Harley-Davidson V-Rod History
“It’s time to challenge the senses and the status quo,” began Harley-Davidson’s introductory press release for the V-Rod 10 years ago.
Without a doubt, the Revolution engine developed by the Harley-Davidson Powertrain Engineering team in conjunction with Porsche Engineering was a huge departure. As the New York Times’ Jim McGraw pointed out at the time, “many riders don’t know what to make of the new V-Rod from Harley-Davidson.”
“We understand the jewel-like styling which is enduring to our air-twins, and so do our customers,” said then-Vice President of Styling Willie G. Davidson in 2002. “The V-Rod is an extension of our air-cooled V-twin heritage.” Davidson, of course, had a sporting heritage, having designed Harley-Davidson’s Sportster-based XLCR 1000 blacked-out café racer.
The V-Rod was something quite different, however. Rather than a supposed sport bike, the V-Rod was all about power, attitude, and contemporary styling. With a perimeter-tube frame, an aluminum swingarm, anodized aluminum body panels, and aerodynamic styling, the family resemblance was fleeting. Raked forks and exaggerated forward controls brought the V-Rod back to the H-D fold.
Few outside the smartest of forward-looking think tanks in 2002 could have foreseen where the V-Rod would be 10 years later. “The V-Rod is the first member of a new family of Harley-Davidson motorcycles,” said Vice President of Engineering, Earl Werner at the bike’s introduction.
Conventional wisdom went in one of two directions. Either the quieter, refined liquid-cooled V-Rod motor would become the Harley-Davidson standard due to strangulating emissions and sound regulations, or it would be rejected by the cognoscenti and disappear from The Motor Company’s family without so much as a wake. Instead, the V-Rod has carved out a niche for itself in the Harley line, and is here to celebrate its silver anniversary.
A large part of the V-Rod’s longevity can be attributed to its racing success. Although it was born of the VR1000 superbike racing program, the Evolution motor never made its way into a Buell-a seemingly natural destination for a performance-oriented powerplant.
Instead, the competitive home of the V-Rod has been Harley-Davidson’s drag racing effort. In 2007, the Custom Vehicle Operations V-Rod Destroyer, showed the SOHC four-valve motor’s prowess as an eight-second factory drag racer. Later, the Destroyer inspired the Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines V-Rod-a four-time world champion in NHRA Pro Stock motorcycle drag racing.
Two-thousand eleven has been a banner year for the Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines V-Rod. Eddie Krawiec topped the Pro Stock class of the NHRA’s 57th annual Mac Tools US Nationals’ regular season point standings, with teammate Andrew Hines taking fifth in the series. Both clocked in best ETs of 6.815 seconds and hit nearly 200 mph in the quarter-mile. One has to respect the performance lurking in that 60-degree V-twin.
As the basis for custom motorcycles, the V-Rod has had numerous appearances in Ultimate MotorCycling. Three of the most significant and diverse were the futurist Travertson V-Rex custom, the exclusive Roehr 1250sc superbike, and the purposeful Klock Werks Kustom Cycles bagger.
The iconic hyper-custom Travertson V-Rex places the Evolution motor in the center of a revolutionary canvas. It is impossible to imagine the V-Rex with a traditional air-cooled V-twin, yet builder Christian Travert did not select the Evolution motor solely for its appearance. “With all of the Porsche know-how in that engine, it has a potential that can really be exploited in a motorcycle like the V-Rex,” Travert told us. “It’s a reliable motor and very simple for owners to get parts and service.”
Filling the vacuum left by the lack of a V-Rod powered Buell, Walter Roehrich went about producing the Roehr 1250sc, powered by a supercharged V-Rod motor that boasted 180 horsepower and 115 ft/lbs of torque.
“Besides the race-bred Mahle pistons and Getrag transmission components, the development of this engine convinced me this was the heart of a superbike that had been hidden in the body of a cruiser,” Roehrich told Ultimate MotorCycling in an exclusive interview. “There’s also a huge aftermarket for the V-Rod, which we knew we could tap into,” he adds.
Ultimate MotorCycling’s Arthur Coldwells put the Roehr 1250sc through its paces in the Santa Monica Mountains. “The power just builds and builds; it’s as smooth an engine as you could ever expect,” he said in 2009, “and the build quality is exemplary. This bike to me is the true American Dream-or certainly the motorcyclist’s version anyway! It’s the best of both worlds. I was always aware that I was riding a Harley, but it’s also a pukka superbike too. I already own an Ultra Classic and this would be the perfect fraternal twin to park next to it.”
