Many motorcycle riders covet the distinctive growl of a Harley-Davidson — and sometimes even add extra-loud exhaust pipes to amp up the sound.
But the motorcycle maker has now rolled out a prototype bike that makes more of a whisper than a rumble. It's a sporty-looking model called LiveWire, and it's powered by batteries.
Harley-Davidson plans to take its prototype electric motorcycle to more than 30 cities over the next few months. Sometime after that, the company will decide whether to put LiveWire on the market.
Motorcycles powered by rechargeable batteries have been buzzing around for years, capturing a small part of the U.S. motorcycle market. Harley, meanwhile, has always been known for its gasoline-powered bikes.
But this week, at events in New York City and in Harley's corporate hometown of Milwaukee, members of the public got to take a look at the prototype. Harley designers and engineers have been working on the motorcycle for the last four years.
Ben Lund, a leader of the project, says he hopes the prototype bike shows off Harley's technology skills and begins to reach out to a younger, more urban potential customer base.
"People in an urban environment have different needs and different requirements. You know, they're not riding a thousand miles across the country," Lund says. "They're maybe running around to the grocery store or they have a short commute."
Electric motorcycles are better suited to shorter trips than long ones because their batteries have to be recharged.
Harley hopes to build excitement for the LiveWire, but not everybody is convinced. When marketing officer Mark-Hans Richer introduced the bike before a few hundred people outside Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson Museum, some in the crowd cheered and took pictures — others were not feeling a charge.
John Vozer and Randy Jones, who arrived on their twin-engine Harleys, said the bike was too quiet.
"I like a bigger motorcycle," Jones added, "and more of a touring bike."
Vozer said the electric bike takes too long to charge. The LiveWire typically can go about 50 miles before it needs to be plugged in for a few hours.
"They're gonna have to charge in a hurry," Vozer says. "If they could charge as fast as you could pump gas, then I'll think about it. Up 'til then, no, thank you."
Ken Condon of Motorcycle Consumer News says he welcomes Harley's potential entry into the electric motorcycle market. But he says the company risks alienating its more traditional customers.
"They tend to really identify very strongly with the look and feel and sound of the V-twin engine," Condon says. "So how they're actually going to market this successful within their customer base — that would be something that I think would be a very big challenge."
But as the first of about 150 Milwaukee test riders of the electric motorcycles ended their 15-minute jaunt, there was indication that Harley-Davidson may be on to something — at least with younger riders.
Jiri Marousek of Fitchburg, Wis., says he loves the acceleration of LiveWire. "It just has so much more instant power than almost any other motorcycle I've owned," he says, "which is smile-inducing — or grin-inducing, actually."