Harley-Davidson Project Nova | A Look at What Might Have Been

Harley-Davidson Nova V4 Mock Up
This is one of the full-size, non-running mock-ups of the Harley-Davidson V-4 Nova model used for styling work. Note the absence of down tubes in front of the engine.

Contrary to a fairly popular perception that product development at Harley-Davidson was stagnant during the AMF years, development of both the Evolution engine and advanced Project Nova bikes began in that period.

While the Evolution engine brought major improvements to the air-cooled V-twin line, Project Nova, begun in 1976, involved by far the boldest innovations in the Motor Company’s product design history any time before or since.

[Read about Harley-Davidson's latest engine, the Milwaukee-Eight]

At the heart of the project lay top-secret engines—to be developed in collaboration with Porsche—that would have knocked much of the motorcycle world on its duff, had they all been brought to production. Though technical specifics are a little sketchy even to this day, the line would have included modular liquid-cooled double overhead cam engines in 400 or 500cc increments: a 60 degree V-twin displacing 400cc or 500cc, a V4 displacing 800cc or 1000cc and a V-6 displacing 1200cc or 1500cc.

Harley-Davidson Nova rear view
The Nova design was sleek and slippery and unlike any Harley before—note the fuel filler cap above the right saddle bag on the rear fender.

That would allow use of common bore and stroke dimensions, that would enable use of some common components such as pistons, connecting rods, rings and so on across the entire line. Output would have been targeted for about 135 horsepower from the top of the line models. Each version would include counterbalancers.

All of the engines would be oversquare bore/stroke configurations with the short stroke enabling much higher revving engines than the long-stroke V-twins in use. Initial models would have two valves per cylinder, but the heads were designed to allow transition to a four valve layout without completely re-designing them.

The engines included what appear to be conventional air-cooling fins, even though they would all be liquid cooled. Porsche was selected to develop the engine and five speed transmissions for each variant in the Nova series. Harley’s design team handled chassis and all other aspects of product development.

Fuel delivery would have been by carburetor, as was common practice, but fuel injection would also be in the plan. From there, things were in for big changes. For example, for the first time since the WWII-era XA, final drive would have been shaft, at least in the initial designs. Ultimately, the lighter and cheaper option of using belt final drive was selected.

Not only would the Nova engines be liquid cooled, radical chassis and bodywork design would move the fuel tank under the seat and the radiator would lie flat under the seat behind the engine with high-flow air intakes built into the all-new wind-tunnel designed frame-mounted fairing.

What appears to be a fuel tank atop the frame would have been used for other purposes including housing electronics, ducting air to the radiator and the engine air intake. An electric induction fan would assure adequate air flow to the radiator even when the bike was stationary. The fuel filler cap was mounted on the right side of the rear fender.

The instrument cluster was radically styled including analog tachometer, speedometer and clock, each a different size arranged in a slick, asymmetric layout. Lights for neutral, high beam indicator, low fuel warning, low oil pressure warning, and amps were arrayed on the top of the fake tank and atop the triple clamp with the instruments. Stereo speakers built into the fairing suggest an available sound system. The fairing included a lockable pannier compartment and a non-locking compartment on the opposite side. Double disc brakes up front and disc brake at the rear provided stopping power.

A pressed steel main frame uses the engine as a structural member, so without a cradle design no front downtubes are necessary giving the bike a cleaner look as well reducing chassis weight. Elegant, aerodynamic bodywork for touring versions included sleek saddlebags with integral turn signals and a low-profile top box. Wind tunnel testing of each version was done to minimize drag and turbulence while maximizing aesthetics, which were under the design direction of Willie G. Davidson.

Harley-Davidson Nova V4 close up of engine
A close-up look at the liquid-cooled, DOHC Nova V-4 engine that would have been built in 800 or 1,000 cc displacement versions.

In the span of several years, between $10 and $15 million was invested in bringing the Nova bikes to the market. More than two dozen operational engines and a dozen completed, running prototype bikes were built and tested on the dyno, wind tunnel and on the road.

