It’s hard to say what’s more remarkable — the potent electric Harley-Davidson prototypes being showcased near Microsoft this week, or the company’s extreme efforts to introduce the bikes without alienating devotees who expect a rumbling, V-Twin gas engine between their legs.
As part of a national tour to present the “Project LiveWire” bikes that it announced in June, the company brought a truckload of prototype models to Eastside Harley-Davidson in Bellevue and invited fans to take them for a spin or just ogle the bikes up close. The event runs through Saturday; preregistration for rides is now closed but some may be available to walk-ins, and the bikes can be sampled on a fixed base at the event.
Just don’t utter the word “Prius” anywhere near the tour’s black tent.
“Project LiveWire is more like the first electric guitar — not an electric car — an expression of individuality,” the company insists in marketing material used on the tour.
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Spin aside, the bikes make a thrilling, jetlike whine when you flick the “on” switch and rev the throttle. There’s almost no vibration and the motor stays relatively cool, with no exhaust heat or fumes.
Harley claims they’ll reach around 60 miles per hour in 4 seconds, but the prototypes have limited range — around 60 miles before a charge is needed in “distance” mode or half that in the higher-performance “power” mode.
LiveWire is one of several moves the Milwaukee company is making in hopes of expanding beyond its baby-boomer fan base to reach younger and more diverse customers. Earlier it launched lower-end bikes aimed partly at developing markets such as India.
The company hopes its electric bikes appeal to younger, tech-savvy consumers, so a stop in Microsoft country made sense. Eastside Harley — near the luxury auto row a few miles from the software giant’s headquarters — is also one of its busier dealerships.
Thursday’s demo slots were filled by 70 or so riders from Microsoft. They were rounded up by Jeff Henshaw, a longtime member of the Xbox team who has been riding Harleys for 15 years. During a morning ride between the dealership and Xbox headquarters Henshaw used three GoPro cameras to capture the moment and another person used a drone to film the event.
Henshaw learned about Project LiveWire and immediately called Eastside Harley General Manager Scott Cook — reaching him during a doctor’s appointment, by cellphone — to make a $1,000 deposit so he could buy the first production model to come off the line.
“My expectations have been exceeded,” Henshaw, 44, said after two rides on the prototypes.
“It’s such a dramatic performance change from anything I’ve ridden before — the electric motor is completely smooth as the power is rolled onto the throttle.”
Henshaw said electric motorcycles are “still a very polarizing technology” and the tour is a way for Harley to gather feedback and get people comfortable with the concept.
“People have associated motorcycles with internal-combustion engines since the beginning of motorcycles, and so when a radically new technology comes along it’s disruptive,” he said.
“In Harley’s case it’s disruptive to people’s self-image because that V-Twin, rumbling hog is part of their persona,” he said. “So when something radically new and different comes along, when a new technology is injected, it disrupts everyone and it makes them uncomfortable.”
Harley hasn’t said yet when LiveWire bikes will go on sale. Spokesman Tony Macrito said they won’t launch during the tour, which will continue into 2015.
Pricing also hasn’t been revealed but Henshaw thinks — or hopes — LiveWire bikes will be under $20,000.
“They’re definitely trying to diversify their audience and diversifying the audience means $10,000 to $15,000, not $20,000 to $30,000,” he said.
“This is Harley’s to squander,” he said. “If they come in with stratospheric pricing I’ll pass, but I think they’ll be aggressive.”