A black day for bikers will be dawning soon.
As the celebration of its 120th anniversary kicks off, Harley-Davidson knows it needs to evolve in order to survive.
The storied American motorcycle maker may have spun off the battery-powered Livewire as its own separate brand, but that doesn’t mean the brand isn’t fully committed to electrification. In fact, its CEO, Jochen Zeitz, says that company will eventually only make electric bikes.
Jochen Zeitz, huh? Now THERE’S a real all-American name for ya. Kinda like all those native-born Englishters with monikers like Habib Abdullah and Rajnej Prajneesh, I suppose.
“At some point in time, Harley Davidson will be all-electric,” the executive recently told Dezeen. “But that’s a long-term transition that needs to happen. It’s not something you do overnight.”
Needs to happen? Um, no it doesn’t. It really, really doesn’t.
Zeitz’s pronouncement seems guaranteed to make a not-insignificant portion of the manufacturer’s customer base cringe. For many enthusiasts, the thing that really sets a Harley apart from other motorcycles—American-made or otherwise—is a thunderously loud internal combustion engine. But the company knows that no matter how important those large-displacement mills might be change is on the horizon.
Correction: a thunderously loud V-TWIN internal combustion etc. Preferably, with the jugs canted at a comely 45 degrees, not 90 like the Jap crappers and other foreign-copycat “cruiser” style bikes run. Anything else is just another rice burner. The angle of the dangle is what produces that sweet, lumpy “potato-potato-potato” idle sound, which cynical, old-school Harley mechanics like moi have for years maintained sounds much more like “to-the-dump-to-the-dump-to-the-dump-to-the-dump.” That sound is so distinctive, so beloved, that H-D actually tried to claim it as their exclusive legal property.
A major component of Harley’s lasting appeal is the sound of the engine—a kind of potato-potato-potato rhythmic mantra of America engineering. Making a V-twin is fairly easy, but Harley chose the easiest way to do it in having the two connecting rods share a single pin on the crankshaft. This means the 45-degree offset of the cylinders is also a 45-degree offset in ignition. That short gap between power strokes means there is a “bang-bang-pause” sound that rhythmically comes out of the exhaust. The wasted-spark ignition also affects the sound, since it is throwing spark into the front cylinder that is not on its power stroke just because the rear cylinder is. The signature sound really is that simple.
When I say signature sound, it is worth noting the difference between “signature” and “trademarked”. Harley Davidson tried, unsuccessfully, to trademark its exhaust note in 1994. Vibration is just as important as noise, and anyone that has ridden a Harley either loves or hates these rumblings. That shake is a byproduct of the two-connecting-rods-one-crankpin arrangement. This design makes is near impossible to counterbalence the engine to smooth things out, so instead of trying, Harley leans into it.
Hey, you don’t mess with success, Bub.
As for the wasted-spark thing, that can easily be rectified by installing a single-fire ignition rather than the OEM dual-fire arrangement, like my personal preference, the Crane HI-4. It’s the real-deal hot setup, not only because it’s single-fire but also because it allows you to retard the rear cylinder’s spark slightly, the better to cope with the fact that, being an air-cooled engine, that back one tends to run somewhat hotter than the front jug does. My old boss always recommended the dual-fire Dyna modules to our customers, owing simply to the fact that the Crane asking price was twice as high. For my money, though, the Crane was well worth it; three of my four hot-rod Sportys had ‘em, and they all ran like raped apes.
Hey, you gets what you pays for, right?
As for Harley’s all-electric ambitions, Ed quips:
Will the big electric choppers at least have a Jetsons-style bleebling sound as they zoom past?
Well, the aftermarket will probably come up with some sort of onboard sound system for that, but no matter. If it’s electric, then it ain’t a Harley, dammit.
Clueless update! Houston, we have a problem.
But after all, what does Harley-Davidson really have to offer aside from a bad boy image connected to loud exhaust pipes and the buy-American preferences of some motorcycle gangs clubs? I am not a biker nor an expert on motorcycles,
Why the hell are you still talking, then?
but I spent a lot of time as a consultant to two of the world’s biggest auto manufacturers and talked to a lot of engineers about manufacturing tolerances and other arcana of internal combustion engines, and I know that Harleys are not exactly pushing the frontier of excellence. In fact, one American executive with whom I worked was an enthusiast and drove a BMW machine, while others praised the engine technology of Japanese manufacturers.
Uh huh. So perhaps you could explain to me why it might be that every single one of the Big Four Jap maufacturers offers at least one transparently-obvious Harley clone in their model lineup, usually several of the ghastly things?
For many years now, Harleys have primarily appealed to older bikers—ironbutt types who think nothing of getting up early on a Saturday morning and taking a 250-300 mile jaunt, one way, in a pack, just to go to some diner out in the boonies and have breakfast. These guys don’t give a fat rat’s ass about canyon-carving, flying down a twisty mountain road as fast as they possibly can, urban lane-spliitting through monstrous traffic, or LeMans style road-racing.
No, what they like is a nice, laid-back putt way out on some gently-winding country two-lane, on a plush, easy-riding, low-slung sled they’ve made uniquely their own via extensive customization. For them—s’cuse me, for us–it’s all about being In The Wind, getting their knees in the breeze, enjoying that special frisson of total freedom that comes along with that, and nothing else. And yes, the tradition, cachet, and mystique of an American-made V Twin is the only thing that does it for ‘em.
Yes, some of us are indeed horsepower junkies too, which extra ponies can easily be had from a Harley engine with relatively little effort or expense, most of which bolt-on tweaking can be done in your own garage or backyard shed without specialized tools and/or machinery.
Especially my beloved Sportsters. Love them lean, mean little beasties, and I always will.
The old HD bumper-sticker adage still holds perfectly true: If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.