Tag Archives: Harley-Davidson

Behind the scenes at Progressive Suspension

1 Sep
Progressive_Main
By Dennis Johnson

At Progressive Suspension’s La Palma, Calif., headquarters — it houses corporate offices, R&D, production capabilities and warehousing — the atmosphere hums with the buzz of business.

It is spring, and Dealernews is getting an inaugural tour of the company’s newly expanded facilities courtesy of marketing director David Zemla. “We’re going into the season, so we’re filling shelves,” Zemla said. We passed rows of warehouse shelving stacked deep and high with products.

The company has its roots in Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles. It relocated to the California high desert town of Hesperia for a time before returning to La Palma in 2006. Its recently refurbished HQ — home to its corporate offices, R&D, production and warehousing — is located adjacent sister company Performance Machine. Both are owned by Motorsport Aftermarket Group.

As Zemla leads the way toward a new clean room and assembly area, he explains the company’s lifetime warranty on nearly every shock that retails for more than $500. It’s this warranty on a wearable item that is a strong selling point for Progressive products.v The all-white clean room helps keep contaminants at bay during shock building; impurities can reduce life expectancy and performance of the damper. Custom equipment was installed so that the company could expand applications for its Frequency Sensing Technology, which allows for on-the-fly, dynamic damping control. Watching the building process on a 970 Series piggyback shock, one can see the technical nature of suspension and start to understand what Zemla means when he says Progressive is staffed by a coterie of “overzealous engineers.” Seems there’s a lot more to shocks than springs.

We were getting a peek behind the curtain of one of the more unique aftermarket companies in the industry, a company that builds a high-end, premium-priced, highly technical product that is applicable to multiple vehicle segments, including the V-twin, adventure bike and trike markets. Progressive also specializes in an aspect of riding that’s often viewed as the voodoo science of a vehicle’s operation. It’s not that people don’t get the importance of good suspension, it’s that they often don’t know the what and why behind sag, rebound, preload and squat.

FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
Founders Don Rickard and Jay Tullis launched their suspension business with upgraded twin shocks for the Honda Gold Wing. Tullis was also a desert racer, so the company then added shocks for dirtbikes.

“Early on the founders didn’t see in the aftermarket the kind of suspension products they wanted to see on the motorcycles,” said David Shirley, company president. “Some of [the early work] was service replacement parts — they were filling a need. Then that went more into increasing performance and finding a better spring. It then grew from there.”

As the fledgling company moved into building and designing dampers and springs, the work started getting more technical in nature, Shirley said. As the company moved into new markets and expanded its product line, it made a conscious decision to design and build shocks that would outperform stock. Today, ride quality and performance are the primary considerations of any product Progressive develops, Shirley noted. “If we don’t see the performance at our [required] price point, we won’t do the product. It always needs to be an upgrade in performance, aesthetics and longevity,” he said.

The company has a product development process that often starts with a simple customer request and then winds its way from the drawing board to high desert and mountain test rides. Progressive also test rides new motorcycle models to determine the needs of a particular machine. This aspect of development sometimes leads to new technologies, Zemla said.

The process is an exercise in determining at what price point the shock should be offered, which features it should or shouldn’t have, and whether it meets market demand. It’s also a constant push-pull of making suspension parts that need to be not only technically superior, but also look cool.

The initial development process is almost always technology based and a purely engineering-centric endeavor. The shocks are generally designed from the inside-out. Once the damper is created, the focus turns to aesthetics. “The challenge for us — really any suspension company — is the minimal opportunities on a shock for visual changes to create a unique product,” Zemla said.

It’s definitely a case where form follows function — of all a motorcycle’s moving parts, its suspension takes a licking. It’s up to the R&D process to make sure it keeps on ticking. As part of the testing process, suspension components are subjected to a barrage of tests designed to find their breaking points. This fatiguing of shocks happens both on-road and through testing on Roehrig shock dynamometers, the same equipment used in NASCAR. Every damper the company builds gets dyno tested, but it’s the on-road portion that’s of particular note.

