Home » Harley-Davidson Once Spent Millions Developing An Insane Streamlined V4 Motorcycle With Porsche

Harley-Davidson Once Spent Millions Developing An Insane Streamlined V4 Motorcycle With Porsche

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Harley-Davidson is an iconic American motorcycle brand known for one thing: Building large V-twin-powered cruisers. The Motor Company has been doing this for so long that it was a big deal when Harley started making an adventure bike. But even that still had a V-twin. Back in the 1980s, Harley-Davidson had a crazy idea. What if it built V4s and V6s before even Honda made its V4s? This was the Nova and Harley burned millions developing the motorcycle with Porsche, just to can it before production.

I’ve lived in the Midwest all of my life. Despite that, I’ve never made the pilgrimage to the Harley-Davidson Museum. That finally changed last weekend and the trip was totally worth the $48 I paid for Sheryl and myself. I learned a lot about Harley-Davidson’s 121 years of history, including the fact that the Bar and Shield used to make boxer engines. Yes, like BMW!

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Most of the motorcycles in the museum are V-twins of all shapes and sizes with brief breaks for weirdos like Buells. However, nestled in an alcove on the lower floor is perhaps the most un-Harley Harley that almost saw production.

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In the early 1980s, Harley-Davidson saw itself beating the world and it wasn’t going to do it with a V-twin, but with a V4 and a V6 motorcycle developed with Porsche and shaped through wind tunnel testing.

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Harley Needed Some Fresh Ideas

This story takes us back to what some would call a dark period in Harley-Davidson lore.

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It’s 1965 and as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, Harley-Davidson is finding itself struggling to swim up a stream of imports flooding in from Japan. The company is in need of cash, so it goes public. In 1968, Bangor Punta Corp., a conglomerate with its hands in boats and firearms, made a bid to purchase Harley for $32 a share, valuing the motorcycle manufacturer at $22.8 million. Harley-Davidson president William H. Davidson hit back, telling Bangor Punta that the company wasn’t for sale. But that wasn’t necessarily true.

Harley-Davidson instead ended up in bed with American Machine and Foundry. Many Americans are familiar with AMF for its bowling equipment, but AMF also built bomb casings, tennis rackets, and propane cylinders. AMF’s purchase of Harley, while cheaper at $21.6 million, was supposed to shore the American motorcycle maker up for the future. Harley says it made the 1969 deal with AMF because it desperately needed the resources to update its organization.

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AMF then took Harley-Davidson in a bunch of strange directions. The company slapped AMF on Harley-Davidson tanks while upping production. However, this seemed to be more like quantity over quality as owners and magazines felt Harley was producing low-quality, unreliable machines. Motorcycle.com goes as far as to claim that AMF-era Harleys were so unreliable that dealerships rebuilt engines under warranty and classified listings made sure to point out when a used bike was “pre-AMF.”

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AMF also got plenty weird with Harley, slapping the Bar and Shield onto vehicles like golf carts and even snowmobiles.

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But it wasn’t all weird and bad. The AMF years produced the popular 1200cc Super Glide FX and the rare XLCR-1000 Cafe Racer. The XR-750 was kept in the American consciousness thanks to Evel Knievel. It should also be noted that while things may have seemed dire, AMF got Harley through a decade of tough competition from Europe and Japan. Sales may have been down, but Harley remained the king of heavyweights. It was also the American motorcycle motorcycle brand. Sure, the Indian name was around, but on motorcycles from other countries.

As Hagerty writes, Harley’s future was being written in secret meetings being held by Harley top management and vice president Jeffrey Bleustein. Harley-Davidson decided to take a two-pronged approach. The company would keep its iconic V-twin cruisers around, but they would get a new, refined engine. At the same time, Harley-Davidson would introduce a world-beating high-tech line of water-cooled motorcycles.

Gunning For The Imports

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This wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. Harley had plenty of fans already, so they’d get a new engine for their favorite style of motorcycle. However, Harley wanted to address the increasing popularity of Japanese imports with something that could compete directly.

