Harley Unleashes the Silent E-Hogs

Source: By Kyle Stock, Bloomberg • Posted: Monday, April 26, 2021

The company is all-in on electric motorcycles, though the financial gearing still isn’t great.

Picture an open-minded, climate-concerned Harley-Davidson fan. She can now travel about 100 miles on an almost-silent hog, the company’s new all-electric LiveWire motorcycle.

The LiveWire, however, costs $29,799. Its gas-powered proxy, the Iron 883, can be had for about one-third the price and still gets more than 50 miles to a gallon. It would take our progressive road warrior some 360,000 miles of fuel to cover the spread in sticker price—and to many, she won’t sound nearly as cool while doing it.

To be sure, electric motorcycles still require some tricky financial gearing, both for manufacturers and consumers. Nevertheless, the battery-powered Harley is here, along with a convoy of quiet new bikes from rival brands. Indeed, two-wheeled machines are going electric more quickly than four-wheeled rigs. Last year 35% of the market was battery-powered, though most of that share comes from e-bicycles and scooters—the Uber Eats effect, if you will.

Harley says its seminal electric bike is what’s known as a “halo product” — an advanced model that drives sales for less expensive machines. The company doesn’t expect to sell many LiveWires — what’s more critical, Harley says, is that the electric machine is getting rave reviews and has emerged as a leader in an increasingly crowded field; that includes by sales, although the company hasn’t divulged how many have been bought.

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Bloomberg’s Hannah Elliott (pictured) says the LiveWire is “a proper motorcycle,” not an electric appliance. Photographer: Joshua Scott Kurpius

An Instagram search for #LiveWire doesn’t produce a scroll of happy customers taking delivery. Rather, many of the results are pictures of Mötley Crüe, which had a hit song of the same name in 1981. Morningstar’s Harley-Davidson model estimates the company will sell only a few hundred of the bikes annually in the coming decade. Analyst Jaime Katz describes the bike as “a bit expensive for the market.”

Still, Harley no doubt has more battery-powered models in the works, most likely with better price-to-range ratios. The company has a new logo for its electric bikes and hired a “chief EV officer”—a former Bain consultant—about a month ago. “The creation of a separate division will allow full autonomy to EV development, freeing the business units to behave with the same agility and speed as a tech startup,” Chief Executive Officer Jochen Zeitz told analysts in February. This week Harley-Davidson reiterated its goal to “lead the electric motorcycle market,” a pillar of its five-year strategic plan. The news came in a massive earnings beat that pushed shares up 19% by Friday’s close. Wedbush Securities called it the company’s best quarter in a half-decade, “hands down.”

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The battery blitz comes at a curious time for Harley-Davidson. With sales sliding for years, the company swapped its CEO for Zeitz in February 2020 and promptly slowed down its push into international markets and scaled back its starter bike program. Its coup last quarter came largely from selling a greater share of big, expensive motorcycles, the kind with the fattest profit margins. With Harley focusing on its base, electric is one of the company’s few remaining efforts to lure first-time riders and beat scrappy startups.

The LiveWire is also a clever fix for a perennial Harley problem: Its bikes are too good. In its 118 years, the company has made a lot of motorcycles, and a shocking number of them are still on the road, or at least ready to roar to life out of the dusty recesses of the garage. Even with spark plugs and oil filters, they are easy to maintain, fix, and modify; as such, Harley has long struggled to persuade its customers to upgrade—call it the iPhone challenge.

Savvy riders, realizing as much, are increasingly skipping the dealership altogether. Typically, one out of four motorcycles sold in the U.S. are used, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Last year that increased to one out of three. Harley still gets something out of the preowned market, by selling parts and financing purchases, but not as much as it would by moving a slick new bike.

This is where the LiveWire and its silent siblings may really shine. It’s a step change in technology, arguably the newest “new” Harley in more than a century. It’s the strongest answer yet to this question: “Should I buy a second bike?” Or a third or fourth, for that matter.

(Corrects Harley Davidson attribution in fourth paragraph.)

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