Harley-Davidson just built a new motorcycle and the Pentagon is missing out
The latest bike from Milwaukee is even better than the ones that made Harley-Davidson a military icon.
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I can imagine the scene as if I were there. Two American soldiers crest a rocky Mexican ridgeline and gaze into the orange glow of the afternoon sun. At least one of them spits a big old wad of chew onto the ground.
“You see anything?” one asks.
“Not a damn thing,” the other answers.
They turn their motorcycle around and head back to camp, where Brig. Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing is awaiting reports on the whereabouts of Pancho Villa.
The year might have been 1916 or 1917. The soldiers would have been the same kind of rowdy, adventure-seeking young Americans that serve today. The motorcycle was undoubtedly a Harley-Davidson. Without the natural limitations of horses and the added bonus of sidecar-mounted machine guns, motorcycles were cutting-edge military technology back then.
In 1918, Army Cpl. Roy Holtz parked a similar motorcycle outside a Belgian farmhouse to ask for directions––in a shocking turn of events, his OIC had gotten them both lost. Inside was a group of German soldiers who offered the two a glass of rot-gut whisky before taking them prisoner and forcing them to ride further behind enemy lines. Holtz did as he was told, but he made sure to hit every pothole along the way to spite the German captor riding on the sidecar’s luggage rack.
Fortunately, the armistice was signed a few days later and the two were set free. Holtz climbed back on his Harley-Davidson, plotted a route home, and along the way became the first American to enter Germany after World War I.
During World War II, Harley-Davidson again answered the nation’s call by producing more than 60,000 motorcycles for the U.S. military in addition to the civilian bikes they built during the war. The mil-spec WLA featured black-out lights to stay hidden from enemy aircraft, shin guards to protect against brush and rocks, and enlarged fenders to prevent mud from packing around the tires. It saw use by American service members in both theaters of the second world war, Korea, and Vietnam. In all, the American military trained roughly 100,000 mechanics to service these motorcycles. Dispatch riders used them to keep lines of communication open on the battlefield, all while looking like real-life Mad Max characters.
Since then, the military’s attitude toward motorcycles has changed. Harley-Davidson partnered with Austrian engine-builder Rotax to produce military dirt bikes during the 1980s, but it seems that the days of Army-green bikes are behind us. Besides, would you want to ride a Harley off-road?
I would––and did. You see, the great American motorcycle manufacturer just released an all-terrain adventure bike, and it’s supposed to be one hell of a machine. Harley-Davidson is once again squaring off against das Germans. This time, its opponent is BMW’s legendary R 1200 GS. Harley-Davidson’s new bike is called the Pan America 1250 and, if it’s going to succeed, it will need to conquer highways like a tourer, backroads like a cafe racer, and trails like an enduro. That’s a tall order.
Numbers provided by Harley-Davidson.
Segment: Adventure touring
Curb weight: 559 pounds
Engine: 1,252 cubic-centimeter liquid-cooled V-twin
Peak output: 150 horsepower, 94 foot-pounds of torque
Seat Height: 33.4 inches unladen; 30.4 inches laden with optional suspension
Ride Modes: Road, Rain, Sport, Off-Road, Off-Road Plus, Custom A, Custom B
Fuel capacity: 5.6 gallons
Price: $17,319 (Pan America 1250); $19,999 (Pan America 1250 Special)
Warranty: Two years, unlimited miles
First impressions start with the eyes, so kudos to the styling team for making the Pan America fresh and familiar at the same time. The blunt, frame-mounted fairing and wide, flat tank are distinctly Harley-Davidson. Fit and finish have always been bar-and-shield priorities, and the Pan America is appropriately buttoned-up and tidy. The tall stature and knobby tires? Pleasingly new for the brand. As good as it looks, I couldn’t help but imagine how epic it would be in matte desert tan with a scabbard for an M4 and a few high-speed pieces of gear strapped to the side.
The next thing I noticed was how low the seat is––about the same height as most sportbikes. Even with a suite of hard cases and that 5.6-gallon tank, the bike feels far more approachable than any other full-size adventure bike I’ve encountered. Achieving this was no small engineering feat, but Harley-Davidson and suspension manufacturer Showa combined forces to make it happen––more on that later.
How we tested the Harley-Davidson Pan America
Given the spirit of Harley-Davidson’s military tradition, it’s only fitting to ride it in that frame of mind. In addition to routine administrative tasks like running errands, getting groceries, and attending my local cars and coffee, I ran the Pan America into the more remote areas of the surrounding countryside to channel the dispatch riders of yesterday.
As fate would have it, the largest munitions plant in the world once stood just a few hours from my house. Much of the ammunition used in both theaters of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam used propellants made at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant. All that remains today are a few scattered buildings and miles of gravel and crumbling pavement. If there’s a more fitting place to get to know the Pan America, I can’t think of it.
