Nova The V-4
Harley you never saw!
For a company that's been manufacturing motorcycles for a century,
Harley-Davidson hasn't often rocked the two-wheel world back on its heels. Even
the V-Rod, as radical a departure from Milwaukee orthodoxy as The Motor Company
has ever produced, breaks very little technological ground compared to bikes
from its competitors overseas. But for a brief, shining moment 25 years ago,
Harley sat poised to blow the roof off the motorcycle market-and its own
reputation as a manufacturer of stodgy, technically unsophisticated
products-with a dazzling new model powered by a water-cooled V-4, code-named
Even a quarter of a century after the fact, Harley-Davidson, a
notoriously close-mouthed company when it comes to motorcycles that never got
past the prototype stage, is reluctant to discuss the details of the Nova
project. But not even H-D could withstand two years of constant, good-natured
badgering by American Rider, intent on bringing the Nova story to light. And so
recently the factory not only granted us the rare privilege of access to
archival material (where we were astounded to find five Nova prototypes
gathered together in one place) but also invited us to its own photo studio for
a historic session with the Nova in front of the camera.
At the time
of the Nova's conception, Harleys were powered by big-bore, long-stroke,
slow-revving pushrod engines. A healthy Harley in a good state of tune might
register 50 horsepower on a rear-wheel dynamometer. The plethora of
short-stroke, water-cooled, overhead-cam engines that the overseas competition
would eventually usher in were still just a gleam in their designers' eyes. But
in 1976 Harley put into motion a plan to design and produce a radically new
family of motorcycles powered by a series of engines that would incorporate all
those modern features...and produce up to 135 horsepower.
| Brad Chaney
After several years of development and
testing, and with a planned release date of mid-1981, the Nova project had at
least 30 engines and 12 complete, running motorcycles to show for its efforts.
The engines had more than 2,000 hours of testing, and the bikes had logged
100,000 miles on the road. Engine tests and handling evaluations had all been
completed without experiencing any major structural failures in either the
chassis or the engine. One of the prototypes even met strict California
In all, Harley spent more than $15 million on
development and testing (about $40 million in today's dollars), and even
invested another $1 million in die-cast tooling for the crankcase. By then the
only task that remained was to invest in additional tooling, set up the
production line and begin turning out Novas.
And yet the Nova never made it past the prototype stage. The
prototypes were rolled, not into the light of day, but into the dark recesses
of a warehouse, away from the public eye...until now.
The Nova grew out
of a series of meetings held in mid-1976 that is still referred to in Harley
executive's lingo as the Pinehurst meetings, held at a resort hotel in North
Carolina, with the aim of mapping out a 10-year product plan for
Harley-Davidson motorcycles. There it was decided that due to the proliferation
at the time of high-tech motorcycles from other countries, and their wide
acceptance by American motorcyclists, a redesign of the current 74 (1,200cc)
shovelhead engine would be insufficient to guarantee the company's long-term
growth. So planners proposed a two-pronged strategy to ensuring Harley's
First, because of the established product line's loyal
following, they set into motion an advanced V-twin project with the goal of
updating the shovelhead Big Twin and Ironhead Sportster. The eventual result
was the Evolution engine.
At the same time, an all-new machine with
advanced technology would be developed to appeal to riders who wanted more
contemporary performance. Harley's engineers laid out a number of concepts on
the Pinehurst table, including a series of motorcycles powered by three basic
multicylinder, water-cooled engines in six displacements-the Nova family-all
incorporating the latest technology. By the close of the Pinehurst meetings,
the planners had mapped out Harley's future as a manufacturer of both
traditional and cutting-edge motorcycles.
The Nova's mission was to
penetrate the 500cc to 1,000cc market-Harley's smallest air-cooled V-twin
engine was 1,000cc (the Sportster)-and attract the growing population of
performance-hungry riders. The Nova family, which perfectly bracketed the most
popular segments of the world market, could both fill voids in the American
market and give Harley a presence on the international scene.
Harley's engineering resources would be severely stretched with both programs.
