Rolling whiplash aboard the wildest production cruiser Honda--or anyone else--has ever built

The guy on the Fat Boy spotted us riding up Pacific Coast Highway--and hung a U-turn to give chase. He followed us for 10 miles as we cut up into the coastal mountains. When we stopped, he stopped--and jumped off his bike for a closer look at Honda's striking new six. "They really did it right," the rider said, who told us he not only owned a GL1800, but also had a juicy deposit on a brand-new Rune.

Honda did do it right, and on so many levels.

Honda's Road to the Rune started more than a decade ago, in product-planning meetings where the shape and makeup of future Honda cruisers were being discussed. Honda had used the name "Custom" to designate its first cruisers, but dropped it, in part because a mass-produced custom seemed to be an oxymoron. Still, the idea of making and selling an exotic, highly stylized cruiser was appealing. Honda is first of all an engineering company; it has thoroughly demonstrated it knows how to create motorcycles that function exceptionally well. But functional excellence and the style that defines today's cruisers tend to run in different directions. The overriding drive for functional excellence has tended to make Honda's cruisers somewhat beige.

Honda stylists and management, however, had a desire to prove that the company not only understands the allure and beauty of an exotically rendered bike, but has the ability to create--and sell--such a motorcycle.

Conceiving--and even giving form to--a beautiful, exotic and/or outrageous motorcycle design isn't all that difficult. The Discovery Channel teems with builders who churn out wild motorcycles. Honda itself has built some beautiful concept bikes, such as the Zodia (which inspired the Rune's front end) and other flat-six-based performance art. The hard part, the thing that none of those customizers-cum-television stars can do, is to build a bike that not only meets all DOT regulations, but also all of Honda's considerable engineering, performance and functional standards.

So the gauntlet was thrown--and stylists at Honda's American division picked it up.

It was decided early on that the engine should be a flat-six. Not only would this keep it from being another V-twin, but even more than the V-four, the flat-six is distinctively Honda. This motor would stamp the result as a Honda creation like nothing else could. While those American stylists knew they were trying to create something that might go into production, they didn't really have to determine how to meet the regulations and standards. They had to sculpt a machine that would turn heads quicker than Pamela Anderson, but didn't need to resolve the details.

When their creation, called the T2, emerged on the American bike-show circuit in late 2000 and early '01, it met enormous customer enthusiasm--along with plenty of skepticism that anything like it would actually be built. Then the hard part began. In a very un-Honda-like turnabout, engineers were charged with fulfilling the stylists' vision. Function would follow form. On more than one occasion designers were told that it simply could not be done, that their rolling artwork could not be turned into a production Honda. The example we heard from several of those involved was the radiator. The stylists' choice simply would not provide enough cooling. It seemed at first that the only way to get a radiator in there was to rearrange the pieces and get the big front fender out of the way. That particular challenge literally took years to resolve, but in the end, the big compound-curved radiator actually improved on the looks of the original. The result, now called the Valkyrie Rune, emerged undiluted and ready for production in Ohio.

When Runes began rolling off the line, we were invited to spend a day riding two of them. Others have looked at the Rune's 68.9-inch wheelbase and 770-pound (dry) weight and doubted it could be manageable. We were once in that camp, but past episodes of squashed skepticism with five generations of Gold Wings and the Valkyrie 1500 have taught us that Honda performs some alchemy with motorcycle mass that can make the weight blow away when its motorcycles start moving.

So we were willing to ignore what our eyes told us and expected a bike that works like something much smaller and lighter, even when we lowered ourselves onto the 27.2-inch-high saddle and saw the front end stretch way out in front of us. Sure enough, release the clutch in first gear, and the Rune seems to shrink. The front axle is just about where it is relative to the rider on any bike; the fact that the trailing-arm fork's components are a few inches in front of the axle creates an illusion. The bike's heft, which exceeds 800 pounds with fluids, is there at walking speeds, but once you get moving its steering magically becomes light and manageable--and stays that way. You can point and shoot; the Rune feels tight, precise and predictable if you swerve or snap it into a corner. Cornering clearance is unremarkable, certainly not as good as the Valkyrie 1500's (which is better than most big cruisers), but at least the feelers on the pegs drag well before anything solid.

Under the 6.1-gallon tank, the breathed-on 1832cc Gold Wing motor inhales through six individual throttle bodies. That's not to say it's a peaky hot rod; the engine is amazingly tractable. We ran it down to 17 mph in top (fifth) gear and yanked the throttles open: no surging, no driveline snatch. It just torqued ahead rapidly, picking up power as the revs rose. Power builds right up to where the rev limiter shuts down the party.Unfortunately, because there's no tachometer, it happens without notice. A shift light in the warning-light panel atop the handlebar clamp, or an indicator in the blue speedo and fuel LCD screen under a chrome shade on the tank top, would be nice.

Except for a slight bit of abruptness when you make an open/close/open throttle transition, aggravated by some minor lash in the lower gears, the Rune's drivetrain is pleasantly free of annoying characteristics. It shifts without the long throws or loud engagements that plague many big cruisers' gearboxes, and the engine emits exciting and distinctively Honda growls from the intake tract and mufflers.

Although it claims just 3.9 inches of travel, the unique front suspension performs flawlessly. It offered a compliant ride with excellent control through a variety of paving abominations--and we tried hard to make it sweat. The rear end provides the same travel but comes up slightly short in compliance and wheel control. Aficionados of the foot-forward style will be disappointed that the cylinders prevent such a posture, but we think more rearward pegs (like the grips, they're chromed billet with rubber inserts to give you purchase) provide much greater comfort. The wide, flat solo seat offers room for even tall riders, and a choice of handlebar bend allows buyers to tailor the position. It's a hugely comfortable machine.

Of course, the neck-snapping looks of the Rune are what everyone is talking about. Honda has provided fit and finish that more than justify the $25,499 price ($1500 extra for chrome wheels). The tough part will be getting one: If you don't already have yours claimed, you may be out of luck. Honda says it will build just one per dealer (about 1200) for the '04 season, and has not decided if it will make any more in the future. But if demand for a cruiser this attractive and this functionally excellent is as strong as we think it'll be, we're betting Honda will build more.

And that guy on the Fat Boy rider we met during our brief ride up PCH? We think he'll be a happy man when he takes delivery.

Honda Valkyrie Rune

MSRP: $25,499 ($26,999 chrome)

Type: l-c opposed six
Valve arrangement: sohc, 12v
Displacement: 1832cc
Transmission: 5-speed

Weight: 794 lb. (claimed, dry)
Fuel capacity: 6.1 gal.
Wheelbase: 68.9 in. (1750mm)
Seat height: 27.2 in. (691mm)

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