LISTEN 11:20

Back in 2001, Harley-Davidson branched off into a sector I’d never thought to see, that of street performance machines. Sure enough, The Motor Company has had a hand in racing for years, from the old board trackers to the flat tack and the big hill-climbing events, but this isn’t quite the same thing as street-drags, and success in one sector does not necessarily guarantee success in another. H-D looked to broaden its range into the streets with the original VRSC, and the family has continued to evolve over the years.

Enter the 2017 Harley-Davidson V-Rod “Night Rod Special”, the low, dark and sinister branch on the V-Rod family tree. Given that the sportbike market is as competitive as ever, and the burgeoning “power-cruiser” sector is starting to elbow its way in as well, “stoplight burners” like this have an uphill battle to gain any real ground, especially for companies that are showing up late for the party. (Cough, H-D, cough cough.) Still to be fair, Harley has made some significant inroads thus far, and this latest variant looks to expand the VRSC footprint a bit further. Let’s see how they did.

Continue reading for my review of the Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special.

  • 2015 - 2017 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
  • Year:
    2015- 2017
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Model:
    Night Rod Special
  • Engine:
    Liquid-cooled, Revolution®, 60° V-Twin
  • Displacement:
    1247 cc
  • Top Speed:
    118 mph (Est.)
  • Price:
  • Price:


2015 - 2017 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
- image 671442

Born on the dragstrip, the VRSCDX carries the unmistakable genetic markers of the ’01 VRSC, “First of His Name,” that introduced the world to a whole new type of Harley. Built like a sprinter crouched at the blocks, the Special has an all-up-front look that speaks to its lot in life as a street dragster. The raked out front end suggests great straight-line stability at speed, while a postage stamp-sized “speedscreen” provides a little fairing atop the headlight can and presents minimal resistance to penetration.

Though the presence of a radiator is implied beings how it’s a water-cooled engine, H-D did a good job keeping the ugly thing out of sight with a slightly less-objectionable cover that serves both as a rock guard and an air scoop that corrals the airflow across the radiator for a ram-air effect that ensures adequate cooling underway. It ain’t exactly pretty, but it beats the alternative by a mile.

The upper lines flow along the curved fuel tank, then dive down to the deep-scoop saddle that is all that keeps your butt on the bike when you drop the hammer. A vestigial pillion pad sits on top of a tapered, “fastback” rear fender that looks as if it could have come off any of a number of racebikes around the world.

Although it runs a V-twin mill, the 60-degree angle just doesn’t quite have the same charm as a 45-degree lump, but in this case the engine isn’t necessarily the showpiece, it’s the actual engine performance that takes center stage. Of course, the mainly black engine almost gets lost amongst the all-around blackout treatment, sort of the opposite of a showpiece mill.


2015 - 2017 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
- image 671448

A modular frame combines hydroformed main rails with a steel upper frame and bolt-on lower rails, a visible skeleton that comes well exposed and almost looks like a distant cousin to the race-proven Trellis frame, and a cast-aluminum swingarm completes the assembly. This exposed frame and minimal appointments leave the Special flirting with naked-bike territory, which is a nice look, and it fits with the street-drag culture that crosses brand boundaries.

The steering head is set up for a 34-degree rake and lengthy, 5.6-inch trail, an arrangement that should provide plenty of stability on the straights, but may be a bit of a wrestling match in the corners. Yeah, it’s a trade-off, but you don’t get to have it both ways, and it does have a maximum lean angle of 32 degrees, so at least you won’t be scraping anything when you do get her heeled over.

In keeping with current popular design, H-D used a set of 43 mm forks to buoy the front. No adjustments for compression/rebound damping, etc., but at least we’re seeing something other than the old-fashioned style of forks. The rear shocks are limited to a simple preload adjustment, and the front and rear suspension travel is 4-inches and 2.9-inches, respectively. Not quite as sophisticated as you might expect on a road- or circuit-race machine, but I reckon drag bikes don’t have the same needs.

All of the Night Rod Specials get cast-aluminum, five-spoke rims shot in blackout paint, but while the Vivid Black models come with an orange pinstripe, the others all run a machined-aluminum accent stripe. The 19-inch front and 18-inch rear rims mount sticky, Michelin Scorcher “11” hoops, with a 120/70 up front and a massive, 240/40 in back. That’s some serious rubber, folks.

A bit weighty at 666 pounds and built to sprint, the Special needs a lot of braking power to keep the energy under control. H-D was not negligent in its duties, and it blessed the Special with 300 mm discs all the way around. Dual, four-piston calipers slow the front wheel with another quad-pot binder to slow the rear. ABS protection comes standard.


