Harley-Davidson XR750 – a winning legend ridden

Oxford (16 July 2012) - Goodwood Festival of Speed (FOS) is an annual four-day event that celebrates all things motorcycling and automotive. Held in the grounds of Goodwood House, itself set in 12,000 acres of rolling Sussex estate countryside, the Festival first began in 1993 and was the brain child of Lord March – a self-confessed petrol head.

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The festival is host to numerous motorcycle and car manufacturers, of which Harley-Davidson is by the far the biggest bike manufacturer to support and attend. This is mainly due to the event’s family environment, but also because Harley-Davidson’s heritage truly reflects motorcycling in every form from the first to the present day; from road bikes to racing.

The FOS also embraces motorsport in a huge way. From an off-road driving course to stunning static displays, anything that connects engines and wheels to racing can be found here. But there’s one arena that attracts spectators by the thousands: the Goodwood Festival of Speed hill-climb.

The ‘run up the hill’ is the principal event where motorcycles and cars go against the stopwatch over a 1.16-mile ribbon of road that rises 300 feet from the start to the finish line. All entrants are by special invitation from Lord March and the types of the competing machines are based on a yearly theme. The theme for motorcycles at this year’s festival – held only a few weeks ago between 28 June and 1 July – was racing motorcycles.

Harley-Davidson has a rich history in motorsport and this was represented by three machines at the festival. Two classic bikes in the shape of the famous XR750 American Oval dirt track racing machine and the road racing XRTT750. The third bike at the festival was an XR1200 – a race-prepped XR1200 Sportster-based machine that Harley-Davidson has turned into a very successful one-make race bike.

Both the classic XRs are rare beasts indeed and for both to be running at the festival was a coup for Harley-Davidson UK. No wonder the UK’s motorcycling press were keen to get a ride on one of them. However, of the lucky few was motorcycle journalist Trevor Franklin, who has tested just about every category of new and racing motorcycle over the past 25 years, from Grand Prix 500 two-strokes to the latest Sportster Seventy-Two™ and Softail® Slim™ motorcycles.

This month, Trevor writes about what it is like to get to grips with the XR750, a bike claimed to be the most successful race bike of all time…

“The XR750 is a legend. Since it first appeared in 1970, it has dominated the mile-long oval dirt track scene in the hands of men such as Jay Springsteen, Scott Parker and Randy Goss. This particular model is from the late 1990s circa 97/98, but even so it is a prized and revered machine.

What you get with an XR750 is a medium height bike with a seat dedicated to short races. Its thin yet firm bottom support lends itself to being a good provider of feel for what the bike is doing underneath you, which is what you need when the bike’s banked over, front wheel out of line and the rear wheel spinning up. Except that isn’t going to happen on the sacred tarmac of Goodwood. Hopefully…

“The twin-cylinder Sportster-based 750cc engine revs to 9200rpm and, even though the rev range is much higher than a normal Harley® road bike with push rod valve actuation, peak revs are hit very quickly. Despite this, the torque and power delivery is still fairly linear. Add barely silenced pipes to the race-prepped lump and the sound is unique but distinctively air-cooled Harley – right down to the metallic ratting from the two iron cylinders and aluminium heads.

“The first few yards on the bike are a culture shock. With ground clearance in mind for the anti-clockwise dirt tracks, the left peg is set further back than the right and it takes some getting used to. There is also the right-hand gear change lever, which operates a racing shift pattern of one up and three down – yes that’s right, a four-speed-only gearbox. Keeping my foot perfectly in place on the peg allows me to work the gear lever and use the back brake lever. This is something not easily done because a booted right foot has to be lifted high off the footpeg to hoof the top three gears into place.

“But the real worry for me when riding a classic motorcycle valued at £50,000 for insurance purposes is the absence of a front brake! The worry heightens when going to swing a leg over the single seat; the norm is to squeeze the front brake lever to keep the bike still but this wants to move forwards or backwards by simply grabbing the bars.

“With both fuel taps that feed the two Mikuni carbs turned to on, the supporting Warrs H-D technicians fire up the XR750 by way of an external starter motor that fits to the end of the crankshaft. The noise from the twin pipes and the two sticking-out air filters at start-up is deafening but intoxicating.

“Even though the frame tubes carry the engine oil, it does little to damp out low rpm vibration. There’s a mechanical harshness felt through the bike with every blip of the throttle tube. It works its way through to the seat and then to the brain. That exhaust note instils yet more fear in the same way the shaking of a rattlesnake’s tail would. It’s a reminder this is a fettled, lightweight engine designed to give its all in a racing environment.

“Old it may be, but it ticks over like fresh young thing. As I sit waiting for the start line marshal to wave me off, I eye up Goodwood’s first hairpin bend that looks closer than ever. With a wave, the strong clutch goes home and the XR750 surprises with instant and solid drive. Yards later, no thanks to short gearing, second gear goes home and, surprisingly my foot goes back to its footrest perch almost instinctively. Not bad for just a few yards of intimacy.

“Third gear is also rushed and is missed at the first attempt to toe it downwards into place. There’s a big space of nothing between the gears and it needs a deliberate, slower foot action to get cogs to mesh into place. The resulting crescendo of revs is met with smiles from the watching crowds lining the course. I must be more positive with the next gear swap if I want to maintain a good speed.

“That hairpin bend is dealt with barely a flinch of muscle. The XR’s steering is light to make the bike very agile. This is helped by the wide, easy to grasp bars and underlined by the way the bike sways with fumbled gearshift and foot back on peg movement. Ceriani forks of the earlier models made way for a pair of Showa forks on this model and although lightly damped do not cause any problems. This might be a different story if a front brake was there to be used. The single rear Penske shock is good enough to give feel and supple suspension movement over the few bumps.

“I needn’t have worried about not having a front brake because the steel rear disc brake system is strong. When partnered with heavy engine braking, enough speed can be scrubbed off to make any turn… with advance warning and brake action.

“A claimed 82bhp and very short gearing has us both whizzing down the main spectator front in top gear in a few short seconds. It’d go a lot faster and less noisy with taller gearing. Instead the upper rev range tone from the exhaust brings out even more appreciative smiles as I keep searching for a non-existent fifth gear.

“Not many seconds later, we both arrive at the top of the hill where I park the XR750 ready for the slower return ride back to pits. Parking is actually old school and I rest it against a wooden post. There’s an unforgettable smell emanating from the bike and it’s the smell of squashed and burnt high octane racing fuel from the twin mufflers. It’s a fantastic smell but guaranteed to melt nasal passageways if I get any closer to the muffler.

“The ride back down the hill is controlled and slower than the way up and a perfect opportunity to take stock of what is a rare and delicious beast. If there is ever another opportunity to ride the XR750 again, would I take it? Of course I would. And that is exactly what I do for the afternoon’s run up the hill. After all, it isn’t every day you see a rare XR750 let alone ride one – and I wasn’t disappointed.”

Read next month’s e-zine to see what it is like to get to grips with another Harley-Davidson classic – the legendary 1972 XRTT750.