Church Of MO – McQueen V. Knievel Road Test

Troy Siahaan
by Troy Siahaan

In the pantheon of American motorcycle badasses, sitting high amongst the crowd are Steve McQueen and Evel Knievel. In 2006, our very own Gabe Ets-Hokin and Pete Brissette set out to pay homage to the two legends, riding the marques that McQueen and Knievel are most associated with. So for this week’s Church feature we revisit the McQueen vs. Knievel Road Test, pitting the Triumph Scrambler against the Harley-Davidson Sportster. The test location was special as well: San Francisco, a city both men have a connection to, as the story goes on to explain. Read on to see the antics Gabe and Pete got themselves into in their quest to emulate two of America’s motorcycling icons.

McQueen V. Knievel Road Test

You just have to choose if you want to be McQueen or Knievel
Photography by Bob Stokstad

The scene is one that still, 38 years later, totally grips your attention.
In it, Steve McQueen, playing the original renegade SFPD detective Frank Bullit (Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry would come a few years later), chases a pair of armed gunmen in a Dodge Charger with his bitchen’ ’68 Mustang GT until they crash in a fiery wreck. It’s a perfect example of what happens when a bunch of gearheads have too much money and time.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Those of you who remember the chase scene from Bullit will remember the green VW beetle Look closely at the lower right corner of this picture spooky huh
Those of you who remember the chase scene from Bullit will remember the green VW beetle. Look closely at the lower right corner of this picture; spooky, huh?

We also remember a crazy guy named Evel who used a stripped-down, custom-framed Harley-Davidson XR750 flat-track bike to jump over great distances in front of thousands of screaming spectators. He filled the Houston Astrodome to record capacity with 100,000 crazed fans to jump 13 cars. The crown jewel of his career was a jump over 14 Greyhound busses at King’s Island, Ohio-capturing the largest TV audience on ABC’s Wide World of Sports ever.

The 1960’s and 70’s were a dynamic time for Americans, filled with loud clothing and even louder cars, motorcycles and music. There are plenty of you out there who ride because it reminds you of your youth; days when you had more hair on your head then on your back, when drugs were cheap and harmless and safe sex meant having a padded headboard. We can’t go back to 99-cent lines of coke or unprotected sex, so what’s a brother to do to re-live his glorious past?

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, If only this place still had 70s prices
If only this place still had ’70s prices…

Most of the “retro” bikes on the market are styled like big touring or drag-racing machines from the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, and choppers look cool but are almost worthless on the road.

For your edification, we rounded up two bikes evocative of the 60’s and 70’s most colorful characters. Steve McQueen is represented by Triumph’s new-for-2006 Bonneville Scrambler–with authentic ISDT styling–and Harley’s revised Sportster 1200R, with flat track-inspired styling and some serious performance features. The scene: the San Francisco Bay Area, location of Bullit and Knievel’s famous 1973 crash (well one of them, anyway) at the Cow Palace.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Scramblin after the bad guy in the dubious jacket
Scramblin’ after the bad guy in the dubious jacket…

It’s also the home of most-excellent MOron photographer Bob Stokstad and zillions of miles of great twisty roads to properly evaluate the two bikes handling and road manners. Managing Editor Pete Brissette and Senior Editor Gabe Ets-Hokin put some big miles on the machines to properly evaluate them in their native habitats.

Which is the best to play the heavy in your groovy, swingin’ road fantasy, man? We’re about to find out, so fluff up your Afro, don a suede vest and open a cold can of Tab. It’s time for McQueen v. Knievel!

Act I: The Players

What Happens When You Give Performance-Enhancing Drugs to A Hog? 2007 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200R

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, The 1200R s older and more slender cousin Image courtesy of Harley Davidson Archives copyright H D
The 1200R’s older and more slender cousin. Image courtesy of Harley-Davidson Archives, copyright H-D

Even in 1968, Harley-Davidson’s Sportster was getting pretty long in the tooth. It was first introduced in 1957 to replace the old “K” model and boasted such space-age advancements as hydraulic suspension front and rear, right-hand foot shifting, front brakes, and a 40 hp, 883cc overhead-valve motor. The XL models cranked out of the factory for the next 28 years before they were overhauled in 1985.

