The story of the 40-year old e-bike prototype

Electric bikes, or e-bikes, as they are colloquially called, are everywhere these days. One can easily acquire one brand new, drive it off the dealer lot, and plug it into a household socket to recharge. We have modern battery technology and their mass production in China to thank for the proliferation of these affordable and practical machines. It's no surprise that we're seeing more, with many of them far more affordable than a conventional internal combustion-powered motorcycle, and more affordable to run in the long run, too. Even mainstream brands like Harley-Davidson, Vespa, Kymco, and Honda are developing, if not already selling electric models. Some industry experts predict that a shift to electric motorcycles is already underway, owing largely to laws in European cities that aim to ban petrol powered vehicles beginning 2020 up to 2030.

The e-bike may seem like a modern invention, but did you know that a fully-working Harley-Davidson e-bike had already been developed as early as 1978?

40-year old Harley-Davidson e-Bike image

Some 41 years ago, Steve Fehr of the Transitron Electronic Corporation built a one-off Harley-Davidson electric motorcycle prototype in Honolulu, Hawaii. Fehr's team used a 1971 Harley-Davidson XLH Sportster as a donor bike, swapping out its 900cc OHV V-twin for a 24-volt, 95-ampere Baldor electric motor and 4 deep cycle lead-acid batteries. The power from the electric motor is then transferred to a four speed automatic transmission via belt drive and then a chain as final drive.

40-year old Harley-Davidson e-Bike image

At a time when batteries — particularly lead-acid — were notoriously heavy, the e-bike prototype was predictably heavy. It tipped the scales at 682 pounds (286 kg). Despite that, it was reportedly able to accelerate from 0 to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) in 6 seconds. This was a feat only matched by the fastest Italian supercars or muscle cars with 6 to 7.0-lite engines. Unfortuantely, 80 km/h was also its top speed. However, it could maintain this with the engine comfortably humming along at 2,500 rpm.

40-year old Harley-Davidson e-Bike image

It's four deep-cycle batteries could theoretically give it a 6-hour running time. To monitor its performance, the bike's instrument panel was mounted to the handlebars, featuring an electric speedometer, tachometer and dual ammeters for measuring amps.

Although fairly successful for an e-bike at the time, Transitron Electronic Corporation was not able to get enough funding to continue development for the project. Even Harley-Davidson showed little interest. Nonetheless, legendary designer, Brooks Stevens, who penned such iconic vehicles as the 1949 Harley-Davidson FL Hydra Glide, the 1962 Studebaker Hawk Gran Turismo, and Jeep Wagoneer, saw potential in the project.

Stevens, then-67-year-old, worked with Fehr to help test the prototype. They racked up 360 miles (579 km) of on-track testing of the prototype in Wisconsin.

Electric Harleys are older than you think image

After a total of US$70,000 invested (~ PhP14.1-million in today's money), the project capitulated and the bike was kept for display at Stevens’ transportation museum in Mequon, Wisconsin (famous for producing the Oscar Mayer Weinermobiles). The bike was on display until 1999, when the museum was closed.

Quite prophetically, in 2014, Fehr's Harley-Davidson MK2 electric Sportster was sold for US$11,000 at an RM Sotheby's auction, the same year Harley-Davidson introduced its LiveWire electric bike prototype.