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The Dawn of a whole new era

Published: 15 July 2001

Updated: 19 November 2014

HARLEY-DAVIDSON isn’t a name that generally conjures up excitement and 140mph bikes. In fact think of a Harley and you’re probably already asleep. Wake up now because things for the oldest name in motorcycling have just taken a massive turn in the right direction with a new bike you might even be tempted, sorry, you’ll really want to ride.

Not only has the new V-Rod installed that real wow factor in the way the bike rides that extends way above the chrome, they’ve also managed to make it look distinctly aggressive enough to throw out any feelings of leather chaps and piss-pot helmets.

This bike is quick, like properly quick spinning its rear wheel away from the lights quick with an engine that keeps pulling right the way past where a normal Harley has nipped of for a cough and splutter. With even more power where you least expect it at the top-end.

But it’s no fluke because the new V-Rod uses an engine derived from the VR1000 superbike that currently races in the USA’s AMA Superbike championship. And though it’s no lightweight fire-breather it is putting out a respectable 115bhp from its liquid-cooled 1130cc engine.

An engine that Porsche Engineering helped develop and Harley’s first liquid-cooled road bike motor.

Combine that with all-American hot-rod and dragster inspired styling (hence the V-Rod name) and you’ve got what Harley calls the start of their new VRSCA family. The A because the V-Rod is the first in a new line of performance customs in this vein and the rest for V-twin Racing Street Custom.

Harley chose to launch their new bike in Los Angeles at the foot of the San Gabriel mountain range and we were among the first people in the world to see and ride the bike. To give you some idea of what a massive thing this bike is for Harley, even two hours in to the press conference not one person from Harley-Davidson USA, Europe or Britain would cough what the name of this bike was let alone what it actually looked like. And there it was, one hour later the cover was whipped off and the V-Rod was unveiled and I must admit despite all the hype it took me totally by surprise.

It’s like no other Harley you’ve ever looked at before. For a start it’s full of aluminium, it’s got a radiator and the styling is fresh but also fits somewhere around a V-Max and a Buell. Though Harley claim they originally had the idea for this bike in 1995 so claim they’ve copied no-one but themselves. One thing’s for certain, just as you think every year they’re going to bring out a bike with new rubber engine mounts and a restyled seat and mudguard, they’ve still got it in them. 99 years old or not this is a bike for the modern age.

Aside from seeing and sitting on the V-Rod, the first time I got to ride it was at LA’s Irwindale Speedway where Harley had a bike set-up on the 1/8th mile drag strip (see separate box-out). And it was immediately impressive running a 7.77s 1/8th mile run at 95.87mph. Going on drag racer’s theory that should give it a proper quarter mile run of 11.9s at 112mph. Pretty impressive stuff you think that something like a GSX-R1000 is only just over a second faster.

With Harley staff and the Poncharello look-a-like California Highway Patrol man explaining that our chance to test the bike’s performance was oin the dragstrip, twenty five V-Rods are escorted out of Irwindale on to Freeway 605 North. We’re being escorted because as yet the general public hasn’t seen the bike and Harley wanted to keep it that way. Find the key on the side of the bike turn it all the way forward and the needles of the speedo, tacho and fuel gauge all jump round the dial in a very Japanese way with the rev-counter needle glowing red when it hits the red-line. Why? Because as Harley says it shows all your instruments are working and it’s a cool thing to show your friends. And yes they really did say that.

Straight away you’re in no doubt you’re riding a Harley but it’s a very different experience. At low revs the bike’s engine has got some real guts to it, like no Harley before it and as we head out on to the freeway I’m blown away by how fast it really is.

At 70mph behind the Chips in front of me the bike’s barely registering on its rev-counter and it’s totally relaxing to ride. In fact if you really want to you can ride round town in top gear at 2000rpm and 20mph and it will chug a bit yet pull cleanly right the way up to its maximum top-speed. For the record, 1st gear is good for 50mph, second for 80mph and it’s top speed is reckoned by Harley to be between 137mph and 140mph depending on different bikes.

The way you sit in the bike doesn’t make it feel like it’s built for speed, with the back of the seat resting against your lower back and your feet forward chopper style across the length of the narrow bike. Just be careful not to burn your legs on the right hand side pipes.

Above 70mph your legs start flapping around a bit but the bike is dead stable and pretty comfortable once you’ve got used to your feet sitting out front. And besides this is a performance cruiser not a sports bike or tourer.

As we head off the 210 East past trucks longer than the drag strip we’ve been riding on earlier I take a look back in the mirrors. With twenty five or so V-Rods behind me we peel off and it’s an impressive sight with the bikes distinctive headlights glowing thanks to American laws which mean they have to stay on at all times. UK bikes will have light on/off switches.

After a couple of miles through a dead-end town lined with palm trees the parade of bikes crosses the railway line that signals the end of the town and we’re in to Canyon country.

The San Gabriel Canyon Road passes a run down Cocktail Bar probably last seen in a movie and I pass a sign for twisty roads for the next 20 miles.

Laid back the bike doesn’t feel like it should be something that goes round corners but it copes with them quite well. Despite the relaxed steering and fork angle where the forks look like they’re a few feet in front of you when you’re riding, it turns beautifully.