“Progressive North” in Hesperia still handles application work such as fitment and measuring, computer modeling, dyno cycling, and road testing for both on- and off-road suspension applications. The high desert offers plenty of trails and access to twisties and elevations in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains where much of the pavement is beat up to suspension testing perfection.

“Product development for us is a combination of lab testing and real live on-road work,” Zemla noted. “Having the opportunity to ride the same roads for decades keeps the data collection very consistent from bike to bike.”

The La Palma HQ houses the main R&D room. Two motorcycle lifts take center stage. In the corner is one of the shock dynos and related test equipment. Parked near a metal roll-up door is a fleet of test bikes. Sitting astride one of the lifts is a secret Sportster project featuring products that merely mentioning them in this space could put one on a certain watchlist. It’s out of this room that much of the local test riding happens. One of the current bikes is a “Sons of Anarchy”-style Harley-Davidson Dyna, which is sporting a set of the company’s “take-apart” shocks, which are built for easy tear-down and quick retuning so they can get the bike back on the road for testing.

“Every shock is torture-tested beyond what the OEM piece would survive,” Zemla said. “Everything we do has to be superior to the OEM offering.”

THE CHALLENGE AT RETAIL
The fact that suspension remains one of motorcycling’s black arts presents a particular challenge when it comes to marketing and retail sales. Although moto-journalist David Hough explains in “More Proficient Motorcycling” that any motorcyclist who wants to be serious about riding needs to understand suspension, few are in the general riding public.

Progressive Suspension addresses this dynamic by using social media channels and participating in many online forums. The direct-connection approach allows consumers to learn about the products and get direct technical feedback, which in turn drives more pull-through sales and dealership inquiries. Continue reading

Anybody know about the Valleymen Motorcycle Club?

21 Nov

Valleymen M.C. sign

A couple years back I picked up this sign at the Long Beach antique swap and have been looking for info about the Valleymen Motorcycle Club ever since.

Valleymen M.C.A Google search turns up some info, such as this page from a 1965 issue of American Motorcycling. The Valleymen M.C. out of Reseda, Calif., are listed as newly chartered AMA club. Another result is from a V-Twin Forum in which someone posts that his parents rode with the Valleymen in the 1960s. Still another is an obituary for Pauline Clarre Jennings, who, along with her husband Dean, rode with the Valleymen until he died in 1988.

I would love to know more about this sign and about the Valleymen. Anybody know anything?

Motorcycle history: badges, tanks and logos

6 Nov

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

The history of the motorcycle business is filled with brands that have come and gone, and then sometimes returned only to go away again. Along with each of those brands is a logo, a design that often reaches the level of high art, while others are more pedestrian. Motorcycle enthusiasts, being the sort of passionate, whacked-out group that they are, make sure that these brands never really disappear.

One of those obsessive gearheads is Virgil Elings, the owner of the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum. His collection is a broad selection of bikes both odd and rare, motorcycles he’s been collecting for more than two decades. Had a chance to visit the museum in early October. Here’s a gallery of tank badges, brand names and logos on the selection of motorcycles — they are rotated out each month — that were filling the space of the former Brooks Brothers store that houses the museum when I visited.

If you’re ever up in Solvang or headed to Santa Ynez wine country, it’s well-worth a visit.

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Solvang Vintage Motorcycle MuseumSolvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

Raising the dead: Past thoughts on Harley-Davidson’s Iron 883

15 Sep
Iron 883 Harley-Davidson

Image courtesy of Harley-Davidson

It’s been four years since Harley-Davidson introduced the Iron 883 as part of its Dark Custom lineup, and the same timespan since I got one for a test ride and review. That bike is still one of my Top 10 fun bikes to ride. There’s something very no bullshit about it.

