2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special First Ride

Photo Credit: James Paznar

In the immortal words of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” The legendary British comedy troupe made a career out of entertaining and surprising audiences. Their penchant for non sequiturs knew no bounds. Over the years, Harley-Davidson too has come out of left field with a few of their own unexpected turns. Not counting the AMF days when the company had its name on everything from golf carts to snowmobiles, Harley, known primarily for building big cruisers and touring bikes, has branched out into several peripheral motorcycle markets in an attempt to attract younger buyers, including the all-electric LiveWire. Their latest endeavour sees them taking on the adventure segment with the Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special.

Seeking a motorcycle for the end of the world? The Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special has you covered. Photo: James Paznar

An adventure motorcycle from Harley-Davidson? Well, why not – BMW built the R18 cruiser. Heck, the newest Mustang is an all-electric SUV. After creating the LiveWire, the rulebook has pretty much been thrown out the window.

Unlike the Street 500 and 750 that were universally panned by media upon their introduction for quite obviously cutting corners to reduce costs, the Pan America is the real deal. Despite being the inaugural entry into a completely foreign segment, it is obvious that The Motor Company did not rush it to production. Starting by interviewing existing ADV customers and field-testing competitive models in the segment, Harley aimed to build a rugged yet versatile adventure bike for the North American consumer. It’s no surprise that Harley had BMW in their crosshairs, using the GS as a basis to compare weight and functionality.

Road Glide, or vintage Hoover vacuum – which do you see?

Starting at $20,999, the Pan America 1250 is offered in Vivid Black and River Rock Gray (for an added $450). The standard model gets cast aluminum wheels, while premium laced wheels are a $585 option. The first of its kind for Harley, they were designed to take a tubeless tire and be easily repairable if damaged in a remote area.

In addition to adaptive lighting and semi-active suspension, the 1250 Special gets a more robust infotainment screen and larger colour palette for its higher MSRP of $24,199. Options consist of Vivid Black, Gauntlet Gray Metallic, Deadwood Green and finally Baja Orange/Stone Washed White Pearl.

I cannot think of a motorcycle in recent memory that’s appearance has been as polarizing as the Pan America’s. Those in defense of its looks state that adventure bikes are more about function than aesthetics and question if there has ever been a truly handsome example. Fair point. Visual cues can certainly be drawn from the Road Glide’s shark nose fairing and the new signature LED lighting from the Softail lineup, but also a vintage Hoover vacuum cleaner. Logos and graphics are understated, with merely a bar and shield gracing the tank and a simple name tag on the 1,250cc Revolution Max engine.

The 1250cc Revolution Max engine makes 150 hp and 92 lb-ft of torque.

New from the ground up, the liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin engine is quite literally the centrepiece of the motorcycle, as it was designed to be a structural component of the chassis. Dual overhead cams (DOHC) feature variable valve timing (VVT) independent to each cylinder that can be adjusted up to 40-degrees of rotation for a broad powerband. It’s a beautiful looking and performing engine, but truthfully the sound emitting through the simply massive stock pipe leaves something to be desired. Internal balancers reduce engine vibration, so there’s no traditional potato-potato Harley sound or feel to be found here. In fact, clicking the ignition switch into place and pushing the start button brings about a sound more reminiscent of tractors I’ve driven rather than motorcycles I’ve ridden. It was designed to meet emission standards, of course, as well as providing a high ground clearance to prevent damage.

The Pan America 1250 Special doesn’t sound like any Harley you’ve ever ridden.

Harley-Davidson doesn’t typically provide horsepower numbers, but they’re comfortable sharing that the Pan Am’s 1250cc engine makes 150 hp and 92 lb-ft of torque. With a 13:1 compression ratio and a 8,750 rpm redline, this engine has no trouble singing for its supper. It has been designed for optimal grunt down low though, too. It’s a high-tech engine that requires 91 octane gasoline. If you’d like to learn more about the technical details, Zac wrote an in-depth overview several months ago.

The weight of the engine was reduced through single casting and the use of lightweight materials like magnesium and coating surfaces with nickel silicon carbide. The Pan Am is 245 kg (539 lb), while the Special is a claimed 254 kg (559 lb) due to the addition of the spoked wheels and adaptive suspension. Full of fluids, the Special I was riding tipped the scales at kg 260 (574 lb), which is the second lightest Harley I’ve ever ridden behind the Street 750, but the Pan Am handles it much better. Another departure from the Harley norm is that the Pan Am utilizes a final chain drive rather than a belt, rationalizing that it would be easier to repair in the field.

Both the 1250 and 1250 Special get a 19-inch front wheel and a 17-incher in the rear, outfitted with co-branded Harley-Davidson and Michelin Scorcher Adventure tires.

Both the 1250 and 1250 Special models get a 19-inch front wheel and a 17-incher in the rear, outfitted with co-branded Harley-Davidson and Michelin Scorcher Adventure tires that were designed specifically for the Pan Am to have ideal traction on a variety of surfaces. A set of Michelin Anakee Wild “knobby” tires (120/70R19 Front; 170/60R17 Rear) can be installed on either the cast aluminum or the laced wheels for those looking at a more aggressive off-road option.

