Harley-Davidson is poised to shock the motorcycle world with the rollout of an electric motorcycle -- a prototype of a superbike called LiveWire.
The debut marks a dramatic departure for the 110-year-old motorcycle company, which is hailed or hated for its powerful engines, loud exhaust pipes and brash rebel attitude.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said Robin Farley covers Harley-Davison for Edward Jones and gave Farley's middle initial as C. Robin M. Farley is a motorcycle industry analyst for UBS.
It also serves as a warning shot to other motorycle manufacturers, the start-ups already making electric motorcycles and the traditional companies with plans to design and market them.
The new machine was unveiled Tuesday at an exclusive preview on a closed runway at the former Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine.
And it's an electrified monster. Lean, bare and bold in its styling, the LiveWire weighs in at 460 pounds and is capable of zero to 60 in under four seconds. It accelerates like a ballistic missile and sounds like a jet engine turbine.
"It's a great, kick-ass motorcycle," said the company's chief engineer for new products, Jeff Richlen. "It just happens to be electric."
But it's an unexpected move from Harley, which dominates the American motorcycle scene with big-bored, heavy-metal horsepower factories, laden with chrome and leather, sold in such variations as the Fat Boy, V-Rod, Road King and Electra Glide.
But Matthew Levatich, Harley-Davidson's president and chief operating officer, said the experimentation with electricity is a natural next step.
"As a company, we have always been about strength and freedom and power," Levatich said on the former El Toro airstrip. "So it's really a question of 'why not?' instead of 'why?' This isn't some sort of ploy for us. This is real."
Electric technology has not gained traction in the motorcycle world as it has with automobiles for several reasons. Motorcycle manufacturers are not required by federal agencies, as carmakers are, to produce a certain number of electric vehicles or to maintain an increasingly low average miles per gallon rate. Also, a motorcycle frame cannot accommodate massive battery packs as easily as a car chassis.
The electric motorcycle industry leader, Santa Cruz-based Zero Motorcycles, produces and sells only a few thousand units a year of its well-regarded S and SR street bikes.
Ashland, Ore.-based Brammo has also fielded some cutting-edge electric bikes, though it has not gained much market share.
Mission Motor Co. of San Francisco sells an impressive electric superbike, at $32,000 and up, that goes zero to 60 in three seconds, with a top speed of 140 mph-plus.
An electric motorcycle made by Lightning set a new record at last year's Pikes Peak mountain race, beating records set by gas-powered superbikes.
Of the major manufacturers, only BMW has an electric vehicle in production -- a scooter called C Evolution, not yet available in the U.S.
But other manufacturers -- particularly the big four Japanese bike makers, Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki -- are believed to be deep into research and development, and are expected to begin bringing electric vehicles to market soon.
Yamaha is said to be poised to start selling an electric superbike known as the PESI, images of which have leaked onto the Internet. Honda sells an electric scooter, called the EV-neo, in Japan, and is said to be building a retail version of the RC-E concept motorcycle. Suzuki has teased images of its Extrigger, an electric mini-motorcycle concept vehicle.
The companies declined to comment specifically on their electric vehicle plans.
Harley may beat them to market and use its market dominance to control the EV space. The company already has its name on more than half the new motorcycles sold in the U.S. every year.
On average, according to motorcycle industry analyst Robin M. Farley of UBS, Harley sells 36% of all motorcycles sold in the U.S., including scooters and off-highway bikes, or 52% of all on-highway bikes.
They also have can utilize a dealer network and capitalize on a brand loyalty that no other manufacturer can match.
To ensure that, Harley is approaching the EV space with unusual transparency. They're taking 22 of the LiveWire prototypes on a months-long, nationwide road show -- starting June 23 on the East Coast and June 26 on the West Coast -- carting the bikes from dealership to dealership, offering prospective buyers a chance to critique the machines and tell Harley what they expect from them.
From this research, Levatich said, the company will learn what price point the market will bear, whether riders desire more horsepower or more range, and where the LiveWire's weaknesses lie.
"This has to be a no-excuses motorcycle," Levatich said. "Also, we think it's a product that has to be demonstrated. People are skeptical and you can't really explain how it feels."
As LiveWire designer Kirk Rasmussen said, "People get on this thinking 'golf cart,' but they get off it thinking 'rocket ship.'"
That should appeal to younger male riders in particular, while the electric aspect should appeal to younger riders of both genders, who tend to be more sensitive to enviromental matters.
"Harley has been a dominant brand for decades, and when they have a new product, it's going to get attention," Farley said. "But one big issue for the company is that their core customer average age has been going up pretty consistently. They need to go after the younger rider."
Levatich hinted that the LiveWire isn't likely to be the company's only electrical effort. It's part of a broad outreach strategy, formed over the last several years, to shake off decades of hardened Harley attitude -- within the company and without -- and open the brand to people who might not ordinarily be drawn to Harley's traditional loud, heavy, expensive motorcycles.
"Our culture is about the air-cooled, V-twin, pushrod motorcycle experience, but that's not all it is," Levatich said. "People may say this doesn't speak to our heritage. But ultimately we're much more concerned with the look, sound and feel. Motorcycling is a sport for the soul. We're focused on that feeling."