Early one morning, I loaded my camera bag, rain gear, water, stunner shades, and a trusty EDC into the Pan America’s side cases. Everything fit neatly in the smaller of the two cases (which has a reduced width to make room for the side-mounted muffler) with room to spare. That left the top case free to hold my helmet and gloves, and the other side case was more than enough room to store my riding jacket while I explored on foot.
I’m not aware of any plans to draft the Pan America into military service, but I have to think its hard cases would be a great way to carry an assault pack, a few canteens of water, various optics, and high-powered communication equipment. It feels like an LP/OP on wheels. The electronic suspension even automatically adjusts to compensate for extra weight, giving riders one less thing to worry about. It also lowers the bike during stops to improve footing and take the stress out of mounts and dismounts.
The extent to which I obeyed or disregarded various speed limits is need-to-know information unfit for unclassified networks, but I can vouch for the 150-horsepower Revolution Max engine in the Pan America. The motor absolutely stomps. Turning onto busy county highways is a thrilling excuse to whack the throttle open and rip off clutchless upshifts––you know, for safety. Each of the two off-road ride modes adjusts ABS and traction control settings to make the big bike more predictable, stable, and fun in the loose dirt and deep gravel. I found myself increasing speed on the ammunition plant’s roads as my confidence grew, spurred on by the active suspension and hefty Brembo brakes.
Since every comms plan eventually includes a “send a runner” contingency, wouldn’t we be better off adding some horsepower into the mix?
Land nav flashbacks
The Pan America’s large, full-color display meant that navigation is a lensatic-compass-free affair. Download the Harley-Davidson app on your phone, pair it to the bike via Bluetooth, and pull up a map with turn-by-turn directions on the display. The screen is too small to accommodate things like Apple CarPlay, but it does support the app’s navigation, and hand controls allow riders to make calls, control music, and use voice commands with their own device.
As much as I love an old-school motorcycling experience, this technology is fantastic for road trips and exploring new places. By relying on an app, software updates are easy and prevent the bike’s technology from growing outdated too quickly. Upgrade this system to a Blue Force Tracker, and Uncle Sam could have a real reconnaissance asset.
What we like about the Harley-Davidson Pan America
For as long as I can remember, the knock against Harley-Davidson was that it seemed to be charging a premium for the badge on the tank. While other manufacturers were making bikes that were lighter, faster, safer, and more reliable than the previous model, the American powerhouse seemed content to roll out the same thing year after year, knowing its customer base was loyal enough to stick around. That’s not the case anymore.
It hits the sweet spot
The adventure bike segment is booming, and each manufacturer is working to carve out little corners of the market. KTM has a stranglehold on hardcore off-roading with bikes like the 1290 Super Adventure R that channel years of rally championships. Ducati continues to blur the line between adventure and superbike with the Multistrada V4. Of course, the original gangster BMW R 1200 GS remains the basis for comparison.
Harley-Davidson aimed for a middle ground between the triad of off-road, highway, and sport performance with the Pan America––especially the 1250 Special. It’s not going to win the Dakar Rally anytime soon, but it can get you deep into the wilderness if that’s what you’re after. It isn’t as plush as Milwaukee’s full dressers, but it can carry a passenger and luggage just fine. And it isn’t a race bike in disguise, but I’m here to tell you that if you can’t have fun with the 150-horsepower Revolution Max engine, the bike isn’t the problem.
It gets adventure right
Adventure means something different to everyone, and the motorcycle industry has a tendency to take things to an extreme. I have to credit the product planners and engineers at Harley-Davidson for making the Pan America excel at the kind of adventure most people encounter; i.e., weekend jaunts instead of Alaska Highway treks. It cruises down the highway smoothly and effortlessly. Riding at highway speeds in sixth gear puts the engine about halfway through its rev range and right at the beginning of the power band. Once asphalt gives way to dirt, the spoked wheels, tall suspension, and off-road ride modes transform the bike into a surprisingly agile machine. Hell, it’s even fun riding around town and picking up groceries.
Since adventure riding involves logging miles by the hundreds, maintenance can’t be overlooked. The boxer engine of the BMW R 1200 GS is a huge part of its allure partly because the layout makes servicing valves so easy. The Pan America, on the other hand, uses hydraulically actuated valves that never need to be serviced. Stay on top of 5,000-mile fluid changes and keep an eye on your brake pads and chain, and you should be golden.
It’s actually innovative
In addition to an all-new Revolution Max engine, the Pan America goes toe-to-toe with overseas manufacturers with technology like ride modes for different terrain, a tire pressure monitoring system, navigation, and extensive room for riders to customize settings at the touch of a button. There are also the usual creature comforts like heated grips, cruise control, and adjustability in the windscreen and seat.
