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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

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Livewire.

Harley starts smart ride with electric motorcycle


Hogs (or HOGs) might as well have been flying in Milwaukee last week when Harley-Davidson announced its "Project Livewire" electric motorcycle.

The Harley electric bike is being marketed as the biggest thing since the electric guitar. As much as I like electric guitars, I think that's too simple a comparison.

From a modern business standpoint, future production of a Harley electric bike seems more reminiscent of companies like McDonald's making salads, Miller making light beer or Apple making a phone.

What do these things have in common with an electric Harley-Davidson? Basically, they were all revolutionary or unexpected at the time, but eventually became universally accepted. Harley is not reinventing itself with an electric bike, but strategically evolving in a new global marketplace.

The Harley electric motorcycle won't be for sale for any time soon, but it is available now for test rides on a U.S. tour of motorcycle events before going more global in 2015. While it's being promoted as "Project Livewire," that doesn't mean that name will stick to the production motorcycle, but it seems likely if customer feedback is positive.

The electric bike has been well received on most media and consumer fronts so far, despite the obvious dichotomy of a loud gas and oil brand like Harley making a quiet motorcycle with a battery.

Harley-Davidson has been planning and working to expand and diversify its customer base, or "extend the brand," for over a decade. This includes selling more bikes, parts, fashion and the experience around the world, as well as to women, young adults and multi-cultural enthusiasts in the U.S.

"The electric motorcycle is a very good step because it shows what Harley-Davidson can do and also opens up the brand to a whole new customer base," said Goran Zadrima, director of motorcycle sales at Wisconsin Harley-Davidson in Oconomowoc. "The other brands making electric motorcycles are smaller companies, so no one knows about them. Harley-Davidson getting in that market makes electric motorcycles stand out in a very new way."

Traditional Harley-Davidsons with V-Twin engines, six-speed power trains and their world renowned sound aren't going away any time soon, or probably ever. This is especially true in the USA, where riders enjoy their big bikes on the wide open road. However, smaller Harleys, especially an electric bike, will appeal to riders in urban settings like New York, LA, Chicago and maybe even a few in Milwaukee.

Beyond our borders, an electric Harley has most significant potential in the big and congested city streets in Asia, South America, Europe and the Middle East.

Despite the hoopla over an electric bike, or any vehicle, they have one major drawback, which is running on a battery that goes limited miles before needing a plug-in for a charge. The only detail I've seen on the Harley Livewire is that it takes about three hours to charge. Reviews have noted that the electric Harley can hit 90 mph and goes from zero to 60 in four seconds, which is comparable or better than other brands like Zero or Brammo. Estimates on the mileage range vary and pricing likely won't be available until it goes to market.

"The great thing about electric motorcycles is they are very quick and super fun to ride," Zadrima said. "All you have to do is plug them in when you get home."

Zadrima also said that Wisconsin Harley-Davidson is willing to share and exchange any information available on Project Livewire. "This was definitely a surprise, but after looking into Livewire, everyone is excited to ride one and learn more about it," he said. "We've had customers asking to buy it already, so I would say that's good."

After attending the Livewire kick-off party at the Harley-Davidson Museum, I rode west to Wisconsin Harley-Davidson Bike Night to check in with the faithful, including Sandy Spanaus and her daughter Neville, who both ride the Harley Iron Sportsters. They had somewhat similar reactions to the Harley electric bike news.

"I've heard it's quiet and who wants a quiet motorcycle?" Neville said. "But the pictures of it look pretty cool and slick."

"There's something special about putting gas in the tank of a Harley," Sandy said. "It just doesn't seem right to plug in a Harley. Maybe a Honda?"

Despite the sound issue, or lack of it, Harley-Davidson is clearly in the electric bike market for the long ride to expand its market share, and that is a smart move and a good sign for Milwaukee.

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