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

Forty years ago, America was in crisis. Bodies piled up in Vietnam, while rioters burned down Chicago and Washington D.C. Martin Luther King's dream died in Memphis. Robert F. Kennedy's too, in Los Angeles. The Manson Family, and the Hell's Angels at Altamont, extinguished any remaining Aquarian-age idealism. It was against this chaotic backdrop that Wyatt and Billy, two drug-dealing hippies named after cowboys, set out on iron horses to find what was left of the American Dream. Flush with dirty money from one last big score, they headed for Florida to retire but ended up dead in a ditch. The '60s were over, man, and the film Easy Rider, premiering in July 1969, was the decade's epitaph.

Forty years later, America is falling apart again. A different dream--this time free money and easy prosperity--is collapsing. Where are our Easy Riding antiheroes now? Peter Fonda--Wyatt in the original film--is still recycling his most famous role in formulaic comedy crap like Wild Hogs. Meanwhile his co-star, Dennis Hopper--who also wrote and directed Easy Rider--is a registered Republican paying the bills pitching a different kind of retirement plan in Ameriprise television commercials. The '60s really are over, man...

And what happened to their iconic choppers? Once the ultimate outlaw accessory, chromed-out choppers have become the status symbol of choice for the same investment bankers and stockbrokers that gutted our financial system. Or worse: hideous, high-concept brand extensions for any Fortune 500 mega-corporation with $100K to blow on an Orange County Choppers special. Now, Honda--the "Nicest People" people!--has dropped the Fury, the first true chopper from Japan, Inc., complete with a 12-month protection plan and more warning stickers than a set of Lawn Jarts. Wyatt and Billy have got to be turning triple axles in their shallow, backwoods graves.

Can you still find the truth by hurtling feet-forward across America aboard a chopper? Even if one is a mass-produced "custom" from Kansas, and the other isn't American at all? Can you still capture Wyatt and Billy's easy-riding bliss? Would you even want to? Armed with one dark-red-metallic Honda Fury and a similarly shaded Big Dog Motorcycles K9--advertised as "America's #1 Chopper"--Brian Catterson and I set out to find out.

We'd ride from L.A. just like Wyatt and Billy did, aiming for Taos, New Mexico, 950 miles east. Taos was home to the New Buffalo commune that inspired the famous scene in the movie and ground zero for 2009's "Summer of Love"--a series of biker-oriented festivities marshaled by Dennis Hopper. Outfitted in our vintage-style Fulmer helmets with bubbleshields (that Memphis-based company also celebrating its 40th anniversary this year), we'd compare the Fury against a real-deal American chopper on the same highways immortalized in the film, and cap it with an interview of Mr. Easy Rider himself. Call it a method-acting road test.

Big Dog Motorcycles truly are the big dogs of the American custom market. Designing and manufacturing high-end, turnkey choppers since 1994, the Wichita-based company has sold 25,000 bikes, and claims 50 percent market share. The top-of-the-line K9 is as close as you can get to a real chopper without lighting a cutting torch. Powered by 117 cubic inches (1917cc, in sissy metric-speak) of American-made V-twin muscle, this canine measures more than 9 feet from stem to stern, and its raked head tube is so tall you can limbo underneath it.

Honda, the largest motorcycle manufacturer on the planet, stamps out millions of technically proficient, emotionally distant motor appliances. To sex up that image for the youth of America, Honda imagined a badass chopper--complete with a pierced-tongue/snarling-dog ad campaign. Even if the Fury is just a cut-down version of Granddad's VTX1300, with its bare-backbone frame, stretched tank and raked fork, it's certainly the edgiest Oriental cruiser yet.

Our day-one route deviates from Easy Rider's original easterly path, looping north through Las Vegas because we want to watch James Stewart whoop ass at Sam Boyd Stadium during the AMA Supercross season finale--hardly in keeping with the theme, but hey, it was on the way. The long stretch of I-15 across the Mojave Desert gave us a good assessment of engine performance. We soon found that acceleration contests are no contest: The K9 simply devours the Fury at any distance and in any gear--even its massively overdriven sixth, which allows the big twin to essentially idle at 70 mph.

The K9's air-cooled, pushrod, 45-degree V-twin is built to Big Dog specs by S&S in Viola, Wisconsin. Our test bike was fitted with optional electronic fuel injection and a Vance & Hines Big Radius exhaust, to produce 97.7 horsepower and 104.3 lb.-ft. of torque on our rear-wheel dyno. (We had to remove the front wheel to make it fit.) The Fury's liquid-cooled, SOHC, 52-degree V-twin is more sophisticated, but hardly more potent. Even the 605cc disadvantage can't account for the Fury's less-than-furious 55.6 bhp and 72.1 lb.-ft. That power deficit shows everywhere: The Honda is 1.5 seconds slower through the quarter-mile and a half-second slower in 60-80 mph roll-ons, despite weighing 79 pounds less than the Big Dog.