At the time, it seemed that Sportsters were still H-D’s dirty little secret — one viewed by the Harley faithful as the Motor Co.’s “little bike” or “girl’s bike.” Since then, you can’t hit the So Cal highways and byways without spotting a Sporty blasting down the lanes, rider decked out in the proper uniform — open-face helmet, T-shirt or T-shirt/flannel combo, skinny Levis and Converse/Vans/work boots/hipster boots.

The Sportster!This is great as the Sportster, in all of its incarnations, is an absolute blast to ride. Lightweight and zippy (well, zippy enough). At one time in my two-wheeled life, I owned an Ironhead Sportster (hey, there it is to the left) that sat more often than it ran, but damn did it look good sitting there. The problem was electrical gremlins (after a homegrown rewiring job) but it also liked to shed parts while going down the road. Take the generator for instance. No really, take it, because it’s laying back there in the No. 1 lane on Artesia Blvd. in Torrance. Bolt holes in the case stripped out easily and had to to Heli-Coil or filled and retapped. Damn do I miss that bike.

Well the new generation of Sportsters has found a new generation of fans and that’s pretty cool. In honor of these little runabouts, I’m resurrecting a review I did back in 2009 on the Iron 883.

For me, one of the absolute wonders of riding a motorcycle has always been that minute you crest a hill and start to let gravity influence your ride. Where it’s less of you piloting the bike and more of you just riding it. While I love uphill cornering and sections of twisties — with all the physics they represent as I roll off, brake, lean and accelerate in that sublime danceable rhythm — it’s that moment, when you’re no longer pushing it that grabs me and lets me fly.

As a kid I used to trek up to the higher points of the South Bay area of Los Angeles on my Strand cruiser and then make that bomb run downhill. Free flying. Wind swooping. Sensory overload. The pull of flat land bringing you down to its level. It’s the pure sensation of motion, where movement and rolling forward is the only thing.

While riding pretty much anything with two wheels and a motor is a good time, some motorcycles are just more fun, the kind of fun that hints back to those coasting runs on 26-inch balloon-tired wheels. I found this sensation recently on Harley-Davidson’s latest introduction to the Dark Custom line, the Iron 883.

Harley-Davidson Iron 883Much like its older brother, the Nightster, the Iron 883 is simply a motorcycle in its most basic form. There’s no bells and whistles and with the Motor Co.’s Dark Customs, that seems to be the point. It’s a blacked-out version of the Sportster 883 Low that’s lighter by about 20 pounds and a lot more sparse and gritty given the flat paint scheme, some sweet rubber fork gaiters and the taillight/brakelight/turn signal combo and fold-away license plate that first appeared on the Nightster.

Unlike the Nightster’s spoked wheels, the Iron 883 comes with black 13-spoke cast aluminum wheels — not much of a difference in my book, though I’m partial to the traditional chrome spokes (Yes, that’s a horrible pic to the right). Also unlike the bigger blacked-out bike, the Iron comes with narrower, tucked-in handlebars that give the already compact package a slightly tighter feel. (It’s also three inches shorter in total length than the 883 Low.)

The styling is immaculate and lives up to Harley’s reputation for a beautiful fit and finish — right down to the black plastic cover that covers the standard rear brake fluid reservoir. Chrome staggered dual pipes help offset the whole black-out theme. It’s a nice contrast.

How does all this translate into on-the-road riding? It’s simple, not only is this a great entry-level bike as it’s very, very easy to ride, it’s also a great little get-around-town ass-kicker of a hot rod for those looking for a bit more oomph. The Nightster’s 1200cc motor offered that much more power, but even the pared down V-twin in the Iron gives enough go-go grunt to smear a smile across your face.

For those requiring rocket-style speed, the Iron probably isn’t for you. But those looking for a broad torque band can find it here. I should note that the bike pulls strong while clicking through each gear, but almost as a matter of course I was hitting the rev limiter through every speed. It was an odd sensation and I couldn’t see where my RPMs were as the Iron is tach-less.

But getting to the earlier point, this is simply a fun bike to ride. It’s in the class of motorcycles where it’s less about operating the bike  and more about riding it. It’s almost an intangible feeling Continue reading

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