The next big Harley

Harley Davidson Electric

Harley Davidson’s image might be all leather and ink with a rolling thunder soundtrack, but as Phil Scott discovered, the future might look — and sound — very different.

The traditional Harley Davidson twin cylinder engine has been perfectly described as man’s most efficient method of turning petrol into noise.

And what glorious noise…

A volley of canon fire crossed with a tropical storm, the bark of the trad V twin is a signature part of the Harley DNA, along with the ability to generate its own sound pressure wave with a window-rattling basso bottom note.

Harley has built a brand around that noise, packaged it up in glistening chrome, black leather, mass customisation and of course, the promise of freedom on the road. Hell, yeah!

So why am I zooming, almost silently, on a Harley that sounds variously like a jet turbine or a professional kitchen blender, depending on your audio perception.

Welcome to Project Livewire, Harley’s first foray into electricity. It is a prototype, battery–powered research lab on two wheels, designed to test the brand’s ability to change as the world grows older.

The demographic wave means today’s Harley-riding 40 and 50 somethings will be buying Lay-Z-boys instead of Fat Boys soon enough. At Milwaukee HQ they know the Boomers will one day ride off into the sunset. Like permanently.

With one eye on younger, uber urbanites and the other on increasingly restrictive regulations, Harley decided to test the limits — of both customer acceptance and current technology.

The result is Livewire, a crazy brave compact sport bike with a featherweight alloy frame, funky angles and a three-phase electric motor powered by a lithium ion battery pack. A bevel gear converts power into drive and gives the bike its distinctive Star Wars whine.

Converting the diehards

There’s a lengthy list of what it doesn’t have.

No fuel tank, no noise at idle, no clutch, no gearbox, no neutral — so forget about blipping the throttle at the lights if you want to save embarrassment — and no chrome. There’s just a wink of polished alloy from the Top Fuel blower inspired shroud, the one covering the longitudinally mounted AC motor.

First impressions are a bit counter-intuitive but once you get the hang of the starting sequence — hit the button for the panel to light up, select Range or Power Mode, wait for the right sequence of numbers to appear on screen — then the fun begins.

The beauty of electric power, aside from all the green credentials, is that it delivers 100 percent torque from zero revs.

Translated: this bike offers jackrabbit acceleration. It goes very, very hard with a seamless, linear surge that means you won’t need more than 4 seconds to go from stopped to 100 kays with only gear whine and wind noise to break the silence. But who’s going to stop there?

Regenerative braking means backing off the throttle produces instant retardation, the energy diverted to the battery to extend range. It’s not quite a light switch because there are degrees of throttle-off or throttle-on to help balance the agile chassis through the bends.

In spirit Livewire is more early Ducati Monster than lumbering Road King. Light, chuckable, darty, a real two wheeled athlete designed for the big city, the bike rewards finesse rather than brute force and scores well with male and female testers alike.

So far on Project Livewire’s world tour some 5000 invited riders have sampled its sting and, according to Harley, are four times more likely to consider an E-Bike now they’ve thrown a leg over the future.

The bike delivers such a fun ride that even some diehard Harley Owners Group grey beards say they’d consider it. But as an extra bike in the garage rather than a replacement for their heavier metal.

The early stages

Livewire is very much a city machine because its Achilles heel is predictable enough. The prototype’s batteries are good for a range of only 80 kays. Power mode means even less distance between three to four hour appointments with a 220V domestic charger. Even a peanut gas tank will go further and is a lot quicker to top up.

So it is more a café hopper with napkin wrapped latte rider on board rather than a traditional Hog owner whose requirement is more likely to be a bar and a double shot of Jack at the end of the day’s ride.

“We know that there are these stereotypical visions of what our customers are like,” says Harley’s Greg Willis, a marketing man who has heard all the tattoo and ponytail gags.

“We want to add words like visionary, daring and innovative which is really how our founders started the business 112 years ago. We think it’s the right time to revisit that spirit.”

And with the technology moving fast, timing is an issue.

Livewire is a prototype with plenty of room to mount a bigger battery pack and a dose of Tesla’s car technology, with its 20-minute boost, would transform range and versatility.

“The bike’s sole intent was to get it on the road so people could experience it,” says Harley’s Willis. “It really does rock people’s expectations of Harley Davidson but once they ride it, it changes people’s mindset.”

Technical details are scant but this mobile test bed features the brand’s first alloy chassis — a featherweight 6kg. The electrical bits are carefully hidden but it’s a fair bet there is plenty of vacant real estate behind the cosmetic panels. Electric motors are surprisingly small and the driveline is compact — a three phase induced AC motor, bevel gear and a drive belt.

While the bike looks like it has a fuel tank it is a dummy, designed to make the down road graphic at least read like a motorcycle. Harley’s designers have wrapped the tech in dark, stealth fighter cues.

You will recognise it in the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie with a Scarlett Johansson body double on board; such is the product placement effort Harley is making to promote its plan to home in on tomorrow.

The bikes used on the movie set were the same ones transported to Malaysia’s Formula 1 Sepang track for the Asian preview. The stopover in Asia follows ride days in the US and Canada. Europe is next on the Livewire world tour.

In a short but sweet intro Harley likened the bike to the introduction of the electric guitar after a hundred years of acoustic instruments.

Not a bad line but for now this is an electric guitar in need of a Marshall stack.

Without the amplifier, exactly how the subdued sonic character will play with the faithful is yet to be determined. But there are plenty of acoustic labs in Europe that know how to tune a turbine whirr, transforming it into something sweeter for the road.

Like the concept or not, Livewire is already a resounding success as a marketing exercise, with more than 500 million online impressions and growing.