* Sees econ growth, rising middle class to help sales
* Names MD of new India unit, seeking dealers in key areas
Harley-Davidson Inc (HOG.N) plans to start selling its motorcycles next year in India, the world's second-largest market for bikes, the U.S.-based company said on Thursday.
Harley said it expects a growing economy, rising middle class and investment in highways to boost leisure motorcycle riding in the country. India is now dominated by small, inexpensive bikes that are used as essential transportation.
The company said it named Anoop Prakash as the managing director of its newly-announced India unit and had begun the process of seeking dealers in key cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and the state of Punjab.
Harley, whose large and powerful machines account for half of the motorcycle sales in the United States, has been hurt by a slowdown in its biggest market and last month reported a slump in second-quarter net profit and slashed its 2009 shipment forecast.
Despite a tax rebate for motorcycles included in February's economic stimulus package, combined U.S. sales of the top 12 brands were down 46 percent in the first six months of 2009, compared to the first six months of 2008, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
That is worse than the 35 percent drop for auto sales over the same period.
In comparison, motorcycle sales in India rose about 15 percent in four months to July, helped by the fact that bikes are more affordable than cars for the cost-conscious Indian.
Given the rapid development of India's economy and physical infrastructure, this is exactly the right time, Harley Chief Operating Officer Matthew Levatich said in a statement. (Reporting by Devidutta Tripathy; Editing by Himani Sarkar)