Send In The Harley-Davidson Clones

The American-made alternatives

Big Dog and American IronHorse
The American-made alternatives from Big Dog and American IronHorse.Frank Kaisler

This article was originally published in the June 2003 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Harley-Davidson is up to its neck in praise. What's ironic is that The Motor Company essentially created its own competition. The so-called "American Alternative" market is partly the result of Harley's failure to fill rabid consumer demand for product. Any science teacher will tell you that nature abhors a vacuum, so naturally a few savvy entrepreneurs jumped at the chance to satisfy the ache. And because of Harley's success, aftermarket replacement parts—and eventually entire engines—were readily available.

BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COPY

At first, the cloning process resulted in crude examples that suffered from a lack of quality control (to put it nicely). But during the bullish 1990s, anything custom-built in America sold easily. Back then, Harley’s own quality was spotty enough that a huge aftermarket had emerged to fill the need for improved components that could be individually accessed. This flood of “Harley parts” hastened the rise of the hybrid manufacturers, whose machines so closely mirrored Harley’s own big twins that they earned the moniker “clone” bikes. Deservedly or not, the name stuck, and soon there were dozens of companies churning out Harley-patterned V-twin driven customs.

The clone manufacturers seemed to have reached the height of their popularity in the mid-’90s, when the market became saturated. Soon afterward, the economy went soft, and increasingly wary buyers began demanding higher quality and lower prices. More recently, Harley-Davidson production reached an all-time high (230,000 units in 2001 and climbing), virtually eliminating waiting lists for its bikes. The new Twin Cam engines also put Harley a technological jump ahead of its imitators, who are still mostly using the older Evolution design as the basis for their bikes. Since Harley itself has caught up with demand, the clone segment has produced more Chapter 11s than success stories. Now that the vacuum no longer exists, what’s left for the survivors?

Fortunately, Darwinism has weeded out the casual wannabes and strengthened the remaining players, many who’ve adopted industry standards like factory warranties, improved customer service and tighter quality control. Their bikes have evolved far beyond mere reinventions of existing Motor Company models. They are now so unique they really shouldn’t even be called clone bikes. We investigated two of these winning companies that are breaking the mold.

American IronHorse
The powerplant of choice for American IronHorse machines is a polished 107-inch S&S V-twin (although AIH’s Texas Chopper is also available with a 113-inch motor upgrade).Frank Kaisler

DOG AND PONY SHOW

The American V-twin market has matured to a point where its offerings are viable products rather than simply copies, but most of the manufacturers still use a similar Evo-patterned V-twin engine layout (typically an S&S 100-plus cubic-inch motor), suspended in a long, low, double-cradle steel frame topped with a one-piece, seamless fuel tank. The hook is that each motorcycle is built to the customer’s specifications, often with a choice of transmission, wheel design and engine size. The better builders take it up a notch from there, adding high-end componentry, richly textured finishes and dozens of custom paint and trim options. Each company has its own twist on what constitutes a winning custom recipe.

American IronHorse Motorcycle Co. purports to be a "leading manufacturer of customized, high-performance bikes and luxury cruisers." Since the seven-year-old company manufactures over 300 of its own parts in-house and has shown steady double-digit sales growth in the last three years, that statement might not be too far off the mark.

Side-mount license plate
Side-mount license plate assemblies, chopped, molded fenders and high-end digital instruments are just some of the perks of owning a premium American machine.Frank Kaisler

Big Dog Motorcycles, founded by business mogul Sheldon Coleman, also has racked up strong production numbers in the big-twin market since its inception in 1994. The company has been profitable the last two years running, and claims to be the "biggest volume and oldest producer of American high-performance customs."

