3 Things I Really Appreciate About the Air-Cooled V-Twin Engine

I tend to run in two different crowds.

I have friends who love Harley-Davidson’s air-cooled V-Twin, and wouldn’t ride anything else, as well as those who would ride a mule before they’d throw a leg over a Harley. I get it (to some degree). The Europeans and the Japanese have pushed the boundaries of engine design and mass produce incredible machines that crank out horsepower and performance that Harley owners can only dream of.

I often hear, from the “I don’t really like Harley” crowd, that they can appreciate the style of these bikes, but feel like the old tractor engine is just too antiquated. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions on such things, but here are three things I really like about the air-cooled V-Twin.

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  1. It’s been around the block a few times: You might be thinking, “This is 100-year old technology, of course it’s been around for a while.” Yeah, and that’s the point. The design works. Whenever I’m getting my hands dirty maintaining or modifying something on these engines, I’m impressed with the skill the early designers had to cast parts and manufacture these early machines without any of the modern tools they have today. Earlier this week, I was talking to a local builder here, John Ward of RawTin Garage, about a 1916 Harley restoration he was a part of last year. You get pretty intimate with a motorcycle when you're tearing a bike down to the frame and rebuilding it. His philosophy in restoring the bike was to use the same types of techniques those early engineers would have used to build the bike in the first place. He said he felt they were ingenious when you considered the tools they had then vs. now. “Of course the Twin Cam or the Evo engines are more reliable and make more horsepower, but the tools they use to design and build those engines are much more advanced.”

  2. They are relatively simple: This is definitely related to the above, but I really like the simple and straightforward nature of the air-cooled V-Twin. If you have an interest in learning, are willing to get your hands dirty, and can invest in the tools to do so, anyone with a little bit of shopsense can maintain and repair these engines. I’ve come to appreciate, working on my Salt Flats racer and the other bikes in my garage, that I’m more intimidated by some of the projects I’ve tackled than they are difficult. Tearing into the top end of the Buell, for example, was more straightforward than I expected. And, how the bike worked made a lot of sense to me after pulling it apart. Because of what I do for a living, the lion’s share of my time is spent at a desk behind a computer, the simple nature of the V-Twin was the perfect fit for my desire to do something more hands-on and tactile. It’s very satisfying to understand how the machine works and be able to do something to impact performance.

  3. It’s a beautiful machine: I personally am not a fan of covering up the engine with a lot of body work. When a manufacturer does that, they don’t have to pay much attention to how the engine looks, because it’s going to be hidden. Because the air-cooled engine needs to be visible and exposed to the wind to keep cool, how the engine looks is an important part of how the bike looks. I think Jay Leno once said he liked being able to look through the engine to the other side. I agree. I’m also pretty old school in that I really like the chrome, and waste far too much time keeping the bike clean so I can enjoy how it looks. That being said, I consider myself a rider and none of the bikes I own sit in the garage to get occasionally rubbed down with a diaper. I have them to ride them—yet I also appreciate that they are mechanical works of art.

Of course, my friend Steve (although he currently owns a Buell X1) has always been a fan of the bikes made in Japan and also owns a Honda Goldwing and a 750 Yamaha. He feels the same way about his bikes. He understands those engines and enjoys working on those Japanese bikes every bit as much as I enjoy working on the bikes in my garage. That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla ice cream. We don’t all like the same things.

The Dalai Lama said the secret to happiness was, “To want what you have.”

I think the air-cooled V-Twin is a beautiful and functional engine and enables my bike to take me anywhere I want to go. I think the Dalai Lama is right.