Adding further insult is an electronic speed governor limiting the Fury's top speed to 99 mph. That's right: You're free to ride your Honda chopper without being hassled by the man, as long as you keep it under the ton. The K9 surely will exceed 120 mph, but by how much we're not sure--punishing windblast and a slight-but-persistent chassis weave tempered our desire to find out.

Off The Record
Aaron Frank
Age: 34 Height: 5'7" Weight: 145 lbs. Inseam: 31 in.

Who knew Honda designers adhered to the club racer's 50/50 Rule: "It's okay as long as it looks good from 50 feet away at 50 miles per hour"? Except where the club racer's bike looks rattier the closer you get, the Fury looks too gussied up. Covers and cowls clutter what should be clean lines and some components, like the undersized rear tire and uninspired tail, just look lame. And don't get me started on the limp performance, capped with a 99-mph speed governor! Any chopper deserving of the title needs to at least outrun a stock Civic.

Big Dog's K9, on the other hand, is the real deal. It's long, loud, hard to handle and brutally uncomfortable, but man does it turn heads! Up close or from afar, the K9 captures the look, sound and feel of a true chopper. If only it were a bit more comfortable to ride over 50 miles, or above 50 mph...

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.

2009 Big Dog K9 | Price: $35,500

Tech Spec
Engine type: a-c 45-deg. V-twinRear suspension: Twin Works Performance shocks with adjustable ride heightMeasured horsepower: 97.7 bhp @ 5750 rpm
Valve train: OHV, 4vFront brake: Performance Machine four-piston caliper, 292mm discMeasured torque: 104.3 lb.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
Displacement: 1917ccRear brake: Performance Machine four-piston caliper, 292mm discCorrected 1/4-mile: 12.25 sec. @ 107.80 mph
Bore x stroke: 104.8 x 111.1mmFront tire: MH90-21 Avon CobraTop-gear roll-on: 5.09 sec.
Compression: 9.6:1Rear tire: 300/35-R18 Avon CobraFuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 47/37/43 mpg
Fuel system: EFIRake/trail: 42.0 deg. /4.4 in.Colors: Black Cherry Candy
Clutch: Wet, multi-plateSeat height: 24.3 in.Availability: Now
Transmission: 6-speedWheelbase: 82.0 in.Warranty: 24 mo., unlimited mi.
Frame: Steel double-cradleFuel capacity: 4.1 gal.Contact:
Big Dog Motorcycles, Inc.
1520 E. Douglas Ave.
Wichita, KS 67214
316.267.9121
www.bigdogmotorcycles.com
Front suspension: "Showa-like" 41mm telescopic forkWeight (tank full/empty): 749/724 lbs.

Dyno
S&S's 117-cubic-inch, long-stroke twin is a torque monster, maintaining 90 lb.-ft. across the board. With peak torque at 4000 rpm, short-shifting is the best way to ride that big swell of power.

Ergos
Ape-hangers and highway pegs focus the road's rage on the rider's lumbar, straining muscles and squishing discs. This extreme seating position is mainly good for funding your chiropractor's retirement.

2010 Honda Fury | Price: $12,999

Tech Spec
Engine type: l-c 52-deg. V-twinRear suspension: Showa shock with adjustable spring preload and rebound dampingMeasured horsepower: 55.6 bhp @ 4250 rpm
Valve train: SOHC, 6vFront brake: Nissin two-piston caliper, 336mm discMeasured torque: 72.1 lb.-ft. @ 3500 rpm
Displacement: 1312ccRear brake: Nissin single-piston caliper, 296mm discCorrected 1/4-mile: 13.76 sec. @ 95.29 mph
Bore x stroke: 89.5 x 104.3mmFront tire: 90/90-21 Dunlop Elite 3Top-gear roll-on: 5.61 sec.
Compression: 9.2:1Rear tire: 200/50-R18 Dunlop Elite 3Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 47/36/41 mpg
Fuel system: EFIRake/trail: 38.0 deg./3.5 in.Colors: Black, Ultra Blue Metallic, Metallic Silver, Dark Red Metallic, Matte Silver Metallic
Clutch: Wet, multi-plateSeat height: 26.7 in.Availability: Now
Transmission: 5-speedWheelbase: 71.2 in.Warranty: 12 mo., unlimited mi.
Frame: Steel double-cradleFuel capacity: 3.4 gal.Contact:
American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
P.O. Box 2200
Torrance, CA 90509
866.784.1870
www.powersports.honda.com
Front suspension: Showa 45mm telescopic forkWeight (tank full/empty): 670/650 lbs.

Dyno
The Furious Furby dishes out a healthy 70 lb.-ft. of torque from 2250 to 4000 rpm, but a lack of horsepower limits top speed. The long-stroke twin can't breathe beyond 4000 rpm, at which point power drops off quickly.

Ergos
A slightly higher, softer seat and lower bars are easier on the back, but it's still difficult to sit through a tankful. Despite its higher seat, the Fury is better suited to riders on the short side of 6 feet.

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