Big Dog: The Second Decade

“We purposely pulled back in January because of a glut of inventory,” says Nick Messer, president of Big Dog Motorcycles. “We're glad we did.”
The downturn was no surprise to company executives. Last year, Sheldon Coleman, Big Dog's CEO, predicted the company would see a more reasonable growth rate of between 20% to 30% in the coming months.
The reason for the downturn? The Wichita, Kansas-based custom motorcycle manufacturer built too many motorcycles in 2004 because dealers anticipated higher demand. The dealer base stands at 95 now, with seven Big Dog Motorcycles branded stores.
With growth at a more conservative pace, the company is focusing on what CEO Sheldon Coleman calls the “most crushing issue,” that is, reliability. “We think in the exotic custom market reliability is going to be the key differentiator. We're focusing on that now in our corporate strategy.”
“We want to take the lead in fundamental reliability of the product,” he added.
Last year, the company celebrated 10 years in business, a major milestone in this current climate of custom motorcycle manufacturing. About that time, the company moved into a new 100,000 square foot warehouse capable of producing up to 27 bikes a day.
In 2003, the company delivered approximately 3600 units; in 2004, the production numbers totaled just under 5,000. This year, the company would not release production numbers, but projected the figure would be slightly higher than 2004.
At a recent press introduction, the company unveiled changes to five models. The line is divided into two categories: the Chopper line and the new ProStreet Line.
The Chopper line consists of the 9-foot rigid frame Ridgeback with its beefy 300mm rear tire introduced in 2004, and the Chopper, the company's best selling bike to date, brought onto the scene in 2003. It sports a 250mm rear tire and A-frame swingarm suspension, otherwise known in the industry as a Softail fame.
New to the line for 2006 is the K-9 filling in the gap between the Ridgeback and the Chopper. “Dealers and customers were asking for a 300 series tire on an A-frame suspension style motorcycle. We didn't feel comfortable putting that tire on our Chopper model, so we introduced a new bike,” said Messer.
The K-9 satisfies that desire for more rubber delivering it in a smoother package than the rigid chassis. The K-9's styling mirrors the long, lean aggressiveness of the 9-foot Ridgeback.
The new ProStreet Line is made up of the Pitbull and the Mastiff, both with a redesigned long, low profile. The Pitbull, the least expensive bike in the line at $26,600, has a new one-piece tank design as well as new wheels, rotors, and pulley. A 300mm rear tire is cradled within a rigid frame.
The Mastiff has undergone the biggest makeover from the previous year so much that company executives expect it be the biggest seller for 2006. “Market responsiveness dried up on the Mastiff in 2005, so it needed a redesign,” explains Coleman. We went after a more aggressive punch with the styling on the Mastiff. We predict it will fill quite a niche because of its stretch and predictability.”
The Mastiff's wheelbase was stretched 6 inches to 103 inches. A new one-piece tank and 39-degree frame rake complete the improved look. The Mastiff has a 250mm rear tire housed in an A-frame swingarm.
The high-dollar Bull Dog, a late release in 2004, will not make a showing in 2006. It will re-emerge as a 2007 model as part of the new ProStreet series.
Last year, the company introduced a host of technological changes to the bikes including the BDM Balance Drive system and a refined 6-speed transmission. All bikes are powered by a proprietary build 117c.i. S&S motor. Last year, buyers were given the option to upgrade to a 117. That now comes standard. Messer indicated that Big Dog is working with S&S on development of a fuel-injected motor but did not offer specifics on timing. Big Dog's chief engineer, Dustin Hahn, interjected, “We want to bang on current technology for six more months.”
This year, Big Dog Motorcycles began producing two of its frames in house, the Chopper and the Mastiff, on their new robotic welding machine. “We like the frame business and will continue to grow in it,” says Coleman. Daytec supplies the rest of the frames. Other major suppliers include Baker Drivetrain; QTMi supplies the Brembo brakes and rotors; Performance Machine provides the calipers; Millennium Machine and Weld Wheels supply the wheels.
Big Dog Motorcycles is proud of its ever-expanding paint department, now with five new base colors and 17 new graphic designs for 2006. In fact, the press kit this year included a 32-page booklet featuring the wide array of paint options.
In the accessories department, the company unveiled an optional $1,500 air-ride suspension kit on the A-frame bikes giving the low clearance rides a little more of a lift. The air-ride came standard on the Bull Dog in 2005. For 2006, all A-frame models come equipped with adjustable rear shocks, a nice feature for riders who opt to take a passenger.
For shorter riders, an optional push seat brings riders closer to the bars. Longer-legged riders have the option of extending the forward controls.
Coleman discussed the push to continue to go after the younger buyer. Demographics of their current customer include the affluent 25 to 40 year olds “who are not into the family scene yet.”
Listening to Coleman talk to members of the media, you get a sense this is a man who's on top of every aspect of his business. He's very calculated in his corporate moves. As he said, “We act with maturity and we act responsibly.”
Coleman, a third generation member of the camping equipment Coleman family founded Big Dog in his garage in 1991. The company officially was launched in 1994. Coleman is the sole investor and owner in the company. Much of his confidence about Big Dog comes in knowing he has solid management team in place. President Nick Messer just celebrated his 10-year anniversary with the company this August, the sixth employee to see such a milestone there.
Big Dog Motorcycle is becoming a force in the rally scene hosting it's own event, the Tornado Rally, in its hometown of Wichita. In June, the company invited Big Dog enthusiasts and other riders to the factory to experience Kansas' only national motorcycle rally. More than 15,000 people attended the first annual two-day event, with approximately 4,000 bikes packing the parking lots and city streets of Wichita.
“When developing the new annual rally, our ultimate goals were to promote the city-to show the motorcycle community our home-and to thank Wichita for its continued support through the excellent exposure this annual rally could bring,” said Paul Hansen, Marketing Director for Big Dog Motorcycles. Next year's Tornado Rally is scheduled for June 10-11. PSB

- Genevieve Schmitt

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