by Kevin Duke

Hammer Time

Valentino Rossi, Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart may be difficult to beat, but perhaps the biggest Goliath in motorcycledom is Harley-Davidson. The Motor Company pulls in billions each year via sales of its iconic bikes and from the proceeds gained by merchandizing its products and apparel with the famous bar-and-shield logo.

But there’s another American motorcycle success story being written at the same time. Victory Motorcycles recently celebrated its 26th consecutive quarter of increased sales and earnings, and the subsidiary of Polaris Industries is growing at a 30-50% rate.

Victory was proud to tell us the above facts when we were in Austin, Texas, for the press introduction of its outrageous new 2005 Hammer. No, it doesn’t have a car-sized engine like the Triumph Rocket 3, but it does have the fattest rear tire ever seen on a mass-production motorcycle, a monstrous 250-section donut.

Victory reps call the Hammer their entry into the power cruiser segment, and it has already received huge positive reaction at the retail level even though it won’t arrive at dealers until March or April of next year. Reportedly, a dealer in Texas already wanted to place an order for 100 of them!

Supplying the “power” part of this new power cruiser, the Hammer is fitted with Victory’s new Freedom 100/6. A direct offshoot of the powerful 92 ci engine found in the Vegas and Kingpin, the new 1634cc motor is said to share very little parts with the older 1507cc V-Twin. Victory claims the Hammer generates 10% more horsepower and 22% more torque than the mill in the Vegas/Kingpin. Transposing the dyno figures from the Vegas we tested, the big-bore Hammer should generate about 74 hp and almost 98 lb-ft. of torque at the rear wheel.

Victory showed us some acceleration stats during the Hammer presentation, and the new bike has apparently posted a 3.9-second run to 60 mph, the same as the Yamaha Warrior. In practice, the Hammer’s motor proves to be eminently torquey, with excellent throttle response from down low on the standard tachometer, and we have no doubt this new Victory will easily run with the aluminum-framed Yamaha.

Throbby vibration from the 50-degree V-Twin is omnipresent but never objectionable. The pulsations from the engine can be reduced further on the open road by shifting into sixth gear, a real cruiser rarity and the “6” is the powerplant’s 100/6 designation. Victory’s market research revealed that the top request among cruiser customers was for a 6-speed transmission so it granted that wish. The torquier new engine easily carries the taller sixth gear without it lugging. We also appreciated the short and precise action from the gearbox, admirably light for a big V-Twin cruiser.

As befitting a true performance cruiser, Victory has engineered some additional handling and braking into the design of the Hammer. Its engine cases have been trimmed by 10mm for more cornering clearance, which Victory says offers 2 degrees of extra lean angle over the Vegas/Kingpin platform. Also getting a snip job is the Hammer’s drive belt. Although it is 8mm narrower to help fit that massive rear tire, Victory tells us we can expect 100,000 miles of life from the carbon-fiber reinforced belt.

Pictures don’t do justice to the way that 250-section boot out back looks in person. The Hammer is extremely imposing looking from the rear, especially when rolling down the road. At first it almost looks like a caricature before you can wrap your head around the concept of a fatter tire than on virtually any car produced before the 1970s. After which, you become convinced it’s one of the sickest production cruisers to ever roll down the American boulevard. It almost looks as if someone gave the rear end of a V-Rod a fat lip.

Of course, nothing in life is free, and there is a price to pay for that phat tire beyond the Hammer’s $16,499 base price. This becomes apparent early into your first corner. Despite working directly with Dunlop to develop a tire specifically for the Hammer, there’s no getting around the fact that steering a fat-tired bike disrupts neutral cornering manners. Initial turn-in is a little stiffish but not too bad. The weird part happens around mid-corner when you realize that the inside handlebar end needs continual inside pressure to keep it at a chosen lean angle. Also, road camber alters the dynamics from that gargantuan rear tire, and a heavily crowned road sloping to the right means the Hammer is leaning left. One gets accustomed to the phenomena with miles, but they are conditions never forgotten.

