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Let’s Talk More About Harley-Davidson’s New Bikes

Milwaukee's favorite motorcycle company has grown tired of bad quarterly reports and is shaking things up

Harley-Davidson likes to wait until I’m in the wilds of Cornwall before making really big announcements. There is little to no phone signal on Bodmin Moor, where my wife’s extended family lives, and most definitely no WiFi at local pubs. So even if I’m able to receive an email about an exciting new model, there’s nothing I can do about it.

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When Harley-Davidson first announced the LiveWire four years ago, I was hiking in Cornwall and unable to really address it online until quite some time later. So, want to guess where I was Monday when Harley announced the launch date for the LiveWire, as well as sharing details on a number of other forthcoming bikes? Yup, Cornwall. I saw the email from Harley-Davidson, then a number of emails, texts, and direct messages from you guys asking, “Have you seen this?!” but wasn’t able to get in front of a computer screen until later that day.

That’s alright, I suppose. TMO is not really about being first. We’re more about getting lost in all the little details of an announcement like this. I think there is space for discussion of all three elements of the “More Roads” accelerated progress plan (those three elements are: new products, “broader access,” and stronger dealerships), but I’ll admit I’m really only interested in one of them: new bikes.

READ MORE: Everything We Know About the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250

So, let’s talk about those. Let’s spend some time staring intently at the very few images that have been released, reading the tea leaves, and outright guessing at what the final product will be. I’ve already spent a fair amount of time discussing the most intriguing/surprising of the proposed new models – the Pan America 1250 adventure touring motorcycle – in a separate article, so we’ll start here with something that wasn’t really a surprise.

LiveWire

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2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire. Compared against the Project LiveWire bike displayed four years ago, this model looks sportier and more aggressive. It also appears to have a modified version of the fairing seen on the Sport Glide. This may or may not mean the fairing is easily detachable.

Harley’s electric bike shook the motorcycling world when it was proposed back in 2014. The company did a good job of fooling us all into thinking a production version was just around the corner by hauling several test models around the world as part of the Project LiveWire tour, in which it said it was simply eager to get customer feedback.

Turns out, Harley was telling the truth. Customers expressed concern over issues of range and price – those two factors failing to meet up in a satisfactory way for many potential buyers – and the project was shelved. Victory ended up earning kudos for becoming the first major motorcycle brand to release an electric motorcycle – the short-lived Victory Empulse TT – but clearly it didn’t do them any good.

From everything I’ve heard, the LiveWire was a fundamentally sound motorcycle that stunned those who got a chance to ride it. The folks over at Harley-Davidson International always enjoy sharing tales of journalists who were taken so completely off guard by the moto that they crashed – unprepared for its walloping power.

When the LiveWire was unveiled in 2014, its motor was hidden and its brakes didn’t look as fit for purpose.

I particularly like the story of the journo who ended up sailing into a cornfield. He managed to lodge the bike in a rut so it remained upright while he carried on through the air for several more meters. When folks originally arrived at the scene they saw the bike sitting serenely amidst the corn stalks, as if placed for a photo, and no sign whatsoever of its recently unseated rider (who lived and suffered broken bones but no permanent injury).

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So, Harley had a good bike. It just didn’t have a bike that was good at lasting very long on a charge, or at being affordable. Four years down the road – five by the time the bike is actually launched in August 2019 – it would appear the company has worked out the magic formula. I know from personal experience that a Zero can get 100 miles off a single charge, so would expect something in that same ballpark from the LiveWire. Price-wise, I’d anticipate something that hangs closely to either side of the £20,000 mark.

There will be a lot of people who will gnash their teeth at such a motorcycle. If you’re one of those people my message is: calm down, dear. This bike isn’t for you. The psychotic Ducati Panigale V4 isn’t for me, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist, or that I’m incapable of appreciating it.

LiveWire
The LiveWire may not be your kind of thing, but you’d be foolish to dismiss it.

“The LiveWire model is an authentic Harley-Davidson expression of individuality, iconic style, and performance that just happens to be electric,” says Harley-Davidson. “It will provide a visceral riding experience with instant torque and thrilling acceleration – no clutch, just ‘twist and go.'”

Hopefully this new LiveWire has held on to its journalist-killing potential. Aesthetically, I prefer this version. I like the exposed motor/battery look, and the more sporty/aggressive feel. It looks badass to me; there’s something about the whole package that says: “Hang on and pray.”

Streetfighter

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Harley-Davidson Streetfighter

Speaking of “hang on and pray,” that seems to also be the aesthetic message of the promised 975cc Streetfighter super naked. Or, well, I’m calling it a super naked. Once we get power figures that definition may need to be changed.

For its part, Harley describes the bike thus: “Expanding our line of middleweight models is the first Harley-Davidson streetfighter motorcycle, planned for 2020. Unapologetic modern style with enough performance and agility to carve through city streets.”

