Who will buy a LiveWire? What does it mean for the rest of us?

20140624lw

The news of the Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle led to a lot of talk about how "the Harley rider" might react, as though that's some guy we all know. The fact is that Harley sells more than a quarter of a million motorcycles a year to a wide variety of people who buy bar-and-shield for a passel of reasons.

My RevZilla business card actually says “Harley Guy,” and I'm speaking from that perspective when I say I’m excited about the LiveWire, even though I wouldn’t buy one myself. To understand why, it helps to do a quick analysis of who might buy one. For the sake of convenience, we can divide potential LiveWire customers into three categories: current Harley owners, riders who don’t own a Harley, and non-riders.

Current Harley-Davidson customers

Harley has several kinds of customers, so we have to divide this category further. There are the old-timers and antique freaks. They will ignore this new bike, for obvious reasons.

There is also the current crop of folks riding Twin Cam bikes. The LiveWire in no way is a replacement for a Twin Cam. It fulfills an entirely different mission, especially in its current state with such a limited range. But Twin Cam owners have seen the benefits of technology. For all the hullabaloo about “tradition” (it’s getting a little sanctimonious, isn’t it?), these are motorcycles with liquid-cooled heads, fuel injection, and anti-lock brakes. They have touchscreens, for the love of Pete. That’s not traditional at all. So these riders might take a look at the LiveWire, too.

The other category of Harley customer is the Sportster rider, who tends to be price-sensitive.The LiveWire, if it does go into production, will be too expensive for these buyers.

Riders who don’t own Harleys

Then there are people who ride but don’t seriously consider buying a Harley. Some of these are customers who demand performance above all. Harley made limited progress with this group with Buell because it took the lazy route and stuffed an asthmatic old Sportster engine into the bike. With the LiveWire, H-D is in on the ground floor of electric vehicle technology. Given the Motor Company’s enormous R&D budget, Harley could easily swoop out in front in this market and take a big lead.

Another kind of rider who isn’t buying H-D products is the customer who’s not hung up on brand names but won’t accept compromise. There are a slew of these customers who would give Harley a shot if the company made a superior bike. In terms of a heavy cruiser and touring bikes, Harley does make some nice machines. But in other segments, Harley is either absent or the products don’t stack up dollar-for-dollar with the competition. Again, with the LiveWire, Harley has the chance to start the race in front.

Non-riders

Electric motorcycle manufacturers like Zero and Brammo are finding that most of their customers aren’t current motorcycle owners. This makes sense, because today's electric motorcycles fulfill a different role than internal-combustion motorcycles. Their range limits them to a different kind of use. They appeal to consumers who don’t like the maintenance chores or perhaps even the sound of a traditional motorcycle. They appeal to young people who are totally comfortable with the thousands of features on their smartphones but have never considered using a clutch, much less replacing one in the garage.

Harley certainly has a great shot with these consumers, given the company’s name recognition and marketing budget. Someone who’s new to motorcycles may know zero about Zero, but will certainly have heard of Harley-Davidson.

Why I like the LiveWire

I hope the new LiveWire shakes things up at Harley. I hope non-H-D people react positively to it. I wish they’d storm the doors of the factory to buy them. Could this be Harley turning over a new leaf in performance and technology? Will performance-minded riders believe in Harley, even after the Buell debacle?

If a new crowd shows up at dealerships and their money is green, maybe Harley will notice and design something from scratch for the rider who wants a Harley that’s neither electric nor the same-old. Maybe something with overhead cams or liquid cooling. Maybe direct injection. Heck, they could practically please everyone and find a way to get a V-Rod powerplant into a more conventional-looking bike for pretty short money in terms of R&D. What about a lightweight adventure-style bike built off the new Street platform? If the LiveWire (or even just publicity about the LiveWire) hauls in bunches of new customers for Harley, these could become realities.

Ultimately, the LiveWire isn’t the bike I want to go buy — yet. There are lots of riders who will say that. But if it’s the first step toward H-D making sporty, technologically competitive motorcycles and opening the door to a new customer base, we all are going to have more options. An iconic American company will have a bright future, and so will the riders on its bikes.

And if all that happens, who knows? Maybe like my beloved Blockheads, the LiveWire will once again be “the bike that saved Harley.” That would get me amped up. (Please forgive me. I waited the whole article to use that pun.)

comments powered by Disqus