The Pan Am’s Showa suspension offers 190 mm (7.48-in) clearance both front and back, with a Seat height of 850 mm that may be troublesome for those of shorter inseam. The Pan America 1250 features a passive front and rear suspension system that is fully adjustable for pre-load, damping and rebound, but one of the benefits of moving up to the Special is its electronically adjustable semi-active front and rear suspension that includes Adaptive Ride Height (ARH). For reference, I’m six-feet tall and even I had trouble touching the ground at a stop when riding the KTM Super Adventure 1290 R that has an 880 mm seat height, but the Harley’s didn’t give me any trouble at all. Based on conditions, riding activity or riding mode selection, sensors will adjust damping and automatically drop to the lowest setting when stopped.

Semi-active suspension includes Adaptive Ride Height (ARH) that can drop to its lowest setting when stopped.

The semi-active suspension settings will vary based on the pre-programmable riding modes, including: Comfort, Balanced, Sport, Off-Road Soft and Off-Road Firm. There are also four selectable ARH sub-modes that allow for greater personalization based on preference. It’s on the firm side, but was adept at soaking up the small to moderate bumps thrown its way.

Both the 1250 and 1250 Special feature LED signature lighting, with turn signals located inside the brush guards to protect them from obstacles encountered off-road. The 1250 Special gets additional adaptive lighting that uses sensors to measure lean angle and provide additional illumination into the corners.

When the road got rough, that’s when the Pan America Special’s prowess really started to show through. In my mind, I was imagining what it would feel like to take any of the many heavy Harleys I’ve ridden over the years off-road, but this is a very different motorcycle. The riding position is neutral with the legs tucked up and the arms at a comfortable position. The mechanically actuated clutch’s action is light but precise, making it easy to feather when navigating dirt, sand or rocky terrain. A slipper function prevents the rear wheel from slipping or hopping if the rider downshifts with too much gusto.

The mechanically actuated clutch’s action is light but precise, making it easy to feather when navigating dirt, sand or rocky terrain.

The Pan Am’s seat offers a decent amount of comfort in a variety of seating positions. The shape of the 21.2L (5.6 gal) fuel tank makes it very easy to maneuver around when seated or standing. Braking is handled by a radially mounted, monoblock with a four-piston caliper up front and a single piston caliper in the rear. There is a decent amount of grip but the initial bite eases on gently rather than abruptly, making it easy to feather when riding on loose dirt and gravel. The rear brake pedal position was ideal for operating while standing up to help modulate the rear end. The tank is comprised of aluminum, covered with a plastic mold for cosmetics and comfort. Having the bikes for a little over 24 hours made it difficult to establish fuel economy or range, so we’re hoping to have more time with it later this summer.

Braking action and placement are simple but telling cues Harley did its homework.

The 41 cm (16-in) windscreen offers ample wind protection and is manually adjustable with the left hand so can be done while on the move. Both higher and lower options are available as options. There is a long list of HD accessories ranging from brush guards and skid plates to seating, handlebar and luggage options. There is of course also a wide selection of Harley-Davidson branded adventure gear to choose from.

The adjustable 6.8-inch TFT touchscreen display that provides a wide variety of instrumentation and functions.

Both the Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special feature an adjustable 6.8-inch TFT touchscreen display that provides a wide variety of instrumentation and functions. The home screen features a speedometer, tachometer, odometer and clock, along with riding mode, fuel level, high beam, turn signal, temperature, battery, check engine and suspension setting indicators. Incoming phone calls, a low fuel warning and a Kickstand Down prompts will pop up on the screen to alert the rider. The system is Bluetooth capable and compatible with both Apple Car Play and Android Auto which supply the GPS navigation through a Harley-Davidson app. This is the first Harley-Davidson to feature a moving map navigation display.

Colour options consist of Vivid Black (shown), Gauntlet Gray Metallic, Deadwood Green and finally Baja Orange/Stone Washed White Pearl.

There is some stiff competition in the large displacement adventure bike segment already, with the likes of Triumph, BMW and KTM having solid entries. The folks at Harley knew they couldn’t infiltrate this arena without guns blazing, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the many thoughtful features that show they did their homework. If I was to purchase one, I would switch the exhaust and add a set of handlebar risers so it would be more comfortable for my proportions, but that’s a personal preference. My only real gripe would be that the single turn signal switch (unlike most Harleys, there isn’t one on each side) felt flimsy and finnicky to operate with heavy gloves on. The fact that this is my biggest complaint thus far should be telling. The ergonomics are good and quality is high.

Final thoughts

Harley unfortunately has a history of bringing new models to fruition and then letting them flounder. There is of course Buell, the V-Rod family, and the Street lineup, just to name a few. In each case, boat loads of money were spent on research, design, and production, only to be abandoned before the products could gain any traction in the marketplace. You’ve got to give them credit for trying new things, but here’s hoping they hold out this time and continue to develop this chassis because the Pan America is worthy of keeping around. It isn’t just a respectable first effort, it’s a solid contender at a competitive price point. Some may think that Harley making an adventure bike is silly, but after experiencing the Pan America 1250 Special in person, their competitors shouldn’t be laughing.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I see “vintage Hoover vacuum” front end with a muffler that makes a Can-am TNT 250’s look tiny. The thing looks like a barge even before the bags go on. Ah but such is the adventure scene. We live in a time of plastic chromed SUV’s, and Gold Wing sized off(?) road adventure bikes. Sigh, the humanity of it all….. burp….I want more please.

  2. Chain drive? No thanks. Why not offer belt drive as an option for the 8o% of riders who will never go offroad on this thing.
    And “First Ride”? This article is the same marketing blurb we’ve been reading for months.

  3. Harley has an awesome network of dealers but unfortunately an adventure rider walking in is like the kid getting a Leafs jersey in The Hockey Sweater.

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