While most of the designers were motorcycle enthusiasts, not all were
card-carrying engineers. The task of developing the Evo, in both Sportster and
Big Twin iterations, was daunting enough-the Nova would overload H-D's
engineering capacity. The solution was to farm out the powertrain's design and
Harley solicited detailed design proposals from three
companies, then cut the field to two-Ricardo in England and Porsche R&D in
Weissach, West Germany. Porsche was eventually selected and subcontracted at
the end of 1979 to design and develop the Nova engine and transmission. All
chassis development and testing would be done in Milwaukee.
To cover the desired range of
displacements, the Nova family would share many common, interchangeable
components. The basic concept revolved around a 60-degree V-cylinder
arrangement of two, four and six cylinders. Other requirements included liquid
cooling, double overhead camshafts, a balance shaft to reduce vibration and a
five-speed gearbox. The valve gear and even the gearbox were to be
interchangeable. In addition to carbureted models, a fuel-injected version
would also be developed.
All the engines were designed to use either
200cc or 250cc "wet" cylinder liners and pistons. These would interchange
between the V-twin, V-4 and V-6 engines (see chart, Nova Displacements, page
34). So the 800cc and 1,000cc fours are basically made of two 400/500cc twins,
and the 1,200cc and 1,500cc six-cylinder versions consist of three banks of
The bore sizes were set at 66mm and 74mm (2.60 and 2.91 inches)
for the 200cc and 250cc cylinder displacements, respectively, with a common
stroke of 58mm (2.28 inches). This gave a very modern oversquare bore/stroke
ratio of 1.14:1 for the smaller engine and 1.28:1 for the larger size. The
short stroke would allow these engines to rev safely to nearly 10,000 rpm, an
impossible speed for a 5,000-rpm Big Twin with its long stroke of nearly 4
The cylinder heads feature two valves with bucket tappets
actuated directly by overhead cams. Harley looked seriously at a four-valve
head, but staying close to its conservative philosophies, chose the least
complicated configuration while not ruling out a change later on-the production
two-valve heads were designed to be adaptable to a four-valve layout.
Harley engineers had developed a preliminary design for the entire family
before the detail design of the first engine-the 800cc Nova 8-was started. This
size was considered the middle ground of displacement ranges thought to be the
most promising. The cylinder bore and stroke were also based on engineering
analysis of noise management, something Porsche had considerable experience
As engine development proceeded, the chassis designers weighed
the final-drive options. Belt final drive was not perfected then, and they
chose not to trust it for the high-performance Nova. That left either shaft
drive and chain drive. Despite its advantages in terms of cleanliness and low
maintenance, shaft drive was seen as too complex, too heavy, and too costly to
repair or replace. It also absorbed about three percent of the engine's power
every time the drive changed direction, twice in the Nova's case.
Despite Harley engineering's reluctance to
adopt the shaft, it proceeded with that alternative. In fact, there was even
open discussion of turning the engine 90 degrees in the frame, with the
cylinders protruding sideways in an arrangement similar to Moto Guzzi's; this
would eliminate one of the two right-angle drives in the shaft. That discussion
was quickly dropped.
By the time the FLT hit the market in the fall of
1979, belts had been proven and the shaft lost what little appeal it had for
Harley engineers. The final drive of choice became the belt, with a chain
option. Besides, if needed, the shaft could always be resurrected in the
The Nova was never intended to look like any of the
traditional Harley V-twins, since its target market consisted of
performance-oriented riders accustomed to the styling of Harley's overseas
competition. But Willie G. Davidson, who oversaw the Nova's appearance, refused
to buy into the function-over-form philosophy prevalent in the styling of
high-performance bikes of the day, insisting that a large, flat radiator stuck
on the front of the bike was an affront to the eye. (Davidson holds this
opinion to this day, as evidenced by the V-Rod.) It was his insistence on a
concealed radiator that led to one of the Nova's most unusual-and
patented-features, an underseat radiator.
