The revolutionary Harley-Davidson LiveWire

The LiveWire e-chopper is the most radical departure for Harley-Davidson in its 112-year history. Ahead of a European public test-drive tour this month, Simon de Burton presses “power” on the prototype’s interactive touchscreen

The Harley-Davidson Project LiveWire 2014
The Harley-Davidson Project LiveWire 2014 | Image: Davey Brown/Harley-Davidson

American readers won’t need to check the cover of today’s FT to know that it’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day. And, as symbols of US independence go, a rumbling, ground-shaking Harley-Davidson with a big V-twin engine takes some beating. After all, what else could Peter Fonda’s Captain America possibly have ridden in Easy Rider than his stretched-out Harley chopper with a stars ’n’ stripes paint job?

Indeed, those instantly recognisable V-twin engines are so much what a Harley-Davidson is all about that rival Japanese makers have sought to emulate the look in a bid to win over fans of the real thing – and, back in 1994, H-D even filed a “sound trademark” in what proved to be a fruitless attempt to patent the distinctive “potato potato” exhaust note.

But as anyone who has seen the recently released Avengers: Age of Ultron movie will know, Scarlett Johansson’s character, Natasha Romanoff (aka the Black Widow), rides a Harley that, to traditional devotees of the marque, just doesn’t sound right – the reason being that it’s electric.

The bike is one of around 30 prototypes created for the so-called Project LiveWire, which aims to evaluate public reaction to what is, undoubtedly, the most radical departure for Harley-Davidson in its 112-year history.

Presently, no decision has been made to put the LiveWire on sale, but given the time and money thrown at it so far, the chances of it – or something very similar – failing to come to fruition seem highly unlikely.

For the time being, however, the firm is following a lead set by Rolls-Royce a few years ago, when it took its experimental Phantom 102EX electric concept car to the people to discover whether much of a market might exist for a production version (reported on in How To Spend It in September 2011). In the event, not many Rolls-Royce buyers proved especially interested in exchanging the standard car’s thirsty, 12-cylinder petrol engine for an electric motor, despite the latter’s financial and ecological benefits. So it’s perhaps understandable that Harley-Davidson wants to be absolutely certain before it makes the move to produce a motorcycle that might radically alter the image it has cultivated for more than a century.

To that end, Project LiveWire was launched in the US a year ago to give American motorcyclists the opportunity to briefly ride the machine and voice their honest opinions in a 30-stop nationwide tour in which more than 6,800 people got to “have a go” and produce what is claimed to be an “86 per cent positive” response.

And, after subsequently visiting the Asia Pacific region, the tour has now come to Europe where the bike will be available to ride from July 18 until August 9 in a series of events taking place in Germany and the Netherlands.

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As How To Spend It’s motoring correspondent, I was fortunate enough to become one of the first to try the LiveWire in the UK, when a test was organised at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire, where a chosen few were invited to evaluate the new machine on the twisty and undulating “hill course”.

As a dyed-in-the-wool devotee of petrol-engined motorcycles (and the owner of a regular Harley-Davidson Sportster), I was fully prepared not to like the LiveWire. But on looks alone, it’s an undeniably well-styled machine with a far more sporting attitude than virtually any other Harley produced to date – its footrests set back, its handlebars low and its accoutrements minimal.

And while other electric motorcycles have bland boxes hiding their motors in a slightly ashamed way, the LiveWire celebrates its motive power with a sculptural and highly polished lump of aluminium loosely inspired by the look of the superchargers on drag-racing cars. Also unusual is the fact that the motor is mounted longitudinally, with the power transmitted to the rear wheel by a bevel gear.

The gear has more than a purely mechanical function, however, as it has been designed to produce a very obvious, medium-pitched whine, the volume of which increases with the speed of the bike. The intention, of course, is to put back some of the soul lost by the lack of conventional exhaust note and, in keeping with the LiveWire’s futuristic nature, it gives it a soundtrack straight from the sci-fi world of the Marvel comic books from which Age of Ultron is derived.

If (or should that be when?) the LiveWire does make production, there are high hopes it will attract younger buyers than the traditionally middle-aged types who are more likely to fork out for one of the current models. Partly to that end, it features an interactive touchscreen instrument panel that, among other things, enables the rider to choose from “range” and “power” riding modes – both giving a sub-four-second 0-60mph acceleration, with the former reining in performance but giving the maximum battery range of a potential 53 miles.

But even in “range” mode, the LiveWire certainly lives up to its name. Like all electric vehicles, it is prodigiously quick off the mark and, once underway, just keeps powering forward in a perfectly smooth and linear way – a far cry from your average, slow-revving, petrol-engined Harley. And despite the miserable conditions that prevailed during the Millbrook ride, there was a definite sense that the LiveWire is a nimble‑handling machine that has been properly designed from the ground up.

The question is, would you want one? Personally, I would – but on the basis that, due to the limited range of the prototype, it would be used purely for cheap, emission-free in-town riding.

In reality, by the time a production version arrives it is likely that battery technology will have further advanced to extend riding distance and reduce charge time. Tesla has proved that a near-300-mile range is entirely possible in an electric car with its brilliant Model S – if Harley-Davidson can get its LiveWire to cover just a third of that, and keep the purchase price reasonable, it might well herald a new future for motorcycling.

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And perhaps even a whole new sense of independence for its newer, younger customers.

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