A Former Sports Bike Guy’s Thoughts On V-Twin Motorcycle Engines And The Harleys That Made Them Famous

Are you considering buying a motorcycle, or considering switching from one type of street bike (e.g., sports bike, cruiser, touring bike, sports tourer) to another?

I found myself in that situation.

I’ve owned several sports bikes.  Never even would have CONSIDERED buying a Harley or for that matter ANY v-twin engined bike, as I frankly considered them to be mechanically inferior.

If sombody had suggested a Harley Davidson bike to me, I would have – with something of a sneer – stated that Harley bikes featured technology that was ancient when dinosaurs walked the earth with an engine that is still around only because for some bizarre reason people actually like the sound of uneven idling just as they like paying twice as much money for a massively heavy bike with inadequate power.  I also would have pointed out with that same sneer that Harleys were infamous for peeing oil and didn’t finally stop vibrating for half an hour after being shut down.

My first sport bike was a 1983 Suzuki GS 1100e that produced 104 bone stock hoursepower to propel its 500 lbs like a bat out of hell.  It won “Motorcycle of the Year” because it deserved to.  My best friend had the same year Harley Superglide (we’d both bought our bikes brand spanking new with our enlistment bonus checks) that was trying in vain to make it down the road with 68 horses while it weighed in at well over 600 lbs.

With all the power that Suzuki had, it apparently still wasn’t enough: I installed a big bore kit, a performance carburetor and a performance exhaust.  That sucker was putting out over 150 horseys and if you’d ask me to do a wheelie, I would have asked you which gear you wanted me to do it in.  I could get on the freeway and hit the 55 mph speed limit and THEN smoke the rear wheel.  The thing sounded like a fighter jet and I used to love riding home from the bars and setting off all the car alarms at 3 am (it was even more fun on the one-way roads where I could set off all the car alarms on either side of the street).

Suffice it to say I didn’t get the whole Harley thing.  At all.

I’ve had a few other sport bikes since that ’83 Suzuki, and never really seriously considered riding anything other than a bike that wasn’t in the class of “crotch rocket.”  The only thing I wanted more than a bike that went fast was a bike that went even faster.

A bad wreck and a head that got increasingly full of gray hair – possibly from worrying about getting in another bad wreck – changed my attitude.

Well, at least some.

I was looking for a bike that had a) saddlebags and b) a windshield or fairing that actually managed to deflect wind.

That already meant I was “getting old,” mind you.  There’s that line from the movie Big Trouble in Little China: “A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face.”  And the reply: “Yeah, and a wise man has enough sense to get in out of the rain!”

While one might argue that wise men don’t throw their legs over motorcycles, I would point out that I was at least trying to make strides from brave fool to wise man.  I wanted saddlebags because dang you can’t pack very much stuff in those little back packs you have to wear on a sport bike, and I wanted a shield because I was getting tired of freezing in the rain.

Sport bikes by definition don’t have saddle bags and they don’t have actual functioning wind shields – as you would learn for yourself were you to hug the gas tank behind those tiny little sport fairings during a rain the way a soldier hugs the deck during an incoming artillery barrage.

I was getting old enough to start having the beginnings of that rare state of mind otherwise known as common sense.  Maybe not enough common sense to look out of a car window with the AC blasting, but common sense as it relates to two wheels.

That left me with buying a sport tourer.  Because I sure wasn’t old enough to want a full dress touring bike.  And I still had enough of a pulse that I didn’t want to drag around on a Harley.

But as I looked at the sport tourers, I couldn’t help but notice the cruiser bikes that I’d largely ignored did in fact have the saddlebags and windshield that I wanted.

I don’t know how it happened, exactly.  But I kept looking at bikes, and those cruisers had all that beautiful chrome and those sport tourers had all that … plastic.

And, almost against my will, I began to appreciate that chrome.

I’ve always loved old cars, and one of the things I love about old cars is all that bright, shiny chrome and the styling that is absolutely nowhere to be found these days as cars all look like they came out of the same wind-tunnel research.

Do you know why you don’t see Harley engines being surrounded by a bunch of plastic?  Because v-twins are absolutely beautiful engines and it would be a crime to hide them under a plastic sport bike fairing.

