Harley-Davidson LiveWire First Ride Review

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The first machine you see walking into the Harley-Davidson of New York showroom is steam-powered. It’s an industrial-strength cappuccino machine. It’s a caffeinated town, for sure.

But today the buzz is all about the electric-powered bikes parked along the curb, being watched by the sort of vaguely menacing minders whose job it is usually to protect visiting celebrities from paparazzi.

Although the actual riding I did was too limited to tell much, the consensus amongst journos was that the Harley-Davidson Livewire is probably already as competent as, say, the Zero SR.

The LiveWire, in the metal, looks even better—and smaller—than it does in pictures. No one from Harley is particularly interested in talking specs, but I heard that it weighs well north of 400 pounds. It doesn’t look it. The bike’s tiny, with obviously sporty geometry. The aluminum ‘exoskeleton’ frame describes a classic, straight line from steering head to swingarm pivot and on to the rear axle. The ‘countershaft’ sprocket is co-axial with the swingarm pivot. It has the lightest wheels in Harley history, Showa big-piston fork (and Showa shock) and Nissin brakes; the attitude is definitely sporting.

A dozen motojournalists were split into three groups. While two groups took turns talking to Mark-Hans Richter, The Motor Co’s marketing guy; and Kirk Rasmussen and Jeff Richlen, Styling and Engineering respectively, the third group actually rode the bike. Michelle Kumbier (VP, Operations) and Matt Levatich (President) were also present.

Someone once said, “The job of a journalist is to get people to say things they’ll regret later.” If that’s true, the score for the conversations with Harley execs was, Execs 2, Journos 0. It was an exercise in modern “message management” PR, where no matter what questions were asked, the answers were scripted quotes we’d already read, along the lines of “People get on this thinking ‘golf cart’ and get off thinking ‘rocket ship’.”

Even specs like wheelbase, rake and trail—stuff a clever kid could actually derive working in Photoshop with images Harley’s officially released—were glossed over. I learned only two things I didn’t already know. First, the motor unit itself is a longer, slimmer unit, as opposed to the ‘pancake’ shape motors used by most of the other e-bike players. Second, the driveline is even more complex than I thought, based on the engine placement. The engine shaft enters a single-speed ‘gearbox’ where a bevel drive turns it 90 degrees. From there, a primary belt drives the countershaft for the final belt drive.

As already noted, that driveline arrangement shows off the motor—or at least, shows off the alloy motor housing (that’s the steam-punk styled shiny bit under the battery pack and frame.) It also produces the LiveWire’s characteristic gear whine. In case you’re wondering, there’s only a very slight penalty in mechanical efficiency.

The real price for that styling decision is complexity. The gearbox and motor are oil cooled, and dump heat into the atmosphere via a heat exchanger behind the gearbox. The motor control unit is mounted on the front of the battery, and it’s water cooled, with a radiator up front. So there are two separate cooling systems driven by two 12-volt pumps.

Before we could ride, the journos in my group had to watch a safety video that explained the way, once the bike was turned on, the slightest wrist action could make it shoot off prematurely.

It’s a twist-and-go, with no clutch or transmission. It’s also a release-and-stop; there’s a significant amount of re-gen dialed in, so when you roll off the throttle (should we call it a ‘rheostat’?) the bike slows down as if you were applying back brake. Everyone watching the video with me had experience with e-bikes, but out on the 30 city LiveWire tour, that information will prevent a few mishaps. The video concluded by urging us to take the test and post about it on our social networks.

That, finally, made it time to ride the LiveWire.

The bike is low and narrow; with my 30-inch inseam, I could easily flat-foot it. And as heavy as it is, it was easy to lift it off the side stand and maneuver at walking speed. The riding position felt neutral, for me, but is by far the most aggressive and ‘racy’ design I’ve ever seen in a Harley. The seat was as firm as a race bike’s.

