Issue 18 Sep-Oct 2008
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A European Harley

XR1200 tested in Spain

Accelerating hard with my chin on the tank of the orange XR, I'm doing all I can to keep the big V-twin with the hard-ridden identical Harley up ahead. The name on the leathers in front says "PARKER", and when you're following arguably the greatest ever dirt-track racer aboard an identical bike there's no time for hanging around. But as the nine times US Grand National champion leads our freight train of thundering Harleys, I have to admit that my task of staying behind Scott Parker is easier than it might have been. Rather than battling for the lead of the Springfield Mile, I'm following him past a truck on a road near Valencia in Spain. And the Harleys we're riding are not the legendary XR750 dirt-trackers but that model's street legal replica, the XR1200.

This new roadster has a long way to go to match the impact of the XR750, which has won 28 national championships and countless races over almost four decades, a period of dominance unmatched in motorcycle racing history. But the XR1200 is very significant for Harley: it's the first Milwaukee model ever built specifically for a non-American market. It's now on sale in this country and elsewhere in Europe but is not scheduled for sale elsewhere - including the US.

The irony of recreating a genuine American icon for foreign consumption only is not lost on Harley. But the firm famously had its fingers burnt by the failure of the XR1000 in the early Eighties. And a quarter of a century later, with sales of the V-Rod family disappointing, Harley is unconvinced that home-based customers are ready for another sporty roadster.

We Europeans, on the other hand, seemingly are. A handy 13,000 Sportsters were sold on this side of the Atlantic last year, a good proportion of them the XL883R, the XR750-styled variant whose success hinted at a greater than expected appreciation of the firm's dirt-track tradition.

Why not, the thinking in Milwaukee product planning meetings went, go a step further - with a hotted-up replica that added performance as well as orange paint? After a prototype was warmly received at Intermot in 2006, the project got the green light for production.

Essentially the XR1200 is a reworked Sportster 1200, and a pretty comprehensively reworked one at that. Its aircooled pushrod powerplant shares the standard model's 1202cc capacity and dimensions, but is tuned with hot camshaft, increased compression ratio (9.7 to 10:1) and a lighter Buell flywheel that helps it rev quicker and higher. Peak revs increased by 1000rpm to 7000rpm. Much of the power increase comes from a new downdraft intake system whose 50mm throttle body is 5mm up on standard. The spine frame's top tube prevents a Buell-style vertical intake but the system is still much more efficient than the Sportster's. Peak output is 90bhp at 7000rpm, a gain of 20bhp over the Sportster although still 10 horses down on the figure reached by Buell with the help of a bigger airbox and exhaust chambers.

The venerable pushrod V-twin is "right on the edge of its development limit" at this point, says Brad McIlwee, manager of Sportster and Buell engine development. Precision oil-cooling, via jets aimed around the exhaust ports, helps withstand the extra stress. So do tougher conrods, bigger crankpins and a Buell-style idler system to regulate drive belt tension.

There are also plenty of changes to the chassis, though it's based on a standard Sportster's twin-downtube main frame including its rubber-mounting system. A new steel rear subframe raises the rear of the bike, steepening the steering geometry slightly. Suspension at both ends is new, the front end featuring 43mm upside-down Showa forks. Shocks from the same Japanese firm are worked by an aluminium swing-arm that's 40 per cent stiffer and 1.5kg lighter than the steel one it replaces.

The cast wheels are purpose designed for the XR, as are the Dunlop Qualifier tyres they wear. Brakes are new, too, with four-piston Nissin calipers biting 292mm discs up front. Other changes include higher, more rearset footrests, but Sportster riders won't get too much of a shock. The wide, slightly raised handlebar combines with the low seat to give a riding position that's sporty only by Harley standards.

The styling's a neat reflection on the legendary dirt-bike, though. The tank has been carefully shaped by the design team at Harley's Product Development Center (although built for Europe, the XR was created in Milwaukee). Capacity is only 13.3 litres but it looks just right, along with the cut-down tailpiece and twin alloy pipes that run up the right of the bike. From the rider's part of the low seat you also notice the new instrument console combining a white-faced analogue tacho with digital speedo alongside.

I was glad to find myself in the group being led by Scott Parker, even if the great man got off to a shaky start by taking us slightly the wrong way through the outskirts of Valencia. Perhaps it was all part of a plan to emphasise that despite its racer-derived look the XR makes a pretty good city bike. Although it's pretty long and mighty heavy, much of its weight is carried low, and there was plenty of steering lock to help flick through the traffic.

Sitting at the traffic lights with that big grey-finished V-twin engine jigging up and down in its rubber mounts was not a bad place to be, though the heat from the motor would be pretty intense on a hot day. Fuelling was very rider-friendly, too. The XR pulled almost from idle, responding very cleanly to a tweak of the light-action throttle.