2015 - 2017 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special Exterior
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The VRSC mill represents a sharp departure from the norm for Harley with its water jacket and 60-degree V. Porsche’s influence is strong, and it comes through in the over-head cam, shim-under valvetrain on the Revolution engine. A short stroke engine, the 105 mm bore and 72 mm stroke adds up to a total displacement of 1,247 cc. A downdraft throttle body with sequential port injection manages the induction, and thank goodness H-D found an alternative to the great, big, honkin’ ham-can air cleaner inflicted upon the Sportster line.

A five-speed tranny with a slip-and-assist clutch couples rear wheel to engine power. The first-gear ratio is set to come out of the hole, while the other four are rather close for tight powerband management when headed down the strip or street. I am glad to see the slipper clutch here, because things can get real exciting when you try to scrub speed after a run, and this should prevent any rear-wheel hop or other such problems. Instead of a chain, the factory uses gears for the primary drive, and as usual we get a reinforced belt and pulleys for the final drive.

Now for performance numbers and some stark realities. The Revolution mill churns out 83 pound-feet at 6,750 rpm, not bad for such a small engine, and it turns in quarter-mile times around 11 seconds at around 115 mph. While this is enough to smoke most “regular” bikes out there, some of the race-inspired European power-cruisers and streetfighters will absolutely destroy the Special, rider skill notwithstanding. So, although Harley is moving in a progressive direction (finally), they are still playing catch up, and haven’t quite arrived just yet.


2015 - 2017 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
- image 671440

The 2015 VRSCDX rolls for $16,549 in Vivid Black, or $16,899 in Black Denim, or the new-for-2015 Deep Jade Pearl or Superior Blue. Prices for the ’16 models jumped by $300 across the board, and as usual, Vivid Black is the basic paint package, while Olive Gold, Velocity Red Sunglo and Charcoal Denim make up the custom sheet-metal packages. For 2017, prices took a massive $700 hit — quite a shot when there’s nothing new but paint since last year and no Vivid Black base model. Paint choices for 2017 are Black Denim, Crushed Ice Pearl, Velocity Red Sunglo, Corona Yellow Pearl, or Crushed Ice Denim. No matter what color you choose, you can tack on a $390 shipping fee, $395 for the security option and a smooth Franklin for the California emissions package.


2015 - 2017 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
- image 671462
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- image 671463

Cruiser-esque drag bikes are still something of a rarity, and I had a real hard time finding a machine with just the right build and engine size. So with that in mind, I went with a machine that is relatively similar, and that has been burning up U.S. streets for many a year, the VMAX from Yamaha.

Right off, you have to admit they both look the part, like purpose-built drag machines — the only things missing are the air shifters and wheelie bars. Both are lean and aggressive, but the ram-air intake scoops on the VMAX ratchet up the Boss-factor several notches. You’ll notice they both run pilot seats with deep scoops for heinie retention, but the VMAX utilizes a jockey-style rider triangle that I know from harsh experience is better for drag runs than the windsock position on the Harley.

As previously mentioned, I didn’t find another 1,250 cc machine that I liked, so the 1,247 cc Night Rod gives up a few cubes to the 1,679 cc VMAX. Predictably, the 1/4-mile times reflect this size difference. While the Special turns in decent times around 11 seconds with 115-plus mph speeds, a top-notch drag pilot can milk over 135 mph out of the VMAX with something just under 10 second runs. Pretty big difference to overcome on race day, but since most of us will never see the “inside” of a dragstrip, who cares? Just exactly how quickly do you need to get to that next red light (or speed trap)? Just sayin’...

Despite the engine size offset, these two machines carry very similar stickers. H-D actually squeaks in a rare win in the price category at $17,449 for the ’17 base model, while the base VMAX rolls a bit higher at $17,990. Okay yeah, the VMAX has a bigger engine and better track times, but I can tell you this won’t be enough to drag even the most progressive-minded Harley fan across the fence, they will just start looking for Screamin’ Eagle products to help level the playing field is all. It ain’t right, it ain’t wrong, it just is.

He Said

“I’ve said before how much I loathed the VRSC when it first came out, and I was a’feared that my beloved Harley had sold out to the crowd who would really do better to look at an import instead. I didn’t realize at the time that it was just another branch of the tree, and not destined to become the main trunk. To be fair, the rumor mill at the time had it that EPA standards were going to force H-D out of air-cooled engines entirely, and this water-cooled ride just seemed to “bend the knee” to the politicians and bean-counters that make up said standards, and the poor, poor VRSC became the whipping boy for all sorts of resentments against The Powers That Be. I’ve since broadened my view a bit, and see that the sky is not, in fact, falling. Not only that, but I have come to appreciate performance at least as much as looks, maybe more, and suddenly the VRSC family in general, and Night Rod Special specifically, is much more attractive to me.”

She Said

My wife and fellow writer, Allyn Hinton, says, “I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be going that fast with my feet out front. It’s kind of a cross between a drag bike and a cruiser. I’m not really feeling it. That VMAX, on the other hand.....”


