These days, it’s not surprising to hear about a modern bike, with a radiator, ECU, and dual overhead cam coming from the house of Harley-Davidson. Yet back in 2001, that was not the case. In fact, it was practically blasphemous.
Nonetheless, nearly two decades on, we are enjoying the benefits of that bold move with exceptional and modern models from Harley like the FXDR, Street series, and Ultra line of Electra Glides. We all have Harley’s V-Rod VRSC (V-Twin Racing Street Custom) to thank for that.
For eons, Harley-Davidson has built a reputation for itself as the de rigueur cruiser for bikers typically clad in denim vests, steel-toe boots, leather jackets and skull caps.
Yet with competitors like Ducati, Victory and Indian moving on to materials like carbon fiber and improvements like liquid-cooling and electronic control units (ECU), all Harley’s chrome was losing its luster. Harley needed a bike that would appeal to younger bikers, raised on the benefits of liquid cooling, ECUs, and keyless starting. It would also have to be bold in design, featuring custom styling right out of the showroom floor.
This idea became the V-Twin Racing Street Custom (VRSC), which was thankfully shortened to V-Rod. The V-Rod was intended to be a low-slung dragster, fully utilizing all the power of a V-Twin on the quarter mile, stealing stares at the café, yet still civil enough to ride through a suburban neighborhood.
Since its inception in 2001, the V-Rod was released in several iterations, from the standard V-Rod to special versions like the Street Rod, Night Rod, V-Rod Muscle, and Destroyer.
Back in 2012, we were lucky enough to get our hands on a V-Rod Muscle. And while MotoPinas did not exist yet then, we’re glad to bring you archive photos of that test ride.
This Muscle edition, features a long and low profile, with a front wheel that is steeply raked, making for a very low but wide riding position.
In stark contrast to Harleys at the time, it featured a multifaceted halogen headlight. Turn signals were integrated into the side mirrors and the front of its engine was dominated by a radiator. Much of the chrome has been replaced with brushed aluminium. There may not have been much carbon fiber, but there were a lot of gloss black surfaces. Believe it or not, all of this equipment was stock. Look at a V-Rod today and it would look like a heavily-customized modern model.
Over on the side, the tank guides the eyes smoothly to the seat. While that looks gorgeous on the frame, it’s not actually the tank, but rather just dressing. The real tank hides under the seat to provide a lower center of gravity.
Siting under it is 60 degree V-twin engine, jointly developed with Porsche, and crowned with dual overhead cams and fuel injection. Underneath, the fat pipes curve smoothly round the crank case and transmission to lead the eyes to the back. The real drawer is the rear, dominated by the massive custom-made 240mm Michelin tires topped by an LED tail light.
The biggest smile inducer on this bike is the engine, displacing over 1.2 liters (1250 cc). It produces over 123.7 PS (122 hp) and 115 Nm of torque. It may only have five gears to shift through, delivered to a belt drive, but with a fat rear tire to lay the power down, it accelerates faster than most guardian angels can fly. Porsche has had a hand in tuning the exhaust too, minimizing that resonant chug when idling, but letting it out at full bore.
With an engine tuned by Porsche, one would think this would be a very peaky motorcycle to ride, with usable power coming in only towards the end of the band. Yet the engine still behaves very much like a Harley — simply twist the throttle and away you go, no matter what RPM. There’s simply so much power that pulling away from a slow crawl in third gear becomes a regular occurrence. The gears are so flexible and the powerband so broad that remembering what gear you’re in is hardly an issue. It will rocket forward regardless.
Bringing it to a stop are a set of Brembo disc brakes in front. It isn’t obvious with the Harley logo on the calipers. The same can be said of the rear. All three are governed by ABS.
One would think that the long and low profile, in addition to the fat rear tire would make it a terrible handler, but it’s actually far from the truth. The V-rod leans easily once some weight is put into it, and while it’s no canyon carver, will take on turns tighter than most would expect. Best of all, that fat tire is a boon in traffic, allowing the bike to practically balance itself, without having to put your foot down in crawling traffic.
Harleys are known for being laidback cruisers and this is no exception. While the driving position looks uncomfortable — back arched, arms reaching far forward and feet wide apart (almost like Batman in The Dark Knight) — it actually makes shifting one’s weight easier. It also allows the feet the necessary leverage to shift through the heavy gears.
All the vital controls are within the handlebar clusters from the horn, flashers, signal lights to hazards. To start, there’s a twist control on the right side. No need to slot in the key as this bike uses a modern transponder key fob.
As expected of a hotrod motorcycle, the ride is hard and a bit bumpy. Yet this stiffness pays dividends in the handling and stability department, one you’ll visit frequently with every twist of the throttle.
The rider’s seat is nice and low, making the bike a great choice for cruiser fans that are short of stature. You can also simply swivel it out to one side to access the fuel tank.
The cluster is relatively sparse, revealing the speedo, tach, odometer, fuel range, but not much else. Still, it’s all you really need. Meanwhile, that Porsche-tuned exhaust is all the entertainment system will keep you occupied on long cruises.
While there are provisions for a back rider, I wouldn’t recommend taking one along. The pillion seat is an even thinner cushion simply mounted on the tail fender. Foot pegs are at an awkward position just above the hot muffler.
Like the touring Harleys, this one is best enjoyed as a weekend ride. Finally, leave all bags behind. There is no room on this bike for any of that. Some might suggest saddlebags as equipped on other Harleys, but that would just ruin its show-stopping looks.
The Harley-Davidson V-Rod introduced a lot of changes that would have scared the traditional cruiser enthusiasts away. It was computer-controlled, fuel injected, liquid-cooled, and keyless. The Porsche-designed exhaust was beautiful but surprisingly quiet — something they shouldn’t have changed, being the most attractive Harley at the time.
At the same time, these changes also enticed those new to the brand, like sport bikers, and owners of more modern Japanese motorcycles. The new tech made the engine more reliable, fuel-efficient, and quieter, particularly for riding around the suburbs. It performed well as a cruiser and delivered excitement when needed.
Unfortunately, its price was a bit of a deterent. Priced at PhP 1.2M at the time, it was more expensive than most cruiser and sport bike offerings. In today’s money, that seems like a steal, though. It was on sale from 2001-2017.
Practical? No. Maneuvering around a parking lot was extremely difficult. It had a tight steering lock and was extremely heavy. Good luck picking up the bike if you drop it on its side as the low center of gravity will make it nearly impossible to recover alone.
Nonetheless, the V-Rod proved to Harley executives that change was good, and paved the way for the current line of modern Harleys like the FXDR, Street line, and Electra Glide Ultras.