As Harleys become progressively more up to date, they’re maintaining their old virtues
“I’m just an old-fashioned girl with an old-fashioned mind,
Not sophisticated, I’m the sweet and simple kind…”
There’s a long, downhill, almost-straight out of the Otways forest towards Glenaire that’s a hoot on a quick bike. Even if it’s wet, as it was recently on the 2010 H-D Australian launch.
Except when a third of the road is covered in diesel as well.
Top marks to the bespoke Dunlop D209 Qualifiers with which the XR1200X Sportster is shod. The bike went sideways for a little, then caught — softly, no suggestion of a highside — and recovered its direction down the hill. I made a point of staying out of the diesel slick after that. It continued for a few kilometres, but fortunately stopped before we encountered the typical Otways pea-souper fog.
Did you know that it takes 7,000,000,000 of the droplets in fog to make a teaspoonful of water? There were a few litres of water in the air that day. Visibility was rather less than 20 metres, I’d say. I was lucky to be behind an Iron 883 Sportster because that has twin tail-lights, so I could triangulate how far it was ahead of me as we tackled the twisties on the way up to Weeaproinah and Gellibrand.
That might sound like the bike launch from hell, but in fact it was fun — for one very simple reason.
“I want an old-fashioned car, a cerise Cadillac,
Long enough to put a bowling alley in the back …”
Things have changed at the Motor Company. Time was when new models from Milwaukee meant a colour change, a new iteration of the logo or possibly the front end from one model placed on the frame of another. The launch of the renewed and refreshed touring range last year gave notice that those days are over. Those bikes offered vastly improved handling and braking, including even anti-lock braking systems (ABS).
These days, a new Harley is categorically a better Harley as improvements make their way through the substantial range of Sportsters, Softails, Dynas, touring bikes and even VRSC V-Rods. That VRSCF Muscle is easily the best V-Rod ever.
Cynics might say it’s high time. They’d be right … in a way.
Remember that, since the management takeover, Harley-Davidson’s shareholders have done well. For a while there, in the depth of the financial crisis, the Motor Company was worth more than all of General Motors put together. For many years, this was achieved without a lot of technical improvement, which must have saved a load of money. That would have pleased the shareholders, but there is only so long you can go on — even if you’re H-D — without serious technical improvement. But it’s not enough to make improvements. You have to respect the soul of the brand as well.
What shall it profit a bike if it gains decent Nissin brakes yet loses its soul?
Traditionally, Harley-Davidsons have not sold because of their technological sophistication. Even today, it would be a rare buyer who is seduced by the Downdraft Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection or ABS. He or she is much more likely to respond to the long, low and lean look and the growl of the engine.
Low looks and growling engines are not sophisticated or new; but they are part of Harley-Davidson’s soul. And if the Motor Company loses that, it definitely stands to lose the whole world.
So why bother with the technological sophistication? I mean, I appreciate it and so does every other motorcycle scribe who rides the new bikes. But we’re not a huge part of the market and, if our readers don’t much care about it, why should H-D?
For two or maybe three reasons.
An overwhelming reason is that the legislative environment is changing. Motorcycles need to be cleaner and safer just to be allowed into some markets. It’s very hard to meet California’s emission limits without fuel injection, for instance, and there is a good chance that the European Union will make ABS mandatory on new bikes pretty soon. Get up to date or get locked out is the message, and Milwaukee is responding.
I also believe that Harley-Davidson is genuinely interested in making its bikes as safe and congenial as possible. Always remember that Harleys are not sold with those incredibly annoying, earth-shakingly loud open pipes. That’s something the owners “add”, and I suspect that H-D’s Australian boss Peter Nochar flinches just as much as I do when a bike equipped with them goes past.
Finally, I’m pretty sure that there are potential buyers out there who have become sophisticated enough so that, while they still respond to the primeval attraction of the Milwaukee machinery, they also demand the safety and convenience that modern technology brings.
Always as long as there is no danger to the soul of the brand.
“I like Chopin and Bizet
And the songs of yesterday…”
Fortunately, Harley-Davidson understands the soul and mystique of the bar-and-shield well enough to avoid damaging the brand with overemphasis on technology or any other way. The V-Rod family of bikes looked a little too far out in left field for a while there, but the Muscle is bringing it back into the company style.
So when I use the phrase “old-fashioned girls”, I’m not criticising or sneering; I’m congratulating H-D’s development team. But just who are these girls they want us to take to our hearts? We rode four of the 2010 models, probably the ones that have seen the most significant changes.
The very basic Iron 883 Sportster is a very good example of the way in which you can remain mindful of your history while introducing a new model. “These bikes have remained true to their original raw styling,” says H-D, “with a trademark low seat height (sic), peanut fuel tank and natural riding position … with plenty of attitude.” True, true. The look is great, power is adequate and the bike is clearly designed to be personalised. It’s also well priced at $13,350 on the road.