There’s no key. The bikes have a fob ignition, and the fob must have been hidden on it somewhere, because all I had to do was thumb what would’ve been the ‘start’ button on a regular Harley. As it came to life, there was the tiniest hum and vibration, coming from the cooling pumps. The flat panel dash gave me a choice of two settings, optimizing range or power. I chose ‘power’ and noticed that the battery level was showing 73%.

Everything about the sensory experience of getting on the bike suggested that it had been set up for a sport ride. And as I started to roll out behind the ride leader, the taut suspension transmitted every ripple, pothole, and steaming manhole cover.

Again, just the way I like it. And very unlike any other Harley.

The LiveWire launch was the first motorcycle reveal I’ve ever worked on that attracted media like CNN and MSNBC.

We trundled off into stop-and-go traffic, and after a few blocks the ride leader (stern warning from Harley: “Do not pass him!”) turned right onto a narrow cross street momentarily free of cars. I rolled on the throttle and quickly accelerated. Within a couple of seconds, I reached a speed that seemed fast enough, considering that at any moment a pedestrian might step out from between parked cars. (To say nothing of the fact that Harley spent millions building a total of 39 LiveWires, which probably made it the most valuable vehicle I’d ever tested!)

At the end of that block, we turned right again. And, after a few blocks, we turned right again. I say ‘turn’ because I don’t mean ‘corner’. All we did was make slow right angle turns, while dodging jaywalkers, tour buses, and death-wish bicycle couriers. No one outside Harley-Davidson has any idea how the LiveWire corners, although it felt as if it would corner well.

I knew we weren’t going to really test the machine in a meaningful way as soon as I was told the reveal was happening in Manhattan, but there are a few expressways around the Island, at least. Nope. We rode two laps of that rectangular circuit; a total of 40 blocks or so. One journalist bragged that he’d hit 32 mph. Another managed a momentary burnout.

Still, I came away impressed by the limited experience. Someone (I’m guessing someone from Mission Motors) did a great job on the motor controller; the throttle response could not be faulted, and that is one of the trickiest aspects of setting up an e-bike—especially one that makes reasonable power, like the LiveWire. (Harley claims 75 horsepower and 52 lb-ft of torque, which I sort of confirmed with my seat-of-the-pants dyno.)

Every journalist I spoke to got off the bike impressed and wanting more time, for a proper test in a better setting. Like, maybe, Road America. What I can tell you right now is, as it sits there in ‘prototype’ form, the LiveWire is a delightful urban runabout. In the few minutes I rode it, the battery gauge dropped 5%, which I suppose is consistent with the range claims of 50-something miles. Even at that, it could easily handle my commute, and I’d love to ride it around Kansas City.

We descended back down into the sub-basement of the dealership for a debrief, and for a while I sat around a table with a couple of other journos, Mark-Hans Richter (the marketing guy, whose personal car is a Tesla) and Matt Levatich. Richter was emphatic that, “This [LiveWire] is not about transportation from A to B, it’s about emotion and the Harley-Davidson experience,” which was funny because actually, as built, the bike is perfectly suited to short in-city hops.

Harley designers made a little nod to their heritage by fitting the LiveWire with an 18-inch front wheel. That was a poor choice, and one they should revisit; this bike deserves great tires, which means that it also deserves a 17-inch front rim.

Levatich suggested that the whole project might just have been a way to open up channels of communication with battery, controller, and motor suppliers who, otherwise, wouldn’t have taken Harley seriously. The official company line seems to be that they’re waiting for battery energy density to significantly improve before they’ll even consider actually going into production.

MCN’s Andy Downes was skeptical, and I am too. The bike looks far too finished; it’s more resolved than the bikes Harley already sells. They spent a ton of money on it; an investment in the tens of millions of dollars (thanks, TARP bailout!) and the company’s shareholders would never tolerate that unless Harley was sure that a product was in the offing.

Downes reckons we’ll hear a production announcement within 18 months. That’s not time for battery technology to change much, but it might give the EV industry time to settle on a charging standard, and build out the charging infrastructure a little. The implication is, a production version of the LiveWire will either be heavier, or, it really will have a range of less than 60 miles.