Evel, of course, rode an XR750, which looked like a Sportster motor but was far more sophisticated and powerful. However, the Sportster family has always been Harley’s lightweight, performance-oriented streetbike, originally designed to battle the hordes of lightweight British bikes that were sapping Harley’s domestic market and challenging them on the racetracks.

Today’s Sportster has a mild family resemblance to those XLs and XRs of days past. Thankfully, it’s been thoroughly redesigned-several times–to make it fast, smooth, comfortable and good-handling, traits for which the old Sportster is not known.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
The most recent revamping was in 2002, and was very important for many reasons. It started with the frame; rather than solidly mounting the 45-degree vibe-ro-matic engine in a light frame, Harley’s engineers took a cue from the Dyna and Buell people and used rubber blocks to isolate vibration from a new, heavier (and stiffer) frame. The result was a heavier bike, but also a motorcycle with which a rider could enjoy higher RPM-operation without going sterile or vomiting from excessive vibration.
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Yoiks Is that carbon fiber
Yoiks! Is that carbon fiber?

High RPM operation? What are they smoking at Harley, anyway? Maybe nobody told you this before, but Sportster-and Sportster-ish motors like the XR-powerplants have been heavily used in all kinds of competition since Eisenhower was president, so the guys in Milwaukee know a thing or two about making these motors perform. In 1998, the 1200 Sportsters were given new high-compression (9.7:1), high-flow cylinder heads as well as a more aggressive cam profile to complement the 45-degree, pushrod-actuated two-valve-per cylinder air-cooled 1200cc powerplant. In 2007, miracle of miracles, Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection was added across the Harley-Davidson lineup.

They didn’t stop there. The clutch and transmission were redesigned for smoother, quieter operation, and for 2006 the whole engine unit was treated to a nice new coat of wrinkle-finish black powder coat. So now we have a Sportster motor that is smoother, quieter, and much more powerful; Harley claims 70 HP and 79 foot-pounds of torque. Our MO Dynojet Dynamometer measured 61.5 HP and 67.37 foot-pounds of torque (and the thing actually revved to almost 6,800 rpm without exploding and killing Fonzie, thanks very much) at the back wheel. Icing on the cake is the fact that with a spin-on oil filter and hydraulic valves it has minimal maintenance requirements.

Attached to the heavier, stiffer frame are some almost-modern suspension components. In back are the obligatory chromed shocks adjustable for preload and boasting 4.1 inches of travel. They locate a 13-spoke aluminum wheel (laced steel wheels are an option, don’t worry) with a 150/80-16 Dunlop tire. The front 100/90-19 is pointed in the right direction by a pair of 39mm forks with 5.6 inches of travel.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Space age brakes
Space-age brakes.

Brakes are pretty space-age, too. In front is a pair of 292mm brake discs clutched by a pair of dual-piston calipers. The rear brake is also a 292mm rotor, except it uses a single-piston caliper. Those busy engineering guys reduced level effort by 14 percent as a bonus.

The classically-styled 3.3-gallon fuel tank finishes the bike, along with some other comfort and convenience features. The instruments are new, with a high-mounted tachometer as well as a fuel warning light, a digital clock (who said Harley-Davidson wouldn’t give the time of day to their customers?) hazard flashers and two tripmeters. There’s a stepped

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Pete making good use of high tech
Pete making good use of high-tech.

passenger seat and standard passenger footpegs, mid-mount controls and a polished dirt track-style handlebar. It all weighs in at a claimed 565 pounds dry and is offered at your local Harley dealer for $8,595 in plain black, $8,955 for colors.

That’s a lot of technology for any bike, but it’s a lot of weight and money for what used to be an entry-level machine. Can the Triumph challenge it?

A Proper Bit of Kit: 2006 Triumph Scrambler
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
Once upon a time, children, if you wanted to roadrace, you got a Triumph Bonneville, added a humped seat and clip-on handlebars, and raced. If you wanted to do hillclimbs, you got a Triumph Bonneville, added a longer swingarm and dirt-oriented tires, and raced. If you wanted to do some Hare Scrambles, you got a Triumph Bonneville, put on some high bars and exhaust pipes and… you get the idea, right?
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
When our two editors were but mere gametes, British motorcycles-but mostly Triumphs-were the bike of choice for many sporting motorcyclists. Now, not so much. We buy motorcycles that are highly evolved and engineered to fit a specific niche.

