Motorcycles Test Riding The Harley-Davidson LiveWireWe went to the Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire to explore the history, and future, of electric motorcycles.
- Words Adam Fitzgerald
- Images Gregory George Moore
In 1974, Mike Corbin began marketing the XLP-1, the first-ever street-legal electric motorcycle. His vision was ahead of its time: to build a line of electric vehicles that changed the way that people moved in cities and suburbs. Its tagline: A motorcycle for now that ensures our future.
The XLP-1 (Experimental Limited Production) had a claimed 30-mile range, a 30-minute run time, and a three-hour charge time. It featured a single-contact on/off switch instead of a throttle, and its hill-climbing ability was touted in the marketing materials. Professor Charles MacArthur, a renowned EV activist from Maine, decided to put this claim to the test on the biggest hill he could find: The Mount Washington Auto Road, a 7.6-mile, 4,618-foot climb to an altitude of 6,145 feet. MacArthur traded Corbin a hot air balloon for an XLP-1 with a modified rear sprocket to make the ascent. On July 13, 1974, MacArthur, aboard Corbin’s XLP-1, successfully became the first man to climb Mount Washington on an electric vehicle.
Forty-six years later, in our home state of New Hampshire, Corbin and MacArthur’s motorcycle is still kept on display in the museum at the base of Mount Washington. So when the all-electric Harley-Davidson LiveWire landed in our hands, there was no better vehicle to make the pilgrimage to see the legendary XLP-1 and ride the steep and winding Auto Road just as MacArthur did. We plugged in the LiveWire and mapped out the 143-mile route to the base of the mountain.
That’s when our trip north took a turn south.
Retracing the path of the XLP-1 with the LiveWire would prove harder than planned. The Harley LiveWire has a 15.5 kWh lithium-ion “rechargeable energy storage solution” powering its permanent magnet Revelation electric motor. A single charge will yield from 80 to 100 highway miles and a claimed 140 city miles depending on riding mode. Utilizing any public Level 3 DC Fast Charge station, the LiveWire will charge to 80 percent in just 40 minutes, and 100 percent in an hour. Our problem was there was only one compatible DC Fast Charger in the 143 miles between us and our destination — and it was a mile from our starting point. The alternative charging method meant utilizing the onboard Level 1 charger and power cord with any standard household outlet. Time to fully charge? Fourteen hours. If we were to ride the LiveWire up to the base, it would turn a five-hour round trip into a four-day excursion. Not ideal.
We couldn’t even imagine back in 1974 having a battery like the new lithium-ion batteries. They’re so far ahead of anything we even dreamt of ... Total game-changers in the ability and possibility of EVs.
So our trip would start the way that Corbin and MacArthur’s did: hauling the bike in the back of a pickup truck. Upon arrival, we rolled the 550-pound LiveWire out of the truck at the base of Mount Washington. There waiting for us was the XLP-1 in all its glory. Almost 50 years ago, this was Corbin’s vision for the future of EV motorcycles. Now, the future that was ultimately realized was sitting right in front of us wearing the badge that Corbin would have least expected. As we laugh about what we had to do in order to get the LiveWire here, it’s questionable how far we’ve really come. Is this the future that Corbin and MacArthur expected?
“At the time there were only lead-acid batteries, which were very heavy and didn’t hold nearly the charge that modern batteries do,” Corbin tells us over the phone. “So the trick was to get as much power as possible and not overly labor the motor by utilizing different gear ratios, which is why — you probably noticed — the rear sprocket is very large. It took a lot of experimenting to dial in the best ratio. We couldn’t even imagine back in 1974 having a battery like the new lithium-ion batteries. They’re so far ahead of anything we even dreamt of … Total game-changers in the ability and possibility of EVs.”
With thousand-foot drops, no guardrails, blind corners, blustering winds, and a 40-degree temperature shift from base to summit, the Auto Road is not a place to tempt fate. It took MacArthur 26 minutes to reach the summit on the XLP-1. The LiveWire took us there in half that time. With its relentless amounts of power and torque, it’s easy to imagine a less risk-averse rider cutting that time in half again. (Travis Pastrana set the record in 2017 at five minutes, 44 seconds in a Subaru WRX STI.) With the only EV motorcycle in sight at the summit, we experienced a moment of pride and reverence for the accomplishments of Corbin and MacArthur before we head back to the base.
Regardless of progress, EV technology has advanced faster than the infrastructure to support it. This leaves the Harley LiveWire feeling, well, stuck — like a helpless time traveler, somewhere between 40 years in the past and 40 years in the future. When we tell Corbin the limitations we experienced with the LiveWire, he speaks as one could only do with the gift of perspective and hindsight. “The infrastructure is coming soon, and what’s already been built up is very impressive.”
Mike Corbin and Charles MacArthur were pioneers ahead of their time and riding the LiveWire — despite its shortcomings — feels like progress toward the future they believed in.
(Special thanks to Crispin Battles and the Mt. Washington Auto Road for assisting this project.)