Electric Motorcycle ‘EV’angelist: Harlan Flagg
Harlan Flagg is the proprietor of Hollywood Electrics. The shop, on Fairfax Avenue just north of Canter’s Deli in Hollywood, was the first all-electric motorcycle dealership. As far as I know, it’s still the only one.
Since 2009, Flagg’s seen more than a few e-moto brands go extinct, so he has a realistic sense of how the market’s evolving. But he’s also an electrical engineer who has built his own EVs from scratch, so I was interested to get his sense of where the technology’s headed.
Harlan is a SoCal native, and his dad always owned motorcycles, so he grew up in the right environment. But – and isn’t this an old story? – his mom absolutely forbade him to ride motorcycles.
He got his first bike, a ’67 Triumph 250, when he went away to study at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating, he returned to L.A. with a couple of bikes that ran (more or less) and a couple more in boxes. At that point, his mom gave up trying to prevent him from riding.
He got a conventional engineering job, and was bummed that he had so little time for riding and wrenching on his bikes. This was before the first Tesla had ever rolled off the assembly line, but there was already a buzz about electric cars. His dad, who was a retired electrical engineer himself, said: “Why don’t we build one?”
So, they picked up an old BMW car, stripped the motor out of it, retrofitted an electric motor and battery, and wrote their own control software.
“It all worked, and it was fun,” Harlan said. “But we realized that we should have started smaller, we should have used a better motor and better batteries… We should’ve built a motorcycle.”
The thing was, although there were still no electric cars in serial production, small manufacturers of EV motorcycles, like Brammo and Zero, were popping up.
The market for motorcycles is obviously far smaller than the market for cars, but the regulatory barriers are way, way lower. That’s why there are more EV motorcycle start-ups than car start-ups. But even at that, Harlan was daunted by the prospect of manufacturing a bike.
“I thought this sounds like fun, I want one, I can’t be the only guy that wants one,” he said. “I realized that manufacturing one was still a huge undertaking, but maybe having a shop with all the electric motorcycles on the floor, and someone who was enthusiastic and could speak intelligently about EVs was viable.”
He put together a business plan and opened Hollywood Electrics in 2009.
From the start, the shop sold pretty much any two-wheeled EV it could get a sales agreement for. In the beginning, that included quite a few electric bicycles, which sometimes served as a sort of gateway drug for full-sized motorcycles later. (Although the shop still sells a few bicycles, that market has become a lot more competitive, as many conventional bicycle shops also sell them. So bicycles now account for less than 10% of Hollywood Electrics’ sales.)
For a while, Flagg sold Vectrix scooters. That was the first EV-moto company to sell a product in respectable volumes. But Vectrix went bust, then was resurrected, and went bust again. Electric Motorsport, up in Oakland, marketed the Native; then it decided to get back to its core competency, which was supplying components to hobbyists building their own bikes.
Hollywood Electrics was also a dealer for Rohr, which produced a self-proclaimed ‘electric superbike’ in Chicago. All gone.
There was still an Enertia and an Empulse on display when I visited the shop, but I assume that Polaris’ takeover of the Brammo motorcycle business means that Brammo is another brand destined to disappear from independent dealerships.
The thing is, most motorcycle dealers are probably going to have trouble coming to grips with the EV segment. Although EVs have simpler maintenance requirements overall, they still scare a lot of old-school dealers. Hollywood Electrics recently mounted new tires on one owner’s bike because Del Amo Motorsports, a huge multi-line dealership had flat out refused to work on it – even though the fork, brakes, swingarm and wheels are all exactly the same as those found on conventional bikes.
Harlan’s shop manager, Carl, jumped into our conversation with a perspective that Flagg was too modest to share himself.
“He’s not giving himself due credit,” Carl said. “If I’d been in the same position as Harlan in 2009, and had the money to open this shop, I would not have been able to get it off the ground, because I don’t know anything about electrical engineering, or the tech that goes along with this bike. We’ve got a bike sitting back here from Kentucky; the guy tried to modify it, and says he has some electronic know-how, but the entire state of Kentucky can’t help him with that bike. He had to ship it here so that we can work on it.”
Technical know-how is not lacking at Hollywood Electrics. The shop has designed and built its own portable quick-charging units, which allow Zero owners to plug their motorcycles into the 700-amp charging stations that are increasingly common sights in SoCal parking lots. That dramatically cuts charging times.