The rear tire proves to be compliant over small bumps, as 10 inches of rubber ruthlessly pounds them into submission like a steamroller. However, the large mass of the rear wheel and tire can overwhelm the shock damping on bigger hits. Up front, the 43mm, Marzocchi-manufactured inverted fork borrowed from the Kingpin is rigid and well damped. The dual 300mm Brembos with 4-piston calipers and braided steel lines provide power and control beyond what the vast majority of cruisers can provide.

The Hammer gives its rider clear information from the tach and speedo that is underlined by the Hammer’s handsome flat handlebar. The chromed piece is about two inches further forward than the Vegas/Kingpin bars, but short arms are stretched to their limits during U-turns. Taller riders didn’t notice, but those with T-Rex arms might want to opt for the Kingpin bar that is a direct bolt-on. A touring handlebar from Victory’s accessory catalog can pull the bars a further two inches toward the rider for maximum long-haul comfort.

The Hammer’s nice wide levers are mounted in the right spots, and its switchgear seems to be of quality stuff and is easy to use. As with all 2005 Victorys, the Hammer has a convenient set of self-canceling signals. This is a really nice touch on a motorcycle, and it’s about time the Japanese manufacturers jumped on board with Harley, BMW and now Victory in providing this handy feature.

One aspect of the Hammer that a non-Victory rider wouldn’t notice is a bunch of annoying gear whine from the engine, one of the few glitches of the older Freedom engine. Victory’s engineers redesigned the cam drive, oil pump drive and the primary gears for a reduction in the high-pitched whine that proved irritating from our Vegas test bike, and it now sounds more true to the sound of classic ‘Murrican Iron that we all expect.

The bikes we rode were pre-production units, with about 90% of the parts production-tooled. Victory also brought along a trio of hopped-up Hammers along for evaluation. A pair had been fitted with Victory’s Stage 1 kit consisting of revised ECU mapping and off-road-only (wink, wink) slip-on pipes.

The uncorked motor is more eager to rev and feels livelier, especially at its upper end. But low-end throttle response doesn’t seem quite as crisp as the stocker. Still, this is a happier engine. There is a longer plateau of torque, and Victory claims a net gain of 6 hp at 5,000 rpm, 500 revs above the stocker. The pipes are on the verge of being too loud, which should suit the typical aftermarket exhaust buyer just fine.

We also got a chance to take a spin on a Stage 3-equipped Hammer, which contains the Stage 1 items plus a set of more aggressive cams. During its in-house testing, Victory says the Sledge Hammer (our suggestion) cranks out 115 hp at 6,000 rpm, which is an incredible 27 extra ponies over the stock bike, equating to a potent 30% gain in power. However, Victory isn’t particularly satisfied with the low-rpm power of the Stage 3 engine, so it hasn’t yet settled on the cam specs. Also in the pipeline is a Stage 4 stroker kit built by S&S that increases displacement to 106 ci.

The Stage 1 Hammer we rode was fitted with an optional sport windscreen. Its super-clever design keeps wind from a rider’s body, but it induces some unwelcome turbulence around the head at highway speeds. The clever part is how the optional solo seat cowl can be quickly unfastened from the seat and plugged in to the windscreen when an attractive passenger presents him- or herself. We raise a glass to the bright engineer who came up with this intelligent feature.

For those who like to crank out the miles, we suggest the Hammer’s optional Touring mid-screen we sampled on another test mule. Its quick-release design means it can come off in seconds, and it offers considerable wind protection. The optional Corbin seat fitted to this example proved to be very plush and provides plenty of lower back support even without the included backrest.

Victory believes the Hammer will hit the 35-45 year-old demographic, and will attract previous owners of sportbikes “who don’t want an old-guy’s bike.” For the young or young-at-heart, we think the new Hammer has hit the nail on its head.