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."
Temporary Viking bodywork is improvised from existing components, with a Spondon tank, Duc
The tiny engine makes the Viking streetfighter incredibly light, with a claimed dry weight of just 318 lbs. The Viking is the only member of the lineup that doesn't use a Highland-made frame. British specialists Spondon build the tubular-aluminum space frame to Highland's specifications, complete with the firm's signature banana swingarm. "This is not my first Spondon," Bales says. "What can I say? I just love that frame and swingarm. And we're doing what we love here." Finished with top-shelf Öhlins suspension, Brembo brakes and Marchesini wheels, the Viking is more like a carefully assembled custom than any production streetbike.
Highland's high-performance intentions are evident the second you fire up the Viking. The prototype asymmetric titanium exhausts are hardly DOT-legal-this might be the loudest streetbike we've ever ridden. Even in big-bore, 1050cc configuration (standard displacement is 950cc), the V-twin revs with uncommon urgency. A super-light crank, coupled with cams that could have come from a Pro Stock dragbike, delivers the raw, intense engine character of a highly tuned racebike.
Despite this initial impression, Bales claims this is the "mild" state of tune, making around 125 reliable horsepower. More aggressive tuning will raise that number as high as 150 bhp, he says. Out on the twisting tarmac of Dripping Springs State Park in nearby Okmulgee, the quick-revving engine and light overall weight let the Viking accelerate with ferocious authority, making me wish for a lower handlebar to help keep the front wheel on the ground and to hide from the windblast. As exhilarating as it was on the throttle, however, the Viking suffered from severe fuel-injection hiccups, especially at low revs and partial throttle openings.
High-rise Renthal Fatbar describes a dirtbike riding position that provides quick, supermo
The prototype I rode was equipped with a single throttle body that will soon be replaced with a patented dual-throttle system of Malmberg's design. The new throttle body meters airflow using a cylindrical drum instead of a traditional throttle plate, which Malmberg says will provide significantly smoother throttle response that will cure the existing woes. This system has already been tested on Highland's single-cylinder dirtbikes, and is being adapted to its twin-cylinder streetbikes now.
Highland is currently completing EPA and DOT certification, with plans to produce and deliver the first customer bikes by August. Malmberg says the company will aim for initial production of 25 bikes per month, eventually doubling that figure to meet a realistic goal of 3000 motorcycles in the next three years. How that production is spread out across the model line will be determined by customer demand. "We can componentize and configure bikes however the customer wants, with a three- to five-day timeframe for delivery," Bales claims.
No matter what the final lineup looks like, all Highland models-which are expected to retail for between $10,000 and $20,000-will be hand-built using as much American-made content as possible. Bales' background manufacturing oil-drilling tools and equipment has given him access to a deep network of local precision manufacturers who now supply the company with everything from stainless-steel framesets to carbon-fiber bodywork. Respected American aftermarket firms like Jardine Performance Products and JE Piston have likewise been contracted.
"It would probably be easier-and cheaper-to source this stuff in Korea or Taiwan," Bales says. "But people want an American success story. We want to be that success story."
The latest version of Highland's compact 60-degree V-twin, mounted in a Spondon streetfighter chassis.
Aprilia Tuono 1000R, Ducati Streetfighter, MV Agusta Brutale, Triumph Speed Triple.
||l-c 60-deg. V-twin
|Bore x stroke
||96.0 x 70.0mm
||128 bhp @ 8100 rpm
||110 lb.-ft. @ 5500 rpm
||43mm Öhlins fork with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
||Öhlins shock with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
||Dual Brembo four-piston calipers, 310mm discs
||Nissin two-piston caliper, 220mm disc
||120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa
||180/55ZR-17 Metzeler Racetec K3
|Claimed dry weight
||12 mo., unlimited mi.
17424 S. Union Ave.
Mound, OK 74047
Verdict 3 stars out of 5
A promising-and potent-motorcycle, but engine performance is too rough at this early stage even for a bare-knuckled streetfighter.