A Harley-Davidson buff lets us at his Dyna,Road King and V-Rod - all at once.Our way of celebrating H-D's 100th anniversary.
Motoring strongly advocates the use of a helmet when riding a motorcycle. This picture was deliberately shot otherwise, with professional riders, for that biker-gang look, but remember, Hell’s Angels are mortal too!
“I collect of all sorts of Harley stuff – clocks, watches, bedsheets, doormats, perfumes, caps, riding gear, miniatures... I even have Harley underwear,” confided Sumesh Menon, a slightly sheepish grin beating a forkful of scrambled eggs to his lips. We were having a late breakfast at a quiet seaside restaurant in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, and I smiled behind my glass of orange juice. Sumesh, in the anodising and metal finishing business, has lived with imported bikes since he was 18, but obviously has Hogs foremost on his, er, brain.
However, unlike the many H-D pseudo-enthusiasts in urban India, who sport branded tees or jackets but can’t tell a Night Train from the Trans-Siberian Express, Sumesh knows his stuff – he’s been riding Harleys for seven years now, both in India and abroad. He also does his stuff – he’s a member of the Harley Club in Dubai and the worldwide Harley Owners Group, and is keen on promoting the badge in our country.
Most importantly, he has the stuff – an actual Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And another. And another... Outside the restaurant, the sun sizzled off his festival of chrome: the elementary chopper lines of a 1998 Dyna Low Rider, the vast bulk of a 2001 Road King Classic, and the long, low, sleekness of a 2002 V-Rod. If only his 1999 Fat Boy were here too... but that’s gone to another proud owner now. Still, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime sight on Indian roads, borne out by the unending stream of electric-prodded motorists and flash-frozen passersby. Well they might stare, for this trio represents crystallised Harley-Davidson: three riding philosophies – mean street, open road and custom cool, spanning twenty years and three generations of powerplants – the Evolution, Twin Cam and Revolution engines.
“Harleys have a great brand image in India,” Sumesh noted. “Everybody knows the name. In fact,” with a wink, “when women hear I have a Harley, their first reaction is ‘Wow, can I come home and see it?’ And when a woman does ride pillion with me, I give her a Harley t-shirt to wear... I have a set exclusively for that!”
When Sumesh rolled the three Hogs out of his parking lot earlier that morning, before we set off for the test stretch, I knew I was in for something special. Sportbike fans might pull down their tinted visors, but there’s a reason why some people tattoo the Milwaukee firm’s logo on their biceps, why kids and pedestrians and car guys mouth the syllables as the big twins rumble by.
Daytona, Sturgis, the Hell’s Angels, celebrity owners, and now, me... I’d never ridden a Harley before, though a 180 kph run on the Buell Cyclone a year ago had given me some idea, with its rush of inimitably thunderous vee-twin vibes. Now, ensconced in wave after wave of the deep potato-potato exhaust
note as three riders fired up, I realised I was not just in for a Harley experience, but an introduction to a culture and a cult – fittingly, in the legendary marque’s 100th anniversary year. Sumesh, of course, was heading to the centenary parties in Bangkok and Singapore that weekend...
Of the lot, the FXDL Dyna is ‘true’ H-D, with the traditional air-cooled, carburetted OHV lump putting out a relatively-tame 56 bhp, but 11 kgm of bass torque. The Dyna Low Rider was introduced in 1977 as the FXS, the first ‘factory custom’ from the American company (a line that coincidentally includes the
Road King and the V-Rod today). On Sumesh’s tinker-tailored Dyna, a Screamin’ Eagle 2-into-1 pipe lets you hear unmuted combustive explosions. Around this centrepiece are lots of catalog bits – cut-down
‘bandanna’ seat, rear mag wheel filling the 130/90-16 Dunlop Touring rubber, smart chrome pegs, levers, mirrors and a trim headlight halfway down the forks. A speedo unnecessarily calibrated to 220 kph and an equally positive-thinking 8000 rpm tach sit on the tank, but who needs them?
Thumb the starter, and life and soul kick in with a cracking whump, followed by the lazy jackhammer baroom of big pistons pounding 1340 cubic centimetres. Your hands judder on the pullback bars like a Bren chewing ammo belts, while the engine thrashes against its rubber mountings with each blip of the throttle. Swing your feet forward onto the small custom pegs, click into gear, let the clutch lever out.
Behind me was when Harley-Davidson was a name. Pressed between my knees, it’s an emotion. The ‘Blockhead’ Evo’s rich torque in full flow, I was a chrome projectile being churned down a whitewater of vibes, a coarse, unholy braaap! following me like a low-pressure cloud. Heads were snapping sideways, fingers were pointing in awe, and the moment ought to have been a looped wormhole in infinite space-time. But end the road did, and the twin front discs brought the Dyna to a halt, my thigh muscles trembling with equal parts visceral thrill and anticipation of the next saddle-up, the Road King Classic.
The Road King is a highway icon in Yankland, the quintessential retro-tourer for those who won’t go the whole hog (pun unintended, I swear) and pick the full-dresser Electra Glide. Only Sumesh’s six-and-a-quarter feet made the 340 kg colossus look less than daunting, but as he got off, saying, “This is my favourite, it suits my size,” it hit me, I’m eight inches shorter (height-wise!) and the FLHRCL is huge ! Even just as the sum of its parts – the headlight is the size of a watermelon, the handlebars stretch my arms like a rack, the tank has the proportions of a desk, the seat is a beanbag and the balloon Dunlop Touring whitewall tyres are straight off a ‘50s Chevy. Hefting it up, I desperately wanted to be a Wrestlemania champion, or at least as used to big, heavy motorcycles as Sumesh is.