The radiator lies almost
horizontally, with two large forward-facing scoops protruding forward from what
normally would be the fuel tank, funneling air into a plenum chamber above the
radiator. A fan under the radiator pulls air through it, down and rearward,
away from the rider and passenger. What began as a styling imperative offered
inherent advantages. The air intake is mounted well above ground level,
preventing debris from being sucked into the radiator. Because the airflow is
channeled and controlled, a smaller radiator can be used with greater
efficiency. And almost as important at the time, the "invisible" radiator kept
Willie G. and his stylists happy.
A pressed-steel backbone-style
frame-strong, light, and easy to manufacture-has a rear subframe welded to it,
and uses the engine as a structural member. With no front downtubes or
radiator, the engine bay has a clean look, and the cylinders' "cooling fins"
give the engine an appearance of being air-cooled.
With the fuel tank
displaced from its traditional location by the cooling system, H-D engineers
designed a saddlebag-style tank that straddles the radiator. There is a
distinct advantage in this location: a lower center of gravity. Engineers had
minor concerns about the possibility of vapor lock caused by radiator heat, and
the problems associated with the fuel pump and plumbing-required by the tank's
low position-but these issues were considered easily surmountable. The tank's
placement also limits fuel capacity, and therefore range. The solution, though
not elegant, is huge side panels, perhaps the Nova's single styling blemish.
As dyno rooms hummed and prototypes logged test mileage, the Nova
appeared close to launch. A project of the Nova's scope, however, required
solid backing from the check-writers at the corporate level, and Harley's
parent company at the time, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) not only backed
the Nova, but supported Harley's overall growth. Under the direction of AMF
president Rodney C. Gott, who was a motorcycle enthusiast, Harley acquired the
York final-assembly plant. The company grew with the influx of capital, and new
people were brought in. Jeff Bleustein, who joined AMF in 1971, moved to the
motorcycle group in 1975 under Motorcycle Group Executive Ray Tritten.
The next year, Vaughn Beals joined as Deputy Group Executive of the motorcycle
group, taking an office next door to H-D President John Davidson, and the task
of rebuilding the company to improve quality and productivity began. After
Beals convened the Pinehurst meetings in 1976, The Motor Company began moving
in a new direction, one that included the Nova project. In the years of 1978
through 1980, the motorcycle division was perhaps AMF's largest profit center,
according to Bleustein.
Then Gott retired, Tom York took over AMF,
and the outlook suddenly changed. Previously AMF's business was roughly half
industrial and half leisure, Harley being part of the latter group. In a major
shift in strategy, York ordered the expansion of the industrial side, and
financed it with profits from the leisure side. Under this plan
Harley-Davidson, AMF's largest profit generator, would become the cash cow,
milked of capital to feed other business interests. The Nova project,
ultimately considered expensive and risky, fell victim to the bottom line, and
In a way, however, the Nova's demise sparked
Harley-Davidson's resurgence. Cutting Nova funds was one of the reasons Beals
led the so-called "gang of 13" to propose buying the company back from AMF. AMF
agreed, and by mid-1981 Harley-Davidson became a privately held company. Highly
leveraged with an enormous bank debt, Harley's future options boiled down to
just two-either continue development of the Evolution V-twin, or build the
Nova. The Nova was the long-range hope, the 10-year promise. But air-cooled
twins promised the most immediate cash flow. And so the Nova died yet another
Even so, Harley execs continued searching for investors to fund
a manufacturing plant for the Nova. As late as 1984, Beals, along with Chief
Engineer and Nova Program Manager Mike Hillman, and Operations Vice President
Tom Gelb, made presentations to many companies in the United States and Europe,
but had no success.
Among the what-ifs that inevitably attend a story
of shattered dreams are these: What if Harley-Davidson had gone ahead with the
Nova? What would it look like today, and how would it compare to its
competition? And there's another question that's just as intriguing; what if
Harley had chosen the other path, and dropped the Evolution altogether in favor
of the Nova?
H-D Chairman and CEO Jeff Bleustein has his own answer.
"You never know," he said. "You make the most of whatever decision you make
because you don't get a chance to play it both ways. We're certainly not
unhappy in the way our fortunes have gone."
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