2017 Harley-Davidson Street Rod first ride review

The Harley-Davidson Street Rod has a very attractive heel guard installed on the muffler.

That may not strike you as particularly important, but that one sentence says a lot about my experience with the Street Rod, good and bad. I went to Harley’s press ride eager and excited about the new bike, and I came back feeling the same way, though regrettably, I’m going to be unable to purchase one. The heel guard sort of epitomizes both points.

Heel guard

Who cares about a heel guard?

The actual guard itself doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Harley heard complaints and addressed them. When we did our full shakeout of the Street 750 a year and a half ago, I complained about some aspects of the bike. As a bike reviewer, I am not special. I am perhaps more systematic in my assessment of a bike than John Q. Public, but I still review a bike just like you guys do: I ride as much as I can, and then discuss what was good and what was stinky.

The Street 750 was not an exception. My complaints were echoed by many other riders: awkward footpeg placement forcing me to burn my boot heels, ineffective mirrors, shitty brakes, and the fit and finish of a high-school woodshop project. The new Street Rod comfortably handles all these issues. The heel guard is well integrated and eliminates the minor issue of melted boot rubber. It’s an amazingly small detail that yields big results in the usability department. It is immediately evident where you can put your foot.

Mirrors

The mirrors, too, changed. Obviously, they have migrated to the bar ends, but what’s harder to see is the vast increase in their quality. They’re cast with cavities to cut weight and visual presence. They have a lovely ball-and-socket attachment that pivots with firm pressure, reassuring the rider of their quality with the snugness of the joint.

Brakes

And the brakes? Well, they work a lot better now. Harley was said to have found a new supplier for the brakes shortly after we reviewed the original Street 750. The dual setup on the Street Rod kicks ass. Part of the reason I think that might be the case (other than now having twice as many rotors!) is that Harley began using braided brake lines, not those mushy rubber ones they used to. (And the feel is super-progressive, for those of you who like a soft initial bite.)

Cockpit

Presentation on the Street Rod is just so much better. Wires are tucked away neatly. Gone is the rainbow of colored connectors of the Street 750. Castings are cleaner and finishes are better. The bike actually feels nice now. Hands down, this was the most pleasant surprise I found on Street Rod. I’d love to shake one of these out back-to-back with something like a Triumph Street Twin. The two seem like natural compadres.

I mentioned this to both Brian Dondlinger (Engineering Technical Lead on the Street Rod) and also to Chetan Shedjale (Styling Lead), and they each were cognizant of the improvements they strived for in both function and form. The two seemed cautiously proud of how far this bike had come from their first crack. I got the impression they were not fans of some of the compromises they had to learn to make on the first iteration of this platform, and they didn’t beat around the bush. Shedjale freely spoke about the process of learning how to make a bike for the end of the market that's not H-D's bread-and butter. I’m a sucker for honesty this blatant. Harley’s been pretty good about not putting a marketing muzzle on their engineers and designers recently. (I went after blood with Alex Bozmoski, Harley’s Chief Engineer of New Product at the Milwaukee-Eight launch earlier this summer, and he put up with 20 minutes of me grilling him like a nice steak. Like Dondlinger and Shedjale, he gave answers that weren’t a marketing huckster's spin, but actual honesty about where things were sometimes less than perfect.)

Beware

How’d it ride?

It was a hoot! I had a lot of fun on the Street Rod. I immediately jacked up the preload on the rear suspension to the max (the only suspension adjustment one can make). I was very happy with the bike’s performance. Suspension on this bike was pretty hard; a very welcome change on a bar-and-shield motorcycle. I like my suspension nearly harsh on sportier bikes, so I was pretty happy, but most will probably find the bike to be a little aggressive. The front is completely non-adjustable, but that’s appropriate for the price. The decrease in fork rake angle changed the handling to the point where you have to look at the side of the tank to see if it’s still a Harley. There wasn’t beans for curvy roads near Daytona, but I suspect I’d have to work quite a bit to get those pegs to scrape, even with 275-pound me crushing the motorcycle.

Street Rod

Let’s move onto an item of great debate, the motor-vator. The Street Rod is peppier than the standard Street, no doubt about it. Due to the revised cams and heads, the rev limit was increased to 9,000 rpm. Our press ride was pretty controlled, but I had a few opportunities to open the bike up, and keeping it wound out was the best way to extract some power. Would I have accepted more? Happily. Still, make no mistake, this bike has enough oomph to get in trouble.

