Monday, February 6, 2012

#107 March 2011

To say we at The Horse have had a strained relationship with Harley Davidson (the corporation) isn’t much of a stretch. We certainly haven’t been very cordial towards them in recent years, our lampooning of the hilarious “secret handshake” and the “Dark Custom Handbook” for instance.

I don’t fault them for trying to capitalize on trends they see in the motorcycling world, after all, they are a business whose primary role is to make a profit, and that’s something they have in common with every business, including here at The Horse.
The rash of less expensive flat black bikes they have produced under the ‘Dark Custom” umbrella have not gone unnoticed by us. Clearly, they are marketed towards the younger rider who wants a cool looking bike, but does not have the time, wherewithal or desire to accomplish this themselves. This is where our readership and the target market diverge of course, but a less expensive, cooler looking bike is also desirable to our readers that wish to customize or chop the newer drivelines as a long-term project and still get to ride reliably at the same time.
It was with this in mind that we tested the 883 “Iron” last summer on the Long Road. Frankly, we were sorta surprised that Harley coughed up a test bike for us, but if we learned anything doing that, is was that there are some cool, passionate people working over there.
I guess this put us on their ‘radar’ because we were invited to attend the ‘unveiling’ of a brand new model this last week. Because of the lag between us writing stuff and it actually appearing in our reader’s hands, this will be old news to most of you. Now, this isn’t my first ‘unveiling’, oh no, I was there for the big ‘reveal’ of the Vinnie and Cody “V-Force” bike in the parking lot of the motel in Daytona a couple of years back. It ended up being some godawful mostly enclosed ‘bike’ that I wouldn’t be seen dead riding. So with that in mind, I didn’t exactly have high hopes for the new HD model.
The ‘event’ was in New York City, so that was a plus at least. I’ve only been into Manhattan once before and found the place fascinating. This time we were located more on the south side, so I was able to walk over to the financial district and check on the progress of the new “Freedom Tower” going up on the site of the WTC.
That evening, a few of us magazine types, a couple of website types and a bunch of HD employees met in the lobby of the hotel and walked over to Don Hill’s, a ‘hip’ little place with a bunch of graffiti on the walls (well done stuff) and very dim lighting. The stage was well-lit at least and there was a bike with a cloth over it, as well as the Dark Custom “one’ logo hanging over it like the sword of Damocles.
Willie G showed up and that meant it was time to get on with it I guess. I was getting a beer at the bar and walked back to the stage and noticed the cloth was lifted off already. So much for the fanfare! Ah well, it was just press n’ stuff there anyway (there was a second ‘unveiling’ later on when the public were allowed in, it was a little more raucous the second time around).
At first glance, all I thought was “oh well, another Softail” and just checking it out, it seemed totally unremarkable, bit of a let down, really. I don’t know what I was expecting, but after the “Iron” and “48” of last year, I was hoping for a way cool Dyna based ‘dark’ bike. The lines of the Blackline are pretty nice, the fake rigid frame gets as close as a stock bike can get to looking like a stripped down lightweight bobber. I can see where the Dyna chassis sort of locks them into a ‘shape’, rather like the Sportsters. The lead designer of this project, Casey Ketterhagen got up on stage and began explaining how he approached the project and the hurdles he had to clear. What looked, at first glance like a regular Softail, was the result of a lot of painstaking work. For instance, the plain, round Mikuni-esque aircleaner is brand new to HD, I’ve always liked that look. The wheels have aluminum rims and look pretty cool. The triple trees are nice also, the top tree is only one-inch thick, they’re nicely radiused and not like the usual HD clunky versions. The gas tank is new, only has a right side flush cap for filling and the speedo was moved to the top tree in between the new split two piece bars.
This is the lowest (24”) seat height for them of any bike, It’s also the lightest softail, so one would think the power to weight ratio would be improved with the 96” engine. The engine has the black cylinders and silver heads, which always gives it a more classic look to my eye. And Casey said that he tried to make the engine the focus of the bike. The original idea for the bars was some clip-on types, but it proved impractical. The designer struck me as a guy who liked to see what most of us like to see in a bike, minimal junk hanging everywhere, the bars are as narrow as they can legally get away with and funnily enough, are about as high as they can be also, since the seat is so low, the 15” rule comes up on you quick!
The legal shackles on the design are still all over of course, the mandatory turn signals, mirrors etc. the things we are free to play with, they are not.
Later, at dinner with the ‘bunch’ I got to talk with the lead engineer, Korry Vorndran and he reminded me of one of the tech guys from Baker, they love their job, happy to talk about the tech aspects and like cool bikes as much as the rest of us.
Anyone that has read this magazine will know I have no love for the Softail chassis, I still think it’s a compromise of form over function. However, since I like silly rigid bikes with no front brakes, sometimes that stance can feel a little hypocritical. I rode Edge’s TC88 Softail out at the Smoke Out West III and thought it was underpowered and it handled like a whale through jello.

So with this in mind, I think I could keep an open mind on a test ride. I can’t see myself showing up in a ‘Dark Custom” ad anytime soon (I’m too old for one) or buying any of the attendant “Black Label” clothing, but I’d be willing to give it a fair shake, what’s the worst that could happen?

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