesday are likely to maintain the sales momentum Harley demonstrated late last year.
Retail sales of new Harley-Davidson motorcycles grew 10.9% globally and 11.8% nationally during the fourth quarter of 2011 compared with the prior-year period. Overall 2011 sales were up 5.9% worldwide and 5.8% in the U.S.
That's in contrast to much of the industry, which continues to struggle. After falling 41% in 2009 and 14% in 2010, sales of new on-road motorcycles were up just 1.8% in 2011 to about 312,000 units, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council in Irvine.
"The name recognition and the heritage of the Harley-Davidson brand serves them well," said Dennis Johnson, editor in chief of Dealernews magazine in Irvine.
The Seventy-Two and Softail Slim represent Harley's growth strategy as it approaches its 110th anniversary next year: attracting minorities and younger riders. The lowrider-inspired Seventy-Two, with its metal flake paint, whitewall tires and reasonable $10,499 starting price, targets the growing demographic of riders ages 18 to 34, as well as Latinos.
The '50s-style Softail Slim, with its chopped fenders, large 103-cubic-inch V-twin and $15,499 base price, pursues what Harley calls its "younger core": men ages 30 to 45.
Baby boomers have long been Harley's bread and butter, but the company, which accounts for 55% of U.S. sales of bikes larger than 650 cc, has been pursuing a younger demographic.
That strategy began in 2007 with its first midyear model introduction, the Nightster. Since then, Harley has been consistently filling out its youth-oriented roster with lower-priced and edgier-looking bikes including the Forty-Eight, introduced for the 2010 model year, and the Iron 883, which debuted for the 2009 model year. Harley is now seeing consistent year-over-year sales increases among Gen Y and millennial buyers, Hoyer said.
"From a brand perspective, you need to foster customers young and old," Hoyer said. "We need to make sure we're not only producing motorcycles for the core segment, who buy the most motorcycles, but a diversity of product for everyone."
In developing its Seventy-Two, Harley looked into its rearview mirror and scavenged from its past, but it also peeked into the garages of modern-day custom shops in France, Japan and Germany, where its designers were dazzled with metal flake finishes and "raw, simplified looks," Hoyer said.
She estimates that 40% of the Seventy-Twos that Harley builds at its York, Pa., plant this year will be sold in Europe, Asia, Latin America and other foreign markets. About a third of Softail Slims will be sold outside the U.S., she said.
Both bikes will start arriving at some U.S. dealers this week.
Still, as recently as Tuesday, the owner of one of the largest Harley-Davidson dealerships in the Los Angeles area had only heard rumors about one of the new bikes.
"I don't really know the details," said Oliver Shokouh, owner of Harley-Davidson of Glendale and founder of the annual Love Ride for charity.
"I've heard there's a new Softail on the way. I'm hoping it's something more bare-bones. A simple, inexpensive entry model with a low seat," said Shokouh, adding that there still isn't enough entry-level product to meet demand.
What's selling at Shokouh's 36-year-old dealership are higher-priced touring bikes and entry-level Sportsters.