The “new” Triumph (they’ve actually been selling motorcycles since 1989) is turning some of that heritage into cash by introducing a series of motorcycles with styling that harkens back to the days of folks modifying their Bonnevilles for all kinds of motorcycle activities. For 2006, Triumph released their Scrambler, done up to look like the 60’s-era American-market TR6C complete with accordion fork gaiters, knobby tires, ironing-board seat and very cool high-rise mufflers. It’s the first Scrambler-styled motorcycle on the US market in a coon’s age.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, The Triumph has no tach and the MO boys have no tact
The Triumph has no tach, and the MO boys have no tact.

What’s inside this raccoon? Triumph is now using the air-cooled, dual overhead cam parallel-twin 865cc motor we first saw in the Thruxton 900. It has a 90mm bore and a 68mm stroke and uses four valves per cylinder; pretty modern for a retro parallel twin. Compression ratio is a pumped-up 9.2:1, but that modernity comes to a crashing halt when you get to the carburetors (and there are two, unlike the original TR6C Scramblers), even if they are equipped with such hi-tech touches as carb heaters and a throttle position sensor. At least the ignition is digital electronic stuff. On the MO Dynojet, our test unit pumped out 44.59 HP and 44.04 foot-pounds of torque. The Scrambler is “tuned-for-torque”, producing more foot-pounds (actually just a few) but fewer ponies (actually a lot less) than its Thruxton and Bonneville brothers.

The chassis is similarly counter-revolutionary. There’s a tubular steel cradle that mounts the engine between pretty conventional suspension; 41mm non-adjustable forks in front and adjustable twin shocks in back. Braking is handled by a single 310mm disc with a twin-piston caliper in the front, a 310mm disc with a single-piston caliper in back. The tires are cool desert racer-esque semi-knobs, a 100/90-19 front and a 130/80-17 rear. Spokes n’ inner tubes? Of course!

It’s finished with that cool, hand-painted 4.4 gallon tank, black-finished mock oil tank sidecovers and a big, polished handlebar. There’s lots of chrome and even a pair of rubber pads to help your artificial knees grip the tank.

Nobody can deny that the Scrambler has the retro looks nailed down. But will it perform well enough to keep Steve ahead of Evel?

Act II: The Test
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Just a few yards from the park where Joe DiMaggio learned to play baseball Irrelevant but true
Just a few yards from the park where Joe DiMaggio learned to play baseball. Irrelevant but true.

After much cajoling, whining and cashing-in-of-favors, Senior Editor Ets-Hokin convinced Managing Editor Brissette to load the two bikes into MOtruck and bring them up to his Oakland, CA apartment. That way they could be properly tested in the hills in and around San Francisco, where the bad guys bit the dust in Bullit and where Evel bit the bullet in various crashes. After unloading the bikes, the two boys rode around the Bay Area with contributor Bob Stokstad for riding impressions and photography at all of Gabe’s favorite places.

They rode up and down hills, on all kinds of twisty backroads in four counties and even attended a dirt flat-track for some practice. At the end of it all they were able to pack up the truck and send Pete home with a good idea of which bike they’d like to own if they had to purchase one with their own money.

Sand Hill Ranch
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, OK now we can write off the gas we bought to get to the track
OK, now we can write off the gas we bought to get to the track.

Out of the blue one day, MO subscriber and Cazadero, CA resident John Bishop invited me out to dip my toe in the exciting and classically American sport of

Flat Track racing. He told me he had a friend who had been injured (go figure!) and was offering his race bikes up to whomever wanted to try out some racing.

John is a member of Team Slideways, a loosely-organized group of enthusiasts who pit together and drive each other to the hospital after races. Rider Randy Kremlacek offered up the bikes, so Pete and I arranged to spend an evening at the practice facility at Sand Hill Ranch.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Jay Springsteen look out No seriously look out
Jay Springsteen, look out! No seriously, look out!

