Monday 17 December 2012

V-Roehr 1130/1250 - The Other, Other American V-Twin Motorcycle

It has an American-made V-Twin (an honest-to-god Harley motor, no less), an advanced chassis, top shelf components, and a distinctly sporty bent, with stunning performance that is far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s built by a clever American engineer working independently to apply his own ideas towards building the ultimate American made sport bike, powered by an apple-pie and Budweiser fuelled motor.

And it isn’t a Buell.

It’s the Roehr 1130/1250SC, a star-spangled piece of exotica developed by an Illinois engineer by the name of Walter Roehrich. Built around a Harley-Davidson powerplant and offering top shelf components and hand built exclusivity (with a price to match), the Roehr superbike was set to be a promising US entry into the rarefied territory of exotic sport bike manufacture usually reserved for European builders.

Walter Roehrich is a Gurney, Illinois based engineer and VW-group master technician who has been tinkering with motorcycle design since the 1990s, when he launched his namesake Roehr (“roar”- geddit?) motorcycle company. His initial brief was to produce a 500cc, two-stroke, V-twin sportbike that would introduce a revolutionary direct-injection system (sound familiar?) to modernize the two-stroke concept for the ‘90s. At the opposite end of the spectrum his swansong project would be a high-powered electric sportbike. In between he produced a V-Rod powered superbike that would introduce his genius to a generation of sportbike nuts who were following the burgeoning exotic bike market in the late ‘90s and early ‘oughts.

Roehrich first made a name on the motorcycle scene when he mated two YZ250 cylinders to a common crankcase and stuffed the resulting 115hp, 500cc two-stroke motor into a 300-odd pound roadster. The Rv500 was introduced in the mid 90s to quite a bit of acclaim, but never reached full production as emissions standards got tougher and the company encountered difficulties with their proposed direct injection system.

The next project, which broke cover around 2004, was a four-stroke successor to the 500. The Rv1000 had a liquid cooled, quad-cam, 8 valve 936cc V-twin provided by Swedish manufacturer Highland. Light weight was the aim, and the main reason for selecting the Highland unit (which looked more like a pair of dirtbike singles mated together than a “traditional” twin cylinder motor). Dry weight was supposed to be around 330 lbs, with 120hp to motivate it. Not bad, but not enough to light a fire under investor’s butts.

Then in 2007 Roehrich announced he’d be building a limited production superbike around a liquid-cooled Harley-Davidson V-Rod engine. Despite weighing considerably more than the Rv1000 prototype, and having about the same horsepower, this idea sparked some interest in the motorcycle media. The V-Roehr 1130 was greeted with enthusiasm, but events in 2008 would conspire against the fledgling project.

I recall reading a moto rag in the 2007 and coming across a breathless preview of this new American superbike that was set to steal the crown away from Buell for Harley-powered sport bikes. It looked like a pastiche of exotic styling elements; some Ducati and MV Agusta elements in the bodywork, stacked projector beam lights like a Duc 999, bonded beam frame that looked a lot like an 1990s Bimota YB item, and side mount radiators straight off a Honda RC51. The end result was strongly reminiscent of the Mondial Piega. It looked like it was pieced together from a parts bin of international exotica.

And it looked GOOD.

Not only that, it was going to house a thumping and relatively modern Harley V-Rod motor. That alone gave Roehrich some extra street cred, as Erik Buell was still using the antiquated air-cooled, pushrod OHV Sportster mills in his XB lineup (Buell would silence all of us armchair engineers by introducing the much more modern Rotax-powered 1125R, before falling victim to the recession and shuttering in 2009). The Roehr 1130 looked like a winner – American guts, Italian-esque style, and most importantly an element of desirability among the public. The lone underdog built-in-a-shed mythos helped push the Roehr to the fore of the motorcycle media where the project received a disproportionate amount of good press considering how small the operation was.