Big Dog
The radical frame of Big Dog’s chopper makes even the burly 107-inch S&S motor seem puny. Sidemount plate brackets come standard.Frank Kaisler

Dallas-based American IronHorse Motorcycle Co. grew from a small custom shop to one of the largest American bike builders in the American-hybrid industry. Founded by Bill Rucker and Tim Edmondson in 1995, the company recently announced sales growth of 150 percent in 2001 over the prior period, for its first full profitable year. Edmondson credits much of the company’s success to a strong dealer network and dedication to customer service after the sale. American IronHorse has recently expanded to 70 dealers nationwide, and offers seven different 2003 models, ranging in price from $22,490 to $33,900. With your choice of 107- or 113-cubic-inch S&S engines in stretched DayTec rigid, rubber- or soft-style frames, the bikes also provide a choice of five- or six-speed transmissions. Parts produced in-house include calipers, swingarms, lower fork legs, triple trees and wheels.

Each bike comes with a pile of chrome accoutrements, an unlimited-mileage warranty and “nearly twice the horsepower of a stock Harley,” according to its press kit. Bikes like the Slammer—a $33,500 work of billet art—are stunning, show-winning examples of the IronHorse philosophy, but the lineup leader of the series is the Tejas ($22,490). This hot-rod number sports a more muscular 113-inch mill, a stretched frame with a hardtail design and a five-speed tranny, all with an enticing price and seductive styling. American IronHorse has been savvy too, astutely recognizing market shifts and reacting appropriately—its products have evolved into an appealing mix of performance and premier styling. The company places 2002 production at approximately 1700 bikes.

Big Dog Bulldog
Left: The chopper sports a beefy 240 rear tire and a left-side drive. Right: The Big Dog Bulldog’s right-side drive makes handling a breeze.Frank Kaisler

In a flashy, ego-driven industry, Big Dog Motorcycles has built its success by monitoring inventory and carefully controlling growth while shying away from hype. The Wichita, Kansas, company has ignored most of the bandwagon temptations by limiting production and dealer expansion, and they’ve made their nine-year run a successful one. But then, founder Sheldon Coleman is no stranger to successful business plans—he’s a former president of Coleman Industries, renowned maker of outdoor and camping gear. A spokesman told us the company’s business model is strongly based on “sustainable growth,” and that long-term success is a high priority.

Evolution-patterned engines
Most of the “American Alternative’” bikes come with big-bore Evolution-patterned engines, and their bite is nearly as loud as their bark.Frank Kaisler

This company appears to be on the right track. After moving operations into a larger facility the previous year, Big Dog announced a 22-percent increase in sales for 2002. We were told that production has increased, inventories have been reduced and warranty costs have dropped since then. The company maintains 80 dealers nationwide and has grown from a mediocre machinemaker into a full-fledged, high-quality bike builder.

For 2003, Big Dog offers an aggressive six-bike lineup, which includes its new Super-Fat (wide rear tire) models. All bikes are powered by a 107-cubic-inch S&S V-twin motor mated to a Baker six-speed tranny, with side-mount license brackets. The bikes are outfitted with Performance Machine four-piston calipers with a raft of other high-end components from stem to stern. The company also offers dozens of handmade graphic designs and paint finishes for a truly custom product. At the top of the food chain is the $28,900 Bulldog soft tail, which features a right-side drive train that is claimed to provide superior riding balance and improved handling characteristics (because it centers the engine and transmission in the middle of the frame). Their best-selling bike is the Pitbull, a lower-priced hardtail model. As we went to press, Big Dog informed us its 5000th bike had rolled off the line. The company built 1600 bikes in 2001, and expects 2003 numbers to be even higher.

HOT DOGS AND COOL HORSES. WE RIDE ’EM

We had the opportunity to tool around on two bikes from each of these premiere builders. We came away impressed and pleasantly surprised with the quality and easy nature exhibited by the custom big twins and even the extreme choppers.

Bulldog
Big Dog BulldogFrank Kaisler

Big Dog offered us its top-of-the-line Bulldog ($31,150 as tested). Though a massive 250 series rear tire screamed “hot-rod,” the bike’s inviting 24.5-inch seat height and pearl white flame-and-pinstripe graphics instantly put us at ease.