Sand Hill Ranch is a privately-owned facility in Brentwood, CA, about 70 miles east of San Francisco.

There, owner Phil Anderson and his wife Renee maintain several tracks, including a GP motocross circuit, BMX bicycle courses, and the flat track/TT track.

Flat track is different from other forms of dirt competition. The track is kept groomed and flat, and as the practices and races progress, the hard clay becomes as grippy and smooth as asphalt on certain parts of the racing line. It’s called the “blue groove”, which I previously thought was a jazz recording label. In a “TT” setup, the course continues in the infield with some more twists, bumps and a jump or two.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Where s the starting line
“Where’s the starting line?”

We arrived at dusk on a Friday evening–flat track practices are only held Friday evenings from five to 10 PM–hoping to maybe slide around a little for photography on the two bikes in this test. Unfortunately, we could only manage a few quick static shots of the Harley on the track, but we were consoled when we met John and the rest of the Slideways crew. They had brought some gear for us in addition to some track-prepped XR100s and other bikes to ride on the track.

I suited up in some old roadrace leathers and a dirtbike helmet and fired up the XR100 for my first try at riding on a dirt track. I found out two things; one, it’s a unique and challenging kind of riding, and two, it’s an amazing amount of fun. The XR was set up with street tires, and when I was in that blue groove I could just rail through turns without sliding the tires.

Of course, since I was by far the slowest guy at the practice, maybe “rail” isn’t the best term. It seemed fast to me, but then Pete got out there. He proceeded to pick up the activity much better than I did, and by the end of his first session he was not the last guy. Third from last, but that’s progress.

The AMA has local competition for flat track in all classes, ages and skill levels, and I hope to try my hand–or my foot–at some hotshoe work in the future. Dirt tracking doesn’t have the high-flying “X-Treem” action of motocross or the triple-digit speeds of roadracing, but it is challenging, fun and all-American. Thanks to John, Randy, Sand Hill Ranch and everyone else who made us feel welcome in your sport!
-Gabe Ets-Hokin, Senior Editor

Of the two bikes, the Triumph has the visual appeal. In addition to its balanced and correct proportions (Gabe said “no matter how many new Bonnies I see, I still do a double-take to make sure it isn’t a vintage one”), it has such beautiful paint and chrome that you want to show it off to strangers. “Look at what I’ve got!”

Plopping onto that flat saddle and staring at the white-on-black Smiths-like gauges while holding that wide bar is a trip to the past like nothing else on two wheels–short of an actual old Britbike project–can provide. Functionally it’s pretty good, too, with a comfortable seat, a natural reach to the bars and the pegs right under your thigh where you expect them. It’s good for passengers, too; “on a short around-town ride my girlfriend couldn’t have been happier with the wide and comfortable seat”, reported Pete.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Gabe and Pete on the set of Bullit 1968
Gabe and Pete on the set of “Bullit”, 1968.

There’s no carb-tickling or any other such nonsense; just stab the starter button and go. The motor whirs to life and settles into a familiar parallel-twin idle. It revs quickly, with a nice sound emanating from those flashy, high-mount mufflers.

It sounds like an old British Twin, but it works much better. The clutch is smooth, with a light effort, and the gearbox is an example of “thoroughly modern” engineering, according to Pete, with “smooth, trouble-free shifting.” However, we wished for taller gearing; the Scrambler felt a little frantic at today’s highway speeds.

You also get a lot of wind blast highway speeds, and although it’s comfortable enough for the long haul with that nice big seat and upright seating, this is no tourer.

Around town it’s much better, with a low seat and decent turning radius making it easy for short folks to handle, and that responsive motor zipping us from light to light. The long-ish travel suspension and light (compared to the Harley) weight made San Francisco’s tracks, divots, bumps, potholes and gratings almost tolerable. No wonder Triumph has such a long history in San Francisco.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, We re just going to wait for that black Dodge Charger to drive by
We’re just going to wait for that black Dodge Charger to drive by…
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Here s Gabe cruising the Swiss border looking for a place to jump over
Here’s Gabe cruising the Swiss border looking for a place to jump over…

Out in the countryside the Triumph is the handling king. The chassis has very good numbers, with a tighter rake than the standard Bonnie, and there is ample cornering clearance. You get into a rhythm with the bike, countersteering with those big handlebars into the bends as the nicely-calibrated suspension soaks up little bumps without disturbing your line. You look down at that charming speedometer and realize you’re going faster than you thought, and a glance in the clear mirror shows the Harley further back than you thought, if he’s still there at all. However, the Triumph’s suspension and chassis does get overwhelmed at higher speeds, wallowing and getting out of sorts. Still, it’s much more stable and firm than the real deal ever was.