That’s the beginning of understanding the appeal of a v-twin engine: they are visual works of art.  Versus the sport bike engines that are usually covered up because frankly nobody really gives a damn what they look like as long as they’re fast.  The bottom line is that sport bike engines aren’t beautiful – apart from the sheer beauty of function – and they were never intended to be beautiful.

Harley guys accuse the so-called “metric twins” built in Japan of being soulless clones.  What is interesting is that over the past few years, it has been Harley following the Japanese more than vice versa.  The Japanese saw the market for performance v-twins and built bikes with more grunt: it was Harley that followed suit as they scrambled to build bikes with bigger engines while trying to keep their patented exhaust sound.

Harleys DO sound beautiful; and unlike any other make of motorcycle, it doesn’t take an expert to be able to tell that a bike is a Harley from the exhaust note alone.  That said, it turns out that the issue is more about complying with federal regulations limiting decibels than it is about make and model.  Harleys sound like “Harleys” largely because virtually all Harley owners have their stock federal-complying exhausts removed and replaced with different aftermarket Harley exhausts.  Which many metric cruiser owners do as well (you listen to a couple of aftermarket pipes for Roadliners here and here).

When it came time to pull the trigger and buy a bike, I bought a Yamaha Stratoliner.  That is, I bought an 1854 cc (as in nearly 1.9 liter!) engine.  In Harley speak, that’s 113 cubic inches, which for the record is ten cubic inches bigger than the biggest Hog.  On a bike that weighs a good sixty pounds less than a Hog due to its having an aluminum frame.  That aluminum frame consists of a total of eight pieces, versus 40-60 separate components for a typical tubular steel frame.  That means a lot less weight shift, which means a lot more stability.

As for the stock factory sound of the exhaust, one reviewer for Motorcycle.com stated that the Roadliner/Stratoliner had “the best exhaust note of any OEM cruiser” in a comparison that included a Harley-Davidson bike.  An aftermarket system will make it sound a lot louder by eliminating the federal-mandated baffling, but it won’t make it sound sweeter.

Harley owners as well as the metric v-twin guys who modified their exhausts justify themselves by claiming that the louder they are, the safer they are.  They claim, “They might not be able to see me, but they’ll damn sure be able to hear me.”  But the actual studies have demonstrated pretty conclusively that bikes with loud exhausts aren’t one iota less likely to avoid collisions with cars than bikes with quieter exhausts.  So it’s really about being loud rather than being safe.  And the bottom line is that they like being loud.

I like my ears the way God intended them to be able to hear something else besides my own exhaust.  But that’s just me.

The Yamaha Stratoliner features the second largest v-twin engine on the road (behind the 2000 cc Kawasaki Vulcan 2000).  And in the world of v-twins, it features the 3rd fastest major production v-twin cruiser ever put on the road (behind only the Vulcan, the Suzuki M109 and Harley’s answer to the sport bikes, the V-Rod).  Still, in the shootout that considered the mega v-twin’s total performance, it was the Roadliner (the Strat’s twin wearing bags and windshield) that emerged as “Godzilla.”

Yamaha actually considered building the biggest mega v-twin on the planet – 2,400 cc.  But the prototype was so big and heavy that it was a buzz kill to ride around in the real world.

What they came up with instead was a great bike with a great engine.

I just wasn’t ready for a Harley-Davidson yet.  Not when the Road King (for example) crawled along from 0-60 mph in 8 seconds.  I mean, dang, I wanted to get to the next traffic light before civilization collapsed and mankind re-entered the stone age and humans started to look like, well, like a bunch of hairy, bearded bikers.

The 1854 cc Stratoliner/Roadliner engine does the 0-60 thing in less than half the time at 3.8 seconds.  Which is comparable to a Corvette Z06.  It’s got about the same 1/4 mile time, too.  And since not many people are driving their Corvettes around like bats out of hell, I don’t have to worry very much about whether I’m going to be able to get in the lane I want to get in out of a red light.

Granted, I’m not going to blow the wheels off a Suzuki Hayabusa that hits 60 mph a full second quicker (and in first gear, no less), but I’m too old and wise for a bike like that now, remember?

