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Harley-Davidson, juicing up for electric motorcycles, invests in Alta Motors

Harley-Davidson, juicing up for electric motorcycles, invests in Alta Motors
Harley-Davidson has promised to add an electric motorcycle to its lineup, perhaps as early as 2020. The company unveiled this prototype of the electric Harley LiveWire in 2014. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Harley-Davidson has made an equity investment in Alta Motors, a move that accelerates its ambition to bring an electric motorcycle to market before 2020.

The Milwaukee motorcycle giant announced Thursday that its investment in Alta is part of its effort "to build the next generation of Harley-Davidson riders," which analysts have said is necessary. Harley is the country's leading motorcycle manufacturer, but it has been losing market share as its traditional riders age out of the hobby.

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The partnership with Alta, Harley President and Chief Executive Matt Levatich said, will help Harley "bring new riders into the sport." The size of the investment was not disclosed.

Alta, based in Brisbane, Calif., is a respected manufacturer of high-performance electric street bikes and dirt bikes. The company produces the Redshift MX and MXR motocross and the Redshift SM supermoto race bikes, and recently added an EX enduro model to its lineup.

Its machines have the benefit, especially for new riders, of having no clutch or gears to master. A company spokesperson said Alta will continue to make and sell its Redshift motorcycles.

Harley has given the name LiveWire to its future electric motorcycle, unveiling a prototype of the fast-accelerating machine in 2014.

That prototype, although stylish and containing some obvious Harley DNA in its design, offered a poor combination of high top speed and low battery range — good for photo ops but unlikely to attract buyers.

The bikes that will result from the Harley-Alta partnership will be "urban electric motorcycles," Alta said. It did not specify size, power or range.

The Times takes Harley-Davidson's electric motorcycle prototype, called LiveWire, for a test ride.

The LiveWire will enter an increasingly competitive field. Although battery electric motorcycles have not been adopted as readily as battery electric cars, models offering high performance, excellent design and engineering, and practical range are already being produced by California's Zero Motorcycles, Germany's BMW and Italy's Energica.

Many other companies — among them Japanese giants Yamaha and Honda — also produce high-quality electric scooters, which have seen dramatic adoption rates in China and elsewhere.

The Harley-Alta deal may be partly a response to a 2015 agreement between Polaris Industries and electric motorcycle manufacturer Brammo, which was itself inspired by Harley's LiveWire project.

Polaris, a $5.4-billion-a-year power sports juggernaut that makes snowmobiles and other recreational vehicles, and the Indian Motorcycle brand of two-wheelers, said in January 2015 that its acquisition of Oregon-based Brammo was made possible by Harley's electric ambitions.

"Ironically, we may have to thank Harley for opening up a market opportunity for us," Polaris Chairman and CEO Scott Wine said at the time.

A company representative told The Times late Wednesday, "Indian will be in electric powertrains in the future," but declined to provide details, adding, "Indian understands that's where customers are going to go eventually, and the company has the ability to be there when it makes sense for its riders and the overall Indian Motorcycle business."

Harley appears to be on a faster track. In a letter to investors in January, CEO Matt Levatich characterized the electric motorcycle market as "in its infancy today," but he emphasized Harley's eagerness to develop technology.

Alta, too, is looking ahead. "Riders are just beginning to understand the combined benefits of EV today, and our technology continues to progress," Marc Fenigstein, Alta's chief product officer and co-founder, said in a statement Thursday. "We believe electric motorcycles are the future, and that American companies have an opportunity to lead that future."

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Harley-Davidson stock has struggled recently, falling from a high of $62 a share in May 2017 to $45 a share Wednesday.

In January, Harley reported fourth-quarter profit of $8.3 million, or 5 cents a share, down from a profit of $47.2 million, or 27 cents, in the year-earlier quarter. Worldwide retail motorcycle sales declined 9.6%; in the U.S., they were down 11.1%.

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