H-D Pan America 1250 Special – first ride

Mid Wales in May and Paddy Tyson finally gets his hands on the Harley Davidson Pan America 1250 Special. After all the hype, just what have they made?

The tractor jokes stop now. Whatever you think of the appearance – and it’s not nearly as ‘marmite’ in the flesh – this is a Harley you really should ride. It comes alive on fast smooth tarmac, is happy to pootle on little lanes and seems to lose all of its weight when you hit the dirt.

It’s an incredibly bold move, for a company with such dominance in one particular motorcycle sector, to shift so dramatically into another. Let’s face it, the results could have been catastrophic. Harley-Davidson is, after all, a company renowned for its somewhat conservative model development. It could have looked in the parts bin to cobble something together in the hopes of cashing in on the still burgeoning ‘adventure’ sector. But it most definitely hasn’t.

Everything in the Pan America is new, and when talking to the design engineers in Milwaukee, it seems they really were given a completely free hand to create a new model from scratch. No ifs or buts. No heavy handedness from senior management. It’s clear that they had an awful lot of fun as people who all ride themselves, own dirt bikes and naked street machines, as well as the obligatory company cruiser.

So let’s leave the styling for a moment and focus on the engine. The V-twin is of course a Harley signature, but that’s where the links to heritage end. This completely new 1250 Revolution Max is liquid-cooled with all-magnesium cases and alloy cylinders for a start. There are four valves per cylinder and the twin-overhead camshaft design utilises hydraulic constantly-variable valve timing to generate great flexibility in use. There’s no discernible snatchiness at low revs when you want it to pull in any gear, and yet when you climb above 6,000rpm it just gets stronger and stronger, willing you to explore the 150hp available.
The rear cylinder is perfectly aligned with the centre of the machine to ensure leg room especially when standing. The front pot is slightly off-set to the right to maintain compact overall dimensions.

There’s a dry sump system, utilising three scavenger pumps, which continues this compact theme. The scavengers are designed to ensure that long fast corners at high revs don’t compromise oil flow.
The crankshaft and cams have balancers on them to limit vibration, but these are tuned to permit ‘just enough’ to keep you in touch with this beating heart. The result certainly makes you smile. Interestingly the very low-down torque isn’t as dramatic as I was expecting, but the constantly building rush towards the top end of the revs, and towards the horizon, is more so.

I found the fuelling to be completely glitch-free throughout and loved the way it would trickle through villages on a practically closed throttle. Designed to work with only 91RON octane fuel it can run on much lower, which is a blessing if you are going to leave the Western world.

The six-speed gearbox, 8-plate slipper clutch and ultra-light actuation mechanism work well together. The gears are very well spread and easy to engage. Perhaps they’ve retained just a little Harley heritage here, as the shifting isn’t as smooth as say Suzuki’s V-Strom, but the engagement is definite and neutral is always easy to find. In a break for Harley they’ve chosen to use a chain final drive.

As with everything nowadays, there are Ride Modes you can switch between, which alter throttle response, power delivery, suspension and traction control settings. On the Pan America 1250 Special there are a whopping nine modes: sport, road, rain, off-road, off-road plus, Custom Off-road, (and plus), Custom A and Custom B. Mind-boggling perhaps, but the difference in the main pre-set modes is instantly noticeable.

By design the engine was meant to be the ‘heart of the machine’, and in reality it’s both the heart and the spine. As a stressed member, the remainder of the chassis is bolted to it; headstock carrying the forks at one end, and rear subframe carrying everything else at the other. The generous 21.2l light alloy fuel tank just straddles the gap.

In appearance the wheelbase seems long, and the distance between the tyre and the rear shock certainly accentuates this. In reality the wheelbase is 1580mm, just 20mm longer than the KTM 1290 Adventure (1560mm), and the result is great stability when you pick up the pace.

Brakes are provided by Brembo; radial upfront, very smooth and responsive, it’s no wonder so many manufacturers use them. The ABS can only be switched off in the ‘Off-Road Plus’ modes, it’s no longer legal to have a straight on/off switch should you wish it. I can attest though, that on the dirt the general off-road mode setting is pretty good and permits some skid. On the road the system is confidence-inspiring and unobtrusive. It only annoys if you are trying to be a dick, because in association with the slipper clutch and Cornering Enhanced Drag-Torque Slip Control (C-DSCS – yes really!) it’s impossible to drag the rear wheel…

Having said that, the Michelin Scorcher tyres are just superb too, and much, much better on the dirt than I had envisaged. You may be coveting the spoked wheels on which they are mounted, enabling in-situ spoke replacement, but alas they are a £600 option, as cast alloy wheels are standard on both models of Pan America.

Before I mention the suspension it’s important to note that there are two Pan America models; the 1250 and the ‘Special’, and chassis mods are where they differ the most. I was using a ‘Special’ during the launch event in Wales so can’t comment on the standard 1250 other than to say it uses mechanical Showa equipment. Forks are 47mm upside-down items with 190mm of travel and adjustment for preload and damping, and the rear shock offers the same travel and is also adjustable (hydraulically) for preload and for compression and rebound damping.

The Pan America 1250 Special however, uses an electronically adjustable system which reacts to suspension position, road speed, vertical acceleration, roll angle, roll rate, rider’s throttle action and applied brake torque. All that is carried out alongside the selected Ride Mode, where overall changes are applied in association with engine power mapping and throttle response. Phew…

Starting at the pointy end of the Special, there are 47mm inverted Showa ‘Balance Free Forks’ with semi-active damping, and all the electronic control mentioned above is done by a system developed inhouse by Harley during the one million miles of testing this Pan America has had – half of that on the dirt. They even put this front end on Ewan and Charley’s Livewires for the trip up the Americas. The rear suspension uses an electronically controlled semi-active Showa monoshock and it has a particularly cool trick: Sensing when the bike has come to a halt, it automatically lowers itself to ensure you get your feet on the floor.
This lowering can be anywhere from 25.4mm to 50.8mm depending on what you’ve programmed and is built-in to one of the 5 pre-set suspension profiles which are themselves linked to the riding modes you can choose; off-road, rain, sport etc.