And while we’re talking on the road, the Iron 883 maintains all the traditional virtues of the Sportster range. It is narrow and manoeuvrable, making it a good traffic bike, and it goes well enough to keep up with other cruisers on the open road. I rode it first on the freeway, where it was a little out of place, but then thoroughly enjoyed it in the twisties. There is enough bottom end to punch convincingly out of slow corners.
One thing was a little odd. The bike does come with a solo seat, but that can presumably be changed. It also seems to lack anywhere to mount pillion footpegs. Can it really be a dedicated solo machine? I’ll get back to you on that.
I rode the new Dyna Wide Glide for most of the Great Ocean Road, something I would have regarded as cruel and unusual punishment not too long ago. But the 2010 bike handles significantly better than its predecessors, so instead of being terrified, I actually found myself enjoying the narrow cliff-hugging bitumen above Bass Strait.
Don’t get me wrong. Since they were introduced, Dynas have been the best-handling big Harleys, anyway, but it’s taken until now to make them fun on challenging roads. As well, the clutch is noticeably lighter and the fuel injection means pickup is flawless. I know I’m probably a bit of a dinosaur, but I still can’t for the life of me see why a bike like this needs a six-speed transmission, though. The Wide Glide rolls out onto the road for $28,725, ride away. I rode two of these bikes and I thought the little accessory windscreen on one of them was a neat trick indeed.
Cornering still has its moments. The first things that touch down in corners are the frame on the left and the pipes (I think) on the right, which is unfortunate because these are, inevitably, fixed. I much prefer the way the Sporter’s pivoting footpegs and the Fat Boy’s hinged running boards kiss the tarmac and give you more than ample warning. But, of course, forward controls like the Wide Glide’s make that difficult. Actually, if you’re slack with the way you position your feet on the pegs you’ll get plenty of warning, anyway, as your boot heel suddenly drags and whips your foot off the peg!
While we’re on the subject of handling, here’s a surprise: a Softail that doesn’t squirm and wobble as it’s fired out of a fast corner — even on corrugations. I know very well that handling has never been a strong point of the Softail range, but when I gave the new FLSTFB Fat Boy Lo a bit of stick it really surprised me. It cornered steadily and solidly, with the hinged foot boards scraping happily all the way around, and then picked itself up and powered straight out of the corner. The weaving I was expecting, based on previous experience, simply wasn’t there.
It might sound silly but this is a major advance; my congratulations to whoever it is in Milwaukee who made that happen!
“I’m just a pilgrim at heart, so pure and genteel,
Watch me in Las Vegas when I’m at the spinning wheel!”
The extra-low seat that the name suggests is only 616mm off the deck, as against the already-low seats of the rest of the Softail bikes, which range from 670mm to 720mm. That makes the bike an attractive proposition for shorter folk, despite the substantial dry weight of 313kg. But the big attraction of these bikes has always been their looks, and the FLSTFB doesn’t disappoint. From the concealed wiring to the almost-solid black wheels, this is a real looker.
I can’t really say I noticed the new helical-cut fifth gear in the six-speed box, but shifting was smooth throughout the gears, anyway. At $32,080 ride away, you’re getting a lot of bike for the money.
And then, of course, there’s the XR1200X. Originally designed for the European market, it is possibly the closest the Harley-Davidson factory has come to building a sports bike. It is, of course, a naked bike in appearance and looks tough with a capital T. It also delivers techno-features such as the electronic intake control system. Best of all is the fully adjustable suspension, with Showa piggyback shocks at the back and equally adjustable 43mm upside-down forks at the front.
The riding position reminded me of the inspiration for the bike’s styling — flat track racers. It’s very upright and in control but still remarkably comfortable. The rider’s seat is excellent, matched by the ergonomics. Colour theme is blackout, and the 18-inch front and 17-inch rear wheels feature narrow orange stripes that reminded me of the first Sturgis, many years ago.
The XR1200X is not an especially pillion-friendly bike, with a small, rearward-sloping seat and high footpegs for the passenger. But then that’s pretty much standard for the class.
The warmed-up 1202cc Sportster engine produces 67kW at 7000rpm and 100Nm at 3700rpm, giving the bike a pleasantly wide powerband. The complete bike weighs less than an 883 Sportster at 250kg dry. I’ve already mentioned the effective Nissin brakes and grippy Dunlop tyres, so it just remains to tell you that the ride-away price is $18,250, which seems quite reasonable to me.
That, I suspect, all sounds like I was impressed by Harley-Davidson’s offerings for 2010. Spot on. All the bikes I rode have improved significantly and noticeably over the previous models. But more than that, I hope the times of building basically the same bikes — in different colours — year after year are over for Milwaukee and we’ll see the steady improvement continuing. If it does, I suspect Harley’s shareholders will once more be able to join Eartha Kitt in singing “…and instead of carpet, I’ll have money wall to wall…”