Harley-Davidson Livewire Electric Motorcycle First Ride

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Harley-Davidson Livewire Electric Motorcycle First Ride: Introduction

Harley-Davidson Livewire First Ride
Harley-Davidson's first electric motorcycle, the Livewire, invades New York. Photo © Ray Stubblebine

While Harley-Davidson might not be the first to market an electric motorcycle-- see Zero Motorcycles, Brammo, or Mission Motors, for starters-- they might be the first to make it mainstream. That is, if the market says yes. On the Project Livewire tour, they're asking you, the buyers to decide yea or nay on their next bold step.

By now, you've heard the news and maybe even the distinctive whir - this ain't your Uncle Bob's Harley! With no intent to make it "sound like a Harley,"  the Livewire sounds like a whole new Harley-Davidson. They've intentionally designed the Livewire's sound to be uniquely theirs.

Forget the concept phase, forget the un-rideable mockup hidden beneath a black sheet in an equally dark nightclub, Harley-Davidson jumped right into the public waters with a running prototype, that the public can actually ride for themselves! A truly heroic and Herculean effort in this day of social media leaks and media conjecture. With nearly four years of discussion and planning and 14 months in the building phase, Harley-Davidson has taken their own history and given us a peek into it's future with the Livewire. But you have to help them make it.

In the coming months and year, with a 30 city tour of the country, they'll be offering the public (current riders or not) a chance to ride one of the 33 hand-built machines and provide feedback. They're listening, and they need to know. Would you buy it? Would you want something more of the design, something different? What do you like, dislike about the machine and the experience... they wanna know before they build it.

Hand-made yes, but this ain't no cobbled together machine with which you need to ride in a vacuum. They're offering real world rides beginning with this media event in New York City. Harley-Davidson has brought together a select group of journalists from around the world today to take some of the very first non-employee rides on their Project Livewire motorcycle, an exercise in design and function and a look into the future of the Motor Company. While this shocking new machine is only a demonstrator unit, there will be a pair of rigs traveling around looking for your input. 

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Two Bites of the Big Apple

The Harley-Davidson Livewire
The Harley-Davidson Livewire. Photo © Neilson Barnard, Getty Images


Not only has Harley-Davidson taken on Polaris' investment (and presumed race towards EV motorcycles) of Brammo to task, they've also taken a strike at the streetbike market at the same time. Many might have thought - if they believed the rumors and leaked photographs - that Harley-Davidson could and would have first made an electric cruiser with their first foray away from petrol pushers. Instead, they simultaneously want to know if you would buy a Harley-Davidson sportbike. Two birds with one stone in some ways. If for example, the public says no on the EV, perhaps they'll build a fueled version of the same sportbike, or nothing at all. The future is just re-beginning for Harley-Davidson at the ripe young age of 111 years old!

While the motorcycle isn't for sale just yet, the LiveWire night never be as well.  With as many years in the business and the entire world of partnered suppliers (Mission Motors being one of many) at their fingertips, they feel they are free to change and evolve with the market as well as available technology unlike they're newly-gained direct competitors like Zero, Brammo and BMW and their respective partnerships and owners. As such, they are making no statements on the internal details like battery size, weight or capacity knowing that details are going to change and they rather real riding feedback. They're also offering no potential price, or range as they know that the project details will evolve as the feedback comes in. They rather not have us speculate and analyze on what they call the cellular level. Instead, for us to speak to the construction and the concept in general.

On the design stage, the aggressive "forward gesture" of the 14-pound (and Harley's only) cast aluminum frame (subframe and swingarm are additional weight) envelopes a box of batteries with no further details, beyond a current riding range of about 53 miles. While they assume the public will ask for more, it'll come with time, technology and demand.

In the solo saddle, the ergonomics are what you might expect from such a sporty looking machine, forward leaning although comfortable. A two-stage startup procedure begins simply at the ignition start button (as these demonstration models have no keys) where you you then choose on the simple touchscreen dash from the two currently-offered riding modes, "Range" and "Power." One obviously offering more range, the other more power, separated by the amount of torque delivered to the rear wheel. The Range mode also offering a slightly less punchy power delivery as well.  No traction control or ABS are currently built into these model, although it should and probably will be upon your given feedback (and ours).  Full-time torque input will take some getting used to, and with 52 lbs-feet of torque at the very light twist of the wrist (and 75 HP), breaking traction comes quickly and easily.

Regenerative braking offers both the traditional "compression braking" feel as well as the charging benefit the name suggests. Application of both the rear - non-linked - brake and the deceleration "regen braking" acts like a dual braking system but isn't as sophisticated at that built into the BMW c Evolution electric scooter and should be ridden with caution until further developments are employed, either TC or ABS.

Very few parts have been carried over from previous OE bikes: master cylinders and switchgear, brake calipers, the turn signal LED packages as seen on the Muscle and levers. Beyond that, its an entirely new build as one would expect.


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The Ride... and the Sound

Harley Livewire in the City
Harley-Davidson's Livewires, in New York City. Photo © Ray Stubblebine

Harleys are known for their sound.  It IS their brand beyond any such designed features of the bikes or their marketing. But the Livewire has a new sound. Its not quit 'no sound' although off the throttle, it is a silent machine much like an electric automobile. But 'on the gas' the raspy whir kicks in and the judgement is still out on that one. While some sort of sound IS necessary, I'm not so sure this is what it should be. Although, in time it will grow on us. One difference between the one Zero I'm have ridden is that not only is there no engine noise, their is no chain noise either.

With a history of belt drives going back 100 plus years, they can say they've long been into belt driven technologies and the Livewire is no different. Here, a dual belt drives deliver that full-time torque to the rear wheel, the whir comes from the meshing of gears in the primary. The electronics are water cooled, the motor and gearbox are oil-cooled (less than a liter of oil) and the batteries themselves are air-cooled.

Zero to 60 in less than 4 seconds, its doesn't take much to get the 460-pound machine to move. Roll on only two-percent throttle and its already in motion, as if you're dreaming, silent. With a majority of its total weight being absolutely necessary, they've centered and lowed it as much as possible and allows the bike to come off the sidestand quite easily.  In a straight line, the bike is easy to maneuver and influence with a wiggle of the hips. In the city, there wasn't much an opportunity to get a feel for any such cornering unfortunately, four corners exactly as our test ride included a very limited tour around the block. Lets hope you get more than a mile on your test ride!

While the E-Twin will surely never replace the V-Twin, it might just get the attention of the youth that this market really needs to survive, as well as the aging converted. President of Harley-Davidson Matthew Levatich calls the Livewire "a well-placed bet" and there's no doubt they're going to hear about this experiment for a long time to come. With a well-known brand and a strong dealer network, if they ever took the Livewire to the market, they know they won't capture 100% of that market, but that they'd hold a strong percentage.

All told, the Livewire is a blast to ride... come see for yourself! A detailed tour schedule will be available later this week; locations in Canada and Europe will come next year.