Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Insiders say Harley-Davidson is lining up a takeover bid for Italian rival Ducati, potentially bringing together two of the most famous names in motorcycling in a deal that could be worth up to €1.5 billion euros (R21.7 billion).
A deal with Harley-Davidson would bring together the maker of touring bikes such as the Electra Glide that are symbolic of America with a leading European maker whose high-performance bikes have a distinguished racing heritage.
It’s known that Indian bikemaker Bajaj and several buyout funds are also preparing bids for Ducati, which is being put up for sale by Volkswagen, whose Audi division controls Ducati – maker of the iconic Monster and Panigale models.
Ducati was launched in 1926 as a maker of vacuum tubes and radio components and its Bologna factory remained open in World War Two despite being the target of several bombings.
Ducati racers have won the Superbike world championship 14 times, with Carl Fogarty and Troy Bayliss its most successful riders.
Harley-Davidson, which commands about half the US big-bike market, was founded in 1903 and was one of two major American motorcycle manufacturers to survive the great depression - but demand for its bikes continues to be slow as its loyal baby boomer demographic ages and rivals such as Indian Honda offer discounts.
‘In for a surprise’
About the only thing the two have in common is that both are renowned for their iconic V-twin engines - but even here there whoever buys Ducati may be in for a big surprise.
Despite Ducati being allowed to increase the capacity of the Testastretta V-twin engine to 1200cc, as opposed to the one-litre limit for its four-cylinder rivals, its Panigale R is no longer competitive in World Superbike racing.
But the new, less stringent WSBK homologation rules from 2017 onwards require only 125 street-legal examples of a model to be built before the start of its debut racing season, with a further 125 during the first year and another 250 before the end of the second year - 500 in total versus the previous requirement for 1000.
That means it is now (just) viable for Ducati to go the same route as rival Aprilia and develop a V4 based on its Desmosedici MotoGP machine, currently the most powerful machine in the class and, ironically for an Italian machine, the fastest in a straight line, even if not round corners.
Ducati boss Claudio Domenicali recently said: “The engine development we have made in MotoGP has been exceptional, we have an engine which is very reliable, very light, compact, and has a lot of interesting technology.
“We are seriously thinking of introducing it to regular customers as it is a masterpiece of engineering.
“It must be translated into something that can be sold to customers at a reasonable, even if premium, price. So it will not be an exotic bike like the Desmosedici, but a high-end sports bike. We cannot say when it will happen - but it is getting closer, much closer.”
And that provocative statement is reinforced by a teaser video, released by Ducati this week, promising the unveiling of a new V-twin superbike model at the Laguna Seca round of the World Superbike series on 7 July, with the catchline: “When the end tells the whole story”.
If the new model is an FE “Final Edition” version of the Panigale, it could foreshadow the reveal of a new V4 model at EICMA in Milan on 6 November.
Nevertheless, Volkswagen's powerful labour unions, which control half the seats on its 20-strong supervisory board, have repeated their opposition to the sale.
A spokesman for VW group's works council said in an email: "Ducati is a jewel, the sale of which is not supported by the labour representatives on Volkswagen's supervisory board.
"Harley-Davidson is miles behind Ducati in technology terms," he added.
But Volkswagen is trying to move on from the emissions-cheating scandal that has tarnished its image and left it facing billions of euros in fines and settlements.
A successful deal for Ducati, which last year reported revenues of €593 million (R8.6 billion), would show that new VW boss Matthias Mueller is serious about reversing his predecessor's quest for size.
Suzuki and Indian bikemaker firm Hero, initally showed interest in Ducati but were put off by its price tag and decided to walk away, while a spokesman confirmed that BMW was not interested in Ducati.
And, we have to ask, would V-twin specialist Harley Davidson still be interested in buying a manufacturer whose flagship machine is a Grand Prix-derived four-cylinder screamer?