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H-D’s LiveWire, the Heretical New Harley

Thursday, June 19, 2014
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.

HarleyDavidsonLivewireElectricMotorcycle9.jpg

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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Comments
.357 Magnum   June 24, 2014 06:36 AM
Mitch, Harley has been very clear that this is NOT their finished product... but it's not a "mascot" either, nor is it only for marketing. It's for research. Yes, they're milking it for marketing too, but as I pointed out below, the 2014 Project Rushmore showed that they really do take their research seriously. So I will give them credit for that. Now we also see Piglet2010 TELLING US what Harley riders are like, although there is no one here demonstrating his stereotype. His stereotype is, like Madson's, just plain wrong. It turns out what we're "cultish" about isn't the 45-degree V-twin... it's having motorcycles that don't suck. We don't want another Kawasaki Nomad with rattly, thin-wire hinges and latches on the trunk, with a lid that bounces around and makes noise as you go down the road. Hell, we don't even want Harleys from ten years ago... we would have bailed out to Polaris Indians if Harleys all still suffered from carb icing in cold weather. Luckily for the MoCo and us motorcycle buyers alike, Harley DOES innovate; they DID do their research; they DID make improvements in Project Rushmore and thereby DO deserve our dollars. It's a great time to be a motorcycle consumer... unless you're a butt-hurt Nomad owner, I guess, eh, Piglet?
Mitch   June 22, 2014 08:19 AM
IMO the LiveWire is intended as a marketing campaign for Harley rather than a production bike (at least at this point). The limited range and higher price tag of electric street motorcycles today make it niche market at best and sinking millions of $$$ into mass production for such a narrow buying demographic won't make the investors very happy unless they charge a huge mark up for them (even by HD's standards). The one or hand full of electric bikes with the Harley name on them (completely designed and developed by H-D or not) however have probably already paid for themselves in publicity and then some for MOCO and IMO Harley will be milking the attention it is getting for quite some time. That's why the LiveWire is a better mascot for team Harley than a player.
wildpig   June 22, 2014 05:44 AM
most of you ass munkeys wouldn't know a decent bike if it was in front of you. Harleys mistakes are better than the best efforts of Bavarian bullshit.
woodco100   June 22, 2014 05:31 AM
Piglet, you do not have to take it when you are right. A few years back during bike week I was riding my Yamaha Venture down I4. (you know the watercooled touring bike with the bolted on fake cooling fins to make it look like a HD) I passed 2 HD dealers (with in 15 miles of each other)I could see from the highway. Both were having big parties with bands, food, vendors, lights. Both were packed. So I swung by the local metric dealer. They sell Suzuki, Victory, Triumph and Honda. Along with Polaris. Surely they would be having a bike week party. Lights out, closed for business. Actually they went out of business. I guess they did not sell enough brands. I guess Suzuki changing all their cruiser engine sizes to cubic inches (like HD) from cubic centimeters did not help. In the cruiser world either you have a Harley or you want a Harley.
Piglet2010   June 21, 2014 09:19 PM
"There is no condemnation of the Harley rider demographic so ridiculous as that espoused by internet commentators." - And there is no group that likes to dish it out as much but can't take it as the Harley-Davidson cultists (hey, Willie G. Davidson said it was a cult).
spyglass   June 21, 2014 10:22 AM
I predict that this (or its progeny) will be H-D's top selling unit....by 2027 (or thereabouts).
.357 Magnum   June 20, 2014 06:04 AM
There is no condemnation of the Harley rider demographic so ridiculous as that espoused by internet commentators. The 45-degree V-Twin "religion" exists nowhere but in online stereotypes. It was back in the 1980s that Harley became the first manufacturer to switch from chain final drive to new-tech Kevlar belts, and there was some kvetching, but we quickly learned that this was far superior to you racer-wannabes and your messy chain oilers and sprocket replacements. Harleys became the bikes for RIDERS, rather than for full-time maintainers. Points ignitions became electronic, carbs were replaced with EFI across the whole product line, and ABS made riding in the rain far less scary. Harley helped to pioneer throttle-by-wire and built-in satellite radio. The religion has been dead for 30 years, and you're just too old-fashioned to have noticed. Well, *I* noticed. On a recent trip around the Enchanted Circle in beautiful northern New Mexico (in fact where large parts of "Easy Rider" were filmed), I noticed that more than HALF of the Harleys coming the opposite direction had the new-for-2014 air vents in their fairings. One year's technological advancements have taken the Harley-riding world by storm, in the shape of those "Project Rushmore" refinements, and Harley riders aren't whining: we're jumping on whole-heartedly, enthusiastically, with our wallets open and USB sticks loaded with a year's worth of riding tunes. I bought my Rushmore Ultra in November, and it has over 10,000 miles on it already. And I live where it snows! We like improvements. I've been following Zero's steady development of its electric bike platform for a few years, and I took notice when Mission Motors set the motorcycle record on the Pikes Peak Hill Climb last year, even besting traditional ICE bikes. Now the gossip is that Mission collaborated with Harley on this bike, and I couldn't be happier. Many of us Harley riders are enthusiasts with more than one bike, and I WAS strongly considering adding a Zero to my stable... until yesterday. Now I'll be watching closely, and if Harley can do as well at extending their range as Zero and Tesla have done, I'll buy. Because it isn't about a religion, no matter how hard you try to keep dragging us back to the 1970s. Catch up, old man... your motorcycle opinions are starting to leak oil, like they were built by AMF during the bad years.