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Gawd help us

A black day for bikers will be dawning soon.

Harley-Davidson Will Soon Be All-Electric, CEO Says

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.


14 thoughts on “Gawd help us

  1. Perhaps I should buy an existing Harley classic. Should be going up in value.

  2. It is truly amazing how stupid a CEO can be. If you are the CEO of Harley Davidson you should have at least a passing acquaintance with your market. You should know to keep your mouth shut rather than utter complete nonsense.

    And when you don’t know a damn thing and open up your big mouth anyway the board should fire your sorry ass. So, if the CEO is still there it means the board is as screwed up as he is.


    The air cooled VW also had an ignition retarded on one cylinder because it got less air flow and ran hot. 10d retarded as I recall. Same for the 356 Porsche with the same basic engine.

  3. Not impossible to counterbalance. I’ve ridden a Softail with the B engine and it was remarkably smooth.

    1. True, dat. Hell, I’ve done it myself. It’s a right pain in the ass, but it for sure can be done, and usually is on hi-po, big-inch motors.

      1. How is the unbalanced firing order counter balanced?

        Is it crankshaft counter balance weights?

        1. The B engines have two separate counterbalance shafts, like some Japanese engines use. It is possible to balance a regular Harley engine with balance weight, or at least reasonably balance it.

          1. The way we used to do it on the pre-Twin Cam and Milwaukee Eight motors was to drill reliefs in the meaty section along the outer edge of the flywheels, as shown here. I have no experience of anything past the Evos, never have worked on those. They’d have to be a lot roomier than the older motors, though, there ain’t enough space in the old cases to hang counterweights off of anything.

            I’ve always said that the Evos were the best motors Harley ever did make, or ever will make, and still be a honest-to-God HD motor. Got no interest at all in the latter day types, although I do know people that run ’em, and swear by ’em. I will allow that the inject-oil-onto-the-piston-skirts idea they implemented on the Twin Cams was a great one, however.

            1. I see how that is balancing the crank, but I’m missing how it counteracts the uneven firing. I’ll have to investigate further, might be something to learn here.
              I may not be asking the right question…

          2. Gotcha. I don’t know anything about the B engines, but a counterbalance shaft would be the way to do it.

  4. Sad to see a storied company commit seppuku.

    Never been a Harley guy, especially after what they did to Buell. They bought Buell to attract a new set of riders, because their long term problem is their customer base dying off. They poached the R&D for the new Buell motor for the V-Rod and made it to stupid and heavy to work in anything other than a fat chunk of pig-iron. Buell had to go to rotax (I think) for their new model. Then they dumped them. Total corporate plundering.

    Interestingly, they dumped Buell saying their riders wanted the traditional harleys. That seems to be a lesson forgotten.

    Funny story; I had nothing to do on a Saturday in the fall, so I rode (my FZ1) up to the Harley dealer to size up the new Buell. I was a minor celebrity, since no one else had ridden there. It was all posers shopping in the clothing section.

    I looked at a few bikes. I remember sitting on a V-Rod and the sales dude asked what I thought. I said it didn’t seem like as big a chick big as I thought, even though that’s the only people I’ve ever seen ride it.

    Yesterday, while I was walking I happened upon a kid pushing his electric minibike. It apparently had fuckall for charge. A real buzzkiller, having to push your bike back home.

    1. BTW, Harley’s problem is that while they have a fiercly loyal customer base (which for whatever reason, they want to screw), Millenials and younger just aren’t into bikes. Back in the day, it was the cheapest way to get some wheels. I know it was for me. I went years with only a bike. Eric Peters has done some great pieces on this.

      The problem is culture, and cost of entry. And a fat expensive electric bike isn’t going to solve that.

      1. Millenials and younger just aren’t into “insert whatever“.

        Go to any SCCA* race and see who is driving the cars. They are mostly people like me or a few years younger. The younger generation just doesn’t aspire to being racers like when I was a kid. I started racing cars at age 20**. Most of the younger drivers now started in karts at age 4 – 8, but there are not many of them.

        Same thing in flying, fewer and fewer younger guys. I started at age 18 and there were several of us flying sailplanes. Most of the youth I see flying now are the sons of older pilots.

        I blame video games that allow a person to sit and experience something.

        *Sports Car Club of America
        **the year I turned 20 they changed the minimum age from 21 to 18, now you will see the occasional 16 year old that graduates from karts and are usually pretty good and well funded by Mom and Dad

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