H-D’s LiveWire, the Heretical New Harley

June 19, 2014
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

As news of H-D’s Project LiveWire leaked onto the interwebs, I’d like to think that somewhere a grizzled Baby Boomer instinctively knew something was amiss as he fired his Street Glide to life and rode to work this morning. The H-D loyalist would have shook his head, and long grey beard, after reading the official news on his favorite website, Motorcycle-USA.com. He’d then cry out in anguish: “Alas, alas! Now I see they’ve finally lost their way…”

In the religion that is Harley-Davidson, the 45-degree V-Twin is unshakable doctrine. It’s the one true engine design. Forever and always. So sayeth Mr. Davidson from the primordial shop in Milwaukee. Amen!

Except, of course, that’s not true. The original H-D prototypes were Singles. As were all the production models built until 1909. Special single-cylinder models also showcased the Flathead and Knucklehead designs years before they were adopted on the V-Twin platforms. And there was a Flat Twin-powered Model W (aka Sport Twin) that sputtered out after a short run in the early 1920s. Post-war Singles were produced as well, and those Aermacchi-built Singles kinda sorta count too, right? Oh, and more recently there’s the aberrant V-Rod – a 60-degree V-Twin and, oh my, liquid-cooled no less. So there is a non-conformist engine precedent set.

But now there’s this new… electric thing.


The Motor Company, like all manufacturers, is doing its best to court a younger generation of riders. Those Millennials, whose exposure to the H-D Bar & Shield has probably been modeled by a South Park parody. Those kids, who when they see the “Doctors & Lawyers” crew out for a weekend ride on a $28,000 bike, are more apt to think “mid-life crisis” than “I want that.” These non-traditional riders need something different. And this LiveWire is certainly different.

Journalists are jaded by most “new” cruiser model releases, and not just from Harley. More often than not they are simply a carbon copy of the previous model, dressed up with a flashy bit of chrome. Or, depending on which side the pendulum of taste has swung, a “blacked-out” look… There aren’t many surprises. And that’s to be expected, because cruisers are traditional and conservative when compared with more performance-oriented sportbikes – which are so different from Harley that they aren’t really rivals at all, and a different market entirely. Conversely, the static nature of the cruiser segment is such that when there are true surprises, they are big ones.

H-D surprised us last year with its liquid-cooled, excuse me, Twin-Cooled, Ultra Limited. And it was strange surprise too, as Harley reps did everything they could to draw attention away from the fact that its new top-shelf touring platform now routed liquid-cooling thru its V-Twin cylinder heads. It was a fundamental and radical change, but H-D clearly did not want to agitate its true-believer customer base by making a big deal about it.

Then came another surprise, the liquid-cooled Street 750 and 500 models. At last, here was the small-displacement, entry-level bike for the US market. And, more important for the company’s bottom line, the affordable Harley that will grow the brand in global markets, particularly Asia.

This new LiveWire is a bombshell of the Megaton variety. Completely unexpected. And, yes, completely different. First, there’s the electric powerplant – which is unimaginable prior to today. Earlier this year I would have shot down the premise of an electric-powered Harley as a spoof post for April Fools. It’s too corny! The electric aspect is such a shock (pun not intended, I swear) that it almost blots out recognition of everything else that’s different about the bike. The styling looks more Diavel than V-Rod. Is that a cast aluminum frame and swingarm? And how about that sound? That ain’t H-D’s near-trademarked potato-potato cadence!

I likened the 45-degree V-Twin to a core doctrine, so what then is the treasured engine sound to the H-D faithful? In the LiveWire, it’s just another pillar of convention that is reinterpreted.

So, is this electric Harley going to go down as a game-changing design, or historical curiosity? That’s the $64,000 question. Or, more likely, $64 million question… It’s an unquestioningly bold move, but not without risk. History and tradition are integral to Harley’s brand strength. But this cuts both ways, as any deviation from tradition can sew dissention amongst its true-believer core customer base (aka my imagined Boomer stereotype). These are the sort of folks who howl about newfangled contraptions, like ABS and electronic fuel injection, which are messing with something that don’t need no messin’ with.

This heretical LiveWire challenges virtually every aspect of Harley orthodoxy. While its production status and ultimate success is still to be determined, The Motor Company has already sent a powerful message with this ambitious new project.


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