That Stratoliner is actually fast enough to widen the eyes of anybody who doesn’t have a Hayabusa or one of the very, very few highest of the high performance sport bikes that compete with it.  And I don’t have to curl myself up into a pretzel doing it, either.

V-twin cruisers and sport bikes make their power in different ways.  Sport bikes produce a horsepower-to-weight ratio that defies belief; cruisers produce gobs of torque.  The difference is an inline sport bike engine that was designed to be wound up to nearly 10,000 rpm before attaining max power versus a v-twin cruiser engine that produces its maximum power at (in the case of the Stratoliner) between 2,300 and 4,500 rpm.

In other words, the v-twin power is available immediately.  Everything is down low where you want it most.  More importantly, it’s available to where riders want it in real-world driving conditions as opposed to a racing track.

When I’m on the freeway doing 70 mph, I’m running at about 2,600 rpm whether the wind is in my face or at my back.  If I want to pass somebody, I’m right there in my max power range.  And I don’t have to wind up nothin’.  That’s how 124 ft-lbs of torque works.

V-twins are not bikes for guys who want to fly at triple digit mph.  Because they weren’t built with race tracks in mind.  But they do their job quite well under ridiculous speeds.  And they most certainly aren’t dogs out of a red light if a manufacturer doesn’t want them to be.

It’s a different concept.  It’s a luxury car versus a sports car.  Only my Strat is a performance luxury car.  It has a big, high compression engine with a giant 100mm x 118mm bore and stroke, a twin-bore fuel-injection system with 43mm throttle bodies and 12-hole injector nozzles, high performance spec twin, crankcase-mounted, high-lift cams, huge 100mm bore ceramic composite-plated cylinders and an exhaust system (borrowed from the sport bikes) featuring a valve that stays closed at lower rpm to maximize torque that opens at higher rpm to maximize horsepower.

The young bucks who race around on the sport bikes ARE out to impress; that’s just what young bucks do.  They’re like the actual young bucks in nature who run into each other with their horns at high speed.  I’m not knocking them; it’s what I did when I was a young buck, after all.  When I was 20 and some old turd tried to tell me what a “real” motorcycle was and then started droning on about Harleys, I’m sure my eyes glazed over and my brains jumped out of my ear about two seconds into the lecture.

Now, that young buck will eat my lunch on every curve on every curvy road on any sport bike.  But I’ll let him: I’ve been down and dang did it ever hurt.  When it comes to hairpin curves I’m just in a lot less of a hurry to injure myself than I used to be.  Where I live there’s a better than even chance that there will be sand or gravel at the intersections.  And strawberries are much tastier when eaten than they are when worn on your body.  I take my turns slow and stately these days.  On a bike that makes slow and stately look good.

I’m at that point in life where I’d rather get somewhere in style and comfort than race around like the brave fool.

I love my chrome.  I love my smooth ride.  I love my floor boards.  I love the heel shifter and the fact that every gear is “down” for me as opposed to first gear being down and the rest being up.  I love being able to put my boots up and lean back into my back rest and just cruise down the road all day long.  And if some kid goes flying by me at twice the legal limit in a body posture that would cause my lower back to miserably die in about half an hour, I just chuckle and say a biker’s prayer for that young buck and keep on enjoying the buzz of my ride.  I’m cruising down the road at 70 or 75 and I’m right in my power band and I’m getting 42 mpg, and I’m just as happy as a clam in its shell.

The seats on cruisers were designed around the concept of comfort, of being able to accommodate the butt of somebody who isn’t one of those incredibly gaunt fashion models.  The cruisers were designed around the concept of a comfortable riding position.  Not even the sport touring bikes match them for pure comfort.

Believe me, you start to care about stuff like that as you age out of being young and dumb.

I used to mock Harley guys for caring all about style and nothing about performance.  And preferring comfort to sheer omygod speed?  Heresy!!!  But I now realize that “performance” and speed for the most part are about bragging rights as much as they are about anything else.  My bike can go 180 mph, someone might tell me.  And I’m thinking, “And just where in the world do you plan to actually DO thatAnd while we’re talking about it, WHY do you want to do that?  Were you tossed in the air and dropped on your head too many times as a baby or something?”  What I’m saying is Harley guys who love the way their bikes look and sound and feel don’t have to apologize to guys who boast about quarter-mile times and G-force turns.  And as you get a little older and a little wiser, you tend to care a lot more about the former and a lot less about the latter.

