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Motorhead Memo: Past perfect

By Kip Woodring

A curious paradox that troubles thinking motorcycle enthusiasts is the way the concept of “better” changes over time.

If a new motorcycle, upon its introduction, happens to be one of those rare designer bullets that hits all our intellectual, aesthetic and emotional bull’s-eyes, we may call it “perfect,” or even an “instant classic.” We rave!

Then—a year or so down the road, we begin admitting that one or two areas, very minor, could just possibly stand to be a little better. Perhaps we start envisioning different wheels, seats, suspension and secretly crave a little more power and/or a different sound. After four or five years, our list of potential improvements (and spurious fantasies) has outrun the original design’s ability to accommodate them. That once-perfect bike just can’t be prodded or poked into embracing all the newest technology, let alone the latest in trendy features. So, more often than not we wind up being taken with the tantalizing potentials of newer motorcycles. That perfect “one” we coveted has become just another obsolete old crock among many and we start grumbling under our breath (or sometimes screaming out loud to innocent bystanders), “They should have done a better job… updated this damn thing… redesigned all this crap… replaced the friggin’ bike… years ago!”

It’s only natural, don’t you think? After all, we ride the tides of our times as much as we ride the bikes of our dreams. We use our machines in our world, but the world keeps moving… sometimes faster and further than we are willing to. Tires get better. Brakes improve. Suspension, chassis, transmissions, engines, even the basic concept of a motorcycle keeps advancing—with no lack of shouting these advances (real or imagined) to the rooftops via advertising and publicity.

Laws change. Fuels, too. Even the roads we ride! We ourselves evolve in our needs and notions. First thing you know, a decade or so of all this has made our once-perfect machine seem incredibly old in more ways than one. Then comes the magic trick for those who wait to behold it!

The loyal, the patient, the satisfied, the prescient and the lucky who, for whatever unfathomable reason hang in yet another 10 years or so, move beyond the stigma of “obsolete” to the promised land of “classic”— if they are lucky and even if their particular machine doesn’t actually merit that oft-abused term.

Eventually, the more removed from the present, the more nostalgically attractive it seems, the more “classic” it gets. And magically—again—“perfect” somehow! Suddenly, folks begin to gush, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore!” or, “Best thing on the road, y’know?” Finally, all the way back to “Perfect.”

Lastly, a select few survivors live beyond the span of their owners, become increasing valuable, notably representative of their times, praised and prized by those who knew them well, overlooked by those who never have known them, used little, modified even less and possibly—perhaps probably—wind up a relic in a museum. At that point, classic can become quite legendary. You know what they say; “When the legend reads better than the truth, print the legend.”

On some level, this has happened to almost every Harley of times past. The JD of the ’20s, 80-inch Flatheads of the ’30s, certainly Knuckleheads of the ’40s, Panheads right on through the mid-’60s. Shovelheads are getting there rapidly and Evos are going to soon enough… and so it goes.

Another cliché applies; “Perfection is not an objective, it’s an obstacle.” Which, for our purpose now, we will take to mean the only thing truly perfect about these old crocks was their place and poise in their day. For sure, with all the hindsight available to us, we know damn good and well they weren’t by any means perfect, when measured by a 21st Century yardstick… a digital, electronic yardstick at that!

All of this knowledge of past performance compels me to speculate about the future. Presently, of course, we have the Twin Cam, which I suppose some would consider pretty much state-of-the-art for an antediluvian V-Twin engine. It has, as did its illustrious ancestors, served well. Yet it is much different from them. Uniquely, when you consider the technicalities and specifics of the Twin Cam design, it has little in common with those engines that came before… perhaps only air-cooling and the 45-degree angle between the cylinders. This, in itself, will likely ensure the Twinkie’s place on the path to eventual “classic” status and potentially legendary place in motorcycle history… someday.

Not today, however! Today, the engine is in the midst of its 12th year of production. Not necessarily unusual for an H-D Big Twin, since the Evo lasted 15 years, the Shovel 18 years, the Pan 17 years and even the Knuckle (allowing for the war in the middle) 11 years. Still, one cannot help but wonder, even if the Twin Cam was a marvelous advance in design compared to the others, and perfect for its role in The Motor Company’s scheme of things when introduced… where does it go from here?

The industry being in the shape it’s in these days, and a little more development entirely feasible for the short term, you’d not be blamed for thinking we have at least a couple more years of the Twin Cam in Harley dealers’ showrooms. Conceivably, a couple more than a couple, even! But no matter what, by then, it will be time for a new Big Twin engine. Want to guess what that engine will offer? Care to consider how different or how similar such an engine would be to its sire? Can we fathom its displacement, design or designation? Will the Twinkie’s successor be a success, or is the Twin Cam that tough an act to follow? Above all, would you imagine this new, as yet unknown, powerplant would be able to keep pace with its times and be therefore become, in its own particular poise and place, perfect? Quite possibly!

In a way, the eventual, inevitable introduction of a new Big Twin engine design depends more on concept than execution. As is traditional with the company and its fans, that means being instantly recognizable as a Harley motor. Yet, to compete in the not-too-distant future, that also means a considerable rethink of specification. In general concepts then, that signifies an engine that embraces both time-honored layout and up-to-the-minute technology.

Not having a single rumor or shred of evidence as to the details of this engine’s execution, I can only comment on what might be possible, what would make sense, what I’d most like to see happen and… why. I’ll preface all this with yet another homily of sorts, namely that you can hide an awful lot of alien technology under a familiar façade. (Ten years from now, laugh or cry, you can look back and see how close or distant this guesswork comes to the ultimate target.)

So, inside an engine that looks pretty much the same as all other Harley Big Twins might lurk some stuff you’ve never seen—most of it, this time around, directed at improving volumetric efficiency, rather than increasing displacement. Make no mistake, displacement would still be ample and offer the factory’s near-trademark option of increasing it with kits for that purpose, as well as doling it out incrementally throughout the lifespan of the design. For the hell of it, since the pattern has always been to start in where the previous engine left off, in terms of inches, let’s say the new motor will be born at 100. What should be more surprising is it could make an honest 100hp, while meeting all emissions and without water-cooling. (Yeah, you heard right!)

Let’s start at the top, with that cooling. I believe the secret lies in a few fundamental, internal changes from what we’ve known in Hog motors, till now. These are: Oil-cooled heads and four valves in each of those heads, with those valves opened and closed via a chain-driven overhead cam arrangement with hydraulic tensioners. Sounds simple enough but, to make it all worthwhile, this would involve beefing the bottom end up enough to handle a couple thousand revolutions per minute more than we’re used to—let’s say 8,000 of ’em—with total reliability. Further, to ensure that those buckets of low-end torque we’re used to remain to complement the increased top-end power, the cam timing would be electro-hydraulically variable. Inherently, due to the new and critical uses for which engine oil will be employed, the lubrication system would be a high-pressure type, with pumps (plural) for specific tasks, not the least feeding the gigantic plain bearings for the new, considerably stouter crank and rods. Chances are, considerable thought will have gone into hiding, or better yet integrating, the relatively large oil cooler mandated by the design. Or, possibly several smaller ones stuffed under the sump, below the regulator, under ducted frame panels or elsewhere… unobtrusively.

And, speaking of unobtrusive, with all these changes inside, should it still look like a Harley motor outside? Will it? It’s quite possible but remains to be seen how likely. If The Motor Company has the guts to do it, like the Knucklehead that sired their long line of overhead valve Big Twins, it will be better, surely a classic, likely a legend, and who knows… maybe even perfect!

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