New Century, New Motorcycle Power Source


Electric automobiles were popular around 1900 when William Harley and Arthur Davidson were engineering their first motorcycle. But suitable batteries for motorcycles were too big and heavy back then to make an electric bike feasible. They focused on internal combustion, and what they built was similar to the Silent Gray Fellow here.

But 100 years have passed and battery tech has lead numerous designers to create electric motorcycles. Enter the Harley-Davidson LiveWire for the 2020 lineup. At 105 horsepower it has twice the horsepower of a new 883 Sportster, and it weighs less.

To see how far Harley power-plant engineering has come, compare the LiveWire to the 1907 Harley-Davidson “Strap Tank” and the modern Sportster:

Strap Tank: 4 horsepower
Sportster: 53 Horsepower
LiveWire: 105 Horsepower

The LiveWire is also exciting to look at yet there’s no v-twin engine or sleek exhaust system. The entire frame is cast aluminum in right and left halves joined at the steering head. Every piece seems to have been created by the best industrial designers. Numerous other features are here, too, like the HD Connect system and traction control. But much like a Sportster there’s not much range on the “fuel,” 100 to 150 miles depending on type of riding.

There’s a bit of a price to pay for this technology as the LiveWire costs three times what a modern Sportster costs. But there are no oil changes or valve adjustments, just plug it in every night and tomorrow twist the throttle, errr, rheostat to hit 60mph in a little over 3 seconds!

What would William and Arthur think?

Our thanks to Pete Meehan who bought the first LiveWire to hit Iowa, then loaned it to the Museum for display over the winter.
The 1907 Harley-Davidson Silent Gray Fellow is from the Jill & John Parham Collection

12 replies
  1. DC Smitty
    DC Smitty says:

    It’s sad to see the Mo. Co. spending R+D money on a dead end project like this. Especially when they are putting bikes (M-8) out there that can’t seem to keep fluids from migrating from one area to another. I would never consider owning an electric motorcycle.

    • Dale Wyble
      Dale Wyble says:

      I wouldn’t call it a dead end. Most of the car manufacturers are working on electric vehicles and it’s only a matter of time before the motorcycle market shifts more in this direction.

  2. Mark
    Mark says:


    Since I have not had a conversation with LiveWire designers, I can only “conjecture” on that piercing of the rear fender. But if you consider how BMW adventure bikes employ those mini fenders at the rear of the wheel, this may be along those lines. BUT, HD chose to attach it to the main fender for structure and simplicity. Or…consider what the fender would look like if it was solid there; a bit large, plain and boring. So opening it up breaks up the surface. With so many owners customizing sport bikes with fender eliminators, maybe an accessory rear fender will come available moving the plate and lights up under the seat. Some states still have laws calling for “something to touch a vertical wall before the rear tire,” so this design overall yields to that. But Robert, I suspect you figure, as I do, water and mud might be slung up the back or the bike through this hole.


    From a center of gravity point, just looking at it, if you had a couple big eaters on it would make it a little top heavy.

  4. Roger Sawyer
    Roger Sawyer says:

    The comments are interesting. I appreciate and applaud HD for being in the forefront of technology. This with their electric bikes are a welcome leadership. I find it funny that rider’s want their old style bikes and resist future bikes, including the Milwaukee 8, which is by far their best motor. You love Harley Davidson but don’t support the company. Then you don’t wave to other riders on the road who don’t ride a Harley. I can see why Harley wants a new customer base.

    • Marc
      Marc says:

      The resistance to new technologies is not just limited to Harley Davidson. There are many other things we use that people do not want to embrace. Change is not always easy.

  5. Mike
    Mike says:

    Electric motorcycles and electric cars do not excite me. I once test rode a Zero and it was ok but nothing I would fork out my hard-earned money for. Electric vehicles are about as exciting as my wife’s Amana clothes washer. If all motorcycles go electric and gasoline vehicles are outlawed in my lifetime then I will just give up riding.


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