In 15 years, Wichita-based Big Dog Motorcycles has grown from modest beginnings in founder and CEO Sheldon Coleman’s garage to become the world’s largest manufacturer of premium motorcycles. Big Dog now occupies a 150,000 sq ft factory that supplies nearly 100 domestic dealers, and is poised to expand into Canada. 2009 sees the company introducing three new models: the Wolf, the smaller Coyote, and, later this year, Big Dog’s first full bagger, the Bulldog. Big Dog is also celebrating a remarkable production milestone, having rolled their 25,000th motorcycle off the line earlier this year. For now, though, all eyes are on the Wolf-the apex predator of the Big Dog line.
While the Wolf’s panoramic profile certainly contributes to its forceful presence, the bike’s organic composition and styling keep the nine-foot-plus Pro-Street from straying into garish outré-custom territory. The integrated bodywork undulates like a wave over the rear fender and through the seat pan, breaking at the elongated 4.5-gallon tank. The Wolf’s low, curvaceous sweep and seven-inch backbone stretch lend it a menacing, raised-hackle stance. The meaty, concave single downtube and fang-like swingarm sandwich a 1.5-inch diameter frame that crouches less than four inches from the pavement.
The Wolf’s front end is a work of simple, backswept elegance. Perse Performance telescopic forks lunge for the road at a 45-degree rake, 40 of which are in the frame, with another five clicks in the trees. The 41mm prongs fix a striking, 23-inch chrome wheel, wrapped in a 130/60 Avon. A War Of The Worlds-style headlight is mounted beneath the long, pullback bars.
The newly designed, cuspidate swingarm secures 20 inches of circular chrome at the hindquarters. The 220mm Avon beneath the clean rear fender will have some fat tire diehards clamoring for more rubber, leaving the rest of us quietly grateful for a return to leaner times.
The considerable pride Big Dog takes in its paint operation is evident in the Wolf ‘s luster. Our test bike gleamed in a deep ruddy two-tone with gold-leaf striping and delicate graphics on the tank and fenders. Big Dog offers customers a palette of nearly 20 base colors, plus an assortment of graphics for a wide array of custom options.When the Wolf gets the itch to roam, detachable saddlebags, a two-up seat and a windscreen are some of the touring accessories available from the Big Dog catalog.
The Wolf’s unique genetic traits extend beyond the bike’s arresting styling and dynamic frame architecture. The biggest Big Dog is powered by a proprietary S&S X-Wedge 121 cu in engine, which produces a claimed 90 rear-wheel horsepower at 5000 rpm and 110 ft/lbs of torque 1700 rpm earlier.
The polished X-Wedge’s exclusive configuration features a 56-degree pushrod V, with a belt-driven, tri-cam valve arrangement (two exhaust, one intake). Consisting of 30-percent fewer parts and boasting 22-percent more fi n area than the standard S&S 117, the X-Wedge 121 is engineered for glossy power delivery and a 5 dB reduction in mechanical noise. Bore and stroke have been squared off to 4.25 inches.
According to S&S Project Engineer Jeff Bailey, Big Dog had a specific vision in mind for the Wolf’s powerplant during the bike’s development stage and S&S was eager to cooperate. “Everyone likes a square motor,” Bailey says. “We gave them first shot at what was perceived to be the best combination. It fit the bill perfectly.” Big Dog top dog Sheldon Coleman agrees. “It looks to us to be the engine of the future,” he enthuses.
Big Dog’s involvement in the X-Wedge’s design extends back to early 2005, when Bailey and a Big Dog designer spent two days experimenting with different rocker cover designs. That intertwined association continues to this day. “Big Dog is the customer we’ve worked most closely with,” he says. To illustrate his point, Bailey notes that three of S&S’s test bikes on the initial X-Wedge project were Big Dog-based chassis.
The X-Wedge 121 also features an EFI system, originally developed by S&S as an aftermarket kit for late-model Harley-Davidsons. Because it possesses oxygen sensors in both front and rear pipes, it is a dual closed-loop system, monitoring the air/fuel ratio in both cylinders and adjusting them independently. Because there are behavioral differences from bike-to-bike, the closed-loop configuration helps to iron out the variables. “It’s an adaptive system,” says Bailey.”As it runs, it’s going to learn what that specific vehicle wants.”
In addition to benefiting performance, the closed-loop EFI system adds a healthy shade of green to the X-Wedge’s profile. While S&S certified the 121 as a 2008-09 engine, Bailey says the motor will pass 2010 EPA emissions requirements, as is.
Before the customer can flex the full range of the X-Wedge 121’s muscle, he will have to shepherd the mill through a three-stage electronic break-in process. For the first two hours of engine life, revs are limited to 4200 rpm; then the next 18 hours are spent no higher than 5125 rpm; after 20 hours of operating time, the engine can attain its maximum rpm of 5800.The system is designed to ensure longer engine life by curbing the rider’s (understandably) compromised onboard impulse control.
The Wolf springs to life with a pugnacious snarl, leaping away from the curb with an agility that belies its 770pound claimed dry weight. Once settled into the low-slung seat with knees bent and elbows dropped behind the chunky grips, you will encounter the Wolf’s impressive strength in a hurry. According to Big Dog, the 1976cc S&S dynamo propels the beast from supine to a lupine 60 mph in under four seconds.
