Low Tech Effect: Exhaust Notes

For many riders, one of the attractions of cruisers is that they are relatively low-tech. Cruisers shun the complexity and speed-driven ethos of sportbikes.

In some ways, cruisers seem to be moving even farther away from technology. Just look at the engines, more of which have turned to old-tech pushrod valve actuation. The most successful cruiser brand, Harley-Davidson, relies predominantly on two valves per cylinder, pushrods and air cooling (though the V-Rod motor takes a higher-tech approach). Sales numbers aside, you can't complain about how Harley's low-tech tack works, either. Its 1450cc twins actually outperform most liquid-cooled overhead-cam machines of similar displacement (Victory's 1500 being the exception) and get better fuel mileage than any of them, something that seems more important every week. But the leading attractions of Harley's big twins (is 1450cc still big?) are their simplicity, classic sound and traditional look. No doubt about it, cruiser buyers like familiar hardware. Why else would we march in lock step to V-twins, all with narrow V-angles and the appearance of air cooling?

Cruiser technology is normally subservient to styling. In some cases, such as Harley's Softail suspension or LED taillights, technology is employed to further styling ends. Some modern technology--counterbalancers and ceramic cylinder liners--can sneak in because it's unseen. The adoption of some modern tech, notably fuel injection, is driven by changing realities in the world we ride. Not infrequently, the tech features of cruisers are styled over and hidden to maintain a traditional look. Some time-honored styling elements, such as wire-spoke wheels with tube-type tires, are selected even though they create a safety issue. Some visible technologies, like liquid cooling or linked brakes, are tolerated but rarely embraced. It's rare to find a cruiser like the Yamaha Warrior, which makes technology--an alloy frame, sportbike-type discs, etc.--a calling card.

Low-tech sometimes turns out to be the better solution. Yamaha (with the Road Star) and Kawasaki (with the Vulcan 2000) no doubt found a customer predilection for the look of pushrods, but that traditional tech also helped them build engines that were much shorter top-to-bottom than ones with overhead cams and a wet sump. And though overhead cams permit more rpm and a slightly reduced parts count, these benefits were not as useful. Another case of the simple solution being best is belt drive. It is almost as light and efficient as a chain and also permits gearing changes, easy wheel swaps and other benefits for customizers, and is as clean, quiet and nearly as reliable as a shaft with similar minimal maintenance. Today's belts are tough little strands of modern technology, but they are still an evolution of a very simple, traditional drive system. Tradition is also at the heart of Harley's Springer fork. The design offers some real benefits, notably eliminating the sliding friction that makes telescopic forks a bit rough on small bumps, though a light dose of modernizing has improved its function.

Sometimes the disdain for technology and devotion to style costs us. Cruiser contributor Marc Cook has been attempting to get a VTX1800 to ride and handle a bit better ("Weird Science," p. 20). Swapping shocks has helped the rear significantly, but getting the front to ride better has been a struggle. The fork angle, which promotes sliding friction, and the considerable unsprung weight seem to be resisting all efforts to smooth things out. Technology (in the form of lighter wheel components) and deviating from the styling requirement for lots of fork rake might help make it ride better, and would probably offer similar benefits to most other cruisers as well. The high-tech weight-cutting approaches used on sportbikes could help in the quest for better ride compliance and make cruisers work more effectively in other ways, too. Lighter bikes are easier to handle, stop and accelerate harder. And there is little styling penalty, unless you are offended by spacey-looking wheels.

BMW has put plenty of visible technology into its cruisers, and its R1200Cs were initially quite successful by the company's standards. But BMW is about to go out of the cruiser business, citing declining demand for the 1200Cs, apparently because buyers no longer think a 1200 is big enough. With BMW goes some of the most interesting and effective suspension technology found on cruisers. We also lose the only cruisers equipped with ABS, one of the most valuable safety technologies available today (useful enough that many police agencies are beginning to require it on the bikes they buy).

Resistance to new technology may create bikes that look the way we want, but it also holds them back from riding and working as well as they can. There are some riders who don't care. And there are some riders who detract from function and comfort with mods like billet grips, thin seats and lowering for style (or eliminating rear suspension altogether). And some riders simply don't know what they are missing, having never ridden bikes that favor technology and function over style. Many less-experienced riders would be surprised at how much better their bikes could be if they thought about function as much as style in the showroom.

As road testers, we can complain about these functional shortcomings, but they won't change until customers start telling dealers they expect their next good-looking bike to work well, too.

Resistance to new technology may create bikes that look the way we want, but it also holds them back from riding and working as well as they can.