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English engineer Mike Hillman was placed in the lead of the project and while AMF loved the idea of Harley’s planned future, the company didn’t have enough R&D firepower to develop two ambitious projects at the same time. So, the high-tech Harley project needed a production and development partner. After some shopping around, Harley-Davidson landed on the engineering expertise of Porsche. Development of the Nova project began in earnest.

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Development began in 1978 and charged full steam through 1980. The team involved 15 people in Milwaukee and 15 more at Porsche in Germany. Testing would take place in both countries.

As Hagerty notes, Hillman designed a Formula 1 car in the 1960s. Taking notes from his experience, Hillman wanted this new engine to function as a stressed member of the frame. Apparently, he found a 60-degree V to be optimal for this setup. A contra-rotating balancer shaft would be used in the engine to reduce vibration enough to allow it to be solidly mounted to a pressed steel frame.

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Porsche was tasked with evaluating engine designs. Both Harley and Porsche had a hard project ahead because not only was this engine supposed to be high-tech, but it was supposed to appeal to the kinds of people who bought Hondas and Triumphs in the 1970s. In 1979, Porsche produced its evaluations of Nova engine designs.

The result of this work was a modular engine architecture. Each engine would have a common stroke of 58 mm and cylinders of 200cc and 250cc of displacement each. This meant V-twins as small as 400cc and 500cc, V4s pumped up to 800cc and 1000cc, and finally, chunky 1200cc and 1500cc V6 engines. Keep in mind that this was 1979, a few years before Honda would release its VF and VFR line of V4 motorcycles. Could you imagine a world where Harley did V4s better than Team Red?

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According to Hagerty, who spoke to Hillman, the team started with an 800cc V4 with 80 HP power and a redline of 9,500 RPM. They focused a bike that could directly compete with the import middleweights. Harley could have even beaten Honda to fuel injection. The Nova was set to be carbureted first, but the team planned on fuel injection, too. Reportedly, the Harley development team also considered shaft drive like you’d find on import bikes, but went with a belt drive instead.

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Willie G. Davidson led the styling front and he wanted a motorcycle that looked clean to go with its future tech. In 1978, before the engine was even carved out, Harley put a model of the Nova in a wind tunnel. The primary function of the stylish fairing was to shield the rider from the wind. This was a bike expected to have top speeds in the 120 mph range, and engineers wanted the rider to be comfortable.

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However, the fairing would end up serving another purpose. Davidson’s insistence on a clean design meant the radiator under the seat. That’s not an ideal place for a radiator, so the fairing has deep ram air scoops to get air to a fan, which ducts air to the radiator. Where was that fan? It was in the airbox, situated where the fuel tank would normally be. The fuel tank was also under the seat, which is why the fuel cap is back there.

All of this engineering work meant the Nova had a fantastic 1980s vibe to it and the bike was more than a looker. It would have a stereo, a comfortable ride, and storage cases for the long run. About the only thing that wasn’t weird was the suspension, which was a telescopic fork up front and twin shocks in the rear.

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The coolest part is that Harley-Davidson and Porsche built working 800cc prototypes and tested them in America and Germany. This was supposed to be a secret project, but they were initially tested on public roads. Once the bikes started getting attention, testing was moved to private test ranges. A German motorcycle magazine published photos, but the Harley and Porsche managed to keep information from leaking out.

Harley Hits The Reset Button

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Things were going well into 1981. Harley expected the Nova to launch that year with an 800cc V4. That first motorcycle was a standard motorcycle and would be followed up with a literbike of the same. Harley planned on launching a fully-faired touring model, a sport model, a super-sport model, and of course, mighty V6 variants. The small displacement V-twin was also supposed to make an official appearance.

Unfortunately for the Nova development team, Harley itself experienced a major change. In 1981, AMF sold Harley-Davidson to a group of investors and Willie G. Davidson. Harley saved itself from AMF. The reborn Harley-Davidson inherited a lot of debt and found itself in a tough position. It could not afford to continue developing the new engine and the Nova project.

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The Nova project was far along. Harley spent $10 million on it and there were prototypes buzzing around. Reportedly, they rode great too, and were possibly everything Harley wanted them to be. Test riders put tens of thousands of miles on the Novas, too. However, Harley-Davidson had to weigh between being the foreign competition and updating its core products. President Vaughn Beals and other brass chose to keep developing the new engine, the Evolution.

