Cruisin' on E85

Craig Ammann of KL Process Design Group and a South Dakota Harley-Davidson dealership converted Ammann's 2004 Electra Glide Harley-Davidson motorcycle to run on ethanol.
By Hope Deutscher | October 06, 2008
In the spring of 2007, Craig Ammann took a leap of faith—using Harley-Davidson parts his 2004 Electra Glide Harley-Davidson motorcycle was converted to use E85 as its primary fuel source and, when necessary, premium fuel as its secondary source.

"I just kind of started thinking about this concept—wouldn't it make a great story if we had an American-made bike with an American-made fuel all coming together," Ammann says.
Ammann, who has been riding motorcycles for six years and has worked in sales and marketing the past 15 years, has been interested in the ethanol industry for some time. He joined the renewable fuels industry two years ago when he was hired by Rapid City, S.D.-based KL Process Design Group as its director of marketing and distribution in Sioux Falls, S.D. KL Process Design operates corn ethanol plants in South Dakota and Nebraska, and a wood-waste-to-ethanol plant in Upton, Wyo.

Three years ago, Ammann bought a used, but well-cared-for 2004 Electra Glide Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and shortly thereafter, upgraded it. He used a standard big-bore kit to increase the engine size, and added a new exhaust system and a high-performance air intake—all to increase the horsepower and torque.

Then, in 2007 he suggested to his boss, David Litzen, an owner of KL Process Design Group, that he would offer up his personal motorcycle to the Black Hills Harley-Davidson dealership in Rapid City to be modified to use an 85 percent ethanol blend. Litzen encouraged Ammann to do it. "I approached the owner of Black Hills Harley with the idea and he offered his master technician to do the work on the bike to get it remapped to burn on E85," Ammann says. "The owner is a big fan of ethanol and was all for what I was proposing."

So, with the help of Chris Myers, a Black Hills Harley-Davidson master service technician, Ammann's fuel-injected bike was put to the test to see what, if any, affect E85 would have on it. Deep down Ammann told himself it would run fine but if anything happened to the bike, it would be at his own expense.

"Basically, being in the industry and knowing ethanol, I had no reservations about doing this with the bike," Ammann says. "I knew that the ethanol was not going to hurt the bike, if anything it was going to help it run more smoothly and more efficiently. So I said ‘Let's do this. Let's put a tank of E85 in, let's run it and let's see how it goes.' So we literally drained the tank and put in a full tank of E85 and just ran the bike, just to see how it would run."

Modifying the Hog
From the first tank of E85—without any initial modifications—Ammann says the bike's fuel injection system ran rather well. However, he admits, it did choke a little bit at first, due to the difference between premium fuel and E85.

The fuel-injected bike's electronic computer module, which is programmed with the engine and fuel type specifications, had to be remapped. "So basically we needed to put the bike on the Dyno (dynamometer machine) and let the technician literally just play with different mapping scenarios to compensate for the alcohol content and adjust the air intake and the fuel injection so that the bike ran smoothly," Ammann says. Because E85 has a higher ethanol content, it runs at a higher octane level—but Ammann says it runs cleaner and burns more completely.

Myers says, like most mechanics, he was skeptical of E85 because of the negative rumors he had heard. However, he was receptive to the idea of modifying Ammann's motorcycle. After some researching, experimenting, and spending approximately 12 hours adjusting the bike's computer mapping scenarios to find the best equation for air intake and fuel, Myers was impressed by E85 and how the bike operates on the renewable fuel—which burns cooler and should burn better in high-compression engines, such as those used in Harley-Davidsons.

Although the bike can use both E85 and premium fuel, Myers recommends that for optimal use the bike should operate on a steady diet of E85.

Myers admits until E85 is more readily available, he's reluctant to convert more bikes. He is open and receptive to doing the work, but it's important that people understand that
the long-term affects of using E85 in a modified Harley-Davidson motorcycle are not yet known. "I'm happy to get involved and see where the road takes us," Myers says.

To his knowledge, Ammann says custom bikes using ethanol have been built, but nobody has taken a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, straight from the factory, and worked with a dealership to convert a bike to use E85.

Ammann went through a Harley-Davidson dealership to make the conversion, in part, so they could go to the manufacturer, and say "look, we've done this with Harley technicians and Harley parts to make this work—and it's working just fine."