Brakes are serviceable, but don’t really stand out. Like period binders, they require a decent squeeze and don’t offer much in the way of feel, but at least they’re not drums, right? “Less-than-modern brakes just mean you have to plan ahead and hope for the best” said Gabe, who has spent a lot of time on vintage bikes.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, That UPS truck is filled with fresh turnsignals and clutch levers
That UPS truck is filled with fresh turnsignals and clutch levers.

It looks like a snarling, hard-edged bike from the 60’s, but the Scrambler is really a pussycat to ride. The Harley? It also has a vintage look, but this guy really does have an edge to him.

“Bad-ass looks” says Pete–the 1200R is a mean-looking motorcycle. The black engine treatment gives the big V-twin a hulking, menacing appearance, and everything else is low, long, or just plain purposeful. It still has all the styling cues Sportsters have had since the ’50s; chrome fender supports, chrome headlight hood, and the peanut-shaped fuel tank. It looks lean, mean and right.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
Ergonomically it’s not the same as the Triumph but is familiar to anybody who’s ridden a Sportster in the last 50 years. The seat is low and narrow, with the air cleaner awkwardly bumping your right knee. The handlebar is high and wide, but not uncomfortably so. Footpegs are further forward and higher than what youngsters brought up on Japanese sportbikes and standards might like but still put the body in a good, comfortable position.

Again, no kickstart necessary; just push the button and hear that good ‘ol potato-potato. The new fuel injection is very good; the bike warms quickly and pulls cleanly to redline. Out on the road, the 1200 motor feels great; compared to the Triumph it feels like a Hayabusa, with so much torque and response you’d swear it was a much bigger motor. The transmission works well, especially if you’re used to other Harleys, but is more clunky and harder to use than the British bike’s.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, This sign was posted by the San Francisco Department of Stating the Obvious
This sign was posted by the San Francisco Department of Stating the Obvious.

The bike just hauls ass everywhere and is a hoot to ride in heavy traffic. The guy on the Triumph will be struggling to keep up as your roar up on-ramps and weave through rush-hour traffic. The decent brakes-at least as good as the twin-disc, twin-piston caliper systems on Japanese machines-and the bike’s low, heavy, solid feel give you confidence at high speeds, even if wind blast becomes a substantial annoyance at the very high speeds this bike can comfortably cruise at.

Comfort, in fact, is what we kept thinking of when we rode this bike. Pete liked the way the “scooped-out saddle held me in place when I would slam the throttle open” but didn’t think it would lead to “day-long comfort”, however, at “the end of two long days, I was ready to keep riding.” Gabe agreed; “this bike is a rare exception to the ass-whupping one receives riding cruisers for extended periods.” The seat is little hard, but it’s supportive and allows some movement if you’re not too big.

Around town, the Sportster really knows how to cruise. That torque gets you from stoplight to stoplight in record time, and you can squeal and howl that back tire easily, thanks to cruiser-esque weight distribution and the skinny rubber. Up and down the many hills of Baghdad-by-the-Bay, the 1200R would rip to the top in second gear, even on the 18.5 percent grades, while the Scrambler would be bouncing between first and second. The low seat and good turning radius was helpful parking and turning around in the City’s narrow streets, too. It did suffer-or rather the rider suffered-somewhat due to the shorter suspension travel on the many bumpy, broken bits of pavement scattered around town, nullifying the Sportster’s speed advantage.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Pete pretending to be a grey whale surfacing during mating season
Pete pretending to be a grey whale surfacing during mating season.

