As America’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer turns 115 years old, it doesn’t strain the art of metaphor too heavily to say the company is at a crossroads. Harley-Davidson makes a lot of money off of its past, but the future demands it must turn onto a strange, unpaved road.
Harley-Davidson’s 115th anniversary celebration kicked off earlier this year in Prague for the European faithful, but the party came home to Harley’s hometown of Milwaukee the last week of August. Early autumn weather greeted the Orange and Black as it offered the assembled motorcycle media a firsthand look at just how it plans to manage its temporal juggling act between the steady money of the past and economic demands of days inbound.
A party took over a city of more than 600,000 people with a mix of denim, leather and rattling engine noise. From the shores of Lake Michigan to the domain of dairy farms, special events and concerts brought riders from across the United States, and around the world, together to celebrate the metal and memories of their two-wheeled love affairs.
There’s still plenty of horsepower in the Bar and Shield’s cultural following. According to the tourism stats at VISIT Milwaukee, the four day #HD115 weekend brought more than 150,000 riders to the city, with an economic impact of more than $95 million. However, there was more than a touch of gray around most of the venues to go along with a bit of cosplay as many of the enthusiasts are looking a little long in the handlebars to pull of the badass biker vibe. While there were still a handful of dyed in the leather motorcycle gangs throwing back Black Jack here and there, the neutral observer expected to see a lot of the revving revelers in MKE return to their dentist officers, accountancy firms and assisted living apartments when they took off the cowhide vests and chaps.
As though acknowledging that reality, the company showed off two new bike designs that point toward what its factories simply must build more of in the future. First, there’s the 2019 FXDR 114—a stark design departure for H-D and a look ahead to models based more on speed, performance and fun. Christened a “power cruiser,” the FXDR employs the Milwaukee-Eight 114 engine with a sleek body design made of weight-cutting aluminum and new composite components.
One look reveals bigger air intakes and exhaust with size contrasts between the front and rear wheels. The rider sits lower with the legs angled more forward while looking at entirely digital gauges and instrumentation. The feel of the bike is lighter, more nimble and responsive—a seismic leap away from the hulking, car-on-two-wheel look of Harley-Davidson’s traditional high-end touring models. While long hauls would prove uncomfortable on a FXDR114, a rip around the city or a track would be infinitely more entertaining. That’s who the new bike is aimed squarely at as it rolls off the line—younger, city-based riders looking for lighter, quicker transportation with some visual flair. That flair starts just a tick north of $21,000—a hefty price tag for any urban motorcycle. The future isn’t getting cheaper out of Milwaukee, but the FXDR 114 will definitely catch the eye for that money.
An even bigger jump into the future was on display at Harley’s event HQ, offering everyone in attendance a look at the Livewire, the company’s first electric motorcycle and the initial model in an oncoming line of similar machines. Word of the Livewire hit in 2014 as Harley-Davidson built a set of 50 public prototypes. You maybe caught sight of one under Scarlett Johansson’s leather clad hinder in Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. From there, H-D went about the country showing the Livewire to enthusiasts and inviting them to give the early builds a test run. Engineers and designers gathered up the collected data and varied opinions and ran it all back to Milwaukee to build the mix into the official motorcycle coming to dealerships in 2019.
If you ride a Livewire long enough, getting back on a gasoline-powered bike might prove a letdown.
This new age of electrified transportation brings with it immediate torque. Ye olde engines needed the piston system of “suck, squeeze, bang, blow” to build up enough power and get the wheels turning. There’s no such momentum party needed with the Livewire. All those electrons answer the call immediately and the wheels will get up to speed as fast as their attached rubber and the road surface allows. All that speed comes with only a faint whine and the sound of wind caressing your helmet, so addicts to that patented H-D engine cacophony have to adjust the senses.
The riding experience is thrilling and addictive. Even a motorcycle veteran needs to get a handle on throttle control. A Livewire goes when you hit the power and slows to a stop when you take it away. Any gas bike would the same, but not with the same immediacy. The electric machine’s “twist and go” feel makes braking less necessary when coming to a stop as a cut to the electricity lulls the motor. After a few miles, the joys of such a system become clear.
So, the first electric Harley could be polarizing for the faithful. The old guard’s arthritis won’t let them grind into a Livewire’s body even if they accept it into their hearts. Regardless, come #HD120 in 2023, there will be an entire Livewire family of electric motorcycles sparking through the streets of Beer Town.
Even amidst the introductions of the revolutionary FXDR 114 and Livewire, the minds behind Harley-Davidson remembered they have to keep their traditional customers happy. For a make specializing in big, comfortable, equipped motorcycles, their CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations) group represent the biggest, the most comfortable and premium equipped models available.
The CVO riding experience is classic touring Harley, offering physical ease on long rides for a price tag that can climb well above $40,000 —depending on model, trim level and accessories. While the FXDR and Livewire put riders more in touch with the road at speed, the CVOs elevate the owner above the fray so he or she can walk away from the bike without aches and pains.
The overall motorcycle market will continue to change over the coming years, heavily influenced by socio-economic factors largely out of Harley-Davidson’s control. How the company continues to predict and adjust to that future with ever-evolving additions and refinements to its line will decide how big a celebration Milwaukee might see when its iron horses turn 125, 150 or 200 years old.