The donor motor was the tried and true, but under-appreciated, Harley-Davidson Revolution V-twin. The Revolution was an 1130 (later 1250) cc V-twin with a 60-degree vee. Much unlike traditional Milwaukee iron, it features liquid cooling, double overhead cams, four valve per cylinder, and a modern fuel injection system. It was developed in partnership with Porsche and was loosely based on the VR1000 engine design, with an oversquare 100x72mm bore/stroke. Rumour had it that the engine was seriously overbuilt to ensure longevity and reliability  (a high maintenance, fragile Harley would not survive long in today’s market), and so far that has been the case. Introduced in 2001 in the VRSCA “V-Rod”, the Revolution received a lukewarm reception from the notoriously traditional Harley faithful (many of whom were terrified at the prospect of losing the traditional air-cooled 45 degree twin in favour of a high-revving DOHC twin), but it showed a step towards modernity. Initial versions punched out 115hp (claimed, at the crank). So far it has only been offered in the V-Rod, with no plans of migrating into other models, despite the fears and rumours thrown around by HOG purists. 

Roehrich planned to build 50 1130s in 2008, at an eye-watering 39,995$ price tag. Acceptable considering the high component quality and hand-built nature of the beast, but hardly a bargain. For that price in 2008 you could buy the thundering Ducati 1098R homologation special, or the knee-weakening Bimota DB7 - stiff competition for a bike that was powered by what was effectively a cruiser mill.

The motor would be held in a twin-spar steel frame bonded to billet aluminum sideplates. The rear subframe mounts were carbon fibre, as was the bodywork. The fuel tank was placed under the seat, with a filler cap where the passenger seat might have been  - the “tank” was a dummy unit covering the airbox and intake of the rather tall V-Rod engine. The motor and engine management was stock Harley, aside from a chain final drive (instead of the belt drive found on a V-Rod). Honda side-mount radiators were used to maintain a slim frontal profile. An Ohlins rear shock and forks, and Marchesini wheels, suspended the whole shebang while Brembo goldline axial calipers stopped it. The parts-bin appearance was not by accident – the exhausts were from a Yamaha R1, the headlights were from a Buell Firebolt, the front suspension and triples were from a Ducati superbike, and the instrument cluster was straight off the V-Rod.    

The project had its detractors. The Revolution motor was heavy and underpowered for a sportbike, especially when you compared it to the then-king-of-the-hill Ducati 1098 which was pumping out north of 140 hp at the wheel. Weight and lack of power were the exact reasons Erik Buell had decided against using the Revolution in his lineup. The piecemeal nature of the project made the bike look like a mongrel made of various bits cobbled together; fine for a homebrew one-off, but not appealing in a $40000 hand built special. Online forums and comment threads were rife with armchair criticism and pessimism towards the whole endeavour.       

Initial reviews were favourable. The resulting bike was admirably light considering the donor motor was around 200 lbs but still a bit heavier than the competition. Handling was good, with a well-designed chassis that aped the Ducati stable-with-good-feedback formula. Some details needed sorting out, but considering the test machine was little more than a prototype built in Roehrich’s spare time the results were impressive.

That was the key. This was a labour of love for Roehrich. It wasn’t a get rich quick scheme, or a borderline fraud like some other upstart “exotic” companies that sought to charge big bucks for vapourware products. Walter built the V-Roehr in his spare time, with his own money, and he designed the damn thing himself – even the stunning bodywork was penned in part by Roehrich. The red-and-white 1130 prototype he passed around to reviewers wasn’t really a pre-production model, it was a one-off demonstrator he had built himself. He was campaigning for investors and help as much as for potential customers.

The opinion was that the 1130 made a better street-oriented sport bike than a trackday dominator, particularly with the standard V-Rod 5-speed transmission that retained cruiser gearing and a too-low first gear. Power was lacking compared to the competition. 120hp would have been competitive in the late 90s, but by 2007-2008 things were a lot more heated in the sport twin category. The 1130 retained the useable, torque-rich nature of the V-Rod but never had enough power to inspire awe.

In late 2008 an updated V-Roehr was unveiled and a new prototype was offered up for review. Clad in the same stunning bodywork, but with a new blue and silver paint job and an in-house single-sided swingarm design, the 1250SC used the updated 1250cc Revolution motor that had been introduced in the 2008 V-Rod. Otherwise it was more or less the same machine, now with a proposed price tag of $49,999.