Outside the City, on the many miles of fantastic twisty ribbon of asphalt that attract motorcyclists from around the world, the Sportster feels just fine, although it’s not a sportbike. The awkward weight distribution and cruiser geometry means you have to work a little harder to keep up in the tight, twisty bits. The road to Stinson Beach is as awful as a stretch of pavement can be, and the Harley was harder to ride here, although it wasn’t really that much worse than the Triumph; just different.

Surprisingly, both Gabe and Pete liked the Harley’s suspension better, finding the Scrambler prone to wallowing at high speeds, but the 1200R would run out of cornering clearance sooner.

So on a twisty road, both bikes have their limitations; the Scrambler by its softish suspension and soft motor, and the Harley by its cantankerous, unsporting chassis geometry and limited cornering clearance. It means that a person who favors American-style riding can go as fast as the cat on the Scrambler adopting that smooth and flowing English riding style. It’s true of the Brits themselves; they seem to work very well until they become unhinged.

For daily living, both bikes have pros and cons. The Triumph is more comfortable, handles better and is better with a passenger. The Harley is faster, gets better fuel economy and has incredibly low maintenance costs.

Living With the Tough Guys
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
We called up Munroe Motors in San Francisco (who might have had McQueen in the shop a few times; they’ve been on a seedy corner of Valencia street since 1956) to see what servicing one of these beasts runs in today’s dollar.

A minor service-recommended for every 6,000 miles-will run a customer at Munroe’s about $150 for labor and roughly $50 in parts. A major service-every 12,000 miles-is $440 in labor and about $100 in parts; this of course can vary depending on condition of the bike and parts costs.

The Harley needs servicing every 2,500 miles, according to Ray at Dudley-Perkins Harley Davidson. At 2,500 miles a Sportster owner can count on paying $175 for parts and labor, at 5,000 miles it’s $355, and at 7,500 miles she gets socked for $565. At 10,000 miles the cost goes back to $175 so the customer won’t enroll in a motorcycle repair course at the local community college. So its $1,270 to maintain the 1200R for 12,000 miles compared to $740 for the Triumph.

However, a home mechanic would have less fuss and bother with the Harley’s self-adjusting valves and zero-maintenance drive belt. In addition, Harley-Davidson parts are very inexpensive. The Scrambler has some authentic touches technology-wise, like a drive chain and a petcock fuel-filter, but the valve train uses shim-under-bucket adjusters. That means they only need checking every 12,000 miles, but if any are out of adjustment it might be too challenging a job for most home mechanics.

The Harley has no helmet lock or tool kit; the Scrambler boasts as a tool kit a single allen wrench under one steel side cover. Neither bike boasts a centerstand, although the Scrambler has one available as an accessory.

Fuel economy was remarkably similar for both bikes, although our testers didn’t do a lot of freeway riding. Expect the Harley to get 50 MPG or more on long freeway stints, with the Scrambler getting around 40. Around town they both dip into the high 30’s.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
Act III: The Conclusion

So which bike is the ticket to retro-fun? This depends on who you are. If you love a certain style and look–and that’s what buying a retro bike is all about, right?–then you’ve already made your choice and have come here for validation. Here it is: these are both really good bikes and good values as well. Unlike many “fashion-forward” motorcycles like choppers and extreme cruisers or sportbikes, these bikes seem to emphasize functionality; they can be ridden and enjoyed in much the same way their ancestors were ridden and enjoyed in the ’60s and ’70s. Throw on a ragged sweatshirt and a Pep Boys helmet and go for a ride. They are casual, unpretentious bikes that seem to like being ridden as much as a Labrador retriever likes being walked.

In terms of performance, the Harley was the clear winner for both our testers. It seems unfair to Triumph to not compare the Scrambler to the 883, but the 1200R is only $896 more than the Scrambler and just $900 more than the 883R. We don’t think a prospective Scrambler/Sportster buyer would opt for the 883R; these are experienced enthusiasts who seek value and performance and would happily shell out the extra money. Therefore, comparing the 883 to the Scrambler would be equally unfair; more people would choose the 1200R, in our opinion.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Just sit on down and go for a ride
Just sit on down and go for a ride…
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, We stopped here for a quick transmission swap
We stopped here for a quick transmission swap.

