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Harley-Davidson to launch 500cc learner bike ... and maybe an electric?

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September 1, 2013

Iconic American manufacturer Harley-Davidson is releasing a 500cc v-twin learner motorcycl...

Iconic American manufacturer Harley-Davidson is releasing a 500cc v-twin learner motorcycle and considering building an electric Harley

Just checking … no, it's not April 1. During its 110-year anniversary celebrations, iconic American manufacturer Harley-Davidson has dropped a couple of brand-twisting bombshells – firstly that it's building a 500cc learner bike, and secondly that an electric Harley is under serious consideration.

Here's an interesting tidbit: if you search Google, you'll find 12,700 results that contain both the word "Sportster" and the defensive phrase "not a girl's bike." Try the same search using the Honda Shadow, another mid-level cruiser, and you get just 965 results.

The Sportster, of course, is the current mid-capacity cruiser line in the Harley-Davidson range, with 1200cc and 883cc engine models. That's bigger than most sportsbikes, but not big enough to escape the ridicule of certain big-bore Harley owners (1400cc and upward) who seem to think 883cc isn't hairy-chested or noisy enough to be considered a "real bike."

And that's the market into which Harley-Davidson is planning to release a 500cc learner machine, ostensibly to replace the excellent 492cc Buell Blast which was scrapped, along with the entire innovative Buell brand, back in the depths of the global financial crisis in 2009.

Despite any flak new riders might face, the move opens up several new markets for H-D including restricted-license riders throughout Europe and Australia, and aspirational customers through India and Asia, where a cheaper, 500cc Harley would still be bigger than most things on the road.

H-D's COO Matthew Levatich, speaking at the company's 110-year anniversary celebration in Milwaukee, said the as-yet-unnamed bike is "nimble, light weight, has a low seat height and supple throttle and braking. I’ve ridden it – it looks great, sounds great, it’s a Harley, and it’s priced right.

“We want to get it out as soon as we can, but it’s got to be right. New engines are complicated, and we’ve got to get everything right from a durability, reliability and confidence perspective. On the other hand, chassis and other things are a lot more straightforward.”

He also hinted that it would likely be built in India: "The American qualities of a Harley are very important to people,” said Levatich. “The literal ‘where does that shock absorber come from’ part of it is less significant, but it has to have the spirit and soul of America. We have Harley-Davidson factories in India and Brazil – can we leverage those facilities and expertise so it can get to the, for example, Indian consumer, faster?

“These are things we are becoming more open-minded to, but we understand the importance of ‘made in America’ – the American quality, spirit and integrity that matters to the customer."

And if a 500cc Harley-Davidson wasn't enough of a brand-twisting bombshell, Levatich went on to talk about the possibility of an electric Harley that ditches the combustion engine altogether.

“I am sometimes asked … whether there will be an electric Harley,” said Levatich. "People would say ‘hell no’. But why not: our engineers are quite intrigued with the idea of what an electric Harley would look like, sound like and feel like. And would it be visceral, would it be emotional, would it be luscious. And there’s a way to do that I believe, and it would be very exciting.”

Baby Harleys … electric Harleys … if Milwaukee pulls this off, it'll be a bigger shift in brand perception than when BMW shrugged off its old-man-bike reputation with the S1000RR. What are your thoughts?

About the Author
Loz Blain Loz has been one of Gizmag's most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only Gizmag contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his a cappella band Suade.   All articles by Loz Blain
27 Comments

I think a 500cc Harley would work, but they'd have to carefully manage the "made in India" tag. Harley's don't have anything going for them except their image. They are heavy, noisy, ugly, low tech (relatively) and slow. But that is sort of the point. They are American, brash, in your face and proud of their short comings. Surely that is more or less why people buy them. But if the truth of their place of manufacture came out along with a small "Asianised" Harley I think they might cop a bit of flak from the "good old boys" and they'd become as attractive as the Yamaha Virago only less reliable.

Scion
1st September, 2013 @ 10:31 pm PDT

I'd thought I would never utter these words, but "one day I might own a Harley" if this electric thing goes through.

They might lose the "one wannabe man's fun is 10000 people's noisy horror" kind of crowd tho.

BeWalt
1st September, 2013 @ 10:43 pm PDT

The big question here, in regards to an electric HD, is.... would it still have a leaky oil reservoir to stain your driveway with?

Purple-Stater
2nd September, 2013 @ 01:28 am PDT

@I agree with Scion in the "Harley's don't have anything going for them except their image." statement.

Harleys are > 1200cc mostly because their shitty engine design requires that much displacement to make power. There 1200's are about 65HP when "little" 600cc sport bikes are around 105 HP.

It has twice the engine size and still makes half as much power. If they use the same engine technology the 500cc will probably be around 25 HP which would be about where the 250 Ninja was (the new 300cc version is 35 HP).