The Canyon is demanding and better built for a KTM Duke than a Harley but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Pitch it in to a corner, easy now as there’s still not tons of ground clearance, and despite its long wheelbase the bike’s dead easy to flick from left to right. Although one bike I rode had a slight problem which Harley said was down to the head bearings being over-tightened, the others did nothing wrong in the handling. For its class you understand.

The Canyon is full of hairpin bends and tight sweepers and though the footrest is grinding followed by the lower exhaust and the radiator shroud, it’s great fun to ride on a road like this. The key is in backing off, giving yourself a bit more ground clearance and letting the bike’s engine reward you on the way out of every bend.

The engine is the real reason for this bike’s existence and it’s an absolute classic. Forget all preconceptions you’ve got of this bike and let the engine do the talking. There’s really two ways to ride it on this road.

One is to leave the revs down low and ride the 74ftlb of torque short shifting out of every corner and feeling it vibrate a bit as that classic big twin noise booms from the twin mufflers. It’s surprisingly loud as standard but it all seems to be from the pipes, not the airbox. And because it’s a 60-degree V-twin it’s more jacket-potato than the traditional potato-potato noise.

But the bikes will be the same in the UK so no worries there, and besides it won’t be long before most bikes get fitted with the Screamin Eagle aftermarket silencers.

But if short-shifting isn’t your thing you can ride it like a real bike and ring it for all its worth. The motor is dead smooth and quiet compared to a conventional Harley and it’s got a real kick in the top-end. You can feel the engine pulling hard up to 5000rpm and if you didn’t have a rev-counter you’d swear that was all it had. But investigate a little more and twist the throttle harder and it feels like the bike has a supercharger. The last 4000rpm kick in so hard you could be on a TL1000S.

Okay so it won’t be threatening to lift the front wheel but on a road like this you do have to watch yourself. Shift gear on the stiff but heading in the right direction gearbox, dial in some throttle and the kick’s still there. It really is a genuinely fast that even after two days of riding I could hardly get my head round. To put the power claim in perspective the bike’s making more claimed horsepower than a 996 at similar revs!

Okay so you’d never be able to stay with a 996 unless the road was straight but few custom bikes could even begin to get close, except perhaps for the 1500cc F6C.Further on up the Canyon the group has split as photographs are taken and I get to ride on my own for a bit. For the most part of this road you need to only keep it in second and third gear and rev it out between corners but in these spectacular surroundings it somehow feels correct to take the lazy route and chug through third and fourth.

There’s plenty of engine braking to let you roll off between corners but the brakes are fine if you need them. Like a lot of custom bikes carrying this much weight the bike works well by using a fair bit of back brake as well as front. The front calliper is more than up to it and there’s considerably less dive than on older Harleys. The forks are still soft but they seem to work and you actually have some idea of when it’s going to lock the front tyre rather than just doing it.

With a tree spotted for a bit of shade in temperatures climbing beyond 35 degrees I pull in for yet more water on the edge of Morris Dam. As I park up and the bike’s cooling fan is kicking in (it still seems odd to hear this sound on a Harley) the metal is tinkling as it cools down and the noise of three V-Rods bounce of the Canyon walls. The last time Morris dam heard a sound like this was in World War Two when the dam towering above the San Gabriel River was used for more than storing water. During the war the US Navy tested more than fifty different rockets, torpedoes and bombs in the dam. And though its loud, a group of Harleys on the charge doesn’t even come close to what that must have sounded like.

Rested and watered the familiar sound of the Harley’s starter motor is pressed in to life and I ride past a sign for 5000ft. No matter how high I get the bike never fails to respond and feels as strong up here as it does at sea level. That’s thanks to the bikes fuel-injection system which constantly recalibrates itself depending on the temperature, throttle position and altitude.

A bike with carbs up this high would be struggling. But on this is doesn’t seem to matter and it’s great pitching it in to a corner feeling for the edge of the line between grinding out and being on the limit of the 180-section rear tyre before piling on the power on the way out. Bumps don’t seem to upset it and though the rear suspension is a lot firmer than the front, they didn’t feel mismatched. It’s all very safe and predictable where a normal Harley would be tying itself in knots.

Eventually I get to the top of Bear Canyon and I’m greeted by a load of cops and Harley-Davidson staff who are eager to ask what I think of the bike. But I think they know already as I smile and take along look over the bike.

So, convinced you want one? Well maybe not when I tell you the price when it goes on sale in September is likely to be between £14,000 and £15,000. But that’s irrelevant. It’s the kind of bike you either dream about or would prefer to buy a couple of sports bike and a trallie.

It will sell Harleys to a new audience, to people who think they want a Harley but can’t bare to lose the kind of power they’ve been used to. But for my closing comment I’ll leave you with this. An R6 rider I met on the Canyon couldn’t believe how cool the bike was, and he’s had sports bikes all his riding life and never considered a Harley before. Whereas a truck driver complete with long beard who’d owned Harleys in the past said: " That’s not a Harley, it doesn’t sound like a Harley and it’s got a radiator. And as he looked at himself in the chrome pipes and chromed-up engine said: " Besides you’d have a real load of trouble trying to chrome all that. "

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