Whatever floats your boat.  Whatever rocks your world.  Knowhatimean?

Having ragged on Harleys a fair bit, let me say this about them: they do what they were intended to do every bit as well as the sport bikes do what they were intended to do.

Harley-Davidson has a long-term view of motorcycling.  They are engaged in all kinds of venues to just introduce people to motorcycles and get them to start riding, whether they’re riding Harleys or even whether they’re riding the competition.  And the reason they do that is that they believe that everybody who rides will ultimately choose to ride a Harley.

I now understand why they’re right.  You can’t beat Harleys for style, even if you can beat them in every other way.  There just comes a point when you’re drawn to the style and image of a beautiful machine.  Harleys are all about “the ride” when you have grown up enough to stop racing and start cruising.

My next bike probably won’t be a Harley (although it might be).  There’s still enough “kid” in me that I want that big bore performance.  But at some point – having finally personally experienced a v-twin motorcycle – I can easily imagine myself choosing a Harley.  I can (gasp!) even imagine myself choosing a full dress tourer.  My v-twin has opened up the entire world of motorcycling to me in a way that thinking in sport bike performance terms never would have done for me.

A few pictures of my Strat:





The Yamaha team that designed the Stratoliner and Roadliner didn’t set out to “clone” Harley-Davidson motorcycles.  Rather, they went back to a previous era that was still uniquely American.  They went back to the pre-Harley 1920s/1930s “streamliner” art deco style that influenced art and found its way into both architectural and automotive designs.  The result is a long, streamlined, elongated stylized look found in the Roadliner’s 102″ (a full 7″ longer than similar class Harleys) length and its swooping stance.  At the same time, it most definitely DOES copy Harley in that it was an attempt to wed style and art with motorcycling function – which has always been the design philosophy at the core of Harley-Davidson’s appeal.

Motorcycles are just fun.  When you can look down and see the road rushing past beneath your feet, when you don’t have to roll down a window to experience real, actual air, when you feel the freedom and rush that only a bike can provide, you start to get it.  If it’s got two wheels, I’ll ride it and I’ll have a blast riding it.  And if I don’t have the soul of a Harley rider in me yet, suffice it to say I’m beginning to grow one.

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6 Responses to “A Former Sports Bike Guy’s Thoughts On V-Twin Motorcycle Engines And The Harleys That Made Them Famous”

  1. Dog Walker Says:

    Beauty big time! I had that sort of fun some years ago. I had a handful of dirt bikes and worked my way up to a BMW R100RT. Pretty sweet bike. Big ol’ fairing on it. I never wrecked. Maybe I should say I never wrecked street riding.

    Sometimes I still get the itch to have the experience motorcycling again. But alas, I gave my wife all of the necessary arguments to preempt me should I ever manifest the desire. I told her to remind me that I said … I no longer have the necessary driving talent. I don’t have the reflex ability or an attention span. I find myself driving less than the speed limit. I wreck is more real of a possibility now. In a car, it’ll be a fender bender and harsh language but probably my fault. On a bike, it’d be a hospitalization injury, and probably an injury I’d have with me to the end of my days.

    I don’t know, for all that I still do my share of thrill seeking. I go skiing and ski like a guy without insurance. Pretty strong possibility of injury there. I bicycle at an extreme for my age group. Riding on public roads is not without its hazards. That might even be crazier than motorcycling.

    I still got the itch. This whole argument is really me rationalizing it.

    In a final twist of convoluted thinking.

    You mention the pride guys take in the sound of their pipes. On one hand I can relate. Up close maybe in the garage or across the street, I am all like oooh, that is music.

    But at 500 or so yards, I ain’t never heard a Harley that didn’t sound like a wet fart.

  2. Michael Eden Says:

    Dog Walker,

    Husbands don’t have very much “turf” that their wives don’t control – at least if husbands cherish their wives as they ought to.

    That’s one of the reasons the whole liberal “war on women” thing has always struck me as so asinine, mind you. Because in a God-centered home, if a godly wife isn’t happy, then NOBODY is happy.