Daishi
2nd September, 2013 @ 04:13 am PDT

And all that time I thought a 450 Rebel was an imitation mini-Harley

Richard Dicky Riddlebarger
2nd September, 2013 @ 05:50 am PDT

Gee ! I thought ALL Harleys were classed as learner bikes !

John Findlay
2nd September, 2013 @ 04:50 pm PDT

Well, where do I start ? A single cylinder Harley is never, ever going to sound like a Harley v-twin. Period ! And not only are Harley shocks sourced from Japan, so are the front forks. And the wheels are Australian-made. Yes, for the capacity, Harleys don't perform in the traditional sense, but where can you use the power of a modern 'performance' bike anyway ? For me, Harleys are simple, reliable and do what they are supposed to. Same reason aircraft engines are big, simple lumps.

I've owned Sportsters as well as Jap and Italian bikes for over 45 years, and currently own a Buell and a Ducati Monster 1000. Maybe I am a fully paid up member of the Flat Earth Society, but I enjoy my ride.

Martin Hone
2nd September, 2013 @ 07:22 pm PDT

Harley have had small bikes before, when they owned the Aermacchi comany in the '70s; the Italian made 350 was a good bike but it didn't sell well because it was a vertical twin and as so was very un-HD in style.

djmc
2nd September, 2013 @ 08:02 pm PDT

Are they going to make the electric version as abnoxiously noisy as the gasoline version?

MrGadget
2nd September, 2013 @ 11:31 pm PDT

Interesting article. Not sure an Indian single cylinder Harley will catch on.

Harley folks are pretty traditional. Also the Buell Blast was not a good bike. Many driving schools here used them. There would be a stampede every morning as the students tried to snag a 20 year old Honda over the Blasts.

Motoriley
3rd September, 2013 @ 04:46 am PDT

First H-D's COO Matthew Levatich is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He's made some really dumb decisions in the recent past not the least of which is the Buell deal and he is not a motorcyclist himself. He's talking about developing a new 500cc engine, but HD already has one that they sell for their military motorcycle. Of course, it's made in Austria, same as the Buell 1125 engine by Rotax. Maybe that's the issue. People that criticize the traditional HD have usually not ever ridden one. They drive really well. The engine goes slow, no irritating high speed vibration and is a very pleasing experience, even in traffic. I am an owner of a Road King and two Buell 1125rs.

Steve-L
3rd September, 2013 @ 04:52 am PDT

There is certainly a market for this here in the States... used Buell Blasts still sell like hotcakes at a price premium (for used) on Craigslist. God only knows why... I'd take an ol' Ninja 500 or a GS over that noisy rattle-trap any day. But, the "Its Amurican" part of the Harley brand carries a lot of weight with US consumers, evidently. Should be a hit (as long as Harley execs keep their sales expectations reasonable - its a full segment already, folks!).

As to electric... ahahaha... not gonna fly under the Harley label. "Visceral... emotional... luscious" aren't words that biker gangs will associate with the quiet, eco-friendly and efficient transportation that is electric transportation.

MzunguMkubwa
3rd September, 2013 @ 05:40 am PDT

Years ago I had a 500cc. BSA Gold Star rigged for on and off road. That bike was the most fun of the quartet I have owned. If the Harley pays attention to torque at low RPMs and to clearance, this too could be a great fun bike. Try taking a hog off road.

HighPockets
3rd September, 2013 @ 10:50 am PDT

I'll have to disagree with the Harley bashers (I was one for many years, BTW).

The current crop are quite sophisticated under the retro veneer. I have had a Sportster, a Softail and now an Ultra classic, and don't have a single drop of oil to show for it.

The Buell Blast is a damn good commuter bike and great fun one-up on the backroads. the dealers that have well used ex-trainer bikes still want $3k for them and Craigslist/ebay gets about $2K. I got 65+ mpg in Houston traffic on the one I had.

Torque is the number you need to look at for streeet applications. HP is more related to top speed than acceleration. Harleys have torque out the wazoo, but low rev limits.

Buck H
3rd September, 2013 @ 11:48 am PDT

Personally, I think an 'intro' Harley Davidson would be really nice. The first H-D's were small. I think it would be cool to have a H-D that is more affordable.

Did you know the first motorcycle built in Japan was a Harley Davidson? The WW2 happened and they started making their own. IIRC.

I think an electric H-D would be cool and green. It seems electric vehicles will be the future of transportation. Perhaps if it had a fuel cell to extend the range and give it extra power when needed.

BigWarpGuy
3rd September, 2013 @ 12:06 pm PDT

Guys, do you think if HD removed the Porsche engine in the Vrod and installed electric, would anyone notice?

MikeK
3rd September, 2013 @ 06:52 pm PDT

You Harley bashers are so 1980.