"I've got to believe that within their confidential confines they've got some of this testing going on," Ammann continues. "It'll be a long time before we have Harley putting their flex-fuel bike out there but it's got to start somewhere." Harley-Davidson has given its approval to use E10 and E15. "In essence we're pushing the envelope a little bit, but this gives them a real-life example and scenario and they can see that the E85 is not ruining engines, it's not melting parts and engines aren't blowing up and overheating," Ammann says. "Ultimately, I'd like to see them develop a flex-fuel computer chip that really requires no Dyno time, that's just simply a chip that you can buy at the dealership and takes just a little bit of time to download it into the engine and away you go. Or just like the car manufacturers do with a flex-fuel vehicle that comes off the line, it would be a flex-fuel bike, something that would be an added feature to a bike that came right off the factory floor."

Showing Off the Bike
Even though Ammann lives in Sioux Falls, he approached the Black Hills Harley-Davidson dealership because KL Process Group is headquartered in Rapid City and he thought the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D., which is just north of Rapid City, would be an ideal place and time to promote his bike cruising on ethanol.

"The idea was to launch the idea and make noise about it, in conjunction with the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council, at the Sturgis Rally last year," he says. EPIC also featured its ethanol-fueled Indy car. Ammann says the initial reaction from the hundreds of curious motorcyclists who looked over the bike was positive. "Everybody thought it was very cool," he says. "We didn't have anybody come up and say ‘this is ridiculous' or ‘you're wasting your time.'

There is a lot of education to be done with the general public, Ammann says. For example at Sturgis there were questions about ethanol causing the engine to overheat and the components to erode—all of which, Ammann says is really misinformation "because ethanol really helps the engine run cooler and smoother and burns more completely. So for an air-cooled engine like a V-twin Harley-Davidson engine, it's a perfect fuel for it."

Challenge is Finding E85
"The bike has been running for over a year now just fine with ethanol," Ammann says. "We've pulled the engine apart to a degree and looked at things and there's nothing to be concerned about." Ammann says he wasn't expecting any problems because he learned about ethanol's properties since coming on board with KL Process, and he knows that there's a lot of misinformation out there .

In fact, Ammann says the bike gets about the same gas mileage, approximately 35 miles per gallon, using E85 as it did running on premium unleaded gasoline—and it has more horsepower and torque. "Basically that's because the engine, being a high-compression engine, it is able to utilize the efficiencies of the ethanol itself," Ammann says. "An E85 blend is a 105 to 108 octane fuel straight out of the pump. Anybody who rides a Harley-Davidson, when they hear those kinds of numbers, their ears pick up right away because Harley people want more power and this is one way to get it."

In Sioux Falls, Ammann, says stations carrying E85 are pretty prevalent. However, he's driven the modified bike around Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wyoming, and has found that he must do his homework before hitting the pavement. "You have to do a little research in finding where the E85 stations are at, but the beauty of this whole story is that if you have to go back to premium because E85 is not available, the bike still runs fine," he says. "It might not run as efficiently but the bike still runs on premium fuel so it's not a situation where if you went to premium fuel because there was no E85 available, that the bike just wouldn't run." As Ammann travels back and forth across South Dakota he has had to use both E85 and premium gasoline.

Ammann's friends are also interested in converting their motorcycles to use ethanol. The only thing stopping them is getting the bike to the Rapid City Harley-Davidson dealership. "I can't think of any reason why you wouldn't want to [make the conversion] other than if E85 is not available close to you," Ammann says. "The biggest thing to remember is that you are in unchartered territory at this point. Sit down with your dealership and see if they are willing to spend the time to do this. Obviously this is in its infancy stages of what we hope to be a kind of revolution of motorcycling with E85."

Being an ethanol believer before he put his motorcycle to the E85 test, Ammann is not surprised by how well the motorcycle has run on the ethanol-blended fuel. "Somebody's got to get out there and make a difference and test those naysayers' concepts and negative energy and say ‘Look—here it is. Here is living proof that this works. It's not bad, it's not eroding my engine and my engine is running better and cleaner' and anybody who is a Harley rider who has sat in a parade and felt the heat come off their engine, when they hear about cooler burning fuel, that speaks to them very loudly. And it's a good thing."

Ammann admits though, that higher blends of ethanol fuels may not work well in all small engines, such as boats and lawnmowers, where he says the plastic, rubber and aluminum parts are a cheaper grade and alcohol may erode them.

This winter, Ammann plans to return the bike to the Black Hills Harley-Davidson dealership and let Myers inspect the engine to see if, after using E85 for more than a year, there are any signs of deterioration. "I'm confident there won't be but it's the last step, offering visual proof that running on E85 won't hurt a motorcycle," Ammann says.

Hope Deutscher is the Ethanol Producer Magazine online editor. Reach her at or (701) 373-8046.