What really blew me away, though, is what Harley-Davidson calls ARH, or adaptive ride height. Lots of premium bikes feature electronically adjustable suspension, but the Pan America can actually sense when the bike is coming to a stop and reduce seat height to help riders get solid footing. That’s huge because one of the biggest deterrents to buying an adventure bike is the towering seat height that doesn’t cater to shorter (or less flexible) riders. Suddenly, Harley is in the lead and everyone else is playing catch-up.
While in motion, the bike automatically sets suspension sag at 30 percent to provide a consistent experience whether you want to ride solo or with a passenger, and three loaded hard cases. The suspension also changes based on the ride mode selected to suit riding on the road or dirt; cruising or pushing the limits of grip. That’s a far cry from unveiling a new color of metal flake paint and calling it a day.
What we don’t like about the Harley-Davidson Pan America
Aftermarket support is still ramping up
One of Harley-Davidson’s greatest strengths is massive OEM and aftermarket support. No matter how you want to modify one of their cruisers, there are probably 100 different options and pages of online reviews to guide you. That isn’t the case with the brand-new Pan America just yet. I’m sure that similar aftermarket support isn’t far off, but owners won’t have the same kind of options as they would with more established models for a while.
The price raises questions
The Pan America is priced right. It’s slightly less expensive than the competition from BMW and KTM, and thousands less than what Ducati is charging. That’s fantastic news, but it raises an interesting point. I counted 27 current Harley-Davidson models excluding trikes and the electric LiveWire. Relative to the two cutting-edge Pan America models, seven cost less and 12 cost more (the remaining motorcycles’ MSRPs fall between that of the Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special). I know it isn’t cheap to get a new model onto the showroom floor––let alone one as innovative and tech-heavy as the Pan America. How is it, then, that a dozen air-cooled cruisers have a higher price tag, with some reaching as high as $48,999?
It turns out that the answer isn’t as straightforward as the spec sheet might have you believe. The more expensive bikes might look old-fashioned, but they pack quite a bit of tech as well. Engineers have to pull out all kinds of packaging tricks like hiding sensors inside the wheels themselves––which costs money. Both approaches produce solid bikes at fair prices; they just aren’t as cut and dry as people think. I’m just glad the Pan America’s price tag landed where it did.
On the way to pick up the Pan America, my head was buzzing with questions. Is it a real adventure bike? Can it hold its own off-road? Did Harley-Davidson have to cut corners to hit a price point? When I parked it for the last time, I just stepped back for one last look and thought, “Damn. Well done.”
Yes, it’s a real adventure bike that’s ready for whatever you throw at it. Yes, it can hang with the big dogs from overseas. And yes, it has the same level of build quality that’s sold American iron to motorcyclists for more than 100 years. The day I returned the Pan America, Harley-Davidson received word that it had just become the best-selling adventure bike in the U.S. That’s wonderful news for the manufacturer, but it’s also good news for anyone who wants healthy competition in the motorcycle industry.
Which ADV bike you should buy depends on your idea of adventure, but the Pan America definitely deserves consideration. If at all possible, I’d set aside some cash for the 1250 Special. Spoked wheels can make a huge difference off-road, and the upgraded suspension is worth every penny. Besides, the extra money can also get you that glorious Baja Orange and Stone Washed White Pearl paint job.
Yes, Harley-Davidson has a lot of history with the U.S. military. Unless something drastically changes, though, I don’t see an olive-drab bike in Uncle Sam’s future. But that doesn’t stop us from buying motorcycles on our own dime. In addition to killer incentives from Harley-Davidson, active-duty service members benefit from command-sponsored motorcycle safety training, and I highly encourage taking advantage of it if you have any interest in learning to ride. The Pan America is a fantastic adventure bike, but any motorcycle is cause for adventure in some shape or form. I encourage you to buy one for yourself, aim it at the horizon, and give the throttle a good, hard twist.
FAQs about the Harley-Davidson Pan America
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does the Pan America cost?
A. The base Pan America 1250 starts at $17,319. Upgrading to the Pan America 1250 Special comes with a price tag of $19,999. The extra $2,680 buys a more advanced suspension, a more informative vehicle information screen, and optional spoked wheels. The top-of-the-line 1250 Special also has a curb weight of 559 pounds compared to the base model’s 534 pounds.
The 1250 Special’s biggest selling point is the adaptive ride height that reduces seat height any time the bike comes to a stop. That’s a game-changer for shorter riders who have previously been kept out of the adventure bike segment by heavy bikes with excessive seat heights.