Vaughn Beals, who came into Harley-Davidson via AMF in 1975, and was chairman and CEO after the buy-back, was one of the company’s top brass who actually rode the operational prototypes of the V4 version of the Nova bikes and extolled the bike’s power and handling. The Nova designs were not only radical—they were roadable.

Despite the enormous investment in development and some of the tooling necessary to manufacture the Nova series of bikes, fate and finances put the bikes into the Harley-Davidson Museum instead of into production.

Shortly before the buy-back that occurred in June of 1981, which changed AMF/Harley-Davidson back to simply Harley-Davidson, AMF as the parent company and main source of capital for development and production, had a change of leadership at the top and a sudden change of heart about forging ahead with both the new Evolution engine and the Nova project.

The costs involved and the economic situation led to the suspension of the Nova project and emphasis shifting to completion of the Evolution engine. After the buy-back, with Harley-Davidson standing alone as the source for both the development and tooling capital as well as engineering time and resources, only one or the other could be capitalized, but not both. The rest, as they say, is history.

All was not in vain as far as Nova’s impact on Harley’s future models; Nova’s DNA influenced other future models. For example, the fairing that was so carefully designed and tested made it into production for use in the Nova touring versions was used on the 1983 FXRT Sport Glide. The distinctive shape of the Nova’s hard saddle bags found a place there, as well. The team approach with Porsche that started with the Nova project continued on in other projects including the eventual development of the liquid-cooled VRSCA Revolution V-Rod engine.

Harley-Davidson Project Nova instrument cluster
The Nova’s instrument cluster would have included asymmetrical analog instrumentation and plenty of warning lights.

Looking back on the Nova project one can’t help but wonder what impact it might have had. Release of the V4 models was slated for 1981—a full year before Honda rolled out its own V4 powered bikes.

The implications of beating Honda—and everybody else, for that matter—to the market with a high-tech V4 could have been game-changing in both the domestic and international motorcycle market for Harley-Davidson, when coupled with the introduction of the Evolution engine for the air-cooled V-twin segment of the business.

That achievement, coupled with the rapid deployment of fuel-injected V6-powered superbikes before the competition had time to catch their breath in the wake of the V4’s roll-out and the addition of a new DOHC smaller displacement V-twin could have had all of the Motor Company’s competitors spending a lot of overtime on R & D and their Directors of Product Development munching Rolaids till they frothed at the mouth.

The face of racing and Harley-Davidson’s place in it would have been changed dramatically, as well. Nova would have given tuners, builders and riders the potential for monster horsepower with implications in drag racing, road racing, land speed racing; you name it.

The scramble to catch up would have been like the Keystone Cops as the competition would have had to try to figure out where to counter-punch first. It would have planted Harley-Davidson firmly atop market segments it had basically conceded to everyone else up to that time.

To this day, while Honda has marketed air and liquid-cooled in-line and flat opposed six cylinder bikes, as Benelli did with its in-line air-cooled six cylinder bikes and Kawasaki did with its mammoth in-line liquid-cooled six, nobody has offered a compact V6 powerplant like the one envisioned for the Nova. The roll-out of the compact V6 would have been a tougher gut punch to the competition than Honda’s introduction of its CB750 in 1969.

If fate and finances had been kinder to the Nova bikes, one can only imagine what might have been.

Harley-Davidson Project Nova - Photo Gallery


  1. I am Jules Lupowitz is just a 55 year old motorcycle enthusiast having risen most bike styles at fair to log distances. I’d hope to display here some experience in this opinion of the HD Nova. Seems HD like Motus is targeting that modern version of nostalgia. If this Nova is anywhere near its final design, it’s older technology remade for marketing purposes. Neo Classic I think it’s called. With lack of actual, functional design, purposeful as that may be its boring to me. I can see Nova being accepted by many maybe but I’d rather enjoy modern, yet proven machinery.


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