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Harley-Davidson Embraces A New Sound As It Enters The Electric Era

The Harley-Davidson LiveWire, launching in August, is the American manufacturer's first electric motorcycle.
Josh Kurpius
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire, launching in August, is the American manufacturer's first electric motorcycle.

Harley-Davidsons are famous for their iconic deep rumble. But the Milwaukee-based motorcycle maker's latest model features an electric motor that emits a high-pitched whirring sound. Will Harley fans go along for the ride?

After five years of tweaking and preparation, Harley-Davidson's long-awaited electric motorcycle will start rolling out to dealerships this summer.

The company says electric bikes are the future. A number of startups are already marketing electric motorcycles, and Harley doesn't want to be left in the dust. It wants to attract new customers, and it's eyeing growth in urban centers — and eventually in overseas markets, including Asia, where electric scooters and motorcycles are popular.

The LiveWire, the electric bike debuting in August, is sporty and quick — a street bike built for urban environments, not for long-haul cruising. It can go some 110 miles on a charge, with instant acceleration and, in a boon for first-time riders, no gear-shifting to worry about.

But it's a marked departure from the company's traditional lineup, and it comes with a hefty price tag: $30,000.

Marc McAllister, the vice president of product planning and portfolio at Harley-Davidson, says the response to the LiveWire has been "overwhelmingly positive."

There's nothing incongruous about an electric Harley-Davidson, he says. "After 115 years we've had to reinvent ourselves a number of times, and this is just the the next step in continuing the legacy," he says.

But while there's plenty of buzz around the bike, some riders areskeptical, says Kelley O'Brien, the marketing manager for two Harley-Davidson dealerships, including one in Washington, D.C.

"You have that demographic that have been a Harley rider for 30 years," she says. "They don't like it. They don't like the sound — it's not the same sound."

"But it has a unique sound," she says. "It's still a Harley-Davidson ... Be open-minded about it."

Harley has faced a challenging few years. Baby boomers are aging out of the motorcycle market, and millennials aren't replacing them.

In 2014, the company shipped about 271,000 motorcycles worldwide, says analyst Jaime Katz of Morningstar. In 2019, it's expected to ship maybe 222,000 — "a pretty nice downswing over the last five years," she says.

To appeal to younger buyers, Harley is offering smaller, cheaper bikes — but it makes less of a profit on each of those, Katz says. Meanwhile, trade wars have been putting fresh pressures on the company.

The LiveWire isn't likely to be a game changer for the company, Katz says — at least, not anytime soon. It's just too expensive. "The overall target market for $30,000 bikes, whether it's electric or traditional, is not significant," she says.

The LiveWire is one of Harley's most expensive offerings. Only the priciest trikes — three-wheeled motorcycles — and custom touring bikes cost more.

Meanwhile, many entry-level bikes are available for less than $10,000. Electric models from Zero — probably the best-known producer of electric motorcycles to date — range from $8,500 to $16,000, while other electric motorcycle start-ups are promising even cheaper prices.

Harley enthusiasts at a Washington, D.C., motorcycle show illustrate the challenge the company faces as it tries to market the LiveWire.

Mike Anderson, of Alexandria, Va., is wearing a vest with a profusion of Harley Owners Group patches. He sprang for one of Harley's priciest bikes. But the LiveWire?

"It's going to be a great bike," he says. "But to me, you know, I'm old-school. ... You buy a Harley because you like the sound and the look and the feel, and the LiveWire of course is 180 degrees opposite of that."

Then there's David Lutzow, of Pasadena, Md. He thinks it's great for the environment that Harley's going electric, and he'd like to see and hear a LiveWire in person. But ...

"I'm not sure if it's going to catch on," he says. "I think it will attract the younger people — they call them, what, millennials or whatever? I think it will attract that group, other than 59-year-old farts like myself."

And those millennials?

Andrew Delgado, of Woodbridge Va., is 28 and doesn't have a motorcycle yet. He says an electric motorcycle sounds cool. But the price tag — "that's not cool," he says.

"I do like the idea," he says. "Just not the price of it."

He's browsing motorcycles with his young daughter, dreaming of buying one someday — for a third of the price of a LiveWire.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.