For generations, Harley-Davidson has been associated with the roar of its largely antediluvian V-twin engines, its bikes ridden by enthusiasts who warmed to the bike’s outlaw image. Next year a rather different beast will be available, with the company planning to have an electric motorcycle on the market within 18 months.
With the electric car industry growing rapidly, Harley-Davidson hopes that it will be able to piggyback on the growing number of charging stations which are being installed on both sides of the Atlantic.
Founded in 1903 by William Harley and the brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the company has produced bikes for hard-core devotees who include George Clooney, John Travolta and Wisconsin’s governor and one-time presidential hopeful Scott Walker. What these aficionados will make of the new initiative is a matter of conjecture.
The company has been tinkering with the idea of an electric motorcycle for several years. It rolled out a prototype, known as LiveWire, back in 2014 and it was pretty quick – capable of going from 0-60mph in under four seconds.
But there was a snag. The motorcycle had a range, in economy mode, of only 55 miles, which was hardly going to appeal to those wanting to enjoy the open road.
With the LiveWire, Harley tried to replicate the sound of its traditional large-capacity V-twin engines by developing an artificial noise which whined rather than roared when the rider turned the throttle.
It is a radical departure for a company which has built its appeal on the deafening rumble of its engines which, when Harley-Davidson riders travel in convoy, can be deafening.
The company sells about 32,000 bikes a year in the US and Harley-Davidson enthusiasts are not normally known for their environmentalism or concern about their carbon footprint.
John Olin, the company’s chief financial officer, said Harley-Davidson will spend up to $50 million a year on the project.
“Our brand stands for freedom and independence and personal freedom, and we think the brand is fundamentally sound,” he said during an earnings call to investors earlier this year.
Harley-Davidson is a relative newcomer to the electric motorcycle party. Lawrence Marazzi, a former Formula One and aerospace engineer, has spent years developing the Saietta R, a futuristic electric bike which some dubbed the “Storm Trooper”.
Like the Harley prototype, the bike made by UK-based Agility Global could go from 0-60 in under four seconds. But its range was far better; 100 miles on a single charge.
Harley-Davidson’s sales figures have been less than encouraging, falling 6.7 per cent last year. Another dip is expected this year. The company has announced the closure of a plant in Missouri, while another 260 jobs were lost in Pennsylvania.
The company is also facing the threat of retaliatory sanctions from the EU in response to the looming trade war triggered by Donald Trump.
Harley’s initiative reflects in part the changing consumer demographics as it tries to appeal to a younger market.
A cursory glance at the helmetless riders in the US shows that many are baby-boomers. The men may sport hip ponytails, but they are grey.