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World first test on Harley’s most important new bike for years

Published: 08 July 2001

The oldest name in motorcycling has just taken a massive turn in the right direction with a 140mph water-cooled bike that even the most sports-focused riders may be tempted by.

The new V-Rod looks aggressive enough to crush any thoughts of leather chaps and piss-pot helmets. This bike is quick… 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.

And there’s 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 a liquid-cooled 1130cc engine that Porsche Engineering helped develop. This is Harley’s first liquid-cooled road bike.

It is the start of what Harley calls the 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.

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. 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. A GSX-R1000 is only just over a second faster.

Then there’s the chance to ride it on the roads. 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.

At low revs the bike’s engine has got some real guts and as we head out on to the freeway I’m blown away by how fast it reallty is.

At 70mph 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 its 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.

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 overtightened, the others did nothing wrong.

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 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.

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 caliper 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.

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.

Bumps don’t seem to upset it and though the rear suspension is a lot firmer than the front, they don’t feel mis-matched. It’s all very safe and predictable where a normal Harley would be tieing 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 a long 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.

Read more of Marc Potter’s world first test in MCN, published July 18, 2001.

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