It was a typically beautiful day in the beachside town of Santa Monica. The sun was shining, the temperature mild and the popular Third Street Promenade was packed with shoppers. It was the quintessential SoCal postcard day, and it seems like it was just yesterday—only it was four years ago.
That was the day that EBA was invited to ride the new Harley-Davidson LiveWire at the Milwaukee brand’s roll-out tour of their very talked-about, new motorcycle. Only it wasn’t. Well, the motorcycle was all new, but there wasn’t much talking about it. Other than enjoying the mad rush of a very torquey, less-than-quiet motor, the biggest takeaway from the experience was that Harley had no intention of actually discussing much about the bike. In fact, in persistently avoiding any tech questions, the Harley rep would only insist that the purpose of the ride day was merely to facilitate a “listening tour.”
In short, Harley’s LiveWire project sauntered up to the pool, made a big splash after a quick dive, then quietly receded back to its private cabana never to be heard or seen from again. Until now.
Although the basis for the e-moto world’s newfound basis of anticipation over the LiveWire actually going live was based solely on words spoken from company CEO Matthew Levatich in a conference call to investors, it was at least the first time we’ve heard anything definitive about the stylish bike from the historical house of the V-twin.
“You’ve heard us talk about Project LiveWire,” said Levatich. “LiveWire is an exhilarating, no-excuse electric Harley-Davidson. Over 12,000 riders told us so through the demo rides we provided around the world, and it’s an active project we’re preparing to bring to market within 18 months.”
“Other than enjoying the mad rush of a very torquey, less-than-quiet motor, the biggest takeaway from the experience was that Harley had no intention of actually discussing much about the bike.”
And that, my friends, is the most that we know about Harley-Davidson’s planned re-entry into the modern world of battery-powered transportation. Still, if they really mean it, this could be a very bold step by the Motor Company to leap free from the sales doldrums it has endured of late as the classic Harley customer ages out, leaving a consumer base of kids who are not the least bit enamored with 600-pound, chromed-out touring bikes.
Around the same time that Harley went live with the LiveWire news, word also leaked that they have also filed a trademark application for the naming of the LiveWire powerplant, “HD Revelation,” which is a take on the Evolution motors used on their big bikes.
THE TECH WE KNEW
For a bike that, as we later found, had no real production timeline, the 2014 LiveWire we rode was impressive with a definite ready for primetime finish. Although the bike was modeled with a dedicated seat cowl that prohibited passenger seating, the café bike styling was immediately appealing.
Having owned two Harley Sportsters in my day, I had firsthand experience with traditional Harley traits of poor braking performance and saggy suspension, so I was heartened not only by the LiveWire’s braking performance, but the adjustable Showa suspension with an inverted fork was a welcome upgrade.
At the time, the LiveWire prototype ran on a lithium-ion battery motor that produced 75 horsepower and 52 pound-feet of torque at its peak. The shrouded motor was mounted longitudinally in a cast perimeter frame and used a final belt drive.
AND THEN CAME ALTA
Just a few weeks after Levatich announced the revival of the LiveWire came the surprising news that Harley had also made an equity investment in Alta Motors, who, like fellow NorCal e-moto-maker Zero Motorcycles, has been attempting to catch some lasting interest in battery-powered motorcycles. Harley’s partnership with Alta mirrors the acquisition of Oregon e-moto-maker Brammo by big-brand Polaris who are also behind the successful relaunch of the Indian marque.
Once again, the breaking news was left to Levatich to release: “Earlier this year, as part of our 10-year strategy, we reiterated our commitment to build the next generation of Harley-Davidson riders in part by aggressively investing in electric vehicle (EV) technology. Alta has demonstrated innovation and expertise in EV, and their objectives align closely with ours. We each have strengths and capabilities that will be mutually beneficial as we work together to develop cutting-edge electric motorcycles.”
Levatich continued, “We intend to be the world leader in the electrification of motorcycles and, at the same time, remain true to our gas and oil roots by continuing to produce a broad portfolio of motorcycles that appeal to all types of riders around the world.”
Alta was no doubt more than pleased to be on the receiving end of Harley cash, as, like Harley, their evolution in the e-moto market has been defined by a somewhat fits-and-starts history.
“Riders are just beginning to understand the combined benefits of EV today, and our technology continues to progress,” said Alta Motors Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder Marc Fenigstein. “We believe electric motorcycles are the future, and that American companies have an opportunity to lead that future. It’s incredibly exciting that Harley-Davidson, synonymous with motorcycle leadership, shares that vision, and we’re thrilled to collaborate with them.”
Although little is known just what the Harley/Alta partnership might produce in terms of shared product, old-time dirt bike stalwarts will recall that over four decades ago, in addition to their flat-track racing success, the Milwaukee factory won desert racing acclaim with their 100cc Baja two-stroke dirt bike. In 1975 early Harley factory rider Bruce Ogilvie made big news when he rode a prototype 250cc Harley-Davidson to win the Baja 500.
“Harley’s partnership with Alta mirrors the acquisition of Oregon e-moto-maker Brammo by big-brand Polaris who are also behind the successful relaunch of the Indian marque.”
A few years later, Harley would return to the same Italian-sourced engine builder (Aermacchi) to build the engines for some 250 and 370cc motocross bikes. These bikes enjoyed a very limited factory-backed racing effort and production run before Milwaukee abandoned the off-road world in 1979 once and for all.
THE RED SAND
Based out of San Jose, California, Alta has been on track to release a production bike to the public for some time. Although they have gone through a variety of iterations, their current model, the Red Shift MXR, is said to feature a 50-horsepower powerplant with 42 pound-feet of torque with a rolling weight of 259 pounds. This bike, they claim, is now capable of running with a 350cc four-stroke motor, whereas the previous MX model was always compared to a 250cc powerplant. Alta adds that the recharge time has been reduced to just 1.5 hours on a 220-volt system.
In addition to the motocross bike, Alta also produces Supermoto and off-road/enduro versions. The MX bike made a famously splashy debut in 2016 when former pro rider Josh Hill competed aboard a prototype at the 2016 Red Bull Straight Rhythm race. Notably, the company has refused our sister zine Motocross Action to test a bike in a non-Alta-controlled environment.
The aluminum-framed, California-made bike is spec’d with high-end WP suspension and Brembo brakes, and the MXR should have a retail price of $11,995. www.harley-davidson.com
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