Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special vs. Victory Hammer S | American Muscle

Is it the meat or the motion?

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

Cubic inches vs. rpm? Meat vs. motion. The 1967 Z28's 8000-rpm 302 vs. the 440 Six Pack in a '70 'Cuda. Predating the tastes-great/less-filling argument by decades, internal-combustion anthropologists trace this one back to man's first discussions of suck/squeeze/bang/blow mythology, fueled by the chilled malt-and-barley brew that made Milwaukee famous before Harley or Davidson did. Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of manipulating many revs, or with an overwhelming tide of torque that flows from massive cylinders, end them? More to the point, how does a 9000-rpm Harley Night Rod Special stand up against Victory's 100-cubic-inch Hammer S? Both bikes aim at the same muscle-bound end of the cruiser market. They're both belt-drive American V-twins. Otherwise, differences outnumber similarities.

Powered by an 1130cc liquid-cooled DOHC twin-a heretical departure from its hulking pushrod ancestors from the minute Harley rolled it out five years ago-the '07 Night Rod Special is essentially a black-on-black-on-black spin-off of the '06 Night Rod; essentially the 120-horse version of Harley's Revolution twin from the '06 Street Rod in a stretched-and-slammed package, complete with radical-chic steering geometry from the original '02 V-Rod. Milwaukee's latest post-modern hot-rod weighs in at 676 pounds, complete with the more practical 5-gallon fuel payload common to all '07 'Rods. The designer instrument pod is new this time, as is a handy tab to ease sidestand deployment.

In this corner, weighing in at 697 lbs., the challenger from Osceola, Wisconsin, looks at first glance like the classic old-school, big-inch bruiser, but look closer: inverted-slider 43mm cartridge fork. Phat 250/40R18 Dunlop stuffed under a frenched-in LED taillight. Victory's artfully muscular sheet metal looks more custom than off-the-rack. Our S-spec version adds powdercoated Performance Machine wheels, tasty red and black paint, plus a selection of blacked-out bits-engine, handlebar, mirrors, instruments, switches, master cylinder, fork tubes, oil cooler, foot controls-to justify its limited-edition status.

The Hammer engine is only old school on the outside. Victory's latest 50-degree V-twin uses a pair of chain-driven overhead cams to cue eight valves. There's a balance shaft in there to squelch gratuitous vibration. Valve lash and cam-chain tension are maintained hydraulically, and helical-cut gears handle the primary drive. Introduced with the '05 Hammer, this latest 100-inch version gets various detail improvements and a six-speed gear-box with an overdrive top. A lighter, narrower crankcase adds cornering clearance and carries a quart less oil while providing more efficient lubrication. There's not much in the way of maintenance but to change the 5 quarts of oil every 4000 miles.

Both bikes dazzle passing humanity with the sort of paint, chrome and polished bits you expect at the top of the cruiser food chain. Either one is capable of convincing the neighbors you've spun a mental bearing and cashed out your 401K plan. But one ride around the block reveals differences far beyond bore and stroke. Idling in the driveway like some tightly wrapped coil of pure menace, the Night Rod sounds less like any other Harley you've ever heard and more like two cylinders shaved off a Porsche Carrera. Despite relatively analogous dimensions, the Hammer has none of the rowdy, off-center American Big Twin lope either. Once it's warm, the 100/6 sounds tight and a bit too civilized. We'd Google up an exhaust with a bit more attitude.

Sitting more than an inch closer to the street, the Night Rod saddle puts more distance between bars and pegs than the Hammer. Lanky types fit right in, but Harley's pegs and foot controls are a stretch for anyone under 5-foot-7. The S is a better fit for the vertically challenged. Though close proximity to the pavement makes the 'Rod feel stubby, it's a tick under 8 feet long, balanced on a 67.2-in. wheelbase. Factor in 34 degrees of rake and 4.5 in. of trail and quirky handling manners are as inevitable as stacked L.A. traffic. A twinge of throttle helps, but the heavy, drag-style front end makes holding a tight line below 10 mph difficult. The ride is reasonably humane on reasonable pavement, though an overdose of compression damping and less than 3 inches of rear wheel travel conducts nasty urban craters straight up your spinal column. Despite another inch of travel in the rear, the Hammer earns its name with an even more painful ride over edgy pavement. Real shocks top our wish list for either bike.