Roehrich had great expectations for the 1250sc. “I see Roehr becoming the premier American sportbike builder,” he told us, “offering new technical solutions and innovations that move both the industry, and our clients. This bike is the first of many to come.” Although the 1250sc is still available to interested parties, Roehr has been focusing its attention on electric motorcycles of late, reflecting the company’s desire to innovate.
We tested the Klock Werks Kustom Cycles V-Rod bagger in the otherworldly landscape of Death Valley in 2007. Brian Klock proved the viability of a bagger with a V-Rod motor for touring, pumping up the power a bit with parts from K&N, SuperTrapp, and Terry Components.
Klock revised the ergonomics of the V-Rod for touring by lowering the seat height, moving the foot and hand controls rearward, adding floorboards, and fitting a fairing. Despite lowering the bike, the Klock Werks bagger retains the cornering clearance we expect from touring bikes. Full coverage fenders and bags sealed the deal. This is a bike we would like to see from Harley-Davidson.
This brings us to 2012 and the silver anniversary of the V-Rod. There are three flavors this year-the 10th Anniversary Edition, Night Rod Special, and Muscle-all with emblems and graphics celebrating the bike’s longevity.
The big news for riders who have considered purchasing a V-Rod, but have been put off by the earlier version’s extreme riding position, is a relaxing of the ergonomics on two of the models. While the Muscle retains its tough-guy profile, the Anniversary and Night Rod Special sport bars that have been pulled back three inches and reduced-reach pegs.
These updates are not insignificant. The changes turn a bike that was uncomfortable for many, and unrideable for those with shorter inseams, into one that is enjoyable to ride more than a few blocks, and is more accessible to different body types.
We know more than a few new Harley riders who were attracted to the high-tech V-Rod motor and purchased the bike, only to be dismayed by the way it stretched their bodies. They eventually sold the bikes, and in some cases quit riding. These disenfranchised V-Rod owners should know that all is forgiven-Harley has made the V-Rod comfortable!
All-day rides are certainly possible on the V-Rods with the reduced reach controls. The ergonomic improvement also has handling benefits. It’s difficult to push a bike along-and the short-stroke Evolution motor does beg you to do so-when the seating position is awkward.
More in control of the V-Rod, you can exploit the power and handling in ways never before possible. Rather than just a stoplight dragster, the V-Rod is now credible in the canyons. New inverted forks on the Anniversary and Night Rod give those V-Rods a more planted front end (the Muscle already had inverted 43mm forks).
The 18-inch 240mm rear tire is more turning compliant than its width would suggest. Michelin Scorcher 11 tires keep traction admirably, though if you want to smoke the rear into oblivion, the V-Rod will accommodate you at any stoplight.
It is also worth keeping in mind that the 2012 V-Rods put out more power than their 2002 equivalents. Harley-Davidson is now getting 125 horsepower at 8250 rpm from the Evolution motor, 10 more than a decade ago at the same rpm peak.
No match for the larger-displacement Star VMax, the V-Rod is more of an everyman’s motor. You can twist the throttle with authority without striking fear in your heart. Burnouts at 60 mph are not on the menu. Instead, the V-Rod has a fast, real-world motor that you enjoy on your own terms.
The five-speed transmission is more than adequate for performance requirements. With rubber mounting of the counterbalanced motor, an overdrive is not necessary to keep the rider from being vibrated into jelly. Further, it’s the smooth feel and power delivery that makes us long for a touring V-rod.
Thanks to three 300mm discs, braking is strong on the V-Rod. We tried and liked the ABS version, and recommend it especially to riders who go out on wet days on the 670-pound (curb, claimed) bike. Feel is good at the lever, though not quite as nice at the pedal.
Visually, the Night Rod Special and the Anniversary model are most changed. Both get new split five-spoke cast aluminum wheels that save three unsprung, rotating pounds; the Night Rod’s wheels are painted black with an orange pinstripe, while the Anniversary gets machined highlights. The Muscle already had clean hindquarters, and the other two versions now get the tapered tail section with a barely legal flush LED taillight.
Ten years in, we are pleased that the V-Rod has retained a place in the Harley-Davidson lineup, though we are dismayed that it has not received a wider mandate. The Evolution motor does not look or feel like a traditional Harley-Davidson, however, that doesn’t mean The Motor Company cannot do more with the powerplant.
The Harley-Davidson V-Rod was a motorcycle built out of necessity. Now it is time to offer its unique powerplant in ways that speak more to our desires.