When the Harley-Davidson V-Rod was released in 2002, it came as a surprise to a lot of Harley fans. Here was a bike that looked forward, not back, with a liquid-cooled DOHC engine, designed in collaboration with Porsche, that revved to 9 000 and produced serious power by any standards, in a hydroformed tubular-steel frame, with its fuel tank under the seat.
It didn’t even look like a real bike – dammit – but it was the Motor Company’s first power cruiser and it went like no street bike from Milwaukee had ever gone before.
Ten years down the line, the engine has grown from 1130 to 1247cc, power is up from 85kW to 93kW, the V-Rod has picked up about 13kg in weight (haven’t we all?) and now there’s a special anniversary model. This is Harley-Davidson, the company that gave nostalgia a part number.
The Harley-Davidson VRSCDX Night-Rod Special comes in plain matt black with blacked-out engine and loud orange stripes. Surprisingly, the only anniversary references on the bike are neat “10 Years” badges on the clutch and primary covers.
But there are also quite a lot of new features and some styling updates, starting with a slimmer, lower tailpiece, incorporating a flush-mounted LED tail light. But the brake lights are integrated with the rear indicators.
The front suspension’s rake angle has been steepened from 36º to 34º (which reduces wheelbase 10mm to 1 705mm) to quicken the steering, and the handlebars have been pulled back nearly 80mm to reduce the grips’ stretch.
The five-speed gearbox has a slipper clutch to prevent the rear wheel from locking on under injudicious downshift and the rear tyre is up from 200mm to a low-profile 240/40 gumball.
The test ’Rod also came with antilock braking (reassuring, on a bike that weighs 302kg wet) and a “security package” – an extra fob that, if moved further than about a metre from the bike, arms an alarm and prevents the engine being started.
Thanks to the new ’bars, the seating position is more comfortable than it looks around town and the quicker steering a boon in traffic. But the bike does exhibit a tendency to fall into slow corners, which I suspect is as much due to the disparity in tyre sizes as to the bike’s still-lazy steering geometry.
The big V-twin only gets into its stride above 3 500rpm. The clutch takes up very suddenly – rather closer to the grip than I would have preferred. So, take-offs can be a little jerky, and smooth riding in traffic takes concentration.
But this is not a commuter scooter. So we deferred judgement until we got the Night-Rod out on the open road and stretched its legs a little.
The first thing we learnt is the faster you ride a ’Rod, the better it goes. The power comes on strong as the rev counter needle rises past 4 000 and clutchless shifts in both directions become the norm.
One hundred and eleven Newton metres at 7 000rpm translates to a serious kick in the butt anywhere over 5 000. The bike runs up to its true top speed of 211km/h at 8 100 remarkably quickly, with 225 showing on the old-fashioned analogue speedometer, and a faint tremor from the front end that never really becomes a wiggle.
The steeper rake angle and new upside-down forks make throwing this heavyweight bruiser around our standard test route’s ride-and-handling section less of a chore than you’d expect, though fast S-bends are still more a test of upper-body strength than finesse.
The bike’s sheer weight keeps it from bouncing around on the bumpy test section, although the short-travel rear suspension (only 74mm) means the ride becomes jarring, making the rider grateful for the deeply padded, very comfortable seat, all of 675mm off the ground.
The less said about the postcard-sized pillion pad the better – Herself could not be persuaded to try it.
On the second weekend we had the Night Rod, we took it on a long country ride in atrocious weather. But even at modest speeds the stretched-out seating position eventually became a pain.
Harley-Davidson says it has pulled the ’bars and ’pegs closer to the rider. Well, they haven’t been pulled back far enough for my 1.78m. I spent a fair percentage of the trip up with my feet on the passenger footpegs. I insisted Herself should ride it part of the way back so I could relax behind the fairing of her sports tourer.
But that long, gentle ride on wet roads highlighted the Milwaukee power cruiser’s astonishing fuel-efficiency. Factory quotes combined fuel consumption of 6.3 litres/100km – we averaged 5.9 over a week’s worth of commuting, performance testing and a long cruise.
Like most Harleys, the Night-Rod is a rolling contradiction – it’s an efficient commuter that’s difficult to ride in heavy traffic, a well-tuned tourer that becomes uncomfortable on long rides and a kick-ass, show-them-who’s-boss power cruiser that’s a real pain to keep looking good because its matt-black paint shows every speck of dirt and can’t simply be wiped down with a squirt of polish.
The Harley-Davidson Night-Rod Special is an urban warrior for riders who wear “distressed” leather and make a fashion statement out of always looking a little scruffy.
It has so much attitude it would be faintly ridiculous if it didn’t back it up with solid, no-nonsense straight-line performance. But it does.
Price: R189 000
Bike from: Harley-Davidson Africa