In 1999, the King, along with the rest of the H-D range, received the Twin Cam 88 motor – Harley-Davidson’s first all-new engine in six decades, and 15 years after the Evolution. About time, one would think. The 1450 CC Twin Cam powerplant shares just 18 parts with the Evo, but cosmetically, you can only tell from the enlarged finning, different cam covers and the oval air filter. The new Big Twin visibly packs the frame more fully, and in the Road King, the overall effect is one of squat, sheer size. Bright high-quality chrome Screamin’ Eagle bits peppered this Harley too, creating a starburst of sunflares.
I sank into the King, reached behind my thigh for the key, turned the knob on the tank from ‘Lock’ to ‘Ignition’ and hit the starter. Kachunk-potatopotatopotato-brOOOmmm! The trademark exhaust note was of course sacrosanct in the engineers’ brief for the Eighty-Eight, and they did not miss the target. I could almost immediately feel the increased refinement on the move, the mighty mill revving more freely thanks to lighter-acting flywheels. Befitting its dimensions, the Road King is mountain-stable, with the geyser of torque and the extra ten horses pulling the incredible mass harder and stronger than the Evolution mill.
The spreadeagled riding position is all-day comfortable for a six-footer (for my height it was a stretch) though if you intend to stay above 100 kph for any worthy amount of time, or at its 170 kph top speed for any
time at all, you’ll need a windscreen and biceps like that well-known Harley dude, Mr Schwarzenegger. With a car-like turning radius, the King is certainly not a bike for hill roads. But point it down Highway One and understanding will dawn. The Road King is absolutely capable, too; with a change of clothes in the leather saddlebags and the horizon reflecting in your aviator-sunglasses, the giant Hawg will throb on until your retinae are imprinted with blurred white lines.
Or with a V-Rod. I pulled in itching to ride Harley-Davidson’s single most important model, possibly ever. The wheeled world let out a collective gasp when this masterpiece was unveiled in 2001. Gleaming softly in anodised aluminium, the V-Rod (nomenclatured VRSCA, for V-twin Racing Street Custom, Series-A) sported a 1130 CC, 115 bhp water-cooled powerplant derived from the VR1000 Superbike project. Sacrilege, screamed some. A revolution, shouted back the others. But there was no denying that this low-slung hot rod moved like the blazes,learning rave reviews from every motorcycle journalist who ever complained that Hogs were slow and crude. Purists might dismiss the V-Rod for being water-cooled, but “it’s for those who would’ve otherwise bought Japanese cruisers,” opined Sumesh. And indeed, the Rod’s heavyweight rivals in the recent ‘power cruiser’ segment – the Yamaha Warrior, Honda VTX1800 and Kawasaki Mean Streak – fail to measure up in raw performance terms.
Styling-wise, of course, it’s a no-contest. The V-Rod is a work of art. The Dali-esque elliptical ‘reflector-optic’ headlight, the clamshell instrument pod, solid wheels, drag-style forks, satin-finish aluminium and silver everything, gorgeous stacked double-S exhaust-pipes... the V-Rod is “the ultimate pose bike, bar none” as TWO magazine put it. It’s like no other cruiser, and no other Harley. The slatted radiator and that cheese-grater panel fore of the tank get mixed reviews, but I could cheerfully live with them. The Rod is a traffic-stopping knock-out. To top it all, this bike sports custom levers, a sissy-bar and a pair of magnificent chrome-lid panniers... and that’s just the beginning. “You know,” remarked Sumesh, “when I got the bike I thought there was nothing more I could do to it.
But then I came across a huge catalogue for the V-Rod, with more add-ons than for most other Harleys!”
After the Road King, the V-Rod felt amazingly compact and slim, and with a seat just a little over two feet off the tarmac, low as a heartbroken poet. In cruiser parlance, long goes with low, and the Rod delivers its dialogue with a massive 67-inch wheelbase – that’s my height! The Eliminator-like straight bars pull your arms straight, not wide, and your knees wedge, not splay, against the unpretentious lettering on the faux tank. When you fire her up, the sound from the H20-Hog’s injected eight-valve motor is, well, baked potatoes – with sour-cream and a cracker. Busily throaty, less mechanical, but still unmistakably H-D. And watch that
tacho needle buck with each twist – the rev-counter’s redlined to 9000 rpm. Blink, blink. Yes, the 220 kph calibration on the speedo is a genuine possibility on this one.
The feet-forward position seemed incongruous, really, with the rest of my body going into a streetfighter stance. But when the V-Rod gets going – and it really gets going – all is well. A Japbike-like hum from the exhaust pipes and the tach sliced upward: the Rod is faaast, pulling like a TGV. I whipped past the century-mark before I knew it (a timed run would have told me it was a fraction over three seconds), coming very close to tunnel vision. The V-Rod felt extremely stable and balanced, and at the same time tight and flickable. Overseas mag reviews indicate ‘surprisingly good’ handling through twisties, with crisp steering despite the raked-out forks. Scrubbing speed was extremely efficient too, with the Hayes four-piston calipers clamping down on the 11.5-inch front brake rotors. “This is my kind of Harley!” I exclaimed to Sumesh as I drew up beside him and handed back the key. But truth be told, I’d happily have any one of these hunks of Yank metal.
Photo-session over, as we headed breakfastwards, I recalled Sumesh’s words: “When you’re on a Harley, you stand a cut above other riders.” From a man who has owned everything from Kawasaki Ninjas to the BMW R1200C (signed by Pierce Brosnan, no less), that’s high praise.
And I understood exactly what he meant.Exactly a hundred years since it started, the legend lives on. Performance, ability or aura, Harley-Davidsons deliver on all fronts now, carrying into the 21st century the magic that commands a worldwide following. To those numbers, you can add one more convert.
If you’d like to get yourself a piece of the Harley-Davidson experience, write to Sumesh Menon for guidance, at firstname.lastname@example.org