"Few brands on the planet, in the entire history of commerce, have such a strong identity as Harley-Davidson. But for all that strength of identity, the brand has an amazingly diverse and multi-layered aspect. For some, all that noise and "
Harley Davidson Soars
Rain. Lots of rain. At night. Soaked through, 50-odd miles from my destination and on a lonely road in the middle of bleak West Country moorland. My headlamp was pointing anywhere but at the road, mainly because it was off another bike and had been hastily lashed between the yokes with bungees, because three hours earlier the Harley-Davidson Sportster I was riding had vibrated its own bulb to pieces just as I’d left home. As road trips go, this was bad and I was proper fed up.
Then came the electric shocks…
That was over 20 years ago, but my first decent ride on a Harley-Davidson is still painfully fresh in my memory. It coloured the way I thought about all Harleys for more than a decade. OK, so I loved the look of some of the old models, and I still reckon that one of the most handsome engines ever made is a Knucklehead, like a motor turned inside out, all tubes and bosses and chunks of sculpted alloy. And of course having seen On Any Sunday I, like millions of others, couldn’t help being struck by the brutal beauty of a bucking, sliding XR750 flat tracker (below) in the hands of the majestic Mert Lawwill. But XR750s, even today, are rare beasts in Britain.
As for the stuff I rode though the ’90s – and I rode most of the then current models – well, it was like climbing onto a fairground ride in a provincial town. Waltzer-gaudy behemoths that shook the money from your pockets and wouldn’t stop when you felt sick and wanted to get off. Massive heavy things, under-powered and under-braked that made the dodgems feel like finely honed sports cars. Harley fans told me I didn’t get it. No I didn’t, and I didn’t want to either.
Then in 2002 something extraordinary happened. The Harley From Mars landed on Earth. The VRSCA V-Rod (above) dropped among us like a spaceship. Here was proof that the blokes in Milwaukee had not only heard of liquid cooling, overhead camshafts and effective braking, but had engineered it into one of their bikes. The V-Rod managed to mix contemporary with custom with tradition with performance. And it does perform. I took an early one out for a blast in 2001 and when I gave it a fistful and felt 115bhp through my low-slung backside I laughed out loud, tickled to be so surprised.
Then 2008 finally brought something that echoed Mert Lawwill’s XR750. In the XR1200 (above), Milwaukee has given us a Harley suited to roads with those pesky things called bends. The styling reflects the dirt oval’s most successful race bike and has helped to boost an already growing interest in all things flat track. It’s a bike that combines the rorty chug of the old-style air-cooled pushrod V- twin with a feel that’s sportier than any street Harley before it.
Oh Mr Davidson, you’re spoiling us.
So do I get Harleys now? Well, I suppose I do, but then there’s more to get these days. But also, and you might call this age, I do find something comforting about, in the case of almost the whole Harley-Davidson range, a relatively basic motorcycle shamelessly showcasing proven old technology. Living history, you might call it. But then so is Bruce Forsyth, though I know what I’d rather be riding.
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