Harley Davidsons, as I've suggested several times in the past, are one of the most divisive things you'll ever encounter in motorcycling. There seem to be no shades of grey with them - people either get it or they don't. But their peculiar naming conventions don't help, even with the aficionados. Take this, for example. We'll deal with reactions in a bit, but for now let's look at the name. Now the Japanese are guilty enough of slightly unimaginative names, comprising an engine capacity and a seemingly random collection of letters which eventually become known as a bike from that maker. Like CBR, for example. Or ZX. I mean, what do they actually mean? Nothing, probably. But Harley Davidson go a couple of steps further. The factory designation for this bike is the VRSCDX. Hmm, snappy. Rolls off the tongue a treat, that one. But to make it more memorable they gave it a name as well. Yes, this spectacularly butch piece of engineering is called the Night Rod Special. Now I'm sorry, but to me that sounds like an adult toy, not a motorcycle.
But what's in a name? Apart from giving me a cheap into to the review, that is. Actually, quite a lot. Harley Davidson launched the VRSC back in 2002, calling it the V-Rod. And it was a revelation. Liquid cooling, serious power, decent brakes and pretty fair handling were combined in one spectacularly good looking bike. Engineering input from Porsche ensured that the 1130cc motor delivered the goods while retaining the essential Harley character, and a clean sheet approach to the rest of the bike meant that it was, at last, a performance Harley Davidson that could be taken seriously in Europe. You can read the review of the original here (opens a new window) to see what we thought back in 2004. So we can see where the family name comes from. And as for the Night bit, that should be apparent from the pictures. It's dark. Very dark, in fact. And the Special? Oh, that's certainly justified as well. And then some.
Despite the suspect name, this is one of the most exciting, entertaining and downright fun motorcycles I have ever ridden. No, it's not really a sportsbike, and no, it's not withoutits downsides. But despite the lack of tinsel and other bling, I've never ridden anything thatgot as much attention from such a wide cross section of other people. Ranging from a suited gentleman in aBentley, who enquired as to what on earth it was to a bunch of Asian lads in a pickup truck who assured me that it was "well wicked" the response from the four wheeled brigade was unequivocally and enthusiastically positive. A few sportsbike riders expressed curiosity and a little reserve, not about the styling but about the fact that a Harley Davidson could really look that good, while everyone else on two wheels just accepted that it was actually pretty cool. So it's a great bike to ride if you want to be noticed and to bask in just about universal approbation. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's actually have a look at the beast and go on from there.
The first thing that struck me as the guy from Harley Davidson rolled the Night Rod Special out of the van was the sheer size of the thing. It's not the bulk, it's the length. And the presence. The matt black engine, matt black wheels, matt black bodywork and, yes you guessed it, matt black exhausts give it an astonishingly solid and slightly malevolent presence. Despite its diminutive height, this motorcycle looms in a way that it really shouldn't. It draws the eye, perhaps as it sucks the light in from around it, and when the eye has been drawn it really doesn't want to leave. You find yourself noticing details and circling the thing, getting ever closer, a large moth around a flame of darkness. And the orbit you prescribe will be a large one, at least at first. Because this bike may be knee high to a pygmy but it's very long indeed. The raked forks, lengthy wheelbase and enormous 240 section rear tyre tell their own story, and it's one of ponderous turning circles and high speed instability, while the super low seat and forward controls tell of a lazy and not especially comfortable riding position.
Well it soon becomes clear that, as well as having a rather dark and sinister demeanour, this motorcycle tells lies. First of all, the handling. While it's true that if you attempt to throw the Night Rod Special into a set of bends like a sportsbike then you will find yourself in a whole heap of trouble, it's also true that if you attempt to ride what is, after all, a cruiser like that then you are, to put it bluntly, daft. No, the Night Rod Special obviously takes a fair amount of effort to get turned and requires a firm hand to keep it turning, it's remarkably stable and surprisingly agile for such a large machine. The huge rear tyre takes its toll, of course, especially on tighter turns, but the limiting factor is ground clearance rather than any dramatic shortfall in chassis capability. Though at over eight feet long mini roundabouts are a bit of a chore, it must be said.
