Opinion: Harley’s adventure bike gamble

2021 Harley Davidson Pan American. Lawrence Hacking

The adventure motorcycle segment is booming, with Harley-Davidson even getting on board with its new Pan America lineup – consisting of the 1250 and 1250 Special. If you have any interest in new adventure bikes, you have probably already read volumes on this innovative new motorcycle, but many of the accounts are similar.

My experience with the motorcycle, however, is unique. Full disclosure: this summer I completed a two-month contract with Harley Davison Canada doing a dealer training tour across this fine country of ours. The experience gave me a great deal of insight into the motorcycles and the company.

One thing I discovered about Harley-Davidson, its dealers, and the historic new model, is that H-D is peerless when it comes to the strength in its brand, customer loyalty and the retail experience they can provide.

The Pan America is truly an incredible feat of engineering, and Harley has such confidence in their new bike that they actually encourage people to compare it to its fiercest competitors. H-D sent a transport truck filled with Pan Americas, KTM 1290 Adventure Rs, BMW 1250 GSs and Ducati Multistradas to almost every dealer in the country in order to educate team members on the qualities of its first foray into the adventure bike market.

Designed from the ground up, the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special usher in a new era of design and function.

Once you start closely examining the new model it is obvious that the H-D product planning, engineering and design teams did their homework on this bike. The level of sophistication the entire motorcycle is built to, in my opinion, is head and shoulders above its competition.

Rumor has it that the project began back in 2017, starting with the engine design. The heart of this new motorcycle, the Revolution Max 1,250cc powerplant is a marvel of innovation. The 60-degree liquid-cooled V-twin provides up to 150 hp depending on the mode selected.

Another significant feature is its semi-active Showa suspension that has an adaptive ride height (ARH) option. The system automatically lowers the Pan America as it comes to a stop, making it accessible to riders whose inseam previously would have prevented them from safely and comfortably getting into the big adventure bike game.

Once throttle is applied, the ARH system re-adjusts the rear shock spring preload to the correct amount based on rider weight so that the proper riding geometry is restored. This option in itself justifies the added expense but is especially useful when loaded up with a passenger and luggage. The Pan America uses sensors to adjust the rear spring preload to maintain the correct ride height to keep the chassis working exactly they way it should – loaded or not.

The ultra-precise handling on smooth paved corners is so pleasant that you go out for a ride just to experience the Pan America working underneath you.

The V-twin engine is an integral part of the chassis. The front and rear frame sections bolt directly to the engine in order to provide rigidity. It also reduces weight and increases ground clearance. The added benefit in its design is interchangeability with other models, like the Sportster S that was released last summer which made use of the same basic engine architecture.

The Special version comes with other extras over the standard model, is most easily identified by engine guards, a hydraulic steering damper, hand guards, spoked wheels with tubeless Michelin Scorcher tires and a centre stand.

Some of the less obvious differences are the small wires leading to the top of the front forks that indicate the semi active suspension and the Special’s management system that allows more choices on the mode selection button.

I was surprised at how refined the suspension settings are when you toggle between them, with each of the five preset choices providing a distinct experience that is well adapted to its use. The sport mode unleashes the full 150 hp and stiffens up the suspension, as well as adjusting traction control intervention.

There are two off-road settings, a rain mode and a road mode, which is what I used for most of my normal riding. This setting provides ample power to accelerate away from any traffic. It is smooth to roll on, therefore less aggressive and less fatiguing. The suspension is compliant enough to absorb most of the typical road bumps and potholes you’ll experience.

Additionally, the Special can accommodate three custom settings that allow the Pan America owner to decide how much intervention they would like to have. The customization options are virtually limitless and with experience it would be possible to properly dial the Pan America in to suit every individual rider’s needs or wants.

Harley Davidson is fairly guarded about how the Pan America was designed. It feels so intuitive and well thought out with so many details that are so perfectly integrated that it begs the question, how did a first attempt manage to be so good? Harley had the benefit of studying their competitors, but also being able to design a new motorcycle from the ground up.

