First Ride: 2008 Harley-Davidson XR1200

With the launch of the XR1200, Harley-Davidson has achieved several firsts.

Click to read: Harley-Davidson XR1200 owners reviews, Harley-Davidson XR1200 specs and to see the Harley-Davidson XR1200 image gallery.

One is to build a bike exclusively for the European market. The XR1200 is a design initiative of Harley-Davidson Europe, borne almost of a frustration of trying to sell bikes built for the American market to European bikers who expect a minimum level of performance from their motorcycles – performance defined as handling, braking and power delivery, facets that seem to have different benchmarks in the USA.

The second achievement is to succeed in building a traditional Harley-Davidson that you can actually ride quickly without getting in a mess. Traditional is the key word, as the bike is styled on the legendary XR750 flat-tracker, a pure race-bike which has dominated a domestic dirt track sport for 35 years and incidentally, has helped the career of several Grand Prix World Championship contenders and a champion – Nicky Hayden. It was also the bike that carried Evel Knievel over a load of parked buses, ad nauseum (his, quite often).

Harley’s third achievement is yet to register I think. They may have deeply offended their most loyal Stateside customers by taking a Harley icon, making it into a road bike and selling exclusively to a bunch of foreigners. If I were at Harley-Davidson I’d homologate it for the US market and quick. The fact that hardly any of us journalists at the launch were erm, familiar with Scott Parker, says it all. Scott attended the launch. He’s nine-times AMA Grand National Dirt Track Champion and the most successful dirt-track racer ever. He won all his championships on the XR750. He also helped develop the XR1200 for us Limeys (the traitor).

Another first, was to impress a load of cynical European journos with by presenting a truly sporty Harley. Not sporty like a GSX-R, more like a Ducati Monster. They call this a roadster, rather than a sportsbike.

That said, this is still a Harley-Davidson. In Milwaukee they plough their own furrow in motorcycle engineering (pun intended). Style and engineering design is all bound up with its history, on which it trades successfully. The heart of a Harley has been, for over 100 years, a big, tall shaking slow and low-revving V-twin motor. Without this, it isn’t a Harley-Davidson. No-one in Milwaukee has a blank design sheet; it always starts with a V. So they present themselves with a lot of challenges in order to keep up with the competition in pure performance terms.

The XR1200 is a perfect example of a modern Harley-Davidson, harking back to an iconic model in its glorious history and being lumbered with all the design baggage and compromise that brings.

For example the big 45-degree V sits in a simple, heavy steel double-cradle frame. If you’ve been brought up on modern Japanese bikes, you’ll be peering across what seems to be a Grand Canyon in terms of sophistication. But approach with an open mind and don’t judge until you’ve tried it. This is what Harley-Davidson is all about.

Based largely on a Sportster XL1200 road bike, the XR1200 has some Japanese-style technology added in order to meet the European brief – Showa suspension, cast alloy wheels and Nissin brakes, although not radial. The engine is retuned with some essential performance tweaks.