We ride: 110th anniversary Harleys
For a company as obsessed with its own heritage as Harley-Davidson, anniversaries are a big deal. Next year (2013) marks the 110th anniversary of the day Bill Harley and the three Davidson bothers got together in a five-by-three metre shed in the back yard of the Davidson family home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to see if they really could build a workable motorised bicycle.
Well, they could and they did. That motorcycle, Old Number One, still exists - and the rest is history.
Fast forward to 2012, and the Motor Company is ready to celebrate 110 years of making motorcycles with a handful of new and updated models, and a classy black-and-bronze anniversary livery, with special bronze badging, that will be offered on a limited number of 2013 models only.
There are two new Sportsters, bigger engines for the Wide Glide and Fat Bob (each now standard with a 1690cc 103 V-twin), a dramatically restyled Street Bob and a new range of metal-flake colours that's so Seventies you expect each bike to come with its own glitter-ball.
There is also a very special model, the Breakout, from Milwaukee's Custom Vehicles Operations - the first CVO that's not a glitzed-up standard Harley but a stand-alone model in its own right. However, Harley-Davidson Africa marketing manager Michael Carney apologised that he didn't have one for us to ride at the media launch in the Western Cape this week; they're all sold.
Nice to have that kind of a problem.
Thus, when we got on the road - straight into a heavy-duty rainstorm, which is why the bikes in the pictures are so dirty - my first mount was the restyled FXDB Street Bob, a pared-down Dyna with shortened ('bobbed') mudguards, high handlebars on special risers and no pillion seat or tail light; the stop lights are in the rear indicators as on the Nightster.
For 2013 the engine, gearbox and triple clamps are finished in black, and the Street Bob is also available in the red metal-flake finish first seen on the 2012½ Seventy Two - check the bike in the pictures.
The skimpy ploughshare saddle is only 675mm off the ground, and the footpegs are mid-mounted, so the seating position is taut and compact, the gearbox action crisp and very positive; there's no linkage, the lever is mounted directly to the end of the shaft-shaft.
In terms of precision throttle control the 1584cc 96B engine is one of Milwaukee's best efforts, making this big, heavy (290kg) bike easy to ride even in traffic on streaming wet roads, so that when we got out from under the rain I was happy to dial it up to a 110km/h cruise, which seemed to be where this bike was happiest.
Our first stop was at the Fisantekraal airfield, where we grabbed a bite of breakfast and took the opportunity to fool around on the bikes, American-style, without helmets, on a disused runway.
HARLEY SIZES START AT XL
The next leg would take us over the notorious Bain's Kloof, the Western Cape's tightest, bumpiest mountain pass, so I opted for the new XL1200CA Sportster Custom Limited with straight 'drag' handlebars, new, flat 17-litre fuel tank, mid-mounted 'pegs, 16” cast wheels at both ends and grunty 1202cc engine - the second-lightest Harley model at 251kg dry.
Only the 247kg Seventy-Two is lighter, which explains why Harley-Davidson model designations start at XL. The CA's sister model, the matt-black CB, has high 'bars and spoked wheels, but is otherwise the same.
The Sporty's rear suspension travel is very limited, as it is on all cruiser-style bikes, so the ride became a little jarring over the worst sections of the 160-year-old road, but the damping was firm and it seldom bottomed out. The steering was light and accurate, and the bike never shook its head no matter what the provocation, so I was soon scraping the footpegs on both sides in all the tighter corners.
On the way up from the Wellington side I made the mistake of trying to ride the Harley like a sports bike, rowing up and down the (somewhat vocal) gearbox in an attempt to find the engine's sweet spot, but on the way down I just left it in fourth and used the wide spread of torque to punch from corner to corner.
I stayed on the CA for the long sweeping curves of the Slanghoek Road through Rawsonville to Villiersdorp, but found that the deeply dished saddle, which had provided welcome support over Bain's Kloof, offered no wriggle room whatsoever on the open road.
By the time we reached our lunch stop at the Aphrodisiac Shack on the edge of the Theewaterskloof Dam I was very glad to swop to a touring model. The FLHRC Road King Classic is Harley's classic 'bagger' (a touring bike with leather saddlebags rather than hard panniers). It's available for 2013 in a striking new two-shades-of-red livery (check the pictures!) and, for the first time, with a built-in sound system that has a double speaker inside the bottom of the Las Vegas-style screen.
The 1690cc 103B V-twin felt as if it was barely breaking a sweat as it rolled across the R43 and the Jack Clarence coastal drive - two of the world's finest motorcycling roads - cruising between 110 and 140km/h with 1970's rockers Free assuring me that it was All Right Now. Well, it was better than all right.
But by the time we reached our final stop at Muizenberg the weather had closed in again and we were running late - which meant that even though I was now on a Street Glide tourer, the Motor Company's second-heaviest model at 355kg dry, complete with batwing fairing and capacious panniers, the pressure was on to make good time through the afternoon traffic into downtown Cape Town.
PUSHING THE HOOLIGAN BUTTON
Which was when I discovered that this particular Glide had the best gearbox of all the bikes I'd ridden that day, and the smoothest engine, as we sliced through the weekday commuters, revelling in an excuse to push the hooligan button.
The wide handlebars and low saddle (715mm off the deck) made the big bus unexpectedly agile (and loads of fun!), and 134Nm at 3500rpm was enough to get the adrenalin pumping, with instant acceleration under my right hand any time a gap opened up.
Technology junkies deride the long-stroke, pushrod Harley V-twin as outdated (which it is) and the bikes as overweight, with underdeveloped brakes and suspension, which they are.
But, after more than a century of practice, the guys at Juneau Avenue have polished the basic layout to a degree of fit and finish that is the envy of the industry, leaning heavily on that heritage to create a uniquely American motorcycle with a style all its own.
And that is what they're celebrating.