Harley designers made a little nod to their heritage by fitting the LiveWire with an 18-inch front wheel. That was a poor choice, and one they should revisit; this bike deserves great tires, which means that it also deserves a 17-inch front rim.

In the meantime, about ten thousand people will, at least briefly, sample the LiveWire at 30 Harley-Davidson dealerships across the country. By the end of 2014, far more people will have ridden a LiveWire than have ever ridden all the Brammos and Zeros that have ever been sold. And, if The Motor Company’s grand gamble pays off, a new, young and (gasp) liberal audience will suddenly be paying attention.

If that offends the grizzled veterans at Sturgis, the company can point back to the LiveWire tour and say, “Hey, that’s free enterprise bro’; it’s what the customers wanted.”

Tuesday, June 24. 30,000 feet, again, somewhere between New York and Kansas City.

I was up at first light, to catch an early flight. I looked down from my hotel room window to streets empty but for the occasional jogger or yellow cab.

Something caught my eye; a single feather, falling slowly. Then a flock of pigeons swirled into view, flying in formation. They landed on the roof of a building—one of the ones with a classic old wooden water tower, a defining feature of the New York skyline. A moment later, something disturbed them, and they swirled up and away. Those pigeons, they need some ADHD meds or something.

In the ‘80s, ad agency Carmichael-Lynch embraced Harley’s biker heritage, and helped to create one of the world’s purest and most valuable brands. 30 years later, that biker mystique is still Harley’s biggest (albeit aging) asset. Of course, you would never consider selling an electric motorcycle to these guys. The question is, will these guys resent the fact that you’re selling it at all? And will the people who would buy an e-bike mind rubbing elbows at the dealership with these guys?

I thought of the flock of journalists who’d briefly landed in that trendy TriBeCa neighborhood, and were now about to fly off to the next bike. Our time on the LiveWire was fleeting but I still came away with a profound sense that I’d covered the biggest motorcycle story of my life. Which, I guess, is my justification for a “first ride” report that’s pushing 4000 words, or about a word for every foot I actually rode.

Whether Harley-Davidson will really be the first major motorcycle manufacturer to market an EV in the U.S. remains to be seen, but the buzz surrounding Project LiveWire is totally different than any dealings I’ve had with Brammo, Zero, and Mission—and I was one of the very first motojournalists to really pay attention to EVs, so I count myself as generally sympathetic to their cause.

There’s been other big e-bike news lately: Mission seems, finally, to be on the verge of delivering their superbike; McGuinness lapped the TT course at 117 mph on the Mugen.

Whatever. LiveWire is a quantum shift in terms of the fit and finish, style—and in many ways overall appeal—of real-world e-bikes. If (or better, when) it goes into mass production, it will arrive in the market with a massive dealer network. Even more striking to me—as a marketing guy myself, in my other life—is what it means for America’s oldest surviving motorcycle company.

The millennials that Harley-Davidson hopes to reach with the LiveWire don’t remember it, but the company barely survived the 1970s when it was owned by AMF—a conglomerate best known for making bowling balls.

In 1981, Vaughn Beals (a saint, amongst Harley worshippers) led an employee buyout. Beals and his crew dramatically improved quality control then designed and produced the first Evo motors. That left them with a new challenge: how to convince skeptical riders to give The Motor Company another try?

Harley hired a great Minneapolis ad agency, Carmichael-Lynch, and gave it the difficult assignment of rehabilitating the Harley brand. The agency, in a stroke of genius, realized that instead of repudiating Harley’s outlaw image, they should embrace it. It worked, perhaps too well; the brand was all wrapped up in imagery that dated from the 1950s. Now, it appeals most to riders who, themselves, date from the ’50s.

I thought Harley-Davidson was ungrateful when they fired Carmichael-Lynch a few years ago, but Project LiveWire proves that Harley is willing make its brand mean something altogether different, to an altogether new audience.




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