Can Harley’s newest midsize offering impress on some of Europe’s finest motorcycle roads?
The invitation could hardly have been more specific, and enticing. “You are invited to Marbella, Spain, to view, ride and understand the new Harley-Davidson Street Rod. You will be able to ride the new model in urban and country locations for a full day, including along two of the routes widely recognized as being among the most enjoyable and demanding biking roads in Europe. You will ride along the twisting A366 tarmac roller coaster via El Burgo to the historic city of Ronda, spectacularly located in the mountains above Marbella. You will then descend back to Marbella along the legendary A397 – a sinuous length of challenging road steeped in automotive and motorcycling history.” Yes, please!
Hang on, though – you’re inviting me to ride a Harley along those fabulous racer roads where I’ve had the thrill of exploiting the performance and especially the handling of successive Ducati, Triumph, KTM, BMW and Yamaha models down the years – and have left witness marks to say “I Was Here!” by grinding their footrests in the asphalt to prove it. So, what can this new Street Rod be then? A Harley that handles?
Europe Every Time
Harley-Davidson Europe was indeed confident enough in the company’s new Street Rod model to invite me to tackle the Ronda roads on it. That contrasted with Harley’s head office, which held its U.S. press launch in Florida, where anything other than a right-angle turn is alien territory, and elevation an abstract concept. Okay, so it was Bike Week in Daytona – but even so, gentlemen, you should have had more faith in what your R&D guys have come up with. Their job may have been to produce an urban streetfighter aimed at bringing younger riders into the Harley fold, but the result is a great deal more than that, which deserves to be ridden hard and not simply treated as a simple traffic tool, effective as it may be at this.
A 220 km high-speed day’s ride along some of the most demanding two-wheeled territory in Europe indeed underlined the broad capabilities of Harley’s new Street Rod package, in delivering H-D dealers with a genuine rival to the Triumph Street Twin, Yamaha FZ-07, and especially the Ducati Monster 797 and its Scrambler cousins – albeit one with a truly American personality at a super-competitive price. “We’re reaching out to customers in a space where we didn’t really have a product before now, who are already perhaps well-disposed toward Harley-Davidson, but haven’t yet found the bike in our lineup to meet their needs,” Jeff Strunk, H-D’s motorcycle product planning manager, says. “They’re primarily a younger crowd, living in a more urban environment, looking for a bike to get around on in a more exciting way.”
Harley’s desire to make the Street Rod a world bike sold at an affordable price inevitably led it to base this Milwaukee Monster on its Street 750 introduced three years ago. Together with its Street 500 sister, the 750 has become a global success in spite of initial fit and finish issues that have since been resolved.
So, the Street’s liquid-cooled, wet sump 749 cc 60-degree V-twin Revolution X engine with a single chain-driven overhead cam operating the four valves per cylinder via mechanical lifters and forked rocker arms has now been comprehensively retuned to produce 68 hp at 8,750 rpm, and 47.9 ft-lb of torque at 4,000 rpm. This represents 18 per cent more peak horsepower and an eight per cent improvement in torque across the rev range versus the Street.
That improved performance has been achieved via higher-lift cams and new pistons that raise compression a full point to 12:1, while a larger volume airbox feeds a 42 mm diameter twin port Mikuni throttle body (against a 38 mm item on the Street) via connected, but separate, intake manifolds and revised intake ports to the combustion chamber, which duly exhales via unchanged header pipes into a shorter but higher-volume silencer. There’s a single injector per cylinder positioned under each butterfly in the twin port throttle body, and the rev limiter has been raised 1,000 rpm to 9,000 revs. Six-speed transmission ratios remain unchanged, as do the cable-operated oil-bath clutch and belt final drive.
This so-called High Output Revolution X engine is installed in a tubular steel double-cradle frame with a rectangular-section backbone, and the swingarm pivots and shorter rear subsection are all stamped from mild steel. While superficially similar to the Street chassis, it has quite different geometry, with a significantly steeper 27-degree rake versus the Street’s 32 degrees for the non-adjustable black-anodized 43 mm upside-down fork.
Trail on the Street Rod has also been reduced substantially compared with the Street, from 107 mm to 99 mm for a tighter-handling package, while the wheelbase is also slightly reduced, from a rangy 1,530 mm on the Street to a not much sportier 1,510 mm on the Rod. That’s in spite of a longer swingarm giving extra traction and a more forward weight bias. A pair of gas-charged, preload-adjustable coil-over shocks carry an external piggyback reservoir to increase fluid capacity and thus improve ride quality in offering 117 mm of travel. Dry weight is a hefty 229 kg as shipped, or 234 kg on the road with the 13.2-litre fuel tank brimmed.
Specially developed Michelin Scorcher 21 radial tires – incorporating the Harley-Davidson name on the sidewalls – were designed specifically for the Street Rod. The 120/70 R17V front is matched to a 160/60 R17V rear, which replaces the 15-inch rear on the Street. This helps increase cornering clearance from a cruiseresque 28.5 degrees either side on the Street to 37.3 degrees on the Street Rod’s right side, and 40.2 degrees on the left. The 3.5-inch front split-spoke cast-aluminum wheel now carries twin 300 mm brake discs, gripped by two-piston calipers sourced from Brembo. The rear wheel also has a 300 mm disc and two-piston caliper; ABS is optional for an additional $860.
The only instrument is a single round clock with an analog speedo, and a discreet digital insert that can be scrolled through via a rubber button next to it to display an odometer, twin trips, time and a combined gear-selected monitor and tach – minimalistic but adequate. Harley-Davidson’s Smart Security System is also an option.