So subjectively, because the comfort/reliability/handling gap is so small and the Harley enjoys some substantial advantages-like power, torque and braking-the Harley was the clear winner for our two guys. “I hate to admit the Harley represents the best value” said Gabe, never one to prefer a Harley over anything else if he can help it. And Pete touted the technological advancements of the Harley over the Triumph. Brave New World, no?

However, we were loath to assign a winner to this shootout at all. It’s really about a look, a feel, cruising around in a beautiful place on a distinctive, special bike. Either one of these bikes will make you feel good, either one will get you noticed.

You just have to choose if you want to be McQueen or Knievel, unless you’re inspired to write your own history.

Nits and NotesHarley:
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test

With the exception of the inherent wind blast that comes on a bike without a fairing or windshield, the Sporty was surprisingly comfortable to ride. The scooped-out saddle held us in place when we would slam the throttle open, which is a great trait, but it wasn’t a seat that we expected to provide day-long comfort. The perfect accessory to this bike would be an aftermarket removable windshield. Nothing too big, just something to take the pressure off your chest while hammering down the freeway. When it’s time to cruise the boulevard on Saturday night, just pop it off and you’re a tough guy again.

An item that could use a redesign is the right foot peg. After looking at some photos of Gabe and Pete riding the Harley, we noticed that both of them were resting their right foot on part of the peg mount, which seemed more natural, rather than the peg itself. Putting a foot in the “correct” position just didn’t feel right; like “straddling a farm horse or something”, according to Pete.

Something that Executive Editor Al “Fonzie” Palaima noticed (and had him fooled for a time) was the sixth gear or overdrive “idiot light” on the speedometer. Like many bikes today, there are a variety of indicators on one or both of the clock faces or somewhere on the dash, to notify the rider of engine problems, low oil, etc., etc. In the case of this bike there is a faint “6” next to the other indicators. When the bike didn’t go past fifth gear and the sixth gear indicator wouldn’t light up, Fonzie rightly assumed, at the time, that something was amiss. Eventually it was discovered that the Sportster only has five speeds. If Fonzie’s razor-sharp melon could be fooled by this, perhaps others could be too.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test, Trouble free belt drive If only every streetbike came with this
Trouble-free belt drive. If only every streetbike came with this.
church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test


Even without looking into the specs and details behind the engineering of the Scrambler’s unit-construction motor, anyone could tell that it is thoroughly modern just by the smooth, trouble-free shifting.

For some riders the Scrambler’s ironing board seat may be less than perfect, but many passengers will say otherwise. On a short around-town ride Pete’s girlfriend couldn’t have been happier with the wide and comfortable seat. She really enjoyed riding the bike based almost solely on the saddle.

Pete would like to see some taller gearing on the Scrambler. It’s down significantly in power and torque to begin with, but he “can’t help but think that being able to stretch first gear out a little more might at least help the rider to perceive it to be faster.”

Epilogue: What I’d Buy

When I first learned that Gabe wanted to do a two-bike test with the spirit of Steve McQueen and Evel Kneivel and their bike brands of choice as a loose premise for the comparison, I was stoked. I thought to myself, “With the streets of San Francisco as the backdrop and a Triumph designed to herald days gone by, this may be one of the best tests I’ll ever be involved with!”

Of the Harley I thought, “Eh, it’s probably just another Harley. Reliable and torquey, but nothing special.”

In the famous words of Gomer Pyle, “Well, surprise, surprise, surprise!” Man, was I backwards in my thinking. Indeed, this was one of the best tests I’ve done to date. The weather was supreme and ‘Frisco was, to say the least, a welcome change to our usual Southern Cali testing grounds. But talk about a change in attitude. Riding these two bikes was eye opening. I had visions of myself flying through the air to freedom while aboard the Scrambler. The last bike I expected to launch, effortlessly I might add, was a Harley-Davidson. As you can tell by a number of the photos I was wrong.

Neither of these bikes really tout “performance” as a primary characteristic. Sure, the Sportster is utilizing high-flow heads, but if you’re honest with yourself the image that comes to mind when most people think of performance from a Harley is pavement-twisting torque rather than a canyon dancing. And the Scrambler, well let’s just say that performance in this case is more about its modern day reliability instead of speeding or braking hijinks. But we knew that going in.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
Without a doubt the Scrambler is the looker. I liked the Harley quite a bit, but it just doesn’t compare. The Triumph just begs you to walk over and saddle-up, giving you the expectation that you’ll be instantly transported back to a time when men were men.