This idea of enabling sag at standstill is a great system because the geometry of the bike is not compromised in use by fitting lowering kits and suchlike. Instead, as you move off it gently pumps itself back up. Who says Harley don’t innovate? They call it their Adaptive Ride Height system. Seat height is also adjustable by simply repositioning the seat squab, up or down an inch.

Which leads perfectly to general ergonomics and how it all comes together for the rider. The ‘bars are tall and wide when you’re seated and fall comfortably to hand offering good slow-speed manoeuvrability. If you plan to ride a lot off-road you may want the optional ‘bar risers to make standing a little more comfortable, but other than that they enable a relaxed stance. I’m 5’ 11”.

The seat itself is wide and flat, provides good comfort (though I haven’t yet sat for more than 3 hours at a stretch) and room to move, but doesn’t get in the way at all when standing on the pegs. The only thing that is noticeable is the way that your right calf pushes against the exhaust heat shield when you are standing.
The footpegs are in a classic ‘adventure bike’ position, ensuring no cramping of the legs and enabling a seamless transition to standing. Rubber comfort inserts can pop out for dirt riding so that the serrated edges of the pegs grip your boot sole. Again, if you are to spend a lot of time standing up you’ll want to get bigger, wider pegs, but for occasional tracks they are fine. The best bit is that the rear brake lever pad can be twisted on a cam such that it can be made higher or lower in an instant to provide better control when standing.

The side stand isn’t easy to spot from the saddle and seems a bit too far forward, though in use the bike remains stable. The wide centre stand keeps everything firmly planted.

Other rider equipment includes all the gadgetry you’d expect with a TFT screen; turn by turn navigation, phone pairing, choice of clean or cluttered readout etc. If it’s important to you you’ll doubtless love it, but the switchgear on both sides of the handlebars is confusingly bulky as a consequence and what I really need is an easy-to-use indicator switch, something that is lacking. I thought it might have been me, but I watched as a couple of other journos repeatedly flashed their indicators left and right as they tried to cancel.

The indicators at the front are mounted inboard of the standard-fit crashbars and look like auxiliary riding lights. It’s a nice touch and adds to the overall look at the front. The appearance of the Pan America is aggressive, and although you might think ‘robot’ or ‘Hoover’, the design team were working to embrace the look of the Ford Bronco and other 4x4s that mean a lot to Americans. They also wanted the bodywork around the headlight to still emulate some of the other classic Harleys such as the Road Glide. I’m not sure if they’ve done that, but they’ve certainly created a talking point.

By avoiding the obligatory and fairly pointless ‘beak’ every other manufacturer feels obliged to bolt on, the Pan America has a look all its own, and from the side the look just keeps growing on me. From the front I fear I’ll need more time, but in the ‘Deadwood Green’, the black and the grey, that headlight binnacle doesn’t shout quite so loudly.

Harley say the headlight shape creates a beam pattern well suited to riding on trails, and the piggyback smaller ‘Daymaker’ headlight is an option that shines round corners, sensing both lean and turn to add or subtract extra illumination. (It’s an option, just like the alloy panniers from SW Motech or the soft or hard plastic panniers from Shad. Interesting that they’ve chosen European luggage.)

I never thought that I’d want to keep riding, or writing about this bike, or that I’d be so impressed with how manoeuvrable it is, especially when standing. I never thought I’d be as delighted by the way it can attack fast sweeping tarmac or how confident it would make me feel, and I am really quite blown away by how competent the new Michelin Scorcher tyres are, whether off-road or on.

This Harley does not say ‘Potato-Potato’. It does not lumber along, is not scared of corners and does not take a couple of miles to stop. Yes, it is weird looking in the pictures, but it’s not nearly as divisive up close. And anyway, when you are on it, you can’t see that front end.
I think everyone should swallow their prejudices and reassess Harley Davidson as a brand.

For more information see H-D UK
Harley Davidson Pan America 1250 Special specifications:

Engine capacity: 1252cc
Configuration: 8-valve, twin cam, 60-degree v-twin
Max power: 150bhp @9,000rpm
Max torque: 128Nm @6,750rpm
Transmission: 6-speed
Final drive: Chain
Service interval: 8,000kms
Fuel capacity: 21.2 litres
Kerb weight: 254kg
Seat height: 830-850mm but can be further altered by ARH
Ground clearance: 210mm
Front suspension: 191mm travel Showa electronically active upside-down 47mm forks
Rear suspension: 191mm travel, Showa adj mono-shock with ARH
Front tyre: 120/70 x 19” Michelin Scorcher
Rear tyre: 170/60 x 17” Michelin Scorcher
Front brakes: Twin 320mm discs (Brembo radial calipers)
Rear brakes: 280mm Disc (single-piston caliper)
Instrumentation: 6.8 inch viewable area TFT display with speedometer, gear, odometer, fuel level, clock, trip, ambient temp, low temp alert, side stand down alert, TIP over alert, cruise, range and tachometer indication BT capable – phone pairing to access phone calls, music, navigation (H-D App ONLY)
Price: £15,500

Colours available: Vivid Black, Gauntlet Grey, Deadwood Green, Baja Orange and white