READ MORE: Harley-Davidson Announces Plan to Make You Buy a Harley by 2022

Terminology in the motorcycle world is a fluid sort of thing, but my understanding of the term “streetfighter” is a sportbike that has been relieved of its fairing or, like the Triumph Street Triple and Speed Triple, a bike that looks like a sportbike that’s been relieved of its fairing. That’s not really the look I feel the Harley-Davidson Streetfighter is achieving, but it’s fair to say it will ultimately be compared against one of those bikes (probably the Street Triple if we’re fair), as well as the Yamaha MT-09, Ducati Monster 821, KTM 790 Duke, and perhaps even the MV Agusta that I feel has to have inspired it.

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MV Agusta Brutale 800 – An inspiration?

Remember that Harley-Davison owned MV Agusta for a hot minute in the previous decade. Is it hard to imagine there may have been at least one bike sketched during that time, the plans for which might have been dusted off and improved for this Streetfighter?

Belt-driven, it’s probably not fair to expect the Streetfighter to produce the horsepower that Ducati, KTM or BMW could probably milk from such an engine, but I think most people will be expecting something in the 105hp range. Its liquid-cooled V-twin will be the same modular powerplant found in the Pan America 1250 and future Sportster Custom (see below). It’s very difficult to tell from two-dimensional pictures, but it looks as if Harley has resolved one of my primary complaints about the Street Rod, which was that the exhaust got in the way of your boot.

Speaking of the Street Rod, I have to think that model will be defenestrated in the face of the Streetfighter. Though, it may be the case that Harley will choose to break its new modular middleweight engine platform into four displacements: 500cc, 750cc, 975cc, and 1250cc. If it keeps the 750cc class it could also maintain the Street Rod and Street 750 as entry-level options. From the looks of it, the fit and finish of the Streetfighter is vastly superior to that of the Street Rod. So, perhaps low price can keep the Street Rod alive.

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Harley-Davidson Streetfighter

One of my favorite Streetfighter touches is the tank design that recalls the Sportster 883R. In fact, if this doesn’t earn a similar designation in Harley’s lettering code I’ll be shocked; expect this to be known by the faithful as the XL975R.

One of the things I do not like is that, in looking very closely, it appears Harley will be using its infernal two-indicator system on the Streetfighter. I guarantee you it will end up changing this set up after a year of production; the bike is clearly aimed at the European market and Europeans will hate having to try to find a right-side indicator button while moving through roundabouts.

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Maybe the two indicators won’t even make it that far, though. Harley stresses this is a prototype model and that some changes may be made. Some changes will have to be made, actually: the Streetfighter we see pictured lacks a number of elements to make it street legal (reflectors, rear indicators, license plate holder, etc).

Other Things

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Harley-Davidson 1250 Custom

Harley says any number of bikes will be coming from the platforms mentioned above. There will be other electric bikes, for example – smaller, lighter, more affordable models that look suspiciously like the sort of stuff California’s Alta Motors was producing before Harley-Davidson invested in the company. Personally, I’m not all that interested in electric mountain bikes. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist, but it does mean I’m not going to spend much time writing about them.

Equally, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the other full bike that Harley promised on Monday: the 1250cc Custom model. Harley describes it as an “all-new custom motorcycle with a muscular stance, aggressive, stripped down styling and 1250cc of pure performance.”

I would describe it as a Sportster Forty-Eight with a better engine. It looks like the same tiny-tanked ergonomically torturous hell of the previous generation Forty-Eight (ie, not the 2018 Forty-Eight, which has mini apehangers to make things more tolerable), but now with added leg-burning misery. I guess we can’t go around expecting Harley to change everything.

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What is this?

To that end, MCN’s eagle-eyed Jordan Gibbons spotted a few another potential new bike in the “More Roads to Harley-Davidson” video the MoCo uploaded to YouTube (see above). There appears to be at least one new performance-oriented big twin coming our way.

At different points in the video there are fleeting glimpses of a white motorcycle that clearly possesses the mountainous Milwaukee Eight powerplant. From the rear it has a particularly fat tire, similar to the one found on the Breakout, but with a rear fender more akin to the one seen on the Fat Bob. In a shot too quick and blurry to capture, the bike seems to have a tiny bullet fairing.

RELATED: 2018 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide – First Ride

Now get ready to have your mind blown: another shot, presumably of the same bike, shows clip-on handlebars and what appear to be the letters FXDR. Hitherto, the “FXD” designation has been used for the Dyna line – you know, the line that Harley scrapped in overhauling the Softail line. WTF, y’all? Is Harley bringing back the Dyna line?

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FXDR? WTF?!

Meanwhile, something else I spotted  in the same video was an off-road moto that was distinctly not the Pan America. This bike (and the harder-to-spot one behind it) is clearly a scrambler of some sort. Does this mean Harley is working on a Sportster Scrambler?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s difficult to tell, but the scrambler’s engine looks like the same Evolution powerplant that currently drives the Sportster line-up. So, it may just be an image of someone’s very clever custom (Rusty Butcher, perhaps?), thrown in to keep us from making any definitive statements about the Pan America prototype that shows up straight afterward.

Scrambler
Is this a forthcoming model, or an existing custom?

