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An Electric Harley Loses the Growl but Still Aims to Turn Heads

Quiet. Sleek. Unintimidating. The LiveWire is the antithesis of everything Harley-Davidson has ever stood for. And yet, it is undeniably a Harley.

The LiveWire, the first production electric vehicle from Harley, is looking to redefine an industry that has grown complacent in the face of declining sales.

The country’s oldest (116 years) and best-known motorcycle maker, Harley wants “to lead in the electrification of this sport” just as it led with traditional, gas-powered motorcycles more than a century ago, said Matt Levatich, the chief executive.

“We are as a company shifting our mind-set from where our first thought in the morning was ‘We build great motorcycles’ to our first thought having to be ‘We build riders,’” he said.

Arriving at dealers in September, the LiveWire is targeting a new audience for Harley — one that is young, affluent and urban, and eager to adopt new technology. And it’s hoping to do it with a bike that looks and feels as progressive as the company’s new mode of thinking.

Harley, like most other motorcycle companies, is trying to reverse a steep sales decline. It sold 132,868 bikes in the United States last year — down 10 percent from 2017 and 18 percent from 2016. It’s an industry problem. Domestic sales peaked at 1.1 million in 2006 but struggle to reach 500,000 annually now.

“The millennials are getting in too slow, and the baby boomers are leaving too fast,” said Ron Bartels, general manager of Bartels’ Harley-Davidson in Marina del Rey, Calif. “We need a new kind of customer.”

Bartels’ is among the 150 American dealerships, out of Harley-Davidson’s 650, that will carry the LiveWire this year. A hundred dealers in Europe will also sell the bike. All of them must install a DC fast charger and train staff to service electric motorcycles. Mr. Bartels said his shop had presold seven of the eight LiveWires (retail price: $29,799) it would receive this year.


The industry is banking on electrics.

“For so long, we thought of motorcycles as being these raw, fire-breathing vehicles,” said Harlan Flagg, founder of Hollywood Electrics in Los Angeles. “Motorcyclists have done themselves a huge disservice by scaring people away with these ridiculously loud bikes that are obnoxious.”

Their electric cousins are easier to ride than the gas-powered monsters. They have no clutch or gearshift, so riders do not need to coordinate all their extremities to operate the controls. They just twist the grip and go. There’s no hot exhaust pipe to burn a leg. And they project a friendlier, more eco-conscious image. They’re whisper-quiet.

There are hopeful signs for the industry.

While sales are flagging, motorcycle ridership is at an all-time high, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council in Irvine, Calif. Almost 29 million riders swung a leg over a bike at least once in 2018. What’s getting the industry in trouble is that the pre-owned market is three times the size of the market for new bikes, the group says.

Electrics could change that. Almost 70 percent of millennial riders in the council’s survey of owners said they were interested in electric motorcycles. But so far, no Tesla of bikes has emerged.

Zero Motorcycles, based in Scotts Valley, Calif., entered the market in 2008. Hollywood Electrics is its No. 1 dealer globally. Still, the shop has sold just 500 of its bikes over the last decade.

For companies like Zero, which have seen Brammo, Alta Motors and other electric motorcycle start-ups come and go, Harley-Davidson’s entrance into the category provides legitimacy.

“I hope Harley’s serious,” said Sam Paschel, chief executive of Zero Motorcycles.

Mr. Paschel said he was worried that Harley would jump into the market, “stumble and go back to the combustion engine business model they’ve been running.”

Zero is starting to get traction. It has set sales records monthly since 2018, Mr. Paschel said, and is doubling its production staff to keep up with demand.


Zero’s high-tech SR/F model is feeding that growth. Introduced in March, it offers much of the same performance as Harley’s LiveWire, including cornering, anti-lock brakes, traction control and a top speed well over 100 miles an hour. But it has a lower price tag — $18,995.

Other mainstream manufacturers, including Honda, Yamaha and BMW, have shown electric concept motorcycles, but none are in production.

Electric motorcycles face many of the same market hurdles as electric cars. Buyers must deal with limited range, a lack of charging infrastructure and high prices. There are other deterrents. Most people don’t use motorcycles for primary transportation. Moreover, the young consumers the industry needs are frequently too saddled with student loan debt to afford them.

That’s why analysts are watching Harley-Davidson’s electrification strategy carefully.

“We remain somewhat skeptical,” James Hardiman, a Wedbush Securities analyst, said in a note to investors last month, citing the company’s declining sales. At best, Harley will sell 400 to 1,600 LiveWires in the first year, Mr. Hardiman said. That would add less than a percentage point to the company’s annual sales of 228,000 bikes globally.

The LiveWire is a radical departure for the Milwaukee-based Harley, a brand synonymous with large, expensive, gas-powered, cruiser-style motorcycles that both fans and detractors refer to as “hogs.”

Until a decade ago, it claimed about 50 percent of the United States market. And it dominated motorcycle culture, thanks to hit television shows like “Sons of Anarchy.”

But the market has shifted, and the company gave a small team of engineers seed money to develop a “no-excuses electric Harley-Davidson motorcycle,” Mr. Levatich said.

It wasn’t long before Harley was giving potential customers test rides of the unbranded bike in Tokyo, London and San Francisco and asking, “What would you think if the brand was Harley-Davidson?”


There was enough positive reaction for the company to build 33 prototypes for a wider test ride program that reached over 30,000 people worldwide.

The LiveWire’s lack of noise is the most noticeable difference from a typical Harley, and the most surprising for a company that filed a sound trademark application in 1994 for its V-twin engine. The LiveWire replaces that engine with a black battery pack stacked atop a silver motor, elevating both to art pieces showcased with the bike’s trellis frame.

When I was riding the bike around Portland, Ore., for a day, it was a relief to be on a Harley and also be able to hear. If a gas-powered Harley growls, the LiveWire purrs its approval with instant torque that accelerates the bike from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a mere three seconds on its way to a top speed of 110 m.p.h.

And when it’s idle, it lets you know the throttle is still live with a throbbing, yet subtle, heartbeat pulsing the seat.

Per charge, the LiveWire can travel 146 miles in the city, or 95 miles in combined city and highway riding. Those distances are helped by regenerative braking that captures the momentum of the bike when the throttle is released and feeds the energy back to the battery to extend the bike’s range.

Recharging can be done at three speeds. A regular wall outlet using a cord stowed under the seat can provide an overnight charge. Speedier results are possible with a Level 2 charger or a DC fast charger, which take it from empty to 80 percent in 40 minutes.

The LiveWire comes with an app called HD Connect that pairs with riders’ smartphones and can direct them to charging stations or alert them if someone is tampering with their wheels.

As a whole, the LiveWire offers a surprising level of innovation for a company that for so many years succeeded with updates of its classic machines.

Harley says it will bring two to four more electric bikes to market by 2022. Already, it has invested in the pint-size electric motorcycle maker Stacyc and floated two additional electric concepts, including an off-road motorcycle and a mountain bike. They all would push the company into new market categories in an effort to attract not only new motorcycle riders but two-wheeled electric riders of all kinds.

“Our sport is about the ride, and we need to inspire and light a fire under people to continue to enjoy what we enjoy and for more people to give us a look,” Mr. Levatich said. “This technology is intended to do that.”


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