The riding position, too, belies first impressions by being remarkably comfortable, though again not without foibles. Those forward controls are an awfully long way away, and if you're just of average height then your legs will be at full reach. That in itself isn't a problem, but resting your right calf againstan exhaust header is. It's also a trifle disconcerting to find your heels touching down on bends before anything else. I mean, they are soft, of course, so better that than something likely to tip you off, but having your foot pushed back and up, off the peg, when you're giving it large around a favourite wide open roundabout is, well, distracting. I'm assuredthat there are alternative footpeg mountings available which bring the pegs up and back toward the rider. These would serve both to allow the legs to bend and remain clear of the exhausts and also to flatten the foot a little on the pegs so that the hero blobs would touch down before the feet. But generally, the riding position is supremely comfortable and I could happily have ridden all day. Though the total absence of weather protection would make that more of a feat of endurance than a fun experience during the winter.
Of course, comfort, styling and handling are merely supporting acts to the headline artist - that engine. Though on paper it looks the same, it feels significantly quicker than a standard V-Rod, aided no doubt by the altered gearing as well. Unlike any otherHarley, the 'Rods are revvers. The Night Rod Special hits its maximum torque, an impressive 115Nm at 7000rpm. Compare that to the 1220 Sportster which develops a very respectable 98Nm at just 3200rpm and you'll see just how radically the liquid cooled engine differs from the standard. And of course, revs mean power. In this case, comfortably over 125bhp. That's, oh, about twice what you'll see from any of the air-cooled bikes in the range. And combined with the stump-pulling torque it makes for some pretty impressive performance. Now again it's not a sportsbike, and it won't reward attempts to ride it like one. But theNight Rod Special doeshave a decent gearbox, a slipper clutch (yes, really) and a geometry that makes launching it off the line a doddle. And you will utterly destroy just about anything in the traffic light drag race. Which is amusing at first and becomes funnier as you do it more and more easily against steadily less likely opposition. One thing to bear in mind, though. Once speeds start getting towards three figures that super comfortable C shaped riding position does rather turn you into a parachute. You end up spending quite a lot of effort in particular holding your legs up to the pegs while the wind does its level best to remove your head. It's funny the first time but gets steadily less so.
There is criticism of the engine, though, which is spoiled by the exhausts. Despite the fact that they look fantastic, they utterly emasculate a critical part of the Harley Davidson Experience. The noise. Frankly it sounds pathetic. The combination of liquid cooling and (very clever) active baffling means that this snarling beast sounds little more potent than a coffee percolator. Which is a tragedy, albeit one easily remedied by a quick dip into Harley Davidson's extensive accessories catalogue for some suitably vocal pipework. At the other end of the performance curve, the brakes are just about beyond reproach. ABS is on offer for 2008, but isn't really needed as the bespoke Brembo calipers grip floating discs and do exactly what you'd hope they do, exactly as fast as you'd hope they do it. You'll not stoppie it with all that weight behind the front wheel, but you can stop very sharply indeed and though you can lock the front if you're ham fisted, the wheelbase and weight combine to make the bike remain surprisingly stable and recoverable, even under these rather adverse conditions.
What else can I say about the Night Rod Special? The extremely neat security system negates the need to insert an ignition key. Just have the fob about your person and the immobiliser and alarm will both disarm themselves as you approach the bike. Hop on, flick the switch (once you've remembered where it is), thumb the starter and off you go. Assuming, of course, that you haven't locked the steering with the provided high security key. That would be unfortunate. The instrumentation is neat, the speedo and fuel gauge are clear and the tacho is almost completely pointless. Not only is it too small to really read properly, but the engine makes its desire to change up so transparently obvious that it may as well be an automatic. Though I guess it does balance the clocks out, despite a temperature gauge probably being more useful. Because it gets really, really hot. Hot enough to burn a road-tester's leg through his overtrousers and normal trousers. No, seriously, a week later I still have a pink patch on my calf from where it was slow cooked.
Despite the capacity, the revs and the almost overwhelming urge to nail the throttle everywhere, the Night Rod Special proved to be quite frugal in fuel use. It also proved to be unreasonably good at filtering through traffic across London, though how much of this was down to people simply getting out of the way rather than any innate ability is open to debate. It does require a firm hand to muscle through gaps, and changing lanes requires a bit of forward planning, but despite that it's an effective and entertaining commuting tool. Which isn't something I would ever have expected to say.
To sum up, some of you may remember in the eighties there was a bike called the V-Max. Yamaha made it, and it was a 1400cc vee four. It looked like nothing else at the time, it was stupidly, blindingly quick off the line and it didn't go round corners terribly well. The Night Rod Special is a V-Max for the twenty first century. Unfortunately it sounds like a CX500 - another ground breaking vee twin of the same era. But it goes round corners better than either of them. And given the choice I know which one would go in my garage...