Harley-Davidson still hasn’t completely shaken off its problem with pedantic purists—an issue it has had since the 1950s when movies like The Wild One and later Hunter S Thompson’s excellent early book Hell’s Angels forever associated big rough motorcycles with big rough guys. And those rough guys wanted their motorcycles to stay that way.
As the British brands withered away, victims of British automotive mismanagement (the Brits can design and build excellent cars and bikes, but they often need Germans to buy in and show them how to run a vehicle company), the Wisconsin USA-based Harley floated to the top as the Holy Grail brand of the old school chunky, low-tech, “pure” motorcycles.
Meanwhile, Japan’s industry, from its humble yet incredibly successful motorcycling origins in the form of the Honda Super Cub 50cc step-through, swiftly developed (as most Japanese products did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s) into lightweight, large capacity, high-tech screamingly fast two-wheelers with heaps of power, nimble handling, effective brakes and reliable engines, and Harleys began to look increasingly antiquated, owing more to farm machinery than modern automotive technology.
It may have been an iconic brand with an intensely loyal ridership base, but it was also a company with shareholders that was trying to survive and prosper in a changing world—something especially difficult to do during the inflation-mad 1970s. Harley needed to modernise.
Attempts at making smaller displacement street bikes (usually rebadged Aermacchis—now Cagiva) were greeted with solemn head shakes by those whose Harleys were so much a part of their identity, they’d punch anyone who touched—or heaven forbid—sat on their baby. The brand represented freedom of a wild-west type that its devotees believed was ebbing away. The bikes must retain their purity. Even disc brakes were looked at askance through rheumy eyes. “I’d rather slam into the back of a Mack truck than give up my drum brakes!” Real men never stop... or stop quickly, anyway.
Then in the 1980s, the yuppies came along—keen to cling to the youthful coolness they fancied they apexed at Woodstock. They started buying up Harleys and helped restore the brand to its former financial glories. While not quite as picky as the unwashed bearded fellows the bikes had theretofore depended on for sales, the trendies also liked their heavy, rough and ready manly vibe. Thus the marque’s basic character was retained as it moved, albeit at a cruising pace, into the future.
Harleys were big, loud and customisable (with a predilection for gloriously shiny chrome), and those key elements had to stay, even if they did become more reliable. And as the marque has gone from strength to strength and become a globally revered brand, opportunity knocked out here in the East. In this part of the world many are finally stepping through their small displacement Honda Super Cub descendants and swinging their legs over larger bikes—though your classic 1300cc Harley-Davidson is a little rich for the blood of the upwardly mobile novice. You’ve got to work up to such a beast.
So enter the 500cc and 750cc Harley Davidson, which arrived on these shores a couple of years ago. While 500cc is large for a newly affluent Asian dude who has spent his life thinking 150cc is the more daring option at purchase time, for the Harley purist it is woefully small. Puny. Pathetic. Unmanly. The Internet was abuzz with indignant complainers that HD was compromising the “great vision” all to hell. It’s a bit like the gay marriage issue, with some folk believing for some unfathomable reason that what or who another guy rides somehow spoils his own commitment.
Switching gears a bit here, I admit to being a sport bike guy by nature. Harleys never really did it for me, despite limited experience riding them. Though in the interest of full disclosure, as the years pile on, sessions of throwing the bike around mountain twisties are interpolated with a more leisurely cruisey riding style. I’m just not in such a big hurry anymore.
So when I was offered a test ride on the new 750cc Harley Street Rod, I approached it with an open mind. Picking the Street Rod up at the Harley-Davidson dealer on Rama IX Road (an impressively large shop filled with blinding chrome gleaming from bikes the size of baby elephants), I was taken by the sweeping classic lines, though a bit toned down from the more extremely styled HDs. And then there was the colour. Olive Gold they call it. While the pantone of a bike is usually not a major point for me, this is an achingly beautiful hue—that looks exactly as it sounds.
Climbing aboard, the fist-forward posture as I gripped the drag bars was a bit of a surprise. I’d expected to be sat back, armchair-like, in the bike, rather than on it. It is a much more eager stance than your traditional Electra Glide behemoth. Taking off onto a busy but fast-moving Rama IX Road, I gave it a half-handful of throttle. It responded with verve and aplomb, with a nice torquey low-end pull. It was easier to nip between lanes than expected as well, despite being fairly hefty at 234kg—though considerably less than the Harley Road King’s 370kg.
The real acid test of any bike is if it puts a smile on your face, and this it did within five minutes of jumping on. It is weightily planted, secure and likes to rev. Keep it on the boil and it delivers, though you don’t have to since it serves up plenty of torque from low rpms—and is happy to weave through and past lesser four-wheeled vehicles. It is quick, though not sport bike fast, but 0-100km/hr in under five seconds puts you well ahead of any but the most serious sporty cars. It’s as fast to 100km/hr as a 425hp Maserati Ghibli (which costs nearly nine million baht).
As the next 24 hours wore on, fun as they were, there were a couple of niggles (as there are with any bike). The foot pegs get in the way of your calves when paddling through Sukhumvit rush hour traffic, so you need to spread out the limbs a bit. But nobody has yet designed a larger bike that copes perfectly with Bangkok traffic. The seat gets pretty sore after a couple of hours. An aftermarket seat would be a sound investment if you intend to do any touring. Or just throw a sheepskin rug over it in grand Harley tradition. The suspension was a little washboard-like at certain speeds, but the bike was brand spanking new, so it hadn’t really settled yet. And it runs hot like a sport bike, so DO NOT ride this one in shorts, even to the shop and back, or you’ll arrive at your destination with smooth and shiny lady legs and that acrid whiff of barbecuing prawns. Brakes were adequate and progressive but could use a bit more oomph. It does have ABS though, so you can grab a panicky handful without fear of sliding on your side for the rest of a rudelyshortened journey.
On the plus side, the round hand-grip mounted mirrors were very good. The gearbox was smooth and sure and not the least bit clunky. The throttle response was predictable and immediate. And girls and guys both did double takes at red lights.
Is it a true Harley? Hell yeah, it ticks all the important boxes. It is in no way Japanese. It still has that (toned down in this case) brutal feel that the brand’s devotees cherish. And it would be an excellent starter bike. Would I want it in my practical fantasy garage? Yes. It offers up a unique riding style that you’d be keen to embrace on certain days.
(More from Cameron Cooper: Triumph Street Triple 675R Shows Off Roar Power)