Q. Why is this bike such a big deal?
A. Harley-Davidson is still the biggest player in the U.S. motorcycle market with a 31.1 percent market share (and a sizable lead over runner-up Honda, with 20.8 percent), but sales figures have been on a frightening downward trend for years. Critics argued that the classic American motorcycle manufacturer was too attached to tradition and the resulting stagnation was alienating younger buyers. If that were true, Harley-Davidson’s customer base would simply die out.
The Pan America represents a new type of Harley-Davidson. It’s a new type of American motorcycle, for that matter (and you can spare me your arguments about the Buell Ulysses). It’s got cutting-edge technology, loads of power, and enough creature comforts to keep thrill-seeking riders in the saddle from dawn to dusk. In some ways, it might be the most American Harley yet.
Q. Can the Pan America hang with adventure bikes from Europe and Japan?
A. Jumping into the adventure motorcycle market is a bold move, considering how long the competition has had to refine their products. Harley-Davidson is swinging awfully big with the Pan America, and it’s an instant contender. It’s found a sweet spot between the gentlemanly BMW R 1200 GS and frantic KTM 1290 Adventure. It’s more dirt-worthy than the Suzuki V-Strom, has longer legs than the Kawasaki KLR 650, and is much more affordable than the Ducati Multistrada (especially once you factor in maintenance costs).
Does the Pan America belong in this group? Hell yes.
Q. How capable is the Pan America in the dirt?
A. Being the most off-road-capable Harley-Davidson to date isn’t a big accomplishment, but the Pan America is truly impressive in its own right. Anyone who’s experienced other full-size adventure bikes will instantly appreciate its balance and poise on loose surfaces. This is no enduro motorcycle or rally racer, but I can’t imagine any bike over 500 pounds inspiring much more confidence than this one.
Anyone looking for a way to explore more remote areas via two-tracks and established trails will be in good hands with the new Harley.
Q. Is Harley-Davidson charging for performance and innovative features or the bar-and-shield logo?
A. For the longest time, it could be argued that Harley-Davidson customers were paying for the name on the tank more than anything. Hell, the company didn’t even release horsepower figures––pretty strange for an organization that got its start on the racetrack. Heritage, timeless good looks, and a sound so iconic that Harley Davidson tried to patent it in 1994 were enough to drive sales for decades. The competition kept innovating, and it got increasingly harder for customers to justify Harley-Davidson’s asking prices when they could get more motorcycle for their money elsewhere.
That’s no longer the case. The Pan America seems to be a way of throwing down the gauntlet with modern features, big power, and technology you won’t find anywhere else (yet). You can still get the timeless, low-slung, air-cooled bikes you associate with Harley-Davidson. They’re just parked alongside the next big thing.
Q. Will the Pan America be enough to stop Harley-Davidson’s recent sales slump?
A. It’s no secret that Harley-Davidson has been on a sales slide for the past several years. In fact, the company reported 228,051 new motorcycles sold worldwide in 2018, a 4.3 percent drop to 218,273 in 2019, and a 17.4-percent plunge to 180,248 in 2020. Whatever the cause of this slide, it isn’t good for Harley-Davidson or motorcycling in general.
The good news is that new models like the Pan America and Sportster S seem to be breathing new life into the bar and shield. In fact, I received word that the Pan America is outselling all other adventure bikes in the U.S. at the time of writing. It’s a major departure from the air-cooled cruisers the brand is known for and might be just the ticket to getting the next generation of riders through the showroom door. Color me optimistic.
Q. Can I test ride the Pan America before buying one?
A. Hell yes, you can. Schedule a test ride online to get your hands on a Pan America or any other Harley-Davidson before they sell out––which is a very real possibility.
Q. Does the U.S. military still use motorcycles?
A. There have been very limited reports of electric motorcycles being used by the U.S. military, but nothing like the good old days of hogs and hand grenades. Harley-Davidson’s two-wheeled warfighting basically ended in the 1990s with the weird (but cool) MT500.
Q. What’s the best way to start riding on active duty?
A. The Department of Defense likes to keep a close eye on new riders, so you’ll need to enroll in an approved motorcycle safety course and complete the required training to ride on base.
That’s exactly how I got started; I had never even sat on a motorcycle before participating in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course back in the day, and I can’t speak highly enough of the experience. By the end of the week, I was eligible to get my motorcycle license and ride on base. These courses generally make riders exempt from state practical exams and can earn a nice discount on insurance. Follow-on training may be required by your command, and I recommend taking as many courses as you can. The best part is that this training is considered part of your job––your command will actually cut orders and make the course your appointed place of duty. I was fortunate enough to be part of an extremely motorcycle-friendly shop when I started riding, but it’s good to know that you won’t be hassled for trying to get proper training.
Check with your command to find out how to get started at your particular installation.
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