Of course, the power of hindsight tells us that this was probably the right decision. The Evolution engine arguably brought Harley out of the brink and into the modern day with great motorcycles and sky-high profits. Still, I have to wonder what would have happened had Harley decided to destroy Japan at its own game. Assuming the Nova launched on time in 1981, it would have beaten Honda to V4s and could have competed with small displacement metric cruisers, too.

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Still, the Nova project didn’t die. The engineering team kept trying to put the Nova into production well into the 1980s but failed to find enough financial support to bring the project home. Eventually, so many years passed by that the Nova wasn’t competitive anymore and Harley brass canned the project for good.

The Legacy

Thankfully, not everything was lost.

Parts of the Nova lived on in production bikes. Harley-Davidson says the Nova’s fairing and side cases went on to live on the 1983 FXRT Sport Glide. Almost all of the Nova prototypes were destroyed, but the Motor Company decided to keep five examples, of which two were running prototypes. The one in the Harley-Davidson Museum is a non-functional pre-production prototype made out of many plastic and wood parts.

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Harley-Davidson admits that had conditions been better, the Nova could have been a reality. If so, the Nova would have been Harley’s first four-cylinder motorcycle, first six-cylinder motorcycle, first water-cooled street motorcycle, first chain-driven cam, and more.

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Thankfully, the Nova enthusiasm never really died. Hillman eventually found himself as vice president at Harley and when it came time for Harley to innovate again, he pinched his old connections at Porsche. In a way, the Harley-Davidson V-Rod is a descendant of the ambitious Nova. If anything, the Nova story proves that Harley-Davidson frequently has awesome ideas, even if they don’t pan out.

If you’re interested in seeing the Nova, as well as 121 years of Harley-Davidson history, I highly recommend taking the drive out to Milwaukee and paying the Harley-Davidson Museum a visit. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and currently, adult tickets are $24. Seniors, students, and military pay $20.

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(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)

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Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
27 days ago

Being a motorcycle enthusiast back in the day, it’s amazing HD was able to keep the completed prototype under wraps as much as they did. To my knowledge there was never any motorcycle publication road test or even “ride” a prototype. The closest report I was recall was when HD let Malcolm Forbes spend some time on one. Not sure what year that was, probably sometime in the early 80’s. Malcom was not impressed. Slow and heavy, and hot with the under seat radiator.

As other posters had indicated, the 80’s was an interesting time for the motorcycle industry. The Japanese were getting more ramped up into big bore bikes, full dress touring bikes were becoming a thing (which alas, lead to the demise of Vetter; now Craig Vetter deserves some attention from Mercedes…). And the early 80’s production war by Yamaha to overtake Honda lead to a market glut and massive discounts for a few years. And then in ‘87 Boomers discovered HD and the Motor Company rode that wave for a couple of decades.

Black Peter
Black Peter
28 days ago

I will never respect Harley, they have yet to do anything to deserve it.
Once at lunch I was fiddling with my Suzuki at work, in the motorcycle lot was a newish Harley and a Ducati, similar MSRP, yet: The Ducati had stainless allen screws, Harley galvanized hex heads, the Ducati had alloy and carbon fiber where the Harley was steel and steel. The Ducati was produced in a union factory with Italian labor laws, shipped over the ocean, trucked to Minnesota, the Harley was produced one state over. Comparing the two one looked near as makes no difference to a model produced 60 years previous, the other didn’t even look like it’s brother from 5 years ago. Consider the progress of 100 years in transportation and the most remarkable aspect of the company is how they have spent so much time doing so little.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
28 days ago

Contrary to most of the posters, I feel like this may of led Harley down a very different path that may of left them in a much better spot than they are now. If they followed the nova path vs holding on to tradition they may of become a company known for innovation and continued that trend. They may of missed out on the turn of the millennium boomer bike hay-day, but they would not be in the predicament of only being known as a geezer company now.

Scott Ross
Scott Ross
28 days ago

I had an AMF Golf cart at one point. Odd weird little trike

Last edited 28 days ago by Scott Ross
Adam Rice
Adam Rice
28 days ago

The V4 seems to be the engine layout of choice in Moto GP, which makes sense—less moment of inertia, less frontal area, and lower center of gravity than an inline. It surprises me that we don’t see it more on commercial bikes.