Oh, it also made 169hp and 100lb/ft at the wheel, thanks to a clever supercharger setup developed by Roehrich (hence “SC”). That addressed the power deficit complaints levelled at the 1130.

The supercharger was a belt-driven, extremely compact Rotrex centrifugal unit that was small enough to fit under the dummy tank, with just a slight widening of the frame needed to clear the width of the drive belt. Unlike traditional superchargers, the setup on the 1250 uses a small blower with a high ratio mated to a bypass system that effectively removes the boost at steady throttle, idle, and overrun while re-circulating the pressurized air back into the compressor to ensure instant response when needed. The supercharger was setup to deliver boost proportionate to the engine speed, which gave the 1250 remarkably linear power delivery without any lag. Peak boost was 8 psi.
Because the Revolution engine was overbuilt and understressed, it was well suited to forced induction with minimal modifications. The SC retained the stock pistons and compression ratio. No intercooler was needed.  No reinforcements were needed to cope with the extra boost. Here the choice of the Revolution motor made sense. Reviewers praised the smooth, broad powerband and well-tuned power delivery that did not feel like any other forced induction motor – it was lag-free and nearly flawless, impressive stuff for an upstart company when many large manufacturers struggle with fuelling and throttle response.

Aside from the extra power the 1250SC was much like the 1130. The bike was quite heavy (reviews estimated around 500 lbs wet), handling was good but not perfect, and the V-Rod gearing was not suited for a sport bike. The fuel tank was limited to 12 litres due to the underseat arrangement, which made for a very short range. Once again, reviews noted it was better as a street sport bike than a track tool, short range excepted.

All was not well, however. Despite having a polished product that exceeded expectations, the V-Roehr was introduced at the wrong time. Up until 2008 the market for expensive and exotic vehicles was booming, along with many other luxury products (my day job is working in the luxury watch industry and we saw a huge shift in taste and demand after 2008). Once the world economy started to falter, demand for expensive, hand built playthings dwindled to nothing overnight – particularly in the US where the economy tanked in spectacular fashion. Roehrich himself admitted to financial trouble and a lack of orders, as well as a lot of cancelled deposits – he lost 11 of his 12 orders for 2008. Ominous signs were noted when Roehrich sold his prototype 1250SC on ebay in 2009 without warranty support.

In 2010 Roehrich made an attempt to revitalise his brand by introducing a pair of electric sport bikes, capitalizing on the green fad sweeping through the motorcycle industry at the time. The Roehr eSupersport and eSuperbike were built on a South Korean Hyosung GT250R chassis, modified to cope with the extra weight and power of electric running gear. The eSupersport had a single motor putting out the equivalent of 48hp, while the eSuperbike had twin motors knocking out around 96hp. The eSuperbike also featured a larger battery pack. Both received favourable reviews from the press, who had little to compare them against. 

Competition was almost nonexistent, but neither was demand. The “e” bikes were not beautiful, mouth-watering exotica like the V-Roehrs. They were clearly based on a pedestrian Hyosung, with ugly slab-sided bodywork and undersized tail sections that made them look like beluga whales gliding down the road. The price didn’t help - $16,965 for the eSupersport and $27,595 for the eSuperbike. Those were hefty premiums for a $3999 Korean beginner bike with an electric powertrain and uglier bodywork.

The electric project was an admirable attempt to renew interest in the Roehr brand but it was too little, too late. Roehr motorcycles shuttered in 2012 and there has been little word from Walter Roehrich about his plans or hopes for the future. It’s unclear how many bikes, and what models, were produced in the last 5 years. Roehrich hoped to build 50 of each V-Roehr but it seems that only a handful were completed (including one 1250SC that was recently offered on eBay). It’s always disheartening to see the personal dreams of a clever and enthusiastic individual falter, but the V-Roehr was introduced at the wrong time into a bust market, and was met with stiff criticism despite favourable reviews. 

Interesting Links
The now-defunct Roehr Motorcycles website
Motorcyclist review of the 1250SC on the 1250SC 
Road Racing World announcing the Rv1000 

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