Inside the Creation of Harley-Davidson’s New Line of Electric Bikes

By Lilly Milman |  December 3, 2020

The oldest artifact you encounter in the Harley-Davidson Museum, located just a few miles from the company’s headquarters in Milwaukee, isn’t related to a motorcycle. It’s a drawing from 1901 of an accessory motor for a bicycle — an idea that seems to anticipate the e-bikes made by the company’s new spin-off, the Serial 1 Cycle Company

Everything from the concept of the electric bicycle to the name of the brand — a reference to “Serial One,” Harley’s oldest known motorcycle from 1903 — is an homage to the company’s history. 

Aaron Frank, Serial 1 Cycle Company

Seeing the drawing of the 1901 motor “made me realize that Harley-Davidson wasn’t necessarily founded as a motorcycle company. They were really founded as a mobility company,” says Aaron Frank, Brand Director of Serial 1 Cycle Company and author of the book The Harley-Davidson Story: Tales from the Archives. 

Frank himself is an unofficial Harley historian. He also worked as an editor for over a decade at a motorcycle magazine. He joined the company two years ago to work in the marketing department, with the goal of helping to develop e-bike products, and now reports directly to Serial 1’s President, Jason Huntsmen.

Building from the Ground Up

Harley-Davidson’s prior foray into electric products was the LiveWire, the company’s first all-electric motorcycle, released in 2019. But the move into bicycles following the LiveWire wasn’t an afterthought. The company wanted to build a new bicycle product from the ground up, rather than just shopping for existing technology and integrating it.

Serial 1 began as a skunkworks project in Harley’s Product Development Center. The product was designed by in-house engineers, and the team was “working on the bicycles in earnest for about two years,” Frank says.

“That is very fast, especially if you look closely at our prototypes,” Frank explains. “There’s a lot of intellectual property built into the prototypes. There’s a lot of fine design and engineering.” In contrast, he says, there are “vehicle manufacturers jumping into the space, and a lot of them are really just doing bad slaps. They’re taking an existing product and putting their name on it. … But that was not what we did. … If you look at the bike closely, you’ll see that it is a unique-to-Harley-Davidson bike.”

The company debuted its first line of four products on November 16, with an option to pre-order, and a promise to begin deliveries in the US and Europe in Spring 2021. Each of the four bikes in the line is pedal-assisted, meaning that the user still has to pedal, and it simulates the experience of using a regular bicycle — with a boost. The models cost between $3,399 and $4,999, with varying ranges. 

None of the bikes can be driven without pedaling — meaning that they cannot be classified as mopeds in any municipalities, and will not require special licenses or insurance. The barrier to entry is also low, Frank says; if you can ride a bike, you can ride an e-bike. 

Serial 1’s engineers and designers wanted their first products to look streamlined and simple.

“If you look at those prototypes, you see integrated lighting. You see internal routing for all of the wiring, and you see a battery that’s very clean and hidden inside of the frame. It’s not tacked on to a downtube, like a big wart, or on a rack above the front or rear wheel, which some brands do. … [The bike is] designed around the motor. Less finely-designed electric bikes will just put the motor in the hub because it’s really easy.” And putting the weight of the motor in the center of the bike “really improves handling dynamics,” he adds.

Why Create a New Brand?

So, if the bicycle is part of Harley-Davidson’s origin story, why is it being released under a new brand? According to Frank, it was a question of agility. 

“Ultimately, it comes down to the ability to structure the business in a way that allows us to apply the most focus to the bicycle space,” Frank says. “Harley-Davidson is a big and well-established brand that has a lot of stuff going on in the motorcycle space. … For us to really be responsive and be agile…it makes sense to have a little bit of separation from Harley-Davidson and to be our own voice. So, we arrived at this compromise where it’s Serial 1, powered by Harley-Davidson.” 

This compromise allows Serial 1 to “tap into the Harley-Davidson brand DNA,” while also giving the e-bike team the freedom to tune into the needs of cyclists without worrying about impacting Harley’s motorcycle products, retailers, or customers. 

The “very, very lean” team behind Serial 1 is made up of a handful of full-timers and “an army of contractors,” Frank says. The engineering and product development teams are based in space that Serial 1 leases from its parent on the Harley-Davidson headquarters campus in Milwaukee. The e-commerce and digital development teams have found a new home in Salt Lake City, which Frank says “is becoming a little bit of a tech hub right now.” And the spin-off is continuing to hire in the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City. 

Looking Back & Thinking Ahead

While history plays a huge role in the new line of e-bikes, there’s also a lot of evidence that now is the right moment to bring e-bikes to market — especially as the pandemic has consumers worried about taking crowded public transportation and about improving their health. 

Around the US, Frank observes, “we have major parks that are closed to vehicular traffic right now to give people places to recreate and ride bicycles safely,” and in Milwaukee, “we have other bicycle avenues being created around the city and bike lanes being expanded.” That’s a trend that has long been evident in European countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, where cycling is built into the infrastructure. (For example, in Denmark, 90 percent of residents own a bicycle and about 44 percent of households do not own a car, according to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark.) 

E-bike sales have also been surging, in the US and abroad. In March and April alone, the US experienced an 87 percent year-over-year increase in e-bike sales. In Germany, e-bike sales are lapping regular bike sales, according to The Verge. And over the summer months, sales of e-bikes and electric scooters more than tripled in the UK. 

“When you look at cities in Europe or in Asia that are super futuristic-looking and forward-thinking, bicycling is the big thing there. So it’s interesting, seeing the US catching up with that… I think that New York City is trying to transform itself into Amsterdam as fast as possible to cut down on congestion and allow people easy, safe, and fun ways to get across the city.”

The hope is that with enough independence and flexibility, the Serial 1 venture can tap into that growth in the US and abroad. And Frank believes that his team has managed to balance speed, Harley’s heritage, and a rugged, rider-friendly product.

“There’s a lot of time and effort into making a unique, bespoke, authentically Harley-Davidson vehicle here,” he says. “And the fact that we did that in two years is kind of amazing.”