2009 Big Dog K9 vs. 2010 Honda Fury - Uneasy Riders

A Tale Of Two Choppers, Four Decades After The Movie That Made Them Famous

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing

Descending on Vegas' pedestrian-clogged Strip let us assess city manners and slow-speed handling behavior. This, in the case of the Big Dog, can be summed up in one word: DON'T! The K9 doesn't flop or fall over at slow speeds like you might expect, though it takes a lot of muscle to maneuver such a long, tall, heavy bike. You're always aware of that 13-inch-wide rear tire, too, with its Weeble Wobble tendency to right itself mid-corner--despite the balancing effect of Big Dog's proprietary "Balanced Drive System," which relocates final drive to the right side of the bike. Heat management is an issue, too. Temperatures in the mid-90s were enough to momentarily kick the K9 into self-preserving limp mode at stoplights. Your body, unfortunately, has no similar override circuit to endure radiant heat, of which there is a lot.

The water-cooled Fury is unfazed by high temps, and is infinitely more maneuverable, too. How could it not be with 4 degrees less rake, almost an inch less trail and 11 fewer inches between its axles? The 200mm-wide rear tire might look scrawny next to the K9's 300, but the Fury turns better and doesn't resist lean angles as much. Ground clearance is surprisingly good, and with superior damping circuitry front and rear, the Fury is by far the bike you want on a curvy road. Still, describing the Fury as the best-handling chopper is like calling your Lawn Boy a decent shaving blade. Even moderately tight corners demand some body steering and plenty of space, and mid-corner corrections are best avoided.

Saddling up the second day, we felt like we'd spent the night on Wyatt and Billy's bedrolls instead of the Renaissance hotel's queen-size beds. Like dog years, it seems 300 Big Dog miles are roughly equivalent to 2100 human miles, and we were feeling every last one of them. All that airspace between the K9's low seat, high bars and forward controls make it impossible to brace your body, and with a scant 3 inches travel from the hidden, Softail-style rear suspension, every expansion joint sends a jolt straight up your spine. Then there are the vibes--any acceleration shakes your feet off the pegs, giving your hip adductors a workout keeping your feet in place. You'll soon curse the K9's 130-mile cruising range--even 50 miles at highway speeds is hard to bear.

Better road manners earned the Honda the nickname "Furby"--the softer, cuddlier chopper. More compact dimensions better fit the human form, with a shorter reach to downward-angled bars and a reasonable stretch to the forward controls. The Fury feels more refined, too. Engine vibration is minimal, despite a single-pin crank intended to give the 52-degree V-twin a more authentic "American" rumble. The Fury's controls are lighter, too--especially the clutch and shifter--and the Nissin brakes offer better feedback than the Big Dog's Performance Machine calipers, even if they're less powerful.

Given these severe (dis)comfort concerns, the 700 miles separating Vegas from Taos were intimidating, especially after a wrong turn--followed by a quick lesson in traffic etiquette for our esteemed editor, courtesy of Nevada's finest--put us two hours behind schedule. We finally regrouped in Boulder City and set off across the Hoover Dam, only to emerge on the other side into interminable, arm pump-inducing headwinds. It was noon by the time we reached our first gas stop in Kingman, Arizona--still 600 miles from Taos--and I barely had my helmet off before Catterson uttered these magic words: "Screw Taos."

BC: "What do you say we just ride back to L.A. from here?"
AF: "What about our meeting with Hopper?"
BC: "What about it? It's a press conference. At an art gallery. And they already told us not to ask him about motorcycles. Screw it."
AF: "What would Wyatt and Billy do?"
BC: "They'd ride to Lake Havasu, have a beer and look at girls."
AF: "Screw it--let's go to Havasu then!"

Chowing on recovery burritos at a Mexican joint in the surreal shadow of the London Bridge on Havasu's waterfront, we considered the styling of both bikes. The Fury might look like a hardcore chopper parked in the local Honda dealership, alongside CBRs and auto-tranny DN-01s, but next to the Big Dog it looks like a cheap plastic toy. Some of its styling cues are all right: The stretched tank is gorgeous, and that streamlined headlamp could have come straight from Harley-Davidson's P&A catalog. Other cues, however, are all wrong: There's not even an attempt at symmetry between the truncated mainframe and the single-tube swingarm. Massive, plasti-chrome covers concealing the transmission are too big and boxy. The powder-coated shaft-drive housing looks like a cheap scooter part; the hideous black-plastic taillight/rear fender combination does, too. Chopper or not, Honda didn't finish this job--there are still plenty of superfluous styling bits that need to be chopped off.

The K9 nails the clean-and-mean chopper aesthetic from the word go. There's nothing safe or sane about the profile, with an 8-inch stretched backbone, 4-inch stretched downtubes and fork tubes a whopping 12 inches over standard length. The Big Dog's meaty Avon Cobra rear tire makes the Fury's Dunlop look like a study of rubber in miniature. Everything is chromed--no cheap powder coat here--and the finishes are flawless. Same goes for the Black Cherry Candy paint, even if the tribal-style "Whiplash" graphics look a tad 2005. All as you would rightfully expect for $35,500 (admittedly an unfair comparison for the Fury). But since the right look is arguably more important than a good ride when it comes to chopper competency, give this Big Dog a bone.

With that in mind, which one would Wyatt and Billy ride? The Big Dog K9, without a doubt. Nothing middle-fingers the sensibilities of solid, middle-class American motorcyclists as obscenely as Big Dog's long, loud, agonizingly un-ergonomic K9. And it earns bonus points for actually working like a cohesive, well-engineered motorcycle--which, in our experience, cannot be said about all motor-cycles inhabiting the American Custom market niche. Save for an underachieving starter motor that failed a few times to awaken the big-bore, long-stroke motor, our 1200 miles on the K9 were trouble-free. Mechanically, anyway.

Compared to a real chopper like the K9, Honda's Fury is The Great Pretender. Sure, it's smoother, quieter and it steers better than the Big Dog--or any other bike with a 6-foot wheelbase and 38 degrees of rake. But compared to any non-chopper, its handling is a handful, the riding position is a literal pain in the ass, and the engine (with a 99-mph speed governor!) is lackluster. If you can't roar down the centerline like Hell's own flame-haired moto-courier, what good is a chopper anyway?

So we never made it to Taos. But that's okay; we had a good excuse. When I asked Dennis Hopper during a phone interview later how he and Fonda managed to ride homebuilt hardtails all the way from L.A. to New Orleans in the movie, he explained: "What can I say? We were inspired. And really stoned." So that was our problem! It turns out the only truth we uncovered was that choppers are a horrible choice for a cross-country road trip. Maybe next time we try a stunt like this, we'll employ some Hollywood-type special effects to make the destination. Or just heed Hopper's advice.

Brian Catterson
Age: 47 Height: 6'1" Weight: 215 lbs. Inseam: 34 in.

It's no secret I don't care for choppers. I do appreciate them as works of art, and a few I've ridden have run like raped apes. They just don't handle for Shiite, Muslim. I won't touch on the perceived inverse proportion between the length of a chopper's fork and that of its rider's, um, "dipstick." Except to say that if you're considering buying a chopper to attract women, you might want to check out the male-enhancement ads in the back of this magazine first...

So, it must have been morbid curiosity that made me suggest to Aaron that we ride the Big Dog and Furby to the "Summer of Love" festivities. Aaron wisely objected, noting the 950-mile distance between L.A. and Taos, but I countered with the now-infamous remark: "Hey, choppers are great at going straight." Which they are--provided you go straight from your house to the bar and back.

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