WORDS: MICHAEL COWTON | PHOTOGRAPHY: GARY D CHAPMAN
I WAS enjoying a relaxing half-hour in the back garden with a Camp coffee and a magazine, when the silence was broken by one of the most uniquely signature sounds in the world, a sound refined over the decades and bringing to mind that truism: ‘You hear a Harley before you see it.’
It is, of course, all down to the design of that superb V-Twin two-cylinder engine, which turns on its head the conventional design of a motorbike’s pistons timed to fire alternately. For fear of preaching to the converted, traditionally, a crankshaft has two pins 180 degrees apart to which both pistons are connected. By contrast, Harley’s V-Twin engine has cylinders arranged in a 45-degree ‘V’ configuration attached to a single-pin crankshaft. The arrangement causes the cylinders to fire at uneven intervals, and as a result you are left with the choppy, uneven, ‘pop-pop’ sound, which has grown to become such an integral element of these machines.
Extraordinarily, such was the sound’s popularity that back in February 1994 Harley filed a sound trademark application… ‘The mark consists of the exhaust sound of applicant’s motorcycles, produced by V-twin, common crankpin motorcycle engines when the goods are in use.’ It was that unmistakably distinctive, throaty sound rumbling up the road to my property which caught my attention.
And then there it was, the Iron 1200, sitting on my driveway. The Harley mystique turned into reality; a cultural icon with a brand image recognised throughout the world, more so than any other bike I can think of. And that brought me to thinking about the people that originally rode Harleys, those with the grizzled faces and filthy hair and tattoos and oil-encrusted jeans and sleeveless leather waistcoats and bad-ass reputations, leaving carnage in their wake as they roamed California’s highways and byways on their stripped-down H-Ds. You might have seen the extraordinary images captured by Andrew Shaylor in his coffee-table book, Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, or read the king of gonzo journalism, Hunter S Thompson’s seminal work Hell’s Angels, which proved to be a universal hit prior to him heading off to hunt elk and breed Doberman Pinschers in Woody Creek, Colorado, suffering amoebic dysentery and culture shock.
All this was swirling around my head as I headed vacantly across the Lincolnshire Wolds for a photoshoot northeast of Louth. Yes, I know it doesn’t conjure up those expected images of canyons and long stretches of lonely, open road, although I hardly saw another vehicle as this was just post-lockdown. Neither was I setting out to enforce a brand image, although riding this machine, I somehow felt different, but why, I don’t know, but needed to find out. I wanted to be objective, not rendered helpless by drip-feeding nostalgia into my brain, believing I was something that I was not, and doubtless never would be.
So whilst being pragmatic, let’s generalise for a moment about Harleys and a few of what people comment are their negative talking points. Weight, image and average performance spring to mind. As this was my first time on a Harley, I’ll take each of those in turn. Yes, the Iron is a hefty lump, weighing in at around 255kg, and yet it looks slim, and elegant, and as a rider, you tend to sit in it, as opposed to on it. That’s down to the 735mm height seat, so it’s easy to flatfoot at standstill, and smaller riders will appreciate that. And then there are those semi-ape bars, which proved to be extremely comfortable and as a result I soon found myself relaxing into the ride.
Image-wise, the Iron is a definite looker. If you like an edgy, factory-custom chopper, then this is the bike for you. Its bold, throwback styling works beautifully with the blacked-out profile, enhanced in this case with the authentic 1970s-inspired custom tank graphic.
What surprised me most was the amount of low-down torque it offered. Just a twist of the wrist brought smooth, ample power, and much of the time I found myself edging my way across the Wolds in third. This bike is certainly no adrenalin junkie, but it will sit there happily offering bucketloads of pleasure. Neither is it going to wear you out after a long ride, and you know what, I can’t help but think how damn cool it is. That’s because it’s what a motorcycle is supposed to look like, and supposed to ride like, so there’s little wonder it received admiring glances wherever I went. And I wanted to keep on going, because I was beginning to really enjoy the experience. Yes, I get it now.
There is something instrinsically simplistic about the Iron, like the handlebar-mounted single pod instrument panel housing an analogue speedometer and a digital screen with a cluster of odo, two trip meters, clock and rev counter/gear indicator, all easy to toggle through from a button on the left switchgear. I tended to ride with the readout highlighting the gear indicator. There seemed to be a slight time lag with the readout as I went up and down the box, as if the Iron was telling me in its own West Coast, laid-back attitude, ‘I’ll do this in my own time’.
I am well aware that there’s a lot of bitching about Harleys, even varying levels of contempt, most likely by those that have never ridden one. Well, I can happily state that to my mind any verbal assaults are rendered helpless because this bike is good, very good. Yeh, the lean angle is not great at around 28 degrees, and you can expect to hear scraping if you turn too sharply at junctions, but the tyres offered me all the grip I needed and I never felt uncomfortable.
This compact, chopper-style bike is well suited to urbanites with its solid performance around town and nifty sprint capability away from lights. Head out of town and it offers a different dynamic. One thing it is not is a bike you are going to thrash any time soon. Take in the smooth power, and views, and simply enjoy the ride. There are times when I just like to bimble, and the Iron would be my go-to bike for that. The dual-piston brakes perform an adequate enough job, and if you manage to avoid the booby traps like gravel and pot-holes then you will be fine, ever mindful that those twin shocks offer only stunted travel before your teeth start juddering. Also remember that you’ve only got one disc up front, just in case some idiot pulls out on you.
If you think you have seen a bike of this ilk before, then no need to stand corrected, as it is pretty much the blacked-out 883-powered Iron, but with the rather splendid 1202cc Evolution engine, with added soul. The vibration of this throbbing torque monster will keep you alert as your fingers, toes and ears tingle to the off-beat tune, and the wind swirls around you, but that’s all part of the experience. Just one thing… give me a low fuel gauge, Harley, and I won’t have to fret about pit stops.
Meantime, you can ride away on the Vivid black for less than £10 grand. Go for the uber-cool 1970s AMF-era ((American Machine and Foundry) tank graphic and you will be only forking out another £250. As I walked away from it in my garage, I’m sure I saw it raise a finger to my other bikes. Ever the rebel.
HARLEY-DAVIDSON IRON 1200
- Price: Vivid Black £9395, Colour £9645
- Engine: 1202cc Air-cooled Evolution V-twin
- Power: 66 HP / x49 Kw @ 6000 rpm
- Torque: 73ft-lb (96Nm ) @ 3500 rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed
- Frame: Tubular mild steel
- Front suspension: Non-adjustable 49mm cartridge-style fork
- Rear suspension: Adjustable-preload variable rate spring with nitrogen-charged emulsion-style shock
- Front brake: 300mm disc w/ dual-piston caliper
- Rear brake: 260mm disc w/ dual-piston caliper
- Front tyre: 100/90B19 57H
- Rear tyre: 150/80B16 77H
- Wheelbase: 59.6 inches
- Seat height: 735mm
- Fuel tank: 12.5 litres (3.3 gallons)
- Fuel economy: Estimated 48mpg
- Kerb weight: 246kg as shipped, 256kg in running order
- Contact: www.harley-davidson.com