Most everything else about the big-inch Victory is as polished as its Sunset Red and black paint. Mainstream steering geometry and a slightly shorter wheelbase just about offset those 30 extra pounds around town, making the Hammer a more obliging urban tool. Shuffling through the new six-cog gearbox takes a touch more effort than Harley's five-speed, but the Hammer clutch is more linear. Fuel-injection is essentially perfect. And with 92.9 lb.-ft. of torque arriving at 2800 rpm, the 100-incher revs quicker than you'd expect. Troubled only by a bit too much driveline lash, it lopes along where the 'Rod feels vaguely unfulfilled below 4000 rpm-especially for the first few blocks of a cold morning ride-pining for enough open pavement to use what waits above.

The Revolution twin is open for business from there, and the whole acceleration thing gets serious at 7000 rpm until the 103.8 peak horses arrive at 8400 rpm. OK, so the Night Rod can't touch a 9-second Kawasaki ZX-14 on Grudge Night. Still, it used that relatively lofty power curve to cover the LACR quarter-mile in a respectable 12.26 seconds at 109.44 mph. Multi-cylinder foreign interlopers such as Yamaha's V-Max and Triumph's Rocket III run low-11s at 120 mph. But rpm and horsepower put the 'Rod well ahead of the heavier Hammer's 13.07-second, 100.08-mph best. The bigger twin's accessible torque makes coming off the green lights easier. It keeps things interesting till 60 mph, but runs out of breath about the time the Harley hits its stride.

Reality, however, usually comes in larger servings. There are long stretches of interstate to reel in, and maybe some twisty bits for dessert. Both bikes are smooth at freeway speeds, but the Hammer's overdrive top gear lets the engine tick over 2500 times every minute at 70 mph, while the 'Rod is marginally smoother but considerably busier at 4000 rpm. Assuming your limbs are long enough, the Harley's hunched-over, stretched-out riding posture leans you into the wind, making life at 75 mph easier on the lumbar spine than sitting bolt upright on the Victory. The Hammer fits the sub-6-foot set quite nicely, but the firm, scooped saddle discourages fore/aft fidgeting. And though the more energetic H-D twin is thirstier than the Victory's, its marginally bigger underseat fuel-cell means both bikes need a super unleaded stop every 150 miles or so.

Both cruisers are happier traveling in relatively straight lines and arcing through gentle curves. Presented with a few miles of especially meandering pavement...well, imagine the Indianapolis Colts performing Swan Lake: potentially hard on the furniture and fraught with limitations, but highly entertaining. The four-piston Brembo front calipers on both bikes are the best in cruiser land, and both come with sticky Dunlop Elite 3 rubber. Armed with greater cornering clearance and relatively conventional steering geometry, the Hammer S drags fewer hard parts while heeled over, inspiring more confidence with better handling manners. Uneven pavement can tilt the phat rear tire port or starboard, creating an unsettling tail-wags-dog phenomenon we could do without. Settle into a gear between second and fifth and that all-you-can-eat torque makes the shift lever superfluous. Countering that 250mm rear Dunlop's self-centering tendencies requires more input than the 'Rod's 240mm version, but most of the Harley's functional eccentricities are rooted in its dragster-derived front-end geometry.

Arc it through a set of sweeping bends and the biggest challenge is keeping the pavement from gnawing your boot heels. Get friendly with the thrust that lives beyond 7000 rpm and the 'Rod's Revolution twin writes checks the chassis can't cash. Slow steering speeds up halfway through as various physical laws are enforced at once. Hard parts drag. Bumps provoke violent gnashing against the pavement and something like the sound of a 1000-lb. safe hitting the deck. Palms sweat. Pupils dilate. Roadside ditches loom. But slow down and all is well. As the philosopher Harry Callahan said in Magnum Force, "A man's got to know his limitations." The 'Rod will go fast or go around corners, but not both.

If speed is what you seek, the Night Rod Special rewards extra effort at the shift lever with a whole lot more of it-along with niceties such as a barrel-type ignition key, two tripmeters and a slightly spastic fuel-gauge-for $16,495. Traditionalists in search of time-honored big-inch virtues in a fresh, capable package will have to ante up another $3254 for an S-spec Hammer, or $404 more for the standard version. That's not cheap, but individuality rarely is. Everybody lives for that locomotive lunge at 2500 rpm, and the rest of the package is gorgeous, and as solid as high-carbon tool-steel.

But it takes power to win this game, and the Night Rod has more of it, even if the good stuff lives too far up the tach face for V-twin traditionalists. Meat matters, especially in bigger-is-better America. If you can live with a little eccentric bump-and-grind in the corners, Harley's Night Rod proves that how much you've got is less important than how fast you can move it.

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