For those of you who enjoy acting a fool (this is a topic that interests me greatly), I couldn’t power-wheelie the bike in as-delivered condition. The front end would get light, but the drag bars sort of stretch you over the tank, putting your weight in the wrong place. The bumstop seat was also to blame for not being able to reposition. Happily, the bike clutches up just fine. I’m not the world’s greatest clutch wheelier (that’s Spurgeon’s territory), but I could get the front end to come up by slingshotting the clutch off the line.

Here’s the bottom line on the powertrain: it’s phenomenally well matched to the bike’s other pieces. More power would leave me wanting better tires, more brakes, and improved suspenders… and then the bike would be in a much higher price bracket, totally defeating the point of this machine. The Street Rod is so un-Harley-like in its balance; the components are all wonderfully suited to the machine as it stands.

At first, I thought the bike had some sort of fueling issue, but then I realized I had probably half an inch of play in the throttle cable. I mentioned it to Brian, and he procured some tools from the chase truck. Curious, I walked around and fiddled with a few other Street Rod throttles, and mine just seemed to be anomalous. I wound up swapping to other bikes for photo purposes, and they all seemed much smoother.

One other complaint I had had with the Street 750 was the shifting, specifically the 1-2 shift. Dondlinger informed me no marked changes were made to the trans, but every one of these new Street Rod motorcycles I rode shifted flawlessly, leading me to believe our test Street way back when had a mechanical issue of some sort.

So, Lem, you seem excited about the Street Rod — are you getting one?

Nope. It pains me, but I can’t.

Lem on a Street Rod

I couldn’t get my hands and feet in a spot I really loved. Let’s start with the footpegs. They are in a similar spot to a mid-control, but they sit higher. Normally I can deal with my knee at an acute angle, but my leg has to also move back, as on a race-rep. These footpegs are rearset from the Street 750’s by what I would guesstimate at three inches or so; not far enough back for my liking.

Pegs

I just was not very comfy on the Street Rod. A hundred-some-odd miles was no big deal, but I doubt I’d want to put in much more distance than that. I should add at this point that long range is really not the mission of this bike, and before I started feeling cramped, I actually like the crouched, compact position the bike put me in; I felt very in control. And those high footpegs are a large part of why the lean angle on this bike is as good as it is. Up top, I had a nice wide grip on the bars, but I wanted to sit more upright. I would want some narrower bars that had more pullback. That swap would pain me, too, because the new mirrors are so damn effective. And the seat ranks very high in terms of comfort for a stock saddle. The perforated leather was icing on the cake.

Now, I try to be a fair reviewer, so I should disclose a few things. First, I've openly whined about the Sporty's propensity to grind itself away to dust when introduced to these crazy things called "corners."  The Street Rod offers way more ground clearance, so is it really OK for me to now whine about where my clodhoppers go? Second, I have a predisposition to forward controls. Of the five personally owned Harleys in my garage at the time of this writing, only one has mid controls. I am getting older, and my knees are beginning to get particular. The final admission is one that I’m actually going to reference again in the future: not every bike fits every person.

When someone asks Lance, Spurg, or I what bike to get or if a bike was “comfortable,” almost universally we tell them to go to the dealer and sit on one for a little bit. This bike was not comfortable for me as a six-foot fatty. Someone three inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter would likely love this bike. Let’s not beat around the bush: the Big Twin platform was custom made for a man built as, ahem, sturdily as I am. I am describing these ergonomics not as a knock against the bike, but more as a lamentation. I really wanted this bike to fit me like a glove, but it does not. Sadly, I will have to follow the advice I dispense at least weekly to friends and customers: Don’t buy a bike that doesn’t fit ya.

Right side Street Rod

Let’s end the same way we started — on the heel guard. From here on out, when I see that heel guard on the muffler, I’m certain I will feel a little sad, then smile. The sadness? Well, I’ll be a little jealous, in the same way I am jealous of Sportster riders: You guys get the super-fun bikes I want that are small and nimble and very affordable, but I can’t spend long enough on one comfortably to justify buying one for myself. If only God made me a little differently, right? Maybe the aftermarket will come up with something to relocate the feet pieces. Hey, a guy can dream.

That addition of a spot to rest one’s boot heel represents a leap forward for Harley-Davidson. It’s a careful and deliberate detail included because The Mothership actually stopped and listened to what people said, including Street 750 buyers as well as the people who didn’t buy them. This has got to be the most responsive bike I've seen Harley release in my motorcycling lifetime.

It’s another small reminder that though Harley hasn’t forgotten “core customers” like me, we’re no longer their exclusive focus. Bittersweet? Perhaps, but Harley has to stay competitive. With the Street Rod having improved in so many ways, my guess is that they will — and so will their riders.

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