Will the Pan America Adventure Motorcycle Save Harley-Davidson?

  • Harley-Davidson enters the adventure bike segment for the first time with the all-new Pan America.
  • The 150-hp, 1250cc V-twin is also all-new, with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing.
  • The bike comes with a sophisticated suspension, too.

    There’s no question the all-new Harley-Davidson Pan America adventure bike is well-designed, well-engineered, innovative, and maybe even cool. It has an innovative semi-active suspension, it lowers the seat for you at stop lights so both feet of shorter riders can reach the ground, thus opening up the potential market considerably. It can hold the bike in place when stopped on hills so you can more easily accelerate away after an uphill stop. It has unique-for-the-class “beakless” styling on the nose. It’s powered by a new 150-hp V-twin that would go well in almost anything Harley chooses to put it in. It has hydraulic lifters so you never need to adjust the valves. And it starts at $17,319, or $19,999 for the Special with all the above-mentioned features.

    After a long day’s ride in desert dirt and over asphalt highway it felt (mostly) as good as the leaders in the class and better and more innovative in some ways. But don’t take my word for it, you can go to your Harley dealer right now and ride one yourself, since the official market launch is listed simply as “May.”

    The 1250cc 60-degree V-twin makes 150 hp thanks to DOHC and VVT.

    Buddy Wilinski

    More on all that in a minute. First, the larger question: Is the all-new Pan America (and all-new Livewire electric bike) enough to save the nation’s second-oldest motorcycle maker? Answer: Who the hell knows, but it’ll certainly help.

    Harley-Davidson has had so many ups and downs over the last 118 years you gotta think it’ll pull through this, too. The Motor Company has made motorcycles continuously (though not always profitably) through two World Wars, one Great Depression, and countless recessions and labor problems. In recent years things have been particularly tough, with sales steadily declining each year, tumbling 46 percent from what they were at their most-recent peak. Worldwide sales were 270,000 in 2014 but slid to just 180,000 last year. In the pandemic year of 2020 Harley was slapped with ginourmous tariffs for its European sales (just like the protective tariffs Harley asked for and got from the US government in 1983), laid off 700 employees worldwide, let go of its CEO, brought in a new guy from tennis shoe maker Puma, and announced yet another five-year plan to profitability.

    Also—and this could be costly—a year ago in a big, big gamble, Harley introduced an all-new electric motorcycle called the Livewire. It was generally well-received by those who have ridden it, including our own John Stein who wrote about it in 2019, but it costs around $30,000. That’s almost 50 percent more than its closest electric competitor, the Zero SR/F. The Livewire is an impressive bike. It accelerates like the well-known bat out of Hades, hitting 60 mph in just 3.0 seconds. It has an EPA-listed range of 146 miles city but will travel less than half that far when ridden on the open highway. Our man Stein said he got 92 miles range on one ride, for instance. The Livewire also gets its own division within Harley-Davidson solely dedicated to developing them, which can’t be cheap. Harley doesn’t release Livewire sales figures but published figures based on a recent recall and extrapolated from there suggest around 3,000 Livewires were sold in 2020, which would have been more than the estimated sales of the Zero. That would suggest Harley has met its stated goal to lead the electric motorcycle market, at least so far.

    There are other stated goals, all handily compiled in the company’s new Rewire five-year plan, announced in February of this year.

    The first pillar of that plan is “profit focus,” which includes concentrating development dollars on the bikes that are making money now. “Harley-Davidson will invest significant time and resources on strengthening and growing its leadership positions in its strongest, most profitable motorcycle segments: Touring, Large Cruiser and Trike.” So the traditional cash cows, the bikes bought by aging yuppie baby boomers that formed the bread and butter of the company’s income throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, will not be ignored. That makes sense. Don’t kill the cash cow that lays the golden eggs.

    H-D also plans to expand beyond motorcycles by growing its parts and accessories business, financial services, and even riding gear and general merchandise (T-shirts and beer cozies!).

    There will also be a new Harley-Davidson Certified pre-owned motorcycle program, which also sounds entirely reasonable.