I work on all brands of M/C every day in an independent shop. When you buy a non Harley, you pay big $ for landfill. They don't even make parts available cause the mfgs. know this.

Every part for every H/D made in the last 70 years can be in hand within 1 week. I like all M/Cs, but no way I'm going to flush my $ on a bike I can't sell for more than I bought it for. Pay Up Suckers!

ECO Dude
3rd September, 2013 @ 07:13 pm PDT

Yep, Harley-Davidson did have a single cylinder on the books - made by Aermacchi in Italy. But it wasn't a twin, but a single with the cylinder laid horizontal ( like the front cylinder on a Ducati) The race versions are highly sought after, as are the 250 and 350 two-stroke twins that were also made by Aermacchi. Good enough to wind multiple world road racing titles !

Martin Hone
3rd September, 2013 @ 10:18 pm PDT

There is already a 500cc Harley made in India. And has been for about sixty years...The Royal Enfield.

Davidabl Blankenhorn
3rd September, 2013 @ 10:32 pm PDT

ECO Dude, I gotta say you're so 2003. It hasn't been true that you can sell them for more than you bought them for for a LONG time..unless you're talking Shovels or something.

"Every part for every H/D made in the last 70 years can be in hand within 1 week."

True 'dat. IF you buy it from TaiwanTed and IF you pay extra to get it FedEx'ed to you.

Davidabl Blankenhorn
3rd September, 2013 @ 10:39 pm PDT

Perhaps if they sold it under a different name? Perhaps revive motorcycle name that has not been used in a long while since that company went out of business? Is Henderson still be used?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henderson_Motorcycle_Company

http://www.hendersonmotorcycle.com/

Or some other motorcycle name not currently being used?

This way H-D could make the motorcycle but not hurt the H-D image?

BigWarpGuy
4th September, 2013 @ 05:57 am PDT

Funny, about 20 years ago they had a Harley Electric Toy bike for youngsters. I sold one through my shop. It had removable training wheels was modeled after a full blown bike. Would do about 20 miles and hour. Sold it within a month of getting it on the showroom floor. Everyone use to laugh at it but the kids loved it.

Harley is and American Icon. I personally like the Indian. And I have built many bikes and basket cases. Have even built Hondas into Cruisers that had the Harley Look and feel to them but you only get a Harley from a Harley and they have had a few lemons in the past to, every company does.

And you see Harleys everywhere now days in this part of the country I live in. It's not just for the lone dog or the open road clubs anymore.

The Older Big Bores is one of the Bikes that really stand out. And yes most Serious Bikers ride those. But with the economy being what it is here which is Sucky at best. Biking to work and for recreation is looking a lot more plausible for a lot of people.

Harleys sell well here, though parts can be lets just say a bit pricey. I can see and Electric Harley for those that are green conscious to.

Harley is trying to fill those niches it would seem and yes if they build it some will buy it. I had to give up riding myself, but I still yearn to get astride one of those big machines and just ride all day.

Yellow Eagle
4th September, 2013 @ 07:55 am PDT

H-D bought Trihawk three wheeler. I wonder if they might do something with it? Perhaps for their 111 birthday?

http://www.3wheelers.com/trihawk.html

http://designmassif.com/trihawk/

It is a cool three wheeler that performed well. I think it could with a H-D touch.

BigWarpGuy
4th September, 2013 @ 11:42 am PDT

The Trihawk is a good example for electric power. I am involved in two projects now which are electric (lithium iron phosphate) 3 wheelers.

They both lean like a M/C, One is like the Trihawk, but with 2 100HP hub motors mounted to the rear wheel.

The other is like the Carver with 2 drive wheels at rear, and is hybrid.

Can't wait to see how they stack up against each other.

ECO Dude
5th September, 2013 @ 12:17 am PDT

Brilliant. So what was the justification for dumping Buell and their Blast again?

John Gochnauer
5th September, 2013 @ 02:08 pm PDT

An electric HD can easily have the awesome V-Twin sound, I really enjoy the real HD sound in my (still non electric) SAAB

Kenneth Palmestål
28th October, 2013 @ 02:30 am PDT

Cessna was an iconic American airplane brand. There was a huge loyal follwing, (including me). They launched an airplane made in China and tried to BS their customers with a similar marketing message to what Harley seems to be testing. It was/is a huge failure and has cost Cessna much goodwill.

"American qualities" and "spirit and soul of America"are not likely in a bike made on the sub-continent. If Harley execs start believing their own Marketing guy's hype and their short term profit oriented moron MBAs who don't really understand their product or customers they will suffer the same fate as Cessna. Cessna has fallen back on their biz jets, Harley won't have a fallback product like that if they damage thir brand badly enough.

Bryan Bowlsbey
5th January, 2014 @ 02:04 pm PST
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