The shop is basically Zero Motorcycles’ skunkworks. It was their idea to fit Zero S wheels to the FX dual-sport model, effectively prototyping the Zero FXS supermoto years before it became an official model.
Way back in 2012, Harlan created the first 660-amp controller for the Zero S.
“We started selling them in 2013, for $2500,” Harlan told me. “That was a good deal for 22% more power and 33% more torque. Then in 2014, Zero released the SR, which had a controller like ours.”
Anyway, he’s obviously got a friendly relationship with Zero. He’s been their top-selling dealer since 2011, and accounts for about 15% of the company’s U.S. sales.
He’s done that without much in the way of advertising. He’s built a devoted customer base the old fashioned way, by word-of-mouth… and the new-fangled way, too; the shop has a large social media presence with great audience engagement.
On the third Tuesday of every month, a couple of dozen people gather for a group ride. It’s the world’s greenest motorcycle gang, I guess.
Although the loss of Brammo won’t have much of an impact on his shop’s overall sales, I was also curious to get Harlan’s take on the future of the category, as Harley, Honda and Yamaha have all shown bikes that look production-ready.
He’s not worried, and doubts that the major manufacturers will make a serious push into the EV segment any time soon.
“If you’re Yamaha, and making hundreds of thousands of bikes, are you really going to put a lot of effort into developing a new bike, and stocking spares, and all that, just to sell 2000 of them?” he asked. “Because right now, that’s the size of the market. And, even if Honda or Yamaha does put a bike on the market, I don’t think that Zero’s current customers are going to change brands.”
Having spent a couple of hours on the shop’s 2016 Zero SR demo bike, I’m almost a convert. It’s a giant step up from the previous generation of electric bikes I’ve ridden (such as the Zero S and Brammo Enertia).
There’s no getting away from the fact that EV motorcycles are still expensive. Even though the category once again benefits from a 10% federal tax credit, the fact is that a Zero SR costs about as much as a BMW S1000RR. I suppose economies of scale in manufacturing – and/or reduced battery costs when the Tesla Gigafactory comes online – will reduce costs. But one thing I wanted to ask Harlan was what barrier to entry would fall next.
“It’s all about the charging infrastructure,” Harlan said. “If you could charge your electric motorcycle in five minutes, the way you can fill your tank in five minutes, they’d be better in every way.” He pointed out that there are Tesla and other (J-1772 standard) charging stations all over L.A., which have the potential to recharge an electric motorcycle battery much, much quicker than you can charge one in your own garage. Right now, the challenge is that motorcycle charging systems can’t really take full advantage of the nearly 20 kW a car charging station can dish out.
“But I don’t even use [charging stations]. People ask me how long it takes to charge my bike and I tell them, five seconds.” As you’d expect, as electric motorcycling’s foremost ‘EV’angelist, he’s passionate.
“I come home, I plug it in, I go about my life. I’m not standing there for five minutes, fumbling with credit cards and entering my zip code. I don’t worry about getting gas on my hands or spilling it on the tank. I just get off and plug it in, and I go about my business at home. The next morning I unplug it and ride back into work. It took five seconds, and I ‘filled up’ for pennies.”
The thing is, Harlan didn’t have to convince me. Because after we talked, he loaned me that shop’s 2016 Zero SR.
Back in about ’09, I tested early versions of the Brammo Enertia and the first-generation Zero trail bike, and they were “interesting” but had flaws only real EV nerds could overlook. The Enertia’s battery drained too fast under sustained loads, and the Zero was basically a beefed-up mountain bike; the cycle parts weren’t up to the loads.
What a difference a few years makes.
If the battery life indicator was accurate, I used 22% of the battery in 27 miles. Much of that was in heavy traffic, but it included a few short blasts at peak power. I suppose I could have gone 100 miles or more in normal mixed use. And although it’s governed at around 100 mph (to prevent the air-cooled motor and controller from overheating) I bet it would beat literbikes from stoplight to stoplight, and be nearly as fast as a 600 in the canyons (or on a slow, technical track like Barber).
I got off it thinking, for the first time, that here was an electric motorcycle that was better than most of its gas-powered counterparts, for most purposes. Harlan told me that he has a Ducati 749 but he barely uses it enough to keep the battery charged.
One of Hollywood Electrics’ customers, Susanna Schick, told me that her Yamaha R1 had sat so long unused that the gas had gone bad, making it unrideable.
Gas? Bad? Hey, I’m ready to believe it.