Cruisers Can Have Power and Style

Why not have the best of both worlds?

Power and cruisers
Power and cruisers can go together.Illustration by John Breakey

I'm not sure why, but horsepower has almost become a dirty word among some cruisers. Maybe it started with Harley riders, who had such a power deficiency for so long they took to mocking bikes that had a few ponies as "rice rockets," as if being slow is a virtue. The sales of Harley hop-up parts tell you no one believes that.

No, we don't buy cruisers primarily for performance. Appearance, comfort, sound and attitude are probably more important considerations for most cruiser enthusiasts. But all other things being equal, a fast bike is still better than a slow one. And power is strongly implied in the character of most big cruisers. These days almost everyone is building a big V-twin packing in excess of 1400cc. And big is supposed to mean powerful.

Yet all these huge, nasty motors make embarrassingly low maximum-horsepower figures. A "little" 1200cc Yamaha V-Max will bury your torquey 1500cc V-twin in a top-gear roll-on, and it's not entirely because it's geared lower. And don't challenge a 600cc sportbike to a speed contest, either. Weight, gearing and plain old horsepower—as much as twice of what some big twins crank out—are on the "little" bike's side.

Cruiser devotees like to think those paltry peak-power figures are the result of engines configured for stump-pulling, low-rpm torque, relaxed engine speeds on the highway and potent midrange power. Certainly those considerations and other elements of the classic cruiser formula—notably the small airboxes dictated by styling—contribute to the less-than-stellar power and acceleration of mainstream cruisers.

Cruisers are also quick to point out that they didn’t buy their bikes for acceleration. Some riders may even tell you all that acceleration is dangerous—but they generally ride really slow bikes. In 25 years of working for motorcycle publications, I can only recall two instances when a reader said his bike—past or current—was too fast. However, I have had hundreds of riders ask how to get more power.

Power isn’t a bad thing. There are moments when a strong burst of acceleration is the best way out of a dangerous situation. And it’s a little late to wish you had an extra helping when the chips are already on the table. A handful of horsepower can also be just plain convenient, like when you get stuck behind a line of cars on an endless upgrade.

I'm not here to say you must have a lot of horsepower. On the contrary—I think people tend to buy more bike than they need. A Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD or a Yamaha V-Star truly has enough power for any real-life situation.

The Vulcan 500 is barely slower than the Vulcan 1500 Classic, but it costs half as much. The performance figures for Suzuki's Intruders might make you think we reversed the numbers, because the 800 is quicker and faster than the 1400, which in turn is faster than the 1500. The bigger bikes only show their displacement in top-gear roll-ons. With a bike like the V-Star looking almost as good, and running almost as hard as its bigger brethren, why pay twice as much for a big bike?

And why all the swaggering and one-upmanship surrounding cruiser engine displacement? “It’s over 90 cubic inches, you know.” “No kidding. And did you know that 20-year-old 400 over there—which is less than 25 cubic inches—will dust it off?”

With all the posturing about engine size, shouldn’t we get some muscle to go with it? Maybe we are. You may have noticed the new Harley Fathead, besides being a much better-built piece than the Evo, also makes a load more horsepower. And despite its good ol’ days style, the Kawasaki Drifter (thanks mostly to its fuel injection), promises a new dose of performance for the Vulcan 1500.

Performance still sells motor­cycles, even cruisers. Sales of Valkyries doubled when Honda began running a TV ad of the Valkyrie power-sliding. And performance has kept the old twin-carb Vulcan 1500 alive—which some owners refer to as BUBF (butt-ugly but fast). However, I see a significant market for even hotter cruisers. Riders accustomed to bikes packing 100 horsepower look longingly at the styling and ergonomics of cruisers, but are reluctant to switch if it means giving up 50 horsepower.

Around this time of year, we hear from these people, hopeful that their dream bike is about to hit showrooms. Does Honda have a 1400cc Magna? Have we heard about a V-Max engine in a Royal Star? What about a 2000cc Valkyrie? A Kawasaki ZX-11–powered cruiser? Our answers have been disappointing.

Although 160-horsepower bikes may never hit the cruiser mainstream, there is still plenty of demand for cruiser looks and style backed up with the kind of attitude only real horsepower can convey.