A squat on the solo saddle proves more comfortable than it looks, and the cockpit of the Bulldog is nicely finished with a slightly pulled-back drag bar, sleek single-face instrument gauge and a beautifully stretched, seamless one-piece gas tank. The build quality on this bike is impeccable. Firing up the bike engenders a hearty rumble from the 107-cubic-inch, meticulously polished S&S engine, and although the chunky 54mm inverted fork and fat rear tire combo is heavy at a standstill, the weight seems to melt away once you’re rolling. For all its heft, the Bulldog handles nimbly, turning easily on the beefy 21-inch front tire. However, right hand turns took more effort because of the motor/tranny offset.

Every whack on the throttle is cause for ear-to-ear grins. The gobs of arm-pulling torque is delivered in a very smooth fashion by the six-speed Baker transmission (with right side drive). The cogs shuffle smoothly and positively and, although the clutch pull is a little heavy, it engages predictably. The Bulldog’s low-slung, cleanly designed Daytec 250 frame hides a single shock out back which we feel is a bit harsh on sharp bumps. The front and rear PM brakes slow things down convincingly, and we’re told the 2003 model Bulldog gets a new, stretched headlight and side-mounted tag bracket, too.

All in all, our first Big Dog ride revealed a surprisingly balanced, well-handling motorcycle with a tight feel, superior build quality and plenty of style and power. In each category, we thought the Bulldog did as well as or better than the mainstream big twins we usually test. The Big Dog Chopper ($27,650 as tested) was a blast too, in a completely different way. Once you get used to the insane rake of the fork and the swinging-in-the-breeze riding position it necessitates, the wallop of the 107-cubic-inch S&S engine pretty much guarantees rollicking good fun.

Chopper
Big Dog ChopperFrank Kaisler

Big Dog says it’s inspired by classic choppers of the past, but this Chopper takes the concept to a new level with a fat 250mm rear tire running under a hidden shock frame. A Baker six-speed, similar to the Bulldog’s, ensures easy highway performance and shifts smoothly. The 40-degree total rake looks radical and offers completely hard-core attitude, but we didn’t find it as difficult to ride as expected. The clutch and brake lever are awkward to access, the ground clearance is maddeningly short and the steering takes some getting used to, but we got appreciative looks everywhere we went on the Chopper, even in our full-face helmets and armored jackets. We didn’t feel the Chopper was as easy or fun to ride as the Bulldog, but we admit we liked being in touch with our inner Bad Ass.

Outlaw
American IronHorse OutlawFrank Kaisler

American IronHorse’s sleek $26,990 Outlaw caught our eye right away with its sculpted and stretched one-piece gas tank—its superior fit and finish is even more impressive than the Big Dog’s at first glance, and the paint and graphic design is particularly stunning. The two-inch Daytec frame rolls on a 240mm rear tire, with a 21-incher up front. The seat is smoothly integrated into the lines of the tank, and the rear fender is strutless, for a clean overall design.

It was a false sense of promise, though, since once we started to roll on the Outlaw, things were far from ideal. The 107-cubic-inch S&S engine started up fine, but the Outlaw’s throttle required an absurdly heavy hand, and the bike was difficult to steer into corners. The two-into-one exhaust system is nicely shaped and fully chromed, but it’s too loud for our tastes. The clutch is also heavier than it should be, although the six-speed JIMS transmission did shift smoothly. After a couple dozen miles, we found ourselves fighting over the company’s easy going chopper.

Chopper
American IronHorse Texas ChopperFrank Kaisler

AIH’s eye-catching new Texas Chopper ($26,460), which also comes with a polished 107-cubic-inch engine, and a fat 240mm, 18-inch rear tire, was far more agreeable than the Outlaw. Its design is defined with a four-inch backbone stretch, an eight-inch-over downtube stretch and an elongated tank, combined with pullback risers and dual disc front brakes. And although we loved the look and the feel of the chopper, it popped and backfired like a mother and we found our test bike’s belt drive rubbing against the swingarm.

Aside from the quirkiness of the Outlaw, we loved the Big Dog and American IronHorse examples we rode. In fact, in our short test, they outperformed many of the big twins sitting on your dealer’s showroom. To say we were pleasantly surprised is too mild. It would be more fair to say we were plainly awed and left wanting much more time on the bikes. Certainly, we left wholly convinced that Harley “clones” are a thing of the past.

In many ways these machines have surpassed the originals.