That extra top-end power has seemingly not been provided at the expense of midrange grunt, or not to any significant degree. Heading out of the city on a wide but fairly busy main road, the Harley was happy to respond almost regardless of revs. It stonked forward with a surprisingly throaty induction roar, too, courtesy of the electronically controlled, noise-test-cheating flap in its airbox. The motor seemed happy to rev to its elevated seven-grand maximum, and I was delighted to oblige thanks largely to the efficiency of the rubber mounting system, which made 85mph cruising very effortless apart from the inevitable touch of buffeting from the wind. Up near the redline there was a bit of vibration through the footrests, but nothing compared to previous rigid-mounted Sportster levels. That in turn made an occasional flat-out blast too tempting to resist. On one short stretch of straight road, adopting a chin-on-tank, left-hand-on-fork-leg dirt-track racer riding position saw 120mph flash up pretty quickly on the diminutive digital speedo. Shortened gearing for the five-speed box means top speed is below 130mph. That's far from fast but fine for a naked bike. If you're looking for serious speed you're aboard the wrong race-replica.

Even the all-conquering XR750 itself is far from a straight-line demon itself, of course; the factory bikes ridden by Harley's current double AMA champ Kenny Coolbeth make little more than 100bhp. The big difference in performance terms is that they weigh just 145kg compared to the XR1200's 250kg. But given all that weight and its relatively simple steel frame, the roadster handled very well.

Suspension rates are roughly ten per cent stiffer than the Sportster at front and rear, which gave a reasonably firm ride without being back-punishingly uncomfortable, despite having just 89mm of rear wheel travel. Scott Parker and French road-race star Adrien Morillas helped specify suspension rates during the model's development, and they did a good job. Although the Showa units are basic, with shock preload the only thing that can be adjusted, the XR could be ridden pretty hard with few of the normal Harley shakes and shimmies. Even with its steeper steering geometry the XR has a less-than-racy 29.3 degrees of rake (from 30.1), which combined with its 18-inch front wheel meant it was never going to steer remotely like a road-race bike. But the wide bar gave plenty of leverage, and the bike turned without needing excessive effort, then held its line happily through the generally smooth-surfaced Spanish curves.

Ground clearance was very adequate, too, with the footrest pegs touching down reasonably easily but solid parts tucked well enough out of the way. That in turn allowed the specially developed and respectably grippy Dunlop Qualifier rubber to earn its keep. That Nissin front brake was excellent, too. The four-pot calipers supplied good lever feel with enough power to pull the bike up sharply in conjunction with the not-too-grabby rear disc.

All in all the XR certainly steered, cornered and stopped well enough to be big fun on a twisty road, without detracting from the essential Sportster-like character that will appeal to many riders who like existing Harleys. Essentially it felt like a super-Sportster: quicker, sharper and better braked, but still with the familiar, fairly laid-back feel that has made Harley's smaller-engined V-twins so popular over the years.

The XR1200 is certainly a bike that many existing Sportster riders would enjoy if they tried it - and which works well enough to attract riders from other brands who are looking for a bike that blends American tradition with sportier style and performance in unique fashion. That combination looks like making the bike, which costs £7655 on the road, a success in Europe. Whether the XR generates enough interest to persuade Harley to make it available elsewhere, including the States, is another matter.

The XR1200's heritage - Dirt-track King: the XR750

Few racebikes can come even close to matching the longevity of Harley's XR750, which has changed relatively little while winning 28 of the last 36 AMA (American Motorcycle Association) championships. The XR was introduced in 1970, when Harley race-team manager Dick O'Brien put a modified Sportster engine into the chassis of Harley's outdated KR racer. The result was initially underpowered and uncompetitive; so much so the most successful iron-barrelled XR was arguably the bike ridden by stunt ace Evel Knievel. In 1972 Harley revamped the XR with a new aluminium-engined model, to good effect: factory rider Mark Brelsford won the first of its AMA Grand National championships. Since then the XR750 has generally been dominant, helped at times by changes in the rules.

The most successful stars of Harley's works "Wrecking Crew" are Jay Springsteen, Champion between 1976 and 78; Scott Parker, who won a record nine titles between 1988 and '98; and Chris Carr, six-time champion between 1999 and 2005. Harley's current top gun is 20-year-old Kenny Coolbeth, who took a second consecutive victory last season.

After 1980 Harley stopped building complete XRs, instead selling engines to be built into bikes using parts from firms such as frame specialist Champion. A modern XR750 produces just over 100bhp, and reaches over 130mph on the mile-circuit straights. The XR's design and look has changed little in its near 40-year history, despite the appearance of upside-down forks, cast wheels and rear brakes (early XRs had none at all). The XR750 has inspired many roadgoing specials over the years, as well as the XR1000 production model, which was released in 1983, sold in very small numbers and is now highly collectable.

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