    And finally, look for “Selective Expansion and Redefinition.” That means not only expansion into the adventure bike segment with this all-new Pan America, but the creation of a middleweight cruiser, too. Not much is known about the middleweight cruiser except that it will likely cost less and therefore, conceivably, attract those coveted younger buyers that will keep the doors open in Milwaukee for another generation.

    The Pan America performs as well as any adventure bike out there.


    Those are all fine goals and it sounds like a solid-enough plan, but it’s a little like me saying, “I plan to win four Pulitzers by 2022, five more in 2023, then the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2026.” Saying you’re going to do something and then actually doing it are two different things, and before Hardwire there was a plan called Rewire, and there was probably another plan before that. Harley’s official Hardwire press release and the details on its media page are laced with vague statements about profitability that almost come across as marketing mumbo jumbo. I asked to speak to new president and CEO Jochen Zeitz to ask what his thinking was behind this particular plan, but I was instead offered an interview with a PR representative. He was a great PR guy, and I like PR guys, so I’m not complaining, and indeed, the PR guy was enthusiastic about Harley-Davidson’s future, too, so maybe Harley really will bounce back (its first quarter 2021 financial report was positive on all fronts) but I don’t know how long it’ll be before electric motorcycles catch on in a big way.

    What I would do, maybe selfishly, is finish development on a Harley model called the Bronx, a middleweight street fighter that had a 975-cc version of the Pan America’s 1250-cc 60-degree V-twin. The Bronx was revealed when both bikes debuted at the EICMA show in Milan two years ago. But the Bronx was quietly put away shortly after EICMA and is not spoken of now. When I asked, just as when you ask the same question of a car company, I was tersely told, “We do not discuss future product.” The Bronx looked so cool on the stand at EICMA that it would make my list of “bikes I would actually buy.”

    While the Bronx does not officially exist, and while sales of Livewires may or may not be struggling, reception for the Pan America adventure bike has been enthusiastic on all fronts.

    “The Pan America is the most pre-ordered and sought-after bike we’ve seen in 20 years,” said Matt Laidlaw, owner of Laidlaw’s Harley-Davidson in Baldwin Park, California.

    “There is a lot of interest in the Pan America, for sure,” said Bill Bartels, owner of Bartels’ Harley-Davidson in Marina del Rey, Calif. “If we could get them, we could probably sell 10 immediately.”

    The Pan America will be available at all Harley dealers, unlike the Livewire which is only at select dealers.


    Press reviews of the Pan America were likewise enthusiastic. And with good reason.

    Let’s start with that engine. Harley says it is “all-new from the screws up.” Called the Revolution Max 1250, it powers both the Pan America and the Pan America Special. It’s a stressed member of the chassis, helping to reduce the overall weight of the bike to what Harley says is 25 percent less than a BMW GS, the leading competitor in the class. The liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin (even the engine oil is liquid-cooled) features two crankshaft connecting rod journals offset by 30 degrees to give the engine a 90-degree firing order, which Harley says “produces a smooth power delivery, especially at higher rpm.” The firing order also produces “a pleasing exhaust beat” that doesn’t sound anything like the traditional potato-potato-potato.

    The cylinder heads each have two intake and two exhaust valves controlled by double overhead camshafts that themselves feature variable-valve timing on both intake and exhaust. The engine features highly efficient roller-finger valve actuation with maintenance-free hydraulic lash adjusters. There are even two spark plugs in each cylinder. Two balancers in the engine leave just enough vibration to make the V-twin “feel alive.”

    All of the above combine for 150 hp and 94 lb-ft of torque with a redline of 9500 rpm.

    The Pan America can accommodate almost all riders.


    The suspension is less fancy on the $17,319 base model Pan America, with passive Showa shocks and dual-sided rear aluminum swing arms that save even more weight. Step up to the $19,995 Pan America Special and you get all kinds of electronic and mechanical goodies. That starts with electronically adjustable semi-active front and rear suspension. Set it to one of five pre-programmed Ride Modes—comfort, balanced, sport, off-road soft, and off-road firm—and the magnetorheological shocks carry you over dirt or street with appropriate ease.

