Like the black sheep of the family, the VR1000 superbike project is something that Harley prefers not to talk about.
Hovering on the brink of corporate collapse, it seemed the once-proud marque of Ducati was destined to follow most of its compatriot firms into oblivion, or at best, a badge-engineered solution via a marriage with a competitor. Yet Ducati hauled itself back from near-death with its new-generation four-valve v-twins, and most notably, publicised its efforts on the race track with its 851 series machines that, with a little help from the rule makers, took on and triumphed over the Japanese and their four-cylinder racers.
The Ducati example was not lost on Harley-Davidson, itself lurching from crisis to crisis, and one strong school of thought was that the brand, iconic that it undoubtedly was, could not survive on heritage alone. Around the bar, the old guys still talked of Cal Rayborn’s lion-hearted efforts on the factory XR750, of how he stuffed it to the Chooms in the fabulous England versus USA Match Races in wet and soggy Britain. Of Lawwill, Springsteen, Markel and Resweber. But that was decades ago. More recently, the fabled Lucifer’s Hammer had become the crowd favourite in the Daytona Battle of the Twins class, but this was a long way from the cut and thrust of AMA National Championship competition. Now racing was dominated by the Japanese, with, increasingly, a few forays from the Italians in the form of Ducati and Moto Guzzi.
The boffins at H-D reckoned, probably correctly, that the old XR design was well past it when it came to winning races, and H-D had been winners from year one after all. What was needed, the engineers said, was a new generation v-twin; water-cooled, double overhead camshaft, fuel injected, multi-valve…sound familiar? Superbike racing at the time allowed twins a 33% capacity advantage over the 750cc fours, but the rules also demanded that what appeared on the track had to be based on a road model that customers could actually purchase. This particular rule has been, over the years, tweaked, bent and liberalised according to …circumstances (remember the Foggy Petronas?), but on paper at least, 50 road bikes at the very minimum were required before the racer could be homologated for AMA racing, and 200 should the company wish to tackle World Superbikes.
Yankee Doodle Dandy
From the start of what became the VR1000 project, H-D management was adamant that the new machine would not simply be another collection of components sourced from whoever was producing the best gear at the time, be they Marzocchi, Öhlins, Magneti Marelli, Showa, Brembo or anyone else. The directive was that every part had to be of US manufacture – the all-American racer from top to toe. Well, perhaps the fuel-injection would have to be outsourced from abroad, and the front forks, and a few other little things…
The design team started in 1988, appropriately enough, with the engine; a sixty-degree, liquid-cooled v-twin with bore and stroke of 98mm x 66mm, coincidentally, exactly the same dimensions as the 1995 evolution of the works Ducati 916. The VR1000 also shared the 60º layout with the New Zealand Britten that has astounded everyone with its performances at Daytona, where it was timed at 301 km/h. The initial design was the work of H-D designer Mark Miller, with input from a number of specialists including the former H-D race chief Dick O’Brien, plus Don Tilley, Erik Buell and cylinder head expert Jerry Branch. However Miller only got as far as the bottom end of the engine before the project was shifted to Roush Racing, the Michigan-based company run by Jack Roush with many years of achievement in drag racing, Trans Am and NASCAR. It was no overnight miracle, in fact it wasn’t a miracle at all, but gradually the engine came together, with Roush engineer Steve Scheibe carefully developing the cylinder heads and the Weber fuel injection system. With H-D getting impatient and the ante in the Superbike class rising almost daily, it was decided to bring the project back in-house, and the H-D management convinced Schiebe to jump ship from Roush and continue his work in the Harley race shop. Unlike the Britten, the VR100 used a balance shaft which was gear driven from the crankshaft. The crank used a single large-diameter crankpin and plain bearings, titanium Carrillo rods and forged three-ring Wiseco pistons running in chrome-plated aluminium bores.
For Harley’s first-ever overhead camshaft engine, more original thinking was employed. Drive to the cylinder heads was by chain, running from the left side of the crankshaft to a half-time layshaft, from whence two other chains drove each set of camshafts. Inlet valves were 39mm and exhaust 33mm, with 32º included angle between the valves. A single Weber injector fed each cylinder through 54mm throttle bodies.
