Even people who have never ridden a motorcycle in their life recognize the name Harley-Davidson. A Harley motorcycle is as ingrained in American culture as baseball and apple pie. And, their customers possess a practically religious reverence and loyalty to the brand. With an internal combustion engine anyway.
A large part of the Harley identity resides in the sound of the engine: music to some people’s ears, an eardrum busting nuisance to others. We’re in the dawn of the electric motorcycle age and electric motors tiptoe in comparison to internal-combustion engines. So where does that leave Harley-Davidson?
Leading the Way
According to Brad Richards, Harley’s VP of Styling & Design, Harley intends to be at the forefront of the EV age and have thoroughly embraced EV and EV propulsion systems. To demonstrate their commitment in the new category, they recently sponsored the world’s first electric motorcycle exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Here, they placed a spotlight on the LiveWire, Harley’s first electric production bike.
The LiveWire is a serious bike and can rocket from a dead stop to 60 mph in just three seconds. Its lithium-ion battery system holds a charge for 140 miles in the city or 88 miles in combined highway and stop-n-go traffic. Starting at $29,799, the LiveWire competes at the higher-end of Harley’s range. But, these are just stats, certainly relevant but secondary to the concept and more importantly, reality.
Harley approached the LiveWire with the same fervor accorded to its gas motorcycles. It didn’t think of an EV motorcycle as an inferior artform or a necessary offering it had to include in its lineup to stay in tune with the times. “We were trying to design a great motorcycle, not just an EV motorcycle,” said Richards. “No matter what Harley-Davidson does, we try to design through the same ethos, through the same design filters and the same formula.” Richards notes that it was the talented 20-something Ben McGinley, Design Manager of Electric Vehicles for Harley Davidson, who was tasked with imagining the new vehicle.
The Powertrain is King
For Harley, the crown jewel is the powertrain. They are known for the shape of the V-Twin engine and its presentation on the bike. In considering the design of the LiveWire, Harley leaned into this crucial part of its DNA, which is a core foundational statement. As Richards pointed out, Harley isn’t a motorcycle company, the full name is the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
While the competition hides the motor behind a plastic cover, Harley keeps the LiveWire’s completely exposed. Although situated at the bottom of the bike, it’s a dominant element and what you notice right away. “We like to embrace the mechanicalness of anything we do,” Richards explained. “And we like to celebrate the internals of the motor.” The bright finish on the aluminum case of the motor really stands out, sculpted to be a beautiful part of the composition.
The LiveWire’s battery case also provides some eye candy. When you look at battery cases on other E-motorcycles, they are hidden away in plastic boxes. Since the battery is part of the powertrain, Harley went to town in its design. They exposed the aluminum case the battery comes in and sculpted it with rows of heat fins. The fins not only look fantastic, they are functional in removing heat from the battery. In addition, they keep in line with Harley’s lineage. The finning resembles the cooling fins on their internal combustion engine cylinders.
A Defining Shape
Harleys are recognizable by the shape of their silhouettes. “One of our strongest non-powertrain derived design cues is the shape of our frames and the lines within the designs of our frames,” Richards points out. And the LiveWire pays tribute to the diagonal line found in their iconic 1936 EL model, nicknamed the Knucklehead. The line starts at the rear axle and moves all the way up to the handlebars that attach to the frame up in front of the fuel tank. With the LiveWire’s frame on the outside, Richards said they had a great opportunity to reinforce that line, and it’s almost identical to the one found on the Knucklehead. As a rule, when designing any product, Harley consults its rich archive to find design cues that act as historical touchpoints, and Richards points out that’s so “they’re not going off into the woods.”
When you look at the LiveWire, you see what resembles a fuel tank on a conventional internal-combustion engine bike, which is the top cover on the motorcycle. Though a fuel tank is a moot point in EVs, Harley made the deliberate decision to incorporate their trademark teardrop shape into the design.
“Even though the technology doesn’t necessarily require us to have the fuel tank structure, people have been looking at motorcycles with a certain shape and position for as long as there have been motorcycles,” Richards explained. “I think it will be a slower evolution away from some of those cues.” Richards also added that it was a great place to add branding and celebrate the great paint and graphic work Harley is known for.
On top of the “fuel tank”, Harley provided another traditional motorcycle cue, the fuel cap. In this case, the cap tips open to reveal LiveWire’s charging port. Again, Harley took the opportunity to show off their skills with this highly finished component. It also gives the rider another way to interact with the bike in admiring its beauty. By providing familiar visual touchpoints, Harley is helping riders embrace the new electric technology.
What Does a LiveWire Sound Like?
Now back to the sound. As much as they’re characterized by anything, Harleys are identified by the “potato, potato” growl of the engine. The sound is all encompassing for the rider, and sometimes for bystanders too. In contrast, electric motors operate pretty quietly. Since sound has been an integral part of a Harley’s identity, this issue had to be addressed in the EV format.
Twist the throttle on the LiveWire and it kicks into action with a turbine sound, much like a jet engine. The distinctive sound is entirely intentional and Harley makes sure to note that it’s derived authentically from the way the engine is engineered. There is no cheat involved. The sound is the outcome of the driveshaft coming out of the motor and a beveled gear that directs it to the pulley of the toothed belt drive.
With the quieter ride of the LiveWire, riders can have a more visceral experience. They will be able to hear the wind, a dog barking, the crunch of leaves or the conversation of someone nearby. In a traditional Harley this isn’t possible—or the point, really. And, that’s what’s also an opportunity for Harley. The LiveWire can appeal to a whole new customer, someone who hasn’t ever ridden a motorcycle before or considered it.
For petrol enthusiasts, don’t worry; Harley Davidson will continue to develop motorcycles with internal-combustion engines and keep current riders engaged. However, they are dedicated to creating just as big a mark in the E-motorcycle world. LiveWire is the halo vehicle, Harley’s North Star.
Will Harley gain as fervent a following with its new electric bikes as they do for their internal combustion ones? Harley isn’t focused on that particular point right now. The idea is “inspiring new people about what’s possible not only from Harley-Davidson, but why motorcycling is worth a look,” said Richards. “It’s an exciting new era for the sport.”