    On top of that is a truly neat adaptive ride-height function that lowers the bike one to two inches when it’s stopped (depending on the automatically selected rear pre-load) to make it easier for riders of a certain height to put both feet on the ground at stop lights—and to get on the bike in the first place. Depending on which of three submodes you set it on, it can either: raise and lower automatically so you don’t have to think about it at all; operate at a short or long delay; or keep it at a certain ride height all the time if set in locked mode.

    Hill hold control can hold the bike in place when you’ve stopped on an uphill section to make it easier for you to take off again. Just hold the brake a little longer at the stop to activate the system. There’s more but we have to get to the ride review.

    Out in the wilds, hangin’ with your friends!


    Harley took selected press and dealers out to the Mojave desert so everyone could see all these features on this all-new bike and try them all out in the real world. We rendezvoused at a desert compound called Rawhyde Adventures, a place that has been training motorcycle riders for years in the fine art of not flopping over in the dirt. If and when you get one of these motorcycles, unless you’re Malcolm Smith or Roger De Coster, it’s worth every nickel to take a three-day course in how to ride it. Even if you have extensive experience on dirt bikes, take a course. Adventure bikes in general are much heavier—around 550 pounds or so—and harder to handle than a light, tossable dirt bike. For instance, in our group of journos there was a wide range of experience, from riders who had never been in the dirt to one guy who had raced in the annual Barstow-to-Vegas cactus stomp. Right out of the chute, and I mean almost as soon as we exited the compound on our first ride of the day, about half the people in our group fell off their bikes on a plain old, flat, dirt road. (I stayed upright, btw). Just a little bit of loose sand that had blown onto the tracks the night before is what set everybody akilter. You don’t want to be akilter.

    Our first many hours were spent in very slow-speed maneuvers practicing the art of turning and braking in sand, gravel, and plain flat dirt while standing on the pegs. All the Pan Americas had been custom-fitted to each rider, with the assumption being that they’d be standing on the pegs all day. Thus most of the bikes had two-inch risers on the handlebars, which were perfect for peg-standing. The seat heights can likewise be adjusted to suit almost any rider. In the various groups were one rider who was 5’7” and another who was 6’6”. Both said they felt perfectly comfortable, and the 5’7” rider was easily able to get both her feet on the ground. My own seat height was a little too low, something I didn’t really notice until I sat on a regular-ride-height Harley. Be sure and take time at the dealership to get yours set up right.

    Rawhyde rider coach Rob Day Sr. and yours truly out in the mighty Mojave.

    Mark Vaughn

    At first, the seating position on my test bike felt a little like an Iron 883, with narrow handlebars raised higher up. That might have been because I didn’t ask for a higher seat height, which was my own fault. If you’re standing up all day, your seat height doesn’t matter (when I got home I immediately got back on a BMW R 1250 GS Adventure that BMW had loaned me and I felt much more comfortable on that. But again, I could have adjusted the seat height on the Pan America and probably been just fine).

    Out in the desert dirt, the first thing you notice is the low-end torque available from the mighty 1250 twin. Just because the engine tops out at 150 hp doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice any of the torque you’ll need when crawling around at low speeds creeping up and down hills. The wide range of this engine was one of its most impressive parts. I could just imagine the VVT adjusting the cam timing for torque as we all crept around RawHyde’s many different training courses.

    I found that in the slow maneuvers we were practicing in the dirt I preferred the off-road firm mode because I felt it gave a little more control, but more experienced riders might want to play around with the modes to see what works for each given situation. At higher speeds, hauling across dirt roads, the off-road soft mode felt a little better.

    With a six-axis Inertial Measuring Unit (IMU) working in concert with front and rear ABS, there are many, many ways the Pan America will help keep you upright when you ride: Cornering enhanced linked braking engages the rear brake automatically when you apply the front to balance brake application as appropriate for a wide variety of situations; cornering enhanced traction control keeps the rear tires from spinning; cornering enhanced drag-torque slip control keeps the rear wheel from locking up.