Large Marge
Large Marge
28 days ago

I have a stupid amount of love for the XLCR, probably the only Harley I ever really wanted to ride.

Mechanical Pig
Mechanical Pig
28 days ago

Honda released the V65 Sabre (sport-touring) and Magna (cruiser) in 1983 with the ~120hp 1100cc V4, sort of kicking off the “musclebike” genre. Yamaha responded by taking the 1300cc v4 out of it’s big Goldwing competitor Venture, and gave it a hot-rod treatment, with the Vmax in 1985. De-stroked (higher RPM ceiling), better flowing heads, bigger valves, higher compression, bigger carbs, and the then unique “V-boost” system that would open a valve to link the left and right two downdraft carbs at about 6500rpm, letting each cylinder pull from two carburetors simultaneously. Same idea as a 4-barrel carb’s secondaries, just controlled electronically by RPM. Yamaha clearly had the V65 in their sights, and the Vmax soundly took the musclebike title from it, although not by a tremendous margin. While claimed to be 25hp stronger (145 vs 120), the bike was also a fair bit heavier, and in the real world, the Vmax was only a few ticks faster. The V65 also handled far better- the Vmax was notorious for bad handling and instability/wobbles- particularly at higher speeds. It was a 140mph engine put into an 80mph chassis. It held the fastest production bike title for a few years- I believe it was unseated in 1989 by the GSXR1100, but I’d have to double check.

The V65 had an achillees heel with poor oil circulation to the upper cylinder head, which has led some of them to an early grave by wiping out the cams on that cylinder. The Vmax engine had issues too- it was prone to blowing out 2nd gear- particularly with hard/clutchless shifting, the pins that form the shift drum/ratchet the shift pedal grabs are prone to falling out- leading to gears disappearing, the clutch was barely adequate even new and prone to slipping at low miles- although that’s an easy fix/upgrade, they also have an o-ring prone to blowouts resulting in low oil pressure, and perhaps most fatally, they engine does not tolerate over-revving well- but has no rev limiter, and will very happily pull way past the 9500rpm redline. Even a brief trip to 11 or 12k- say from a missed shift, over-enthusiastic pulls, whatever, and it will spin a big end bearing. To help avoid this, Yamaha put a tiny-ass tachometer the size of a silver dollar, and put it down on the “tank”, so you had to look down at your crotch to see it while riding. Shift lights up on the speedo are an exceedingly common modification.

I owned one for about 50k miles and got quite familiar with its “quirks and features”. When the next-gen Venture (and Eluder bagger) were first announced, I was hopeful it would use a variant of the 2nd gen Vmax 1700 v4, and almost certainly would have bought one if it did. When it got a gigantic sleepy air-cooled v-twin with the redline of a dump truck, my interest flatlined- and apparently so did everyone else’s, since dealers can’t seem to give the things away.

Lardo
Lardo
28 days ago
Reply to  Mechanical Pig

that was a deep dive. thanks.

Dangerous_Daveo
Dangerous_Daveo
28 days ago

This would have ended up being decimated by the VMAX by the time it came out in ’85. I honestly think HD dodged a bullet.

Lardo
Lardo
28 days ago

I think up to a certain point you are right. But now they have no where to go and that’s been the case for a while. Selling a lifestyle/identity like surfing works a lot easier when you are selling t-shirts as opposed to $$$$$ vehicles. They made a lot of money going public, HOG, was peak harley. The AMF years were way worse than what polite Mercedes is saying.

JC Miller
JC Miller
29 days ago

The story is incomplete, Harley continued working with Porsche, and they built the VRSC, much prettier much modern, even by Harley standards.
This one even made it to the very Porsche official page:
https://www.porscheengineering.com/peg/en/services/ourreferences/harleydavidson/
I actually saw this for the first time in the Porsche museum in Germany, it looked a bit odd there.
Now my personal take is that if Harley would have made more bikes like that, they would have captured the younger generation, but they chose not to.