    And that’s why most husbands who used to ride don’t ride anymore. Because a woman who fell in love with a man on a motorcycle and got engaged to a man on a motorcycle and even married a man on a motorcycle often decides that her husband should get rid of his motorcycle. And these men who according to liberalism wage a nonstop “war on women” give up what they love for their wives.

    A few guys luck out and their wives actually love bikes as much as their husbands.

    I think liberals have a term for these men: they are the “one percenters.”

  3. Dog Walker Says:

    Motorcycle reminisces… reminiscences… (check spelling and or definition)

    One of the cool bikes I used to have was neither a sport bike or a touring road bike. Triumph Tiger 650cc. It was cool. It had a ruined transmission when I got it. So it was old but barely used. I fixed that transmission with my own two little hands. I wish I had a picture of that bike. It was the stuff of classic.

    The bad news is that I discovered that I couldn’t ride it. The shifter was on the wrong side. Shifter and brake were reversed from all the bikes I had experience on. I was unable to overcome that habit.

    Dang! Hence I discovered why a transmission on such a bike might come to be damaged.

    Not a picture of my bike or my house. That is what the bike I had looked like though.

  4. Michael Eden Says:

    Dog Walker,

    Actually, I HAD to check the spelling because that’s a word that always gives me trouble, too. It’s “reminiscence.”

    These days the bike that big bore bike lovers salivate over is the Triumph Rocket III, featuring two engines mated together to the tune of 2,300 cc. The thing is an absolute torque monster.

    It’s amazing what they’re doing with motorcycles these days.

    I’m talking out of ignorance. I wonder if that was an actual Brithish market Triumph you had that had the shifter/brakes on the opposite side for the same reason that British cars have their steering wheels on the wrong side?

    I remember when I first saw the new girlfriend of my best friend (the one I described in this article with the Superglide). She rode up behind him on a 1941 knucklehead Harley featuring a suicide clutch. A seriously pretty blond on a seriously crazy motorcycle.

  5. 'B' Ark Says:

    Good story. I learned the lesson young. But then, I’ve always just loved bikes. In 1988 I had the opportunity to test-ride an 1100 Virago, a cruiser that would handle, stop and go! I was on Interceptors at the time, because of their ‘abilities’. It opened my eyes to what a well-built twin would do! Later I bought a 1400 Intruder. A most enjoyable bike, even though it lacked the handling and brakes of the big Yami. All my bikes I’ve enjoyed, some more than others. Now my stable consists of an ’11 Triumph Thruxton and a ’08 Sportster 1200 Low. Both are very entertaining pieces of hardware, at different ends of the spectrum. .
    Major Kudos to you for including quotes from ‘Big Trouble’ and Ernest P. in one page! Two of my favorites!

  6. Michael Eden Says:

    ‘B’ Ark,

    Hey, thanks for your comment. I’ve learned something else about the “advantages” of owning a Harley (and I only put it in quotes because it’s an advantage to some and means nothing to others): customizing.

    If you are the kind of guy who just can’t remain satisfied with your ride without modifying it, then you need to get yourself a HOG. Because they’ve got an aftermarket that is beyond the spectrum. I mean, if you want a eagle-claw-shaped sidestand, then dang it, they’ve got them for you. Whereas if you have most anything else, you are really fairly limited in what you can do.

    My Stratoliner is a case in point: it’s not a high-volume bike and the aftermarket is really pretty limited. Now, that said, I’m not one to want to keep screwing around with my bike, so I’m happy with the word “stock” in a way that a lot of other guys aren’t.

    As for the performance of a good V-Twin, to this day I can honestly say this bike has kept up with every sportbike I’ve ever been at a light with. I’M GOING BY THEM. It’s not until you get to around 80mph that the sport bikes start to own you. But that’s okay, because I’m really not interested in going much over 80mph anyway.

    I’ve really enjoyed my cruiser and STILL love it greatly.

    Part of it is my age; when I was a young buck all I wanted was to go fast and turn hard. Now I’m more than content with pulling hard out of a stop and accelerating in a straight line. I take my turns slow and stately the way my momma would want me to.

    I also still love to watch “Big Trouble in Little China” every now and again. It’s just a fun “good kicks evil’s ass” movie with fun characters and a plot that moves along.

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