While the powerplant was coming along, it was time to focus on the chassis. Harley had acquired British boutique manufacturer Armstrong in 1986, ostensibly to gain the production rights to the Armstrong MT500 – a Rotax-engined motorcycle that had been specifically, and successfully, designed for military use. Much of Armstrong’s success was credited to its designer Mike Eatough, who began with Clews (CCM) before becoming the main man in the Armstrong/Clews/Cotton amalgamation in 1979. Eatough had a solid CV in chassis design, although mainly for off-roaders, but successfully applied his skills to the Armstrong 250cc road racers that appeared in 1981, using a twin-cradle chrome moly frame. The original 250 Armstrongs were ridden to a pair of 250cc GP rostrum places by Australian Jeff Sayle, but Eatough was already hard at work on a radical monocoque design that was eventually executed in carbon-fibre. The complete frame and swinging arm weighed just 11kg. Eatough was seconded to the VR1000 project and responded with a beautifully made aluminium spar chassis that was light and reportedly handled extremely well, but time was ticking on.
Time marches on
It was not until 1993 – five years after the VR1000 project began – that a complete machine saw the light of day. The long gestation period had been the result of continual arguments and bickering within the various departments at H-D, particularly the department charged with funding the development – already cash-strapped and struggling with the financial juggling necessary to keep production of the traditional road bikes going. Secret trials of the first VR1000 were conducted around April 1993 at the local Gratten Raceway in Michigan. By this stage the VR was producing around 150 horsepower, which would have been quite competitive four or five years previous, but by 1994, when it made its public debut at the Daytona 200, it was well behind the 8-ball. By way of comparison, Ducati’s well-sorted and continually improved 888 (926cc) of the same year produced 142 horsepower at the back wheel, with quite a bit less weight to propel.
Harley opened its cheque book to sign top riders for the VR – Chris Carr, Miguel Duhamel, Pascal Picotte, Doug Chandler and Scott Russell among them, but the bike proved frustratingly fragile, and slow in top speed, failing to match the speeds achieved by Don Tilley’s Lucifer’s Hammer XR1000 almost a decade prior.
While the quirks and problems of the racer were being sorted out, there was the small matter of producing – and registering – the required road versions. A detuned engine produced 135 horsepower, but it had 185kg to lug about, and there was a further, more formidable snag. Ever more stringent US emission requirements proved insurmountable – and financially impossible – for the road-going VR, but AMA Superbike rules did not stipulate where the required 50 bikes had to be registered. So at a price of US$49,490, the fifty were registered in Warsaw, Poland, where emission rules were, shall we say, somewhat less stringent than years those in the US.
If the road bikes were to be the showcase for the racers, early tests did the model no favours. Testers complained of vague handling and weight distribution, sluggish acceleration and lack of top-end performance. Not exactly great PR.
Meanwhile, the VR continued its underwhelming performances on the race track. Throughout its entire racing program, which spanned 1994-2001, it scored only one pole position – for Cliff Carr at Pomona – and not a single win. At Daytona in 1997, with Superbike gun Scott Russell in the saddle, the VR finally looked to be in with a genuine chance of lifting the coveted 200 crown, but then Russell was reportedly involved in a disagreement/dispute/difference of opinion in a local bar on the evening before the race, and collected a broken jaw. That was something the race team simply couldn’t fix. Schiebe finally tired of his battles with management over the funding of the team and quit in 2001, replaced by John Baker. There was talk of a redoubled effort for the 2002 season, but this time the top brass put their foot down and the VR project was unceremoniously abandoned.
Today, the VR is something that has largely been expunged from H-D history, even though the V-Rod is clearly a product of the original VR1000 thinking (with major input from Porsche), at least in that the 60-degree v-angle is retained, if little else. Many think it is an engine that would make a tasty sports machine with a different chassis and running gear. Others still reject the V-Rod as an illegitimate intruder in the H-D family.
Two faces have I
There are known to be a few examples in Australia of the fifty road-going VR1000s built, but the only one on public display is in the Australian Motorcycle Museum at Haigslea, Queensland. It had only just arrived at the time of my visit, so it was not yet a runner, but it certainly is a stunning looking and completely unique motorcycle.
For a start, you have a wild side and a mild side. Mirroring Harley’s traditional racing colours of orange and black, the VR splits the difference by allocating 50% of the surface area to each – orange on the right and black on the left. It’s funny how a simple switch of décor can produce such a profound change of character, but the orange side certainly brings out the swoops and folds in the bodywork to much more dramatic effect. Dominating the orange side is a formidable muffler which is the sole outlet for the two exhaust pipes, while on the opposite side, the rear chain hogs the limelight.
