Much ado about nothing?
Motorcycle startups have three end states—some make it, some don’t, and some fall into limbo. The latter refers to companies that end up in that grey zone where you’re never too sure what’s happening, if anything. That’s where Lightning Motorcycles currently stands.
What started out as a promising, American-born project turned into a weird, convoluted situation we still don’t have answers for. We decided to do some digging to find out whatever happened to Lightning Motorcycles and what the current situation is. After copious research, we’re still not sure but we'll keep digging until we figure it out.
A Little Background Information
The Lightning LS-218 electric superbike started accumulating notable accolades before it was even introduced to the market. In 2012, the crew set a land speed record with an average speed of 215.96 miles per hour that included a 218-mph run—which inspired the model’s name. It also won such events as Pikes Peak in 2013 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans’ FIM EPower championship.
Though the superbike had yet to be formally introduced, Lighting was apparently already accepting reservations. Finally, in 2014, the Lightning LS-218 made the headlines when the company announced the introduction of what it called the world's fastest bike. Deliveries apparently started shortly after the launch. Things were seemingly off to a good start.
Then, in December, 2018, Lightning announced that it was moving to a new California HQ with bigger facilities that would ultimately allow the team to increase production of the LS-218. Though we didn’t have any specifics about the company’s production, increasing the roll-out sounded like a natural progression.
With all these elements on the board, Lightning understandably received a lot of attention when it announced that the LS-218 would get a little brother. After a few months of teasing, Lightning finally unveiled the $13,000 Strike in March, 2019. The new bike launched with three trim levels equipped with a choice of a 10, 15, or 20 kWh battery that allowed for an estimated city range of 100 to 200 miles.
Unfortunately, though the LS-218 received overall raving reviews, the Strike didn’t fare as well and early reviews weren’t nearly as enthusiastic as they were for the higher-priced LS. As the company started receiving more and more publicity and attention from the public, things started to take a bit of a weird twist.
Where Things Get Murky
One of the most notorious series of events that involved Lightning was documented back in the fall of 2019 when the owner of a aspiring South African Lightning distributor shared a massive collection of documents that illustrated his surprisingly nasty interactions with the Lightning team.
Kobus Janse van Rensburg claimed that in September, 2018, Lightning CEO Richard Hatfield himself agreed to an international distribution agreement (IDA) with his company called Electronia. The deal included van Rensburg putting a deposit toward the purchase of an LS-218 to be used for the brand’s December 2018 official South African launch.
Van Rensburg visited the Lightning office in November, 2018, where he says he was assured by Hatfield and his wife that the bike would be ready for the brand launch but was asked to pay the remaining balance up front. Van Rensburg claims he did so three weeks after the meeting. He was then apparently asked to pay the bike’s full retail price (without the dealer’s discount) since the IDA had yet to be signed, an amount the company would refund once the paperwork was signed.
Not only was the bike never delivered as promised, but van Rensburg claims that the interactions that followed alternated between Lightning flat out ignoring him, continuously making excuses to explain the delays, and Hatfield threatening him. He ended his long-winded post by warning future investors and buyers to “think carefully about the path you are about to embark with these two very brazen business people” referring to Hatfield and his wife.
Skimming through the What's App exchange van Rensburg shared on his Facebook page, between December, 2018, and February, 2019, Hatfield and wife Jojo apparently continuously claimed that there were issues with the bike and were seemingly caught in an endless “fix and test” loop. Van Rensburg eventually lawyered up.
The event could be isolated, as Electronia seems to be the only dealer to have made such claims. Isolated or not, however, should van Rensburg’s claims be true, the thread raises concerns.
In October, 2019, Motorcycle.com’s Gabe Ets-Hokin wrote about his visit of Lightning’s San José facilities and concluded after having a look around that “Lightning’s facility in San Jose is a small but complete factory capable of turning out “a lot more” than the five or six bikes per week I thought he could build, all at a price way lower than Zero or Harley Davidson could dream of.”
Yet, according to the information he gleaned at the time, production and delivery ETA on the LS-218 was of about a year—with Hatfield specifying that their goal was to eventually shorten the lead time to 90 days.
Interestingly, the CEO declined to discuss production numbers with Ets-Hokin “for business reasons.” The writer did, however, report on two buyers who received their bikes—Guido Seibt, who bought an LS-218, and Kevin Bernard, who confirmed he received his Strike. In one electricmotorcycleforum.com thred, someone even claimed that they identified two California owners who confirmed having received their Strike Carbon (top of the line), outfitted with a “temporary smaller battery pack”.
Similarly, some reviewers have noted that the Strike they tested featured much lower specs than what is promised on Lightning’s site. It seems consistent with owners’ reports of temporary downgrades.
The problem is that there seems to be an informational tug of war when it comes to Lightning. On one hand, Lightning CEO Richard Hatfield’s claims they’re delivering bikes as we speak and a few scattered owners confirmed the information. On the other, motorcycle forum enthusiasts have been quick to point out how the number of owners who came forward is tragically small.
