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Motorhead Memo: Man and machine

By Kip Woodring

My crystal ball doesn’t work any better than anyone else’s. Still, it is safe to say there will be a replacement for the Twin Cam in the near future. There practically has to be. Competition ensures it. For a long damn time, the biggest task for Harley’s engineers has been to build incremental “improvements” into machines marketed to what was essentially a captive audience. All that stuff about being the oldest and only American motorcycle manufacturer had a lot to do with it. So did that audience… captivated by the lore, the legend and the lack of American alternatives. No matter how good a Gold Wing, or a Beemer, or any number of motorcycles that came to bat in the cruising/touring game, the fact remained: not Yankee enough! And so it has stood for decades. That has changed, largely because of Polaris. That company cleverly surrounded The Motor Company—like Indians (pun intended) circling the wagons—only stealthily, quietly, slowly, deep in the shadows, when nobody was really looking. Today, they offer both the newest and oldest brand names in the American motorcycle sphere. These offerings are serious and sufficient to force H-D to wake up and smell the motor oil. Harley has to do more than make the corporation’s stock look good, and crank out doo-dads to stick on a stale product… no matter what that product brought to the table a decade and a half ago.

Forgive me for being blunt, but even with all its advantages (and there are many), the TC engine has never been as good as its immediate predecessor. The Evolution Big Twin, with all its flaws (and there are enough) was never plagued with inherent faults to the degree that they overcame the basic “rightness” of the design. The Twin Cam—on paper—came to us with the unassailable attractions of superior valve train geometry and the lure of ever-increasing displacement… but not much else. In reality, bumps in power followed along in sync with the bumps in displacement, but so did heat. Tacked-on water cooling presented only a partial solution. Evos, never that big and never that strong (or complicated), never had that problem, or issues with cam trains for that matter. Further, the Evo top end with oh-so-proper valve train geometry is still with us in the form of the Sportster. And, yes, I’m gonna say it: the X-engine is not only the best Evo, but the best air-cooled pushrod engine ever built by The Motor Company. Quite possibly one of the best ever by any manufacturer. Doesn’t matter. Extinction of the breed looms large.

The 106″ Victory and both the Chief and Scout from Indian shine some pretty bright sunlight on the cracks in the facade of traditional H-D engines and engineering. Times have changed and engineering must change with the times. What is worth pondering is whether the key to those changes comes in the hardware or the software of future products.

The smart bike?

Even a casual examination of the motorcycle landscape these days tells you that in many ways, the most promising technology on the horizon is digital, rather than mechanical. I hold this truth to be self evident, almost overwhelming, as it applies to phones, TVs, watches and cars, to name a high-profile few. “Smart” technology is everywhere… and getting smarter! Any automobile less than 10 years old is essentially computer controlled. Most motorcycles that have come to market within that same span of time are not far behind. Even Harley has added layer upon layer of electronic “management” from audio, to GPS, to ABS and more. There are separate computers to control the engine’s functions and those of the chassis, in the form of the ECM and BCM. (Although, since Hogs don’t have a “body,” the one for the chassis ought to be called a “CCM,” don’t you think?) Where electronic control goes from here is central to what Harley must do. But first, I’d like to come at my vision of such stuff and nonsense to try and arrive at a more philosophical point of view.

The sharp edge of electronics on board motorcycles comes from current and forthcoming sport bikes. These machines offer up unprecedented power, brakes, suspension and handling capabilities—not to mention velocities approaching or exceeding double the “ton”—200-plus mph! The operative word is “capabilities.” I doubt it’s too much of a stretch to compare them with those of a contemporary fighter jet—in that, A) most of those capabilities are wasted because they cannot be exploited in its most natural environment and, B) if the computer quits… the pilot dies, because such a massively complex plane can’t be flown manually by mere humans. Sportbikes are now treading on the same threshold. Not a handful of riders on the planet are able to explore their limits on the racetrack (most being competitive MotoGP riders) and no one can do it on the street… If the digital “nannies” built into the bikes are taken out of the equation. Yet, the nannies are there and in effect that means (in theory) these days there is no such thing as too much performance. In short, motorcycles in general have gotten so heavy, so powerful and so complex that “e-nannies” and “i-assists” are considered necessary; the only way forward.

It is equally fair to say that even though you might never have any intention of crowding the limits on your machine, sometimes those limits crowd you… unintentionally. Panic stops, low sides, high sides, wheel spin at the worst possible times and more all figure into the algorithms. That these “episodes” exist and can occur at any speed on any road at any time only underscores why electronic control is here and growing more complex and complete… like it or not. Of course, all along the way, you are constantly being subliminally persuaded to think of it as progress; a high-tech way of saving yourself from the potential downside of a mistake.

