Mats Malmberg, who founded Highland Motorcycles in Sweden 15 years ago, wasn't necessarily looking to re-enter the bike-building business. Discouraged by seemingly endless frustrations producing the original Highland 950 Outback a decade ago, he back-burnered his bike-building dreams and transformed his company into a successful engineering firm that developed technology for Husqvarna and others. And he certainly wasn't looking to relocate to Oklahoma-a state most Swedes aren't even aware exists-until Tulsa-based entrepreneur Chase Bales made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
The two met when Bales was negotiating a deal for Highland to supply engines to American dirtbike manufacturer ATK. That venture didn't pan out, but Bales-who actually owned an original Highland Outback-had another idea. He made Malmberg an outrageous offer to re-launch Highland as a full-line manufacturer of high-end, American-made road and off-road motorcycles.
Before you could say smorgasbord, Bales bought 25 percent of Highland and Malmberg became the newest resident of The Sooner State. "To develop technologies for others is satisfying," Malmberg admits, "but it's much more fun to do it for yourself, under your own brand, and sell bikes under your own name." That was 2008. Today, barely 16 months later, a heavy-hitting board of directors-led by Bengt Andersson, former chairman of Husqvarna-is in place, a brand-new manufacturing facility has been built on the outskirts of Tulsa, more than 30 employees have been hired, and U.S. Highland is set to deliver its first production motorcycles to customers by the end of the year.
The Viking test mule's chassis components are top-shelf pieces from Öhlins, Brembo and Mar
Motorcyclist dropped in on the new firm the same week it was moving into its new factory, which was alive with activity as employees set up CNC mills and other tooling. Scattered around the shop floor were R&D projects ranging from outboard marine motors to side-by-side ATVs, along with every possible variation of motorcycle: dirt-spattered motocrossers, supermotos, street-trackers, even a single-cylinder roadracer. Modular construction using two basic engine layouts (single or V-twin, in displacements ranging from 450cc to 1050cc) and a few basic frame designs will allow the firm to offer a dizzying array of products, easily customizable to each individual buyer's specification. The company plans to offer 15 models ranging from race-ready motocross and enduro machines to street-legal streetfighters, and will add more according to customer demand.
Highland follows a decidedly top-down design strategy. "We're going to build what we love to ride, and hope we find a market for it," Bales explains. Judging from the two street-legal prototypes we sampled-the Viking streetfighter and Desert X enduro-what Highland honchos love to ride is high-powered, hard-edged motorcycles that are barely a half-step removed from hardcore race machines.
Both bikes are powered by the same extremely compact, 60-degree V-twin, which has its roots in the Folan engine Malmberg purchased outright 12 years ago. That engine has been completely redesigned over the intervening decade to the point where it is now 60 pounds lighter and nearly 50 percent more powerful. "Everything has changed," Malmberg says. "There are hundreds of changes to the castings, the crank, the clutch, the pistons; everything is different inside. There is no Folan left in it. It's all Highland now."
The Highland V-twin is almost unbelievably small-it looks more like Aprilia's 450 than anything else in the liter class. Malmberg says the motor weighs a remarkable 96.8 lbs. complete, including the starter, intakes and throttle body. "There are no exotic materials," he says. "It was designed to be a racing engine first, so we worked carefully to save material everywhere we could."