Engine: Liquid-cooled, Revolution® , 60° V-Twin
Valves: Overhead cam, 4 valves per cylinder, solid tappet with shim-under-bucket lash adjustment
Bore x Stroke: 4.13 in. x 2.835 in. (105 mm x 72 mm)
Displacement: 76.1 cu. in. (1247 cc)
Compression Ratio: 11.5:1
Fuel System: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Air Cleaner: Down draft intake
Lubrication System: Wet-sump, integrated with powertrain crankcase
Primary Drive: Gear, 64/117 ratio
Final Drive: Belt, 28/72 ratio
Clutch: 9-plate, wet, Assist & Slip
Transmission: 5-speed
Gear Ratios (overall): U.S.
1st: 11.752
2nd: 7.897
3rd: 6.322
4th: 5.459
5th: 4.899
Frame: Steel perimeter upper frame with hydroformed main rails and bolt-on lower frame rails; MIG welded
Swingarm: Polished, one-piece cast aluminum with black powder-coat finish
Front Forks: 43 mm Inverted
Rear Shocks: Preload adjustable
Wheels: Black, Split 5-Spoke Cast Aluminum with Pinstripe
Front: 19 in. x 3 in. (483 mm x 76 mm)
Rear: 18 in. x 8 in. (457 mm x 203 mm)
Caliper Type: 4-piston front and rear
Rotor Type (diameter x width): Patented, one-piece floating rotor (front), uniform expansion rotor
Front (dual): 11.81 in. x .2 in. (300 mm x 5.1 mm)
Rear: 11.81 in. x .28 in. (300 mm x 7.1 mm)
Anti-lock Braking System: Standard (Optional in Canada)
Suspension Travel:
Front: 4 in. (102 mm)
Rear: 2.9 in. (74 mm)
Engine Torque(per J1349) North America: 83.4 ft. lbs. @ 6750 RPM (113 Nm @ 6750 RPM)
Lean Angle (per J1168):
Right: 32°
Left: 32°
Fuel Economy (EPA urban/highway test): 37 mpg (6.3 L/100 km)
Battery (per Battery Council International Rating): Sealed, maintenance-free, 12V, 19-amp/hour, 270 cca
Charging: Three-Phase, 38-amp system (439W @ 13V, 2000 RPM, 489W max power @ 13V)
Starting: 0.08 kW electric with direct drive starter motor engagement
Lights (as per country regulation):
Headlamp (Quartz Halogen): 55-watt low beam, 60-watt high beam
Tail/Stop Lights: 8W/28W reflector optics
Indicator Lamps: High beam, neutral, low oil pressure, turn signals, engine diagnostics, security system (optional), coolant temperature, low fuel warnings
Length: 96.1 in. (2440 mm)
Overall Width: 35 in. (890 mm)
Overall Height: 41.9 in. (1065 mm)
Seat Height:
Laden: 25.6 in. (650 mm)
Unladen: 26.6 in. (675 mm)
Ground Clearance: 4.5 in. (115 mm)
Rake (steering head): 34°
Fork Angle: 34°
Trail: 5.6 in. (142 mm)
Wheelbase: 67 in. (1702 mm)
Front: Michelin® Scorcher® “11”120/70ZR-19 60W
Rear: Michelin® Scorcher® “11” 240/40R-18 79V
Fuel Capacity: 5 gal. (18.9 L) (warning light at approximately 0.5 gal.)
Oil Capacity (w/filter): 5 qts. (4.7 L)
Coolant Capacity: 2.5 qts. (2.4 L)
As Shipped: 637 lbs. (289 kg)
In Running Order: 666 lbs. (302 kg)
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating : 1075 lbs. (488 kg)
Gross Axle Weight Rating:
Front: 377 lbs. (171 kg)
Rear: 698 lbs. (317 kg)
Warranty: 24 months (unlimited mileage)
Service Interval: First 1000 miles(1600 km), every 5000 miles(8000 km) thereafter
2015: Vivid Black, Black Denim, Superior Blue, Deep Jade Pearl
2016: Vivid Black, Charcoal Denim, Velocity Red Sunglo, Olive Gold
2017: Black Denim, Crushed Ice Pearl, Velocity Red Sunglo, Corona Yellow Pearl, Crushed Ice Denim
2015: Vivid Black: $16,549, Color Option: $16,899
2016: Vivid Black: $16,849, Color Option: $17,199
2017: Color $17,849
TJ Hinton
TJ Hinton
T.J got an early start from his father and other family members who owned and rode motorcycles, and by helping with various mechanical repairs throughout childhood. That planted a seed that grew into a well-rounded appreciation of all things mechanical, and eventually, into a formal education of same. Though primarily a Harley rider, he has an appreciation for all sorts of bikes and doesn't discriminate against any particular brand or region of origin. He currently holds an Associate's degree in applied mechanical science from his time at the M.M.I.  Read full bio
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