There’ll be those that cry foul when comparing displacements, proclaiming that the vast gap in cubic centimeters gave the Harley an unfair advantage. Indeed, the Sporty’s power is nothing short of impressive. But what separates the wheat from the chaff for me is the retail cost of each bike. Wait, I take that comment back, somewhat. The Harley out-powered, out-steered and out-braked the Scrambler, and it was more comfortable. Of course it had far worse ground clearance than the Triumph, but what Harley wouldn’t?

Certainly the Triumph did well enough in the corners, but thanks to its unadjustable, long travel suspension it would eventually wallow if pushed too much. We shouldn’t give much more praise to the Sportster. It was perfectly smooth on most surfaces, but the minute I encountered any high-speed bumps, my kidneys were the victims if I wasn’t launched out of the saddle first.

The best thing I can say about the Scrambler is that it’s a great looking, quaint motorcycle. Other than that I can’t fathom why someone would pay $7,999.00 for a bike whose biggest technological attributes are a throttle position sensor and digital ignition. For a mere $896.00 more, you can have a bike with almost twice the horsepower and torque, fuel injection, a maintenance-free belt drive and a comfortable riding position.

If I were dead-set on spending eight grand on a motorcycle and didn’t want a Harley, I would scout out a 35-year old original Bonneville, oil leaks, dodgy wiring and all, time and again to get the original character that the Scrambler can only hope to emulate.
-Pete Brissette, Managing Editor

I really wanted to be the Six Million Dollar Man in kindergarten. I was much smaller than most of my classmates and lacked any semblance of athletic ability, so of all the 70’s icons, one that could be artificially given instant superhuman strength and prowess was the most appealing to me. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a motorcycle, so we’re stuck with these guys.

church of mo mcqueen v knievel road test
So which one of these two bikes would I buy to artificially enhance my self-worth? Well, the Triumph is a very good motorcycle, not just a very good retro-styled motorcycle. It’s smooth, handles great, is comfortable for all kinds of riding and gets more attention than a talking hamster at a PETA convention. In fact, the new Bonnevilles feel almost identical to my old 1977 BMW twin; it has a solid, balanced feel to it that most 70’s bikes lack completely.

It’s such a good bike that had it gone against the bike we originally wanted to pit it against–the Sportster 883R-it would have emerged as the clear victor. I rode a 2006 1200R, and even that bike would have been squished by the sheer functional goodness the Scrambler offers. However, the 2007 was all that Harley had, and it’s only $896 more than the Triumph, so in our minds it was a fair comparison.

For that $896, you get a lot more power, fuel injection, and remarkably sorted handling and brakes. It’s probably the best stock Harley Davidson product I’ve yet experienced and I think anybody would agree that it’s just better to ride than the Triumph. I’m cringing because Triumph was reluctant to participate in a test where the competition would get an extra 300-plus cc of engine displacement, but now that we’ve tested the bikes, we have to tell the truth for the sake of whatever journalistic integrity motojournalists pretend to have. So sorry, Triumph, you can take us off the Christmas card list, but in the end I’m like any other consumer; I want value.

The performance the Sportster 1200R offers is good for the money (as long as you aren’t considering a Japanese supersport as well), and it drips with almost as much cool and bravado as the Scrambler.

I guess I’ll just have to fantasize about jumping busses rather than the Swiss border. Buh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh!
-Gabe Ets-Hokin, Senior Editor


Gabe wears his Shoei RF-1000 helmet with Fog City anti-fog shield, Shift Denim Kevlar Street Pants, Lee Parks DeerSports Tour gloves, and the Piece de resistance, the Aerostich Fallstaff Waxed Cotton Darien jacket, which he will feature in an upcoming review as soon as it starts raining.

Pete just wears the same tired schmattas he always wears, with the exception of his very slick Harley-Davidson FXRG-2 Boots and a leather jacket that he claims is “of dubious origin”. The helmet is also an RF-1000.

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