Mike Eatough’s substantial aluminium beam frame certainly looks up to the job, as does the entire front end. The top crown of the Öhlins fork is hefty enough, but non-adjustable. Down below sit unusual Wilwood six-piston calipers (California-based Wilwood had considerable experience with NASCAR and Indycar racing), and herein lays a clue to the VR1000’s quirky nature. “Harley-Davidson were determined that the bike should be all-American, or at least, as far as possible,” explains museum owner Allen Smith.” All over the bike are American components you won’t find on anything else, like switches, instrumentation, lights, and so on.” When the VR1000 racer first appeared at Daytona in 1994, it used a Penske rear shock, which gave way (reluctantly it would seem) to an Öhlins for the race bikes, but the Penske NSK single shock is retained for the roadsters.
Allen has a soft spot for the VR1000, and this latest acquisition is simply the next chapter in a story that has made him arguably the biggest VR1000 collector in the world. “A few years ago, the contents of the VR1000 race shop came up for auction in Las Vegas, and didn’t sell, so we were successful in purchasing the lot. There are six pallets of parts; crankcases, more than 100 pistons – Wisco, JE, Cosworth and Mahle – sleeves, flywheels, titanium rods, tanks, 16.5 and 17 inch wheels, titanium exhausts in lots of different configurations – 2 into 1, 2 into 2, high pipes, low pipes – ceramic footpegs, magnesium handlebar inserts, triple clamps with the canister insert adjusters, radiators, swing arms – you name it. I reckon we have enough to build about six engines, although much of the castings are un-machined. There are also plastic bags full of blown up parts, with the details of the blow-up like “Daytona ’96” and so on on written on them. There were plenty of blow-ups!
“We also have the Don Tilley original race bike number 17 which we are currently rebuilding, so the aim is to have a running example of a race bike plus the road bike. We certainly don’t plan on racing it, but it would be nice to have the VR1000 race bike in a state where it can be demonstrated. The Tilley bike came with two sets of bodywork. One had the fuel tank moulded into the fibreglass, and the other one had a dummy tank cover over an alloy tank. The race bike’s frames were made in two halves, bolted together, whereas the road bikes had the two sections welded together.”
Allen’s road-going VR is number 25 of the fifty produced in 1994 to qualify for AMA Superbike homologation. He understands that the Harley factory bought back around eight of the road bikes and gave them to the race team to be used as parts, so that makes the remaining road VRs even rarer. Despite the wish to use American parts almost exclusively, the wheels are Italian-made, as are the brake rotors, and the front forks Öhlins (Showa were also used). On both the race and road versions, the battery sits ahead of the steering head, but on the road bike the steering head dispenses with the canister adjuster inserts and is fixed. Much of the other exotica – such as the anodised billet aluminium clutch – are common to both bikes.
There are probably more written words about Harley-Davidson than any other motorcycle, but you’ll find precious little on the VR project, particularly on the road bikes. Undoubtedly, the project absorbed a king’s ransom during its 13 years, at a time when the factory could ill afford such an extravagance. “It’s as if they would like to forget the whole thing ever happened,” says Allen.
The Harley-Davidson VR1000 featured in this story is one of more than 200 bikes on display at the Australian Motorcycle Museum, Butlers Rd, Haigslea, Qld 4306, behind the Sundowner Hotel on the Warrego Highway. The museum is only 45 minutes from Brisbane open seven days a week from 9.30am – 4.00pm. For enquiries phone (07) 5464 4938.
SPECIFICATIONS: 1994 Harley-Davidson VR1000 – #25 of 50 built.
Engine: 60-degree v-twin, water cooled, dohc, four valves per cylinder.
Displacement: 996cc 98mm bore x 66mm stroke.
Compression ratio: 11.6:1
Power: 150hp @ 10,000 rpm
Torque: 136Nm @ 9,000 rpm
Fuel system: Weber fuel injection
Gearbox: Five speed, dry clutch
Frame: Aluminium, twin beam with adjustable swinging arm pivot
Front suspension: Öhlins USD fork
Rear suspension: Penske single shock
Brakes: Front; Wilwood six-piston calliper, rear Wilwood twin-piston calliper.
Tyres: Front 120/70 17, Rear 185/55 17
Weight: 177 kg
Story and photos Jim Scaysbrook