The level of intuitiveness the Pan America has is remarkable. It seems they have thought of everything – down to the aftermarket suppliers they’ve used to supply the vast selection of accessories you can order directly from your H-D dealer. Even their purpose-built adventure clothing is well suited for its intended use.

The aesthetics of the Pan America came into question frequently, especially before the motorcycle was seen by the public in person. Many have expressed negative opinions on the styling, but personally I think it is both functional and distinctive. After all, there is no mistaking the Pan America for something else.

On the subject of design, the engine looked familiar to me. Sure enough, there was already something similar in existence, albeit in much smaller numbers. In the early 1990s, New Zealand’s John Britten designed and built his own motorcycle – of which very few exist. The Britten engine was a 999 cc, 60-degree liquid-cooled V-twin with a four valve per cylinder layout that used double overhead cams (DOHC). Aside from the displacement, these are similar design features to the Revolution Max engine. When you look carefully at the side of both engines, you can see that the transmission shafts also look to be in similar locations.

When you look closely at how the Pan America is built is becomes glaringly obvious why it works so well and is so much fun to ride. Both the placement of the engine and location of the battery contribute to its riding characteristics. Keeping weight forward and low is good for handling. Keep in mind that everything behind the steering head is a pendulum.

The magnitude of producing an entirely new motorcycle in a new segment and have it be able to battle it out with the big players is nothing short of historic. The Pan America has ushered in a new era with this fundamental change in how motorcycles are built, paving the way for the next generation of adventure bikes. It will be interesting to see how buyers and competitive manufacturers respond.


  1. I am a 60 YO lifetime rider and I am buying a true icon this year, a Honda Monkey. Slow down and smell the roses. They are months back ordered, I am really hoping I get mine this year. So we shall see what the market decides, big or small. HD versus a very crowed and established market. As a former RT owner I cannot imagine GS owners even considering a Harley. Just like HD owners would never consider an R18 HD has painted themselves into a loud, expensive, cruiser corner.

  2. In fact, it really is a great bike. For a Harley and for a first attempt it’s so well done. However, when riding it for a long time now, some things are getting really anoying. Things like the irractic cornering lights (no, I’m not trying to p. you off, they just go on and off all the time in any minor corner). The too-small battery, which needs charging every night when temperatures drop. The unpredictable fuel injection at low revs. The lame ‘trigger’ for windscreen adjustment, which only has 3 positions. The incredibly wide (44 inch!) sidecases. The crap satnav (please let me mirror my own phone’s navigation!). The cheap plastic part on top of the tank, with the even cheaper alu plate on it. But still, a great bike with an amazing engine, doing long distances really easy. Great brakes. Amazing seat. Now I just hope HD is reading all this, and working their #$$ off to make the Gen2 even better. A software update for cornering lights and injection would be first on my list…

  3. This bike seems to be a fantastic first attempt and I hope it succeeds. It has performance and features that many bikes in the same category haven’t considered even though they have been around for years but I have heard of excessive heat and that is a non starter for me, having once owned a bike that would roast me right off of it.

  4. Ahem, are you sure you’re not still on the Harley payroll? I was expecting a little more neutral analysis on how the bike has sold and been accepted (or not) by the MoCo’s loyal fans. The motorcycle appears, as you note, to be a quality offering. Motorcycle Online picked it as its “motorcycle of the year” so there’s some third party credibility to your claims. I recognize that the Pan America is a big departure from the traditional Harley product and customer, so time will tell. Still, when I glance at the meagre inventory of my local Harley dealer, there are quite a few Pan Americas in stock – not a great sign for a product that the company launched with considerable buzz. Perhaps its asking too much of fans of the tranditional adventure brands to set foot into the palaces of chrome and leather. Hopefully, the Pan America won’t be a repeat of Harley’s experience with the Street line.

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