Another haunting prospect is that we are indoctrinated into thinking the potential inherent in modern machines is our best motive for buying them, though we’ll never get to use all that potential. So, bottom line: WTF are we doing paying for “capabilities” locked up behind an inviolate electronic gate? Doesn’t stand to reason. But then, when have motorcycles ever been reasonable? I suspect we have always wanted motorcycles that challenge our skills, and electronics make going to the edge less likely to take us over the edge, therefore making the whole experience substantially less edgy in the first place. Not altogether a good thing for all.

This is where a certain philosophical slant comes into it, because what’s really happening in this development is the inexorable negation of the rider as “master and commander.” Human control usurped by computers! So, one can easily imagine how such “i-assist” stuff dilutes the essence of riding.

Paradoxically, it could be argued that it enhances our riding—but maybe not for the reason that first comes to mind. In all probability, 95 percent of riders, when matched with these 21st century state-of-the-art two-wheelers, come out ahead in this deal. Why? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, overall our motorcycle riding training, skills and experience in this country suck! Certainly, most of us really have no motivation to improve as riders if it involves any effort, potential machine damage, or threat of pain and suffering. We have no graduated licensing; no ingrained, minimal institutional education available to us either. So, even if we wanted to become proficient, well, good luck! Sure, help is out there, but the simple fact that you gotta look so hard for it and spend chunks of money to acquire skills that could save your life, at best isn’t very democratic and at worst, tragic.

Rider training should be akin to pilot training, with lots of “ground school,” constant refresher courses with both hour and “equipment” ratings, just to touch on the highlights. To think (in delusion) that proficiency is self-evident because you’ve ridden many miles and many years with no accidents is to miss the point. To always merely “conduct” a motorcycle along at a small fraction of its potential is to miss the fun. Manufacturers know this and to keep customers coming (and able to return again and again) the “nanny” strategy shapes up as the best alternative. If the rider won’t or can’t evolve and improve, then the motorcycle will.

So much for philosophy… and I could be wrong. But, be that as it may (and more to the pragmatic point), how does this software implementation play into any hardware machinations to be anticipated from The Motor Company?

A marriage “made”?

Harley just might have shown some cards in the hand they intend to play regarding the next Big Twin. Or not… (read the first sentence in this article again)! Although, all the effort they’ve put into the “Revolution”-based Street 500 and 750, would be a waste if none of it was used for the betterment of bigger V-Twins. So, it could well be, that any all-new X-series, as well as F-series machines, will be extensions/expansions of this 21st century “platform.” Or at least, lead to new platforms sharing basic architecture and manufacturing techniques.

Lessee… 60-degree V-angle, overhead cams (no pushrods), 4-valve heads, liquid cooling, plain-bearing bottom end… probably even more stuff that we don’t think of as traditional for Harley, but really is, or will be. Massive displacement going in, with ample room to grow and (holy friggin’ mackerel!) stock power levels that match or exceed anything its rivals have to offer mated to digital marvels of management that ensure an optimal and safe riding experience. Got a problem with that? H-D plans to sell motorcycles to people a long time after we’re dead and gone, so they sure don’t—and shouldn’t! (At some point, looking back becomes a hazardous pastime. The way forward is what matters and to safely navigate it requires only an occasional glance in the rearview mirror.)

Rest assured, regardless of where you look on any all-new Harley platform, whether familiar, different, or as shocking to us as electric (or even steam power), you’ll still see “The Look,” sacrosanct as it is! But the technology (both hard and soft) hiding under that familiar exterior profile will be very different; very integrated. Has to be. It’s the distinction between, say, a mechanical watch and one with a quartz movement. At a glance you know it’s a watch. But when it comes to keeping time accurately, effortlessly and without a lot of daily winding, the efficiency, reliability and silent electronic heartbeat of the quartz watch wins every time. Yet, although it shows my age and attitude even more than usual, I still prefer the mechanical. I doubt I’m the only one either. Call us hopeless romantics.

The stumbling block in these purist notions arises from a conjoined belief that there’s a hell of a lot to the old saw “man and machine are one”… or as close to it as possible. If you’ve been close (on one of “those rides” on one of “those motorcycles”) then you know exactly what that means. Nonetheless, who is to say in the end, if man and machine is good… that man, machine and computer isn’t even better? The centaur goes cyborg? Hmm?

One comment

  1. He Kip, I think you hit the nail on the head. I love my 1986 1st year Evo Sportster, with a trap door, to the tranny. I also love, our 1999 FXSTC the LAST Evo Big Twin. I have NO USE for the POS Twin Cam. There are 3 blogs on J&P Cycles Website, 1000 comments, 750 Blown Motors, 3 out of 4, a 75% failure rate, WTF ? I also agree with you about Polaris, I’ve ridden 2 dozen Chiefs in 9 Demo Days, sweet bike, with 3 Cams, Gear Driven everything. Gee, why didn’t H-D think of that, “they can’t see the tree, for the forest” !
    PS, I enjoy your column immensely ! Beware, Be Smart, Be Safe, Boston Jim

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