Racer Esq.
Racer Esq.
28 days ago
Reply to  JC Miller

The V-Rod does tie out this story because while we can theorize endlessly about the Nova bikes, the V-Rod is empirical proof that if Harley actually made a good motorcycle its customers would not want it.

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
28 days ago
Reply to  Racer Esq.

Harley customers prefer Jurassic era tech because it reminds them of their childhood.

Black Peter
Black Peter
28 days ago
Reply to  Racer Esq.

COTD

BolognaBurrito
BolognaBurrito
28 days ago
Reply to  JC Miller

The VRod was offered for 15 years and it was never very popular. Heck, if you went into a Harley dealer at the time, they were typically the only or the most marked down model they offered, and they still didn’t sell.

It was a good product–not my style–but to say it would have brought in younger customers is just silly. It wouldn’t and it didn’t.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
28 days ago
Reply to  BolognaBurrito

HD chose to the chase baby boomer dollars then, which wasn’t a terrible idea as they were at their peak discretionary spending powers. And a big part of that was the styling – nothin’ but retro cruisers.

So stuffing an amazing engine into a bike that, broad-brush, looked straight out of the 1950s wasn’t going to do it for anyone else other than that target market.

It’s too bad, as I really want to like HD for a bunch of reasons, but it’s really hard.

BolognaBurrito
BolognaBurrito
28 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

None of Harley’s attempts to chase a younger crowd has worked. The XR1200, their (shitty) Street 500 or 750 and all their variants… none of them. Their were massive plans to offer more and they cancelled them all and they are actually doing better financially since then (Levatich to Zeitz transition). I was a Levatich supporter, but it’s clear Zeitz has managed to increase profitability despite and decrease in revenue.

I believe the models with the youngest average buyers are still the Nightster and Sportster. Heck, the might have been better off trying to find a way to make the old Sportster emissions compliant than the total overhaul to the current model since that isn’t exactly a great seller.

And it’s funny you claim Harley was chasing the Boomer with the VRod; Boomers largely hated it.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
28 days ago
Reply to  BolognaBurrito

My imprecision, sorry – I mean that HD wasn’t chasing the boomers with the Vrod, but rather it was chasing them with every other model, and the Vrod got tagged by association in the minds of younger riders.

BolognaBurrito
BolognaBurrito
28 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

It wasn’t long after the introduction of the VRod (maybe 5 years? I might be off a bit) that the whole “More Roads to Harley” plan under Levatich came to be. That’s why we have the Pan America, the new Sportster and the Live Wire offerings (though they no longer are part of the Harley brand). We were supposed to get the Bronx, but that was rightfully killed because I doubt it would have been a sales success despite it being cool as fuck.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
28 days ago
Reply to  BolognaBurrito

And then there’s Buell.

I owned one, so I’m not very objective here, but it’s always seemed a sad case of what could have been. if only compromise weren’t so hard to find. HD wouldn’t give Erik the space and resources he needed, and (I hate to admit it), Erik wouldn’t give up on producing the platonic ideal of a sportbike…that was 3x the cost of everything else on the market.

Last edited 28 days ago by Jack Trade
BolognaBurrito
BolognaBurrito
28 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

I still want a Ulysses…

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
28 days ago
Reply to  BolognaBurrito

During the discussion yesterday of the police-spec Cybertruck, I remembered how HD briefly pitched the Ulysses as a police motorcycle. I was struck by how much sense that would have made…if they had been serious about it.

Police should have bikes capable of off-road maneuvering (even, or esp, in urban areas) and the HD-ish underpinnings might have made for fairly easy repair given their mechanics’ familiarity with the parent bikes. But nope, not to be.

Black Peter
Black Peter
28 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

I agree, Erik should have been more incremental, the Sportster engine is a good place to start, then add a great frame and suspension. Stop.. Let the world absorb that first, then try fuel in frame, later try oil in the swingarm, then try parameter brakes. All at once was too weird I think

BolognaBurrito
BolognaBurrito
28 days ago

I find them hideous, but I like them for what they are. What I would certainly like to do (if I had the money and time) is throw the Revolution powertrain into a Heritage Classic. <chefs kiss>

Mechanical Pig
Mechanical Pig
28 days ago
Reply to  BolognaBurrito

V-rods are also pretty awful to ride ergonomically. The combination of forward controls, yet also a low, drag-style handlebar, folds you into this > shape to ride it, which also makes you a sail to catch as much wind as possible. Comfort wears thin within about 15 minutes, and any amount of time at freeway speeds quickly becomes punishing.