Lastly, Harley has also said it will be “continuing to develop improved, more technologically-advanced touring” bikes, but I’d expect the pace of change here to be less revolutionary. By and large, the touring crowd are pretty content with what they’ve got. But as Harley continues to try to expand its international business I think it will have to give in to some European tastes. I suspect that means bikes with more power output, as well as traction control.

Riders in Not America don’t call it quits when there’s rain, and Harleys (and Indians, and all other heavy touring bikes) have a bad habit of suddenly becoming a lot less fun when the roads are wet. Thus far, tire companies haven’t really stepped up to the challenge of making tires that are both good in the rain and capable of tolerating the dramatic weight of a V-twin touring bike, so it would behoove Harley to take action itself and offer bikes with traction control.

KEEP READING: Ask TMO: Why Do Harley Owners Insist New Indians Aren’t Real?

I am crazy for the punch-in-the-face torque of a big twin, but it can be pretty nerve-wracking to have a massive motorcycle kick around so much – its distance-focused tires unable to find grip. Traction control obviously can’t magic grip to tires but it can at least help dampen the enthusiasm with which the rear wheel spins.

Model Year 2018 New Model Photography
Give this bike more power and traction control. And make heated grips standard.

Why is Harley Telling Us All This?

One of the phrases you hear over and over and over from manufacturers as a moto-journalist/blogger is: “We do not discuss future product.” Ask even the tiniest question about the tiniest possibility of something existing that doesn’t already exist and you’ll always be hit with that phrase or something similar.

Manufacturers refuse to talk about the future for fear of disrupting the present. If Triumph tells you it is developing a 1200cc legitimately off-road-focused scrambler you might decide to not buy the existing 900cc Street Scrambler. And that would be bad because, hey, you might change your mind about scramblers by the time that 1200cc version rolls out; or you might pull some utterly dunderheaded stunt like giving up a good-paying gig for the sake of being able to run your own website.

But here’s Harley not just discussing future product but sending out press releases and making videos about it. Isn’t that potentially damaging? Possibly. There’s a chance that a person would see the 1250 Custom and think, “I’m going to hold off on buying a Forty-Eight until that bike comes out,” but by and large the bikes for which Harley has offered any real detail are bikes from segments that aren’t currently part of the Harley family: super naked, adventure, electric.

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Hold on, is this screen shot suggesting that Harley is working on developing a faired racing bike?! If so, its tininess suggests this would be one of the 250cc machines being developed exclusively for the India market.

Harley is gambling there aren’t too many people who had my first reaction to the Pan America – which was, “Hmm, suddenly my overwhelming desire to buy a Street Bob isn’t as overwhelming,” – but that there are a lot of people who had my second reaction, which was: “Hmm, even if I presently had the money for such a thing, I think I’d hold off on getting that Ducati Multistrada 950 until after I could find out more about the Pan America.”

The reason it might be taking this gamble is it wants investors to know the company is moving forward, that it does have new ideas, and that it has the courage to push those ideas along. Harley-Davidson has been seeing its sales slowly decline, quarter after quarter, for roughly three years. That sort of thing causes panic in investors. You can point out that there are reasons for all of it, that the overall US market is bad, that the world economic situation is challenging, and so on, but everyone knows that investors are like greyhounds in a room full of cats and fireworks – fickle.

RELATED: Europe Again Offers Silver Lining as Harley Releases Gloomy Q2 2018 Report

I have no doubt Harley’s boardroom was hearing over and over from investors: “You have to do something! You have to give ’em something new! You gotta win over the Millennials!”

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A video screen grab showing drawings for the Pan America 1250.

So, boom. Harley’s doing something. It’s doing a lot of somethings. Rather than keep its five-year plan close to its chest it’s swung the thing straight at our heads and left us all a little punch drunk. And excited.

But what happens when the excitement wears off? What happens in a few months or so when Harley unveils a new but more traditional bike – that FXDR, for example – and the moto media, arguably more fickle than investors (so, greyhounds in a room full of cats, fireworks, and squeaky toys), all cry: “Boo! We want the Pan America/Streetfighter”?

Additionally, it seems Harley’s shown a lot if its cards to competitors. Indian, for example, can watch public reaction to its rival’s plans and adjust its own future outlook accordingly. Actually, I really hope Indian will do that, and that it will result in the unveiling of an adventure motorcycle – something that I thought was highly unlikely earlier this year but that now seems like something that could actually happen. Thanks Harley!

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Sketches of possible future electric Harleys.

Anything feels possible now. Hell, suddenly I feel it’s even possible for Suzuki to come out with a bike that people actually want. And to that end, you’ve got to give Harley credit for shaking things up. It’s not just planning completely different bikes; in telling us about them it’s doing business in a completely different way.

As someone who has developed a soft spot in his heart for Harley-Davidson over the past two years, I hope the strategy pays off. I can’t wait to ride the Pan America and the Streetfighter and LiveWire and, indeed, the new Sportster line-up. I know there are plenty of other folks feeling the same way. American motorcycling really is heating up.