    Harley hard cases. Soft bags are available, too.


    The stock tire on the Pan America is a custom-made Michelin Scorcher Adventure. It worked just fine for our day in the dirt, but almost all of our riding was done on the flats. Had we faced some hill climbing or extended off-road, like an adventure across the entire Mojave instead of just one corner of it, we could have opted for Michelin Anakee Wild tires, with knobbier treads. Either of these tires can be mounted on Harley cast aluminum or laced wheels.

    Toward the end of the day I got to take off into the hills, following Rawhyde coach and senior tour leader Rob Day Sr. The Pan America remained comfortable on our longer ride at speed through the foothills of the Sequoia National Forest on the western edge of the Mojave. I tried to utilize all the tips and training I got after a day in the Rawhyde riding course and, indeed, never fell off the bike even at a little higher speed. Eyes up! Look ahead! It worked.

    The last ride of the day was back to the compound on Hwy. 14, a four-lane divided highway that connects Los Angeles with the mighty Sierra Nevada.

    “Set it to sport,” said Day.

    I did. Then, when there was a break in traffic, I opened it up. Aye Chihuahua. After being muted all day clambering around in the dirt at relatively slow speeds, those 150 horses were finally and gloriously let loose. I was actually worried about lifting the front wheel off the ground. If you set it up properly, you can do wheelies on these. Luckily for me all those electronic controls were keeping both wheels firmly planted on pavement. Acceleration was amazing, almost like a sport bike in a straight line. It was quite incredible. Be sure and try it when you go for a test-ride. Yowza.

    Harley offers any number of accessories for its Pan American, from hard and soft cases to full riding gear from Rev’It. Get some of that, too, when you visit your Harley dealer. It’ll be worth it.

    How does the Pan America stack up to the competition? I have been lucky enough to ride most of the competition in the last several months, including the new Ducati Multistrada V4, BMW R 1250 GS Adventure, Honda Africa Twin, Suzuki V-Strom 1050, and even the Moto Guzzi V85TT. The BMW and Ducati are closest to the Pan America in displacement, power, price, and electronic features. If I really had to chose between the three I’d chose the Ducati. It has the Skyhook suspension and auto-leveling, goes 36,000 miles between servicing, and offers a sophisticated radar cruise control with blind spot detection and a clever “overtake” mode. I just finished six months on a BMW R 1250 GS Adventure and felt that was a powerful and versatile bike, too. The Honda Africa Twin is a step down in displacement and cost but not in comfort. The Suzuki V-Strom 1050 XT that I rode for basically all of last year is also a versatile alternative in the class, with models that range from 650cc up to my test-bike’s 1037cc. Bikes I did not get a chance to ride but which could be considered alternatives include the KTM Adventures, ranging from 390cc to 1200, Triumph Tigers 800, 900, and 1200, and the Yamaha Super Tenere ES with 1200cc, 110 hp, and a starting sticker of $16,299.

    This content is imported from {embed-name}. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

    In a sense Harley is way late to the ADV party but it definitely brought a gun to the gun fight of the big-bore adventure bike bash, and it did just about everything right. The Pan America will be a big hit.

    Will the Pan America save Harley? It’ll definitely make a big, positive contribution toward that goal. Adventure bikes are kind of like the SUVs of the two-wheeled world. And while electric bikes will eventually become a thing, their time to make a profitable contribution to the company’s bottom line may still be in the future. But Harley-Davidson has been in business for 118 years, so waiting a few more for the world to fully transition to EV bikes is nothing. The harder thing to figure out in this somewhat awkward transition period as the baby boomers age out, is how to draw the millennials away from their computer screens and on to motorcycles. Good luck with that, Harley (and everyone else).

    How do you think Harley-Davidson will fare in the near- and longer-term future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Mark Vaughn grew up in a Ford family and spent many hours holding a trouble light over a straight-six miraculously fed by a single-barrel carburetor while his father cursed Ford, all its products and everyone who ever worked there.

    Related Articles

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Back to top button