Hopping aboard the Street Rod revealed quite an aggressive riding position that seems curious at first, and while you do eventually get used to its position, it’s not really ideal, especially for taller riders. The flat, wide handlebar has you leaning slightly forward Monster-style, hunched over the tank that’s a carryover from the Street 750, but has been raised and moved forward by 13 mm; plus, the footrests have been moved 75 mm farther back and also raised. It’s okay for a rider of my five-foot-nine height, but would be marginally bearable for anyone taller. My left foot was okay, but I had issues with my right foot. Basically, to give the Street Rod remotely sufficient ground clearance, they’ve had to raise the bulky silencer up and park the footrest right on top of it, with a strange-looking heel guard affixed to the top of the silencer shroud. This made it hard for me to put my foot on the right peg while also covering the rear brake pedal. And the stylized intake duct between the cylinders, which looks as though its previous gig was on a Pomona Raceway drag-racing funny car, didn’t make friends even slightly with my knee.
Because of this, I ended up using only the front brakes, which was no hardship, since these are excellent in every way and stopped the Rod brilliantly every time, whether in panic situations or modulating the lever to keep up momentum through sweeping turns on the Ronda roads. Doing this is not a single-finger job, though – there’s a kind of servo effect on the lever, which means you must grab it decisively with a full hand to achieve proper stopping power during the second half of the pull. Do that and the brakes work well, and can be modulated controllably. The bar-end mirrors are effective and unobtrusive; plus, you can mount them above or below the grips, as you wish. They feature a patent-pending design that allows them to fold back without interfering with the rider’s hands, and they can then be restored easily to the default position.
But equally as impressive as the brakes on the Street Rod is the High Output Revolution X engine, which, in spite of a slightly muted exhaust note, is stirring and responsive in use, with a completely linear and very smooth power delivery; there’s no undue vibration at any revs, even when approaching the soft-action 9,000 rpm rev limiter. Though far from being a traditional Harley slugger of an engine – indeed, it’s the most eager-revving powerplant in Harley’s entire range – it’ll pull wide open in sixth gear from just 2,000 rpm all the way to the limiter with zero transmission snatch.
While you do feel an extra surge of mid-range power above 4,000 rpm, this in turn encourages you to use the clean-shifting gearbox to keep the engine pulling in the happy zone from there to 7,000 revs. I couldn’t help notice, however, the snatchy, unduly fierce pickup from a closed throttle in the bottom three gears. So, after trail-braking into the apex of a tight second-gear turn, when you get back on the gas again, the initial response from the Street Rod’s EFI is so abrupt that you risk missing the apex as you’re propelled into places you didn’t want to go. Pity.
Likewise, it’s sometimes hard to avoid a jerky throttle response when inching along in traffic-choked streets. Since the Street doesn’t suffer from this, it must presumably be a mapping issue, so hopefully Harley can get this fixed soon. Apart from this, it’s a great piece of engine development and will surely be a platform that Harley will build on.
Compromised riding position notwithstanding, the Street Rod was a brilliant companion on which to attack the Ronda roads. That smooth, fluid power delivery once on the move and the flat torque curve means it’s a motorcycle you can ride intuitively, and the tighter steering geometry makes it an easy bike to hustle through a succession of tighter turns, flicking it from side to side with ease. Yup – it’s a Harley that handles!
I was pretty impressed by the amount of feedback I got from the non-adjustable fork and the all-new Michelin tires. I’ll admit to blind mistrust in this combo to start with as I steadily upped the pace, with gradually diminishing suspicion as I took a little more lean angle and just a bit more turn speed. By the end of the morning, I was really happy with the extent I could feel what the front tire was doing. The same can be said for the rear, where the ride quality of the twin coil-over shocks with spring preload set halfway through the five-position settings was pretty good for what is frankly budget suspension, without even any variable-rate springing. However, you must absolutely take notice when you start grinding out the not particularly long hero tabs on the flip-up footrests, especially on the right side, where if you ignore that early warning, the next thing to deck out is the very sturdy exhaust shroud – and that will indeed lift the back wheel off the ground.
However competent and comfortable the Street Rod proved to be in the wide open spaces of the Spanish mountainsides – and that relatively broad and well-padded seat was very accommodating over my 220 km day spent sitting on it – its predominant design brief is as an urban-focused hot rod, a role it proved ideally suited to in stop-and-go Ronda traffic, or at either end of the day in Marbella’s ever more traffic-choked rush hour. The clutch lever action is light enough that your left hand doesn’t freeze up with repeated use, and traffic manners are good once you learn to kind of preload the throttle in traffic to eradicate that jerky pickup. The eager-revving motor allows you to launch away from stoplights with ease. Really, the only downside of riding the Street Rod in town is heat. Riding in jeans meant I repeatedly had my left inside leg roasted by the rear cylinder’s rocker cover, and the fat silencer meant that I had to hook my right leg around it to reach the ground at rest, taking care in doing so, so as not to scorch my jeans on it. Not ideal – and quite possibly the shorter riders, whom the Street Rod in many other ways seems designed for, will have a problem here.
All in all, the great-looking styling and general sense of coolness, coupled with that iconic name on the fuel tank, and the invigorating performance from that excellent engine, which is the main star of the Street Rod, will surely together combine to make this new model a hit, especially at the killer price of $10,399. In doing so, the Street Rod and the successor models we can surely expect on this same platform – flat tracker, café racer, you name it – will be a pivotal component in Harley-Davidson CEO Matt Levatich’s professed aim to add two million new Harley owners in the next decade, fuelled by no fewer than 50 new models to be brought to market in the next five years. That ambition – which almost certainly only Harley-Davidson of all the world’s manufacturers, Japanese included, is in a position to achieve – can only be met by radically expanding the spread of customers for the company’s products, and that means making motorcycles like this Milwaukee Monster that are quite unlike anything with the bar-and-shield badge on them before.