PHOENIX, Ariz.--A decade ago, Harley-Davidson had the cruiser motorcycle market to itself--which was eminently fair, since the company had defined the category for a century and outlasted names like Indian, Excelsior and Henderson. Today, Harley's market share has been cut in half, as Japanese, German and even some upstart American companies have begun producing machines that mimic the iconography of a Harley cruiser--the big, popping V-twin engine, the sling-back chassis, the blinding chrome--while offering greater engineering refinement and reliability.
Meanwhile, the market itself has moved away from Japanese crotch-rockets--or, if you prefer a less phallocentric phrase, sport bikes. Once on the unshaven fringes of the motorcycle world, cruiser bikes now represent fully two-thirds of a newly upscale, affluent and discernibly grayer market.
Alas, something elemental has been lost in these ersatz hogs--something snarling, something menacing, something wicked this way went. Enter Titan Motorcycle of Phoenix, Ariz., the maker of the world's most exclusive and demonstrably diabolic custom bikes. Titan is the Aston Martin of the bandannas-and-babes set, a publicly traded company ($35 million in annual sales) building premium choppers that start around $22,500 and top out at more than $60,000.
Founded in 1994 by Frank Keery, Titan designs and builds bikes out of only the most rarefied components. Since they do almost no fabrication, Titan is essentially a cobbler's shop drawing from the collective offerings of high-end customizers. "We do everything that Harley-Davidson doesn't do, mechanically and aesthetically," says tattooed service manager Dan King.
Titan's eight-bike catalog is divided into two categories: the rubber mounts (softtails, in Harley parlance) and solid mounts (hardtails). The latter are gritty, tail-dragging choppers with fork rakes of up to 36 degrees, about the angle of Dennis Hopper's bike in Easy Rider. While these bikes have a torsion bar "suspension" at the rear hub, the ride is as brutal as a Hell's Angel security operation. Interestingly, despite the lofty price tags of Titans, its most popular model is the Gecko SX solid-mount, which no moneyed dilettante would get near. Plainly, Titans have something hard-core purists think is worth the price.
It could be the power. At the heart of these bikes is a tweaked S&S brand V-twin canted at 45 degrees with classic pushrod valvetrain and that distinctive, dog-in-the-dryer exhaust note. Most high-end Titans are powered by a 96-cubic-inch motor (110 pounds-feet of torque and 94 hp), considerably bigger and rawer than Harley's biggest offering, an 88-incher.
At the top of the line is the Shelby Series 1 commemorative Titan--a bike sold exclusively to clients of the legendary racer and car builder Carroll Shelby, he of the Shelby Cobra. Shelby's newest project is the Series 1 supercar. Titan clients can buy a Series 1 bike with a VIN number matching that of their car, with bodywork and paint schemes tailored to give the owner a matched set. Apropos of the theme, the Shelby bike sports a massive 112-inch, 115-hp monster motor sawing the pavement with more than 125 pounds-feet of torque. The Shelby Series 1 motorcycle features commemorative touches like engraved engine heads and signatures on the tank from Shelby and Keery.
Aesthetically, the Titan Shelby shares much with the Series 1. The one-piece aluminum tank captures the lurid curves of the roadster, right down to the glaring Cobra eye badge. Like the car, the bike can be ordered with burgundy or blue stripes or in the plain Centennial silver finish, sans stripes. The oil bag (the faring under the seat, for the hog-impaired) features the same Jules Verne gill plates as the car wears behind the front wheels. And the Dippity-Do curl in the car's spoiler is restated on the bike's rear fender, complete with LED brake lights. Five-spoke alloy wheels (21-inch front, 17-inch rear) and a carbon-fiber Borla exhaust pipe complete the look, which says, "Me and my broker are gonna tear up this town."
Otherwise, the Series 1 comprises a Titan Gecko RM, which is no mere bike to start with. Every solid-metal component is hewed from billet aluminum and polished to a mirror finish--the foot pedals, the twist grips, the clutch and brake levers. While "rubber-mount" actually refers to the method of attaching the motor to the custom chrome-moly frame, rubber-mount bikes also have a 12-inch, adjustable rear shock to help take the renal failure out of long-distance riding.
From the gigantic cross-drilled brake rotors to the Cuisinart aluminum wheels, the Titan incandesces with brilliant brilliant and beautiful pieces.
What is it like to ride? We borrowed a Gecko RM for a day's cruise to Taliesen West, Frank Lloyd Wright's desert school, and found the Titan to be utterly easy to ride, very fast. With its center of gravity appearing to be somewhere beneath the crust of the earth, the low-saddled bike is very stable and manageable in tight city traffic. No need to muscle it around. Add to that the wet clutch and belt drive (the inner sprocket is chain-driven), dual-front disc brakes and damped steering, and the Titan is awfully refined for a chopper.
But the highway is its true element. Skin back the throttle, and the Titan surges ahead vengefully like it's late for a rumble. And speaking of rumble: Few motoring experiences equal the rib-rattling cannonade of these bellowing bikes at full tilt. It is a symphony of delinquency that could surely get you thrown out of the Sierra Club.
The only downside to the Titan Shelby is the dearth of, shall we say, street cred. If veteran bikers disdain weekend riders on $20,000 Harleys, what must they think of old goobers on commemorative Titans costing 50 grand? Whatever it is, we probably can't print it.