Whether you like it or not, electric vehicles of every type are gaining traction in every market. Electric power may just a tiny percentage of the vehicles on the road (and off the road, and in the sky, and on the water) right now, but it increasingly looks as if they are here to stay. The Petersen Automotive Museum (with guest curator Paul D’Orleans of the Vintagent) just opened an exhibit featuring custom, concept, and racing bikes, all powered by electricity; with backing from Harley-Davidson, who just released their first production electric bike , the Livewire.
Back when Floyd Clymer started selling cars as a teenager steam, gas, and electric were all competing for dominance. Obviously, gasoline powered internal combustion engines won, but electric vehicles are suddenly popping up like green sprouts from a tree stump long thought dead. Battery and motor technology have much improved, and now small light, electric scooters and power assist bicycles are as common in the city as 50cc Honda’s were back in the 60s. New electric start ups are being launched every month.
Recreational electric dirt bikes that combine mountain bike parts with torque that matches a 125cc motor are being made by many different companies. Electric street bikes are gaining range and lowering MSRPs every year. At the top of the price range, the exotic Lightning LS-218 promises legitimate 200+ mph performance if you have the money to spend. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Super 73 electric minibike which Roland Sands customized, examples of which start at about $1,500 and can be ridden anywhere bicycles are allowed.
Harley-Davidson is making a big push into electric bikes, with three bikes displayed at the show. The production version of the Livewire is one of the first bikes you see when you get to the exhibit, show here months before it hits dealers. The other HD bikes displayed are both concepts without names yet. There is an electric dirt bike, that sits right between electric assist mountain bikes, and 200cc trail bikes; specifications have not been released, and it may grow pedals before production for legal reasons. The HD electric mini bike might be their entry into urban mobility, rent-able by the minute via an app, and surreptitiously bringing new Harley-Davidson riders into the fold by the day.
Also represented were three generations of the fastest electric motorcycles ever built. The oldest of them is Mike Corbin’s Quicksilver, the fastest electric bike for 38 years at more than 165 mph, built and run at Bonneville back in the early 1970s using military surplus parts and borrowed nuclear submarine batteries. Kent Riches’ Omega Racer is currently battling for the record, and managed more than 176 mph, while only using 34% of available power due to a glitch. Also present, and the current fastest electric bike, is the production Lightning LS-218, which with only changes in gearing and software managed to go 218 mph, and set the fastest time to the top of Pikes Peak.
Some of the coolest bikes there are the ones that use the freedom of electric power to dispense with the forms you are accustomed to in gasoline powered bikes. The aptly named Moto Undone looks like nothing more than the a mirrored rectangular monolith with a jagged beak down the middle. But in reality, under the polished aluminum is a hub motor equipped bike that can and is ridden by its creator Joey Ruiter of Michigan. Because of the lack of detail and reflective surface, it almost vanishes into the background when out in the wild, and the rider looks like some sort of glitch in a video game floating along without a bike.
A trip to the Petersen Museum is always worth your time, and if you are curious about what is happening in the world of electric motorcycles, now is an especially good time to visit. Unlike a car, motorcycles are typically seen as leisure vehicles, so having a 50 mile range, or a top speed that makes freeway travel impossible is not necessarily a problem. As is often the case, you can go look at the handiwork of other builders, then use the ideas to fuel your own project sitting in your shed.
And know that when the time comes, if sales numbers call for it, Clymer will make you a manual detailing how to overhaul your Harley-Davidson Livewire or Zero SM electric bike.