Last week, Harley-Davidson unveiled a prototype of an electric motorcycle that it plans to test in the United States and Europe. It is a radical departure for the company, which has made a name for itself over the years building bikes with powerful internal combustion engines. The LiveWire accelerates from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in four seconds and can travel 80 miles between charges, but just as important as how it performs is how it looks. Architectural Digest asked Kirk Rasmussen, the company’s styling manager, to describe the design process.
Architectural Digest: Where do you start when creating the look of an electric Harley?
Kirk Rasmussen: So much of our design is focused around the motor—our name, after all, is Harley-Davidson Motor Company. We placed the LiveWire’s electric motor at the bottom of the motorcycle and accented it with a silver-colored casing. We mounted it longitudinally, instead of transversely, which is how other electric-bike manufacturers have done it. That decision meant we had to add extra gears. But that actually worked out to be a benefit in the long run.
AD: Is there anything structurally unique about the LiveWire?
KR: We used a lightweight wishbone-style cast-aluminium frame with three bright silver motor mounts—the motorcycle equivalent of flying buttresses—below the frame. We ran the frame and wheel designs through an optimization program that strips away unnecessary material. The frame only weighs 14 pounds. It has a skeletal look, but it’s very strong.
AD: Did you try to hide the batteries?
KR: A big box of batteries is not visually compelling unless you’re going for a modernist look, which I think would have been risky for us. So we surrounded the batteries with the frame. They’re located in a sealed cast-aluminum container, which also serves a structural function.
AD: Along with exhaust pipes and gasoline, what other things do you not have to worry about when designing an electric motorcycle?
KR: We didn’t have to worry as much about heat coming off the motor and how that affects rider experience. We also did not have to worry about noise because electric motors are pretty quiet. But that could be a negative for our customers.
AD: Is noise part of motorcycle design?
KR: Absolutely. There are three touchstones to our design: look, sound, and feel. Sound is part of the feedback riders get when riding. Fortunately, it turned out that those two gears we used when we positioned the motor create a very distinct noise—kind of a jet-engine whir—which was a happy accident. We had to modify it a little—it was too loud—but we’ve been getting very positive feedback about how it sounds.
AD: Why include something that looks like a gas tank on an electric bike?
KR: We felt like we needed something symbolic to connect this motorcycle to our other designs. The top cover of the LiveWire covers electronics and batteries and looks like a design from one of our Sportster models, but it’s longer and has a drop nose reminiscent of our XR racers.
AD: Will motorcycle form at some point follow the function of electric motors?
KR: You could make a case that electric motors might call for something totally unique, a crazy unicycle with gyroscopes. But we have a history and our loyal customers to speak to with our design. As Willie G. Davidson famously put it, “Form follows function, but both report to emotion.”
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