That juicy slab of low-end torque tempts you to rip through the 6-speed Baker gearbox like a Black and Blue Ribeye. A newly redesigned Baker clutch supplies the butter-gearshifts are fluid and lever effort is light. While I experienced an occasional false neutral when downshifting from third gear, the transmission is smooth, responsive, and well-mated to the X-Wedge.
Big Dog’s proprietary Balance Drive system places the final drive on the bike’s right-hand side to balance weight distribution. This proven configuration aids the Wolf’s considerable low-speed dexterity. Tight radius turnarounds are dispatched with remarkable ease for a bike measuring over nine feet.
On the open road, the Wolf’s brawn extends well up through the midrange and beyond; topping 55 mph in the helical-cut fifth gear delivers a particularly virile response. A new primary compensator sprocket burnishes the ride and reduces noise as the pilot leans on the throttle. Slipping into sixth soothes the Wolf’s temperament to a smooth rumble without diminishing its potent cruising power. Speed checks reveal another one of the Wolf’s decidedly cool character traits-its instrumentation. The stylish “floating” speedometer/tachometer gauge is a digital/analog crossbreed that delivers impressive visibility, day or night.
In addition to its formidable muscle, the Wolf possesses remarkable stability and agility. With its deceptive geometry and a 220 rear tire-svelte for Big Dog-the Wolf is at once reassuringly solid through the straights and an obedient negotiator of sweepers. Big Dog says the Wolf’s seven-inch stretch backbone is so rigidly constructed, that it is virtually unyielding to torsional twisting. Easily coaxed into turns, the Wolf rolls over on either side with equal dexterity, thanks in part to the Balance Drive’s distribution of ballast.
While the lowered rear fender lends the bike a dose of edgy, hardtail styling, a concealed adjustable rear shock modernizes the Wolf’s ride, without entirely civilizing it. The rear suspension does a decent job of ironing out smaller wrinkles in the pavement. Rougher road reaches up through the minimally padded perch, which, while stylish at the curb, wears out its welcome after about 50 miles. For those seeking a softer landing, the Wolf comes pre-wired for aftermarket air-ride suspension.
A beast as large and powerful as the Wolf will occasionally require some serious behavior modification. Performance Machine 4-piston calipers clamp down on racing-style floating rotors, front and rear. The 12.6-inch front disc proves equal to its task with a responsive feel at the lever. The rear brake is mounted behind the right-hand drive to prominently display the 20-inch chrome rear wheel.
Unleashing an exotic, 9.5-foot Pro-Street motorcycle into this dismal economic climate would strike many as a curious gambit. Power the lavish beast with a proprietary 121 cu in engine and price it on the north side of an entry-level 3-series BMW automobile, and more colorful descriptors may leap to mind.
Coleman does not seem worried. The scion of the famous lantern manufacturer that bears his name intends to shed a little light of his own by rolling out the audacious Wolf during a particularly dark hour for the motorcycle industry. “All the companies are hunkered down and there isn’t a lot of good news out there,” he says. “We’re really trying to push good news into the marketplace.”
There is some thoughtful analysis behind this strategy. Coleman sees a marketplace divided into three distinct camps. A third who have purchased their motorcycles and homes using risky credit and are now financially underwater. “We don’t see them coming back within five years, maybe more,” he says.
The second group he describes as “cult-like.” They are experienced, die-hard motorcyclists. “We see them even today with what’s going on in retail credit markets,” he observes. “They’re still out there buying bikes.” The market has shrunk to that core group, “the real deal” as Coleman refers to them.
Then there is the wildcard segment. “There’s [another] third in the middle that are a little more fickle,” he explains. “If the economy is good, they’ll buy a bike. If not, they can put it off. Those are the people that will make our industry get back to a growth phase.” Coleman is anticipating the reemergence of this segment as early as this spring.
With that in mind, Coleman believes that by staging Big Dog’s largest-ever launch while the industry is in the doldrums, the company can take advantage of the lack of strong new product in the marketplace and build excitement among dealers and consumers. “We think this is a time when our brand actually rises even farther above the chatter,” he says.
Coleman views the industry’s current woeful state as inextricably linked to the real estate downturn. “Our whole custom-manufacturing industry got carried away and built too much inventory in ’05 and early ’06,” he explains. “Then the housing market started cooling off. I don’t think we appreciated how many of our customers are small business contractors.”
Despite suffering a 60-percent personnel cut since the downturn began, Coleman believes that Big Dog’s solid reputation will enable it to weather the economic storm. “We learned early on that it’s growth by respect in the motorcycle business,” he says. “A lot of people try to grab the golden ring too rapidly.”
Big Dog is wagering that their broad range of new offerings will draw a diverse mix of customers into their dealerships, from the curious who will be drawn to the entry-level Coyote, to the sophisticated micro-niche who will stalk the Wolf and the forthcoming Bulldog. Coleman is confident that Big Dog has the arsenal it needs to emerge from the current economic malaise with sharpened fangs. “Every great company goes through some dark times,” he says.”I believe we’re in the best position we could be in our industry. When you’re able to keep it together through the toughest of times, you become even stronger.”
These are dark times indeed, but with the Wolf lurking in Big Dog’s den, Sheldon Coleman sees a full moon on the horizon.
Action photography by Don Williams