One user even commented that on a Lightning Motorcycles owners’ Facebook group, most members' interactions revolved around wondering where the bike they ordered is.
Update: While the first group of Lightning Motorcycles Owners we found was a private one administered by Richard Hatfield himself, a bit of probing allowed us to find a second group, open this time that didn't initially appear in our research. The disgruntled comments the forum user alluded to date back to 2019.
The most recent interactions among members do refer to a few owners, including one who generously offered to report on a regular basis about his Strike. We found no other evidence of people wondering about their orders. On the other end, the current conversations now revolve around the lack of real-life data from the company and references to bikes being delivered without the promised specs.
More neutral users pin the company’s “shady” aura to the fact that there’s an apparent lack of transparency and that, as much as they want to support Lightning, the absence of communication from the company makes it hard to believe anything they say. Some of them even wrote that they’ve attempted to reach out to the company and/or to the CEO himself with questions in regards to the products but never heard back.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, some members of the forums we consulted defended the company and made their position clear. “You folks who have or have ridden these bikes know the truth,” wrote one of the supporting users.
In December, 2019, Richard Hatfield talked with electrek about the status of things and confirmed that production and delivery of the Lightning Strike were underway.
“We’re producing the Carbon Editions at this point," he started. "We’re working through that list and we’re getting all the tooling finished for the Standard Edition. We’ve had some delays for the injection molds and the forgings for the Standard Edition. But we should be on track to begin shipping the Standard Editions next year in Q1.”
Like most other manufacturers on the planet, however, the global pandemic likely threw a wrench in their wheel. Or did it?
In May, 2020, a Lightning Motorcycle patent surfaced in China, detailing an enclosed electric motorcycle concept. The concept’s prototype was later spotted on the road which confirmed that Lightning was seemingly developing a new motorcycle.
This prompted us to wonder whether the timing was ripe for Lightning to expand its lineup rather than expand its team to improve customer service and relations (which seems to be lacking at the moment) and expedite production to fulfill all the alleged outstanding orders.
We turned to Lightning’s social media in an attempt to get an idea of what the situation was. We noticed a bit of a trend in the comments. On the company’s most recent post, dated August 20, 2020, a disgruntled user claimed the company is a scam, explaining that he placed his order two years ago and was apparently ignored when he requested a refund. Another one commented that people could send them (the company) money but that they’d never hear from them again.
A third user confirmed that he received his refund and that all people had to do was to "ask nicely".
In October, 2020, Lightning Motorcycles was inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame for “Environmental Engineering”. We reached out to the organization to find out what the criteria to be inducted are but have yet to hear back. Should the nomination process be elaborate enough, it would contribute to giving the company more credibility.
On a Reddit thread dated November 19, 2020, people had similar comments about the company, calling it a scam. One commenter even claimed that Hatfield was captured on camera threatening people who gave his company’s products bad reviews.
They could be referring to this July, 2019, video that shows a heated argument between someone in a Lightning Motorcycles t-shirt identified as Richard Hatfield and electric motorcycle racer Brandon Nozaki Miller, who apparently claimed Lightning wasn't producing motorcycles yet.
Note that the video doesn’t show how the conversation started, that we don’t know who initiated the interaction nor how they were approached in the first place.
The company continues to post to its social media on a fairly irregular basis, more specifically on Facebook as there’s been no recent activity on any of their other platforms. To be fair, someone on the electricmotorcycleforum.com mentioned that as of January, 2019, the company didn’t have any dedicated social media staff, which could explain the lack of online presence and interactions.
Update: We heard back from Lightning Motorcycles CEO Richard Hatfield regarding claims of delayed orders and people struggling to get a refund. He also provided an update on the situation for the Lightning Strike.
He confirmed that orders for the Lightning Strike Carbon Edition are currently being prioritized. He commented that cases of "lower specced" Carbons stem from a supply chain problem that led the team to offer more eager customers a chance to get their bikes with the standard battery pack with the promise of an upgrade to the expected Carbon specs once the issue is resolved. Our understanding is that owners with "lower specced" Carbons were made aware of the situation.
He also mentioned that as we write this, he is not aware of any pending requests for refunds.
Whew, kids, this is a tough one. On the one hand, we’re always glad to see more companies promoting green energies and all that good stuff. Add to that the fact that one of the fastest motorcycles in the world is electric and that’s something we can be excited about.
However, there are red flags to address including the fact that Lightning systematically refuses to discuss how many motorcycles have been produced so far or what the current production capacity currently is, the apparent lack of communication on the company’s part.
We won’t say outright that it’s a scam, but as things currently stand, it’s hard to vouch for the company. Better communication and transparency would definitely help the brand’s image in the public’s eye.
We hope, if only for the endorsers’ sake, that Lightning Motorcycles isn’t the scam some claim it is. We will keep digging into this and try to get a better idea of what the situation is and report back with any updates we'll have.