So it was a bike that wasn’t really good for anything beside “bar hopper” duty, it was fast (obligatory “for a harley”), but most Harley buyers clearly aren’t all that concerned with 0-60 times or top speeds. If you wanted a fast cruiser, you had plenty of other options, some which were honestly more Harley-ish than the V-rod. The 00s/10s had the boom of muscle cruisers- you had stuff like Honda’s Valkyrie and VTX1800, Suzuki’s M109R, Kawi briefly offered the Vulcan 2000, and Yamaha had the big 1900cc Raider. The Vrod held it’s own against the big-bore twins, but some of those were also perfectly competent tourers, not just machines to do burnouts with in the Hooters parking lot on bike night.

I also like the idea of a Street/Road Glide with the current Rev Max engine in it, although the PanAm has had a fairly troubling amount of major engine failures and other “first generation” teething problems. I’m also seeing a LOT of them cropping up used with relatively low miles- what do those owners know/have realized that I haven’t from a 20 minute demo ride?

Stryker_T
Stryker_T
28 days ago

I bought my V-Rod muscle “used”, some older gentleman apparently bought it and only rode it less than 600mi in a year because he realized it was too much for him. he traded it in for another one of their cruisers.

it was exactly the bike I had wanted since they had come out with them, so I ended up with an almost new bike for a great used price and I’ve loved it for almost 10yrs now.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
28 days ago
Reply to  BolognaBurrito

I almost bought a V-Rod last summer. It was a smokin’ deal for one of my all time favorite bikes. Then I threw a leg over it. The foot pegs are so far forward that it’s like you’re on a gynecologists exam table with your feet up in the stirrups. I knew in 2 seconds that I couldn’t live with that bike.

Why did they do that? I’ve ridden a few other Harleys and they weren’t that bad. I think that’s part of the reason that nobody bought them.

BolognaBurrito
BolognaBurrito
28 days ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

It was released during peak chopper craze. Really exaggerated forward controls were all the hotness then. Mid control kits exist; I think Harley even offered them though they are Harley priced.

JC Miller
JC Miller
24 days ago

I guess generation of the internet, my attention span is getting shorter, I totally missed that, but it does seem like i stirred the pot a little bit.

James Carson
James Carson
29 days ago

Id heard about the Porsche connection, but didn’t paymuch attention at tge time. Back in the day my Harley riding friends hated the AMF era bikes. They would never move to anything european or Japanese. They kept their current bikes running or bought old shovel or panheads. I had a similar experience with CBS era Fenders and Norlin Gibsons.

Matthew Skwarczek
Matthew Skwarczek
29 days ago

Oh WOW, I knew Porsche and Harley were working on an engine, but I didn’t realize the plans went as far as V6s! And now that Ducati’s got a V4, I kind of want to see Harley build one.
Maybe it could even resurrect that VR1000 sportbike it once had.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
29 days ago

Great story! I love how the Nova has a very Porsche, very un-HD clock as part of the instruments.

Though I have to say what most shocked me was that the HD museum actually made mention of Buells. As a former Buell owner, I have a love/hate thing with HD for its part in the Buell saga.

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
29 days ago

…and rebellious dentists everywhere cried “hurrah!” as they donned leather jackets and loudly cruised to the local burger joint in their chrome-plated jukeboxes.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
29 days ago

Somewhat relevant, but Bangor Punta was one of the odder stories in corporate history. A fairly minor railroad slowly running out of work railroad in Northern Maine (Bangor and Aroostook) combined with a Cuban sugar railroad that got ran out of work by Fidel and friends. Joined forces to become one of the world’s largest suppliers of firearms and pleasure craft for some reason. And Piper Aircraft, because.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
29 days ago

Smith & Wesson, IIRC? And a large collection of yacht and boat firms.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
29 days ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

And Taurus. Because they had to have the Brazilian version of Smith&Wesson.

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