It took a long time for Honda and the other Japanese companies to learn the secret of making popular cruisers for the US market, but once they got the bug, there was no stopping them.
With a long, low chassis, two-tone paint schemes, big air cleaner boxes and siamesed exhausts, the 110mph Shadows could well be mistaken for something kinda Harley-ish perhaps? Not that Honda would copy anything of course, but any confusion could end up selling a few thousand cruisers. Which is nice.
The Harley rider came out of the Denny’s Diner in Bakersfield, California as I pulled up and killed the Shadow’s engine. Fortyish, bearded, leather-jacketed, he sauntered over to his Softail parked alongside. As he gave the Honda a long, slow look up and down, I waited for the inevitable jibe about Jap crap or Harley supremacy. ‘Nice bike,’ he said, smiling broadly, before firing up his Harley and heading off. And much to my surprise, almost everyone else in California who commented on the big, brash VT1100C Shadow which will belatedly be on sale in Europe, though not officially in Britain, next year said much the same thing.
Those who didn’t look closely probably thought it really was a Harley, so slick a styling job have Honda done on their big cruiser. There’s even a ‘Made in USA’ logo on the back of the seat. Like Kawasaki’s rival 1500cc Vulcan V-twin, not to mention most Harleys, the VT1100C is assembled in the States using a mixture of Japanese and American components.
Unlike the rather fat and ugly Kawasaki, though, the Honda is a good-looking motorbike. All the cruiser essentials are there: the long, low lines; the high handlebars, stepped seat and sissy-bar; the lustrous two-tone paint (available in a huge variety of custom colour combinations in the States); the neat detailing and eye-catching chrome.
The finned 45-degree V-twin engine looks the part, too, though the slim radiator up front gives away the fact that the 1099cc motor is cooled by water rather than air. It’s a typical Honda unit: single overhead cam, three valves per cylinder with maintenance-free hydraulic adjustment, and a claimed maximum output of 59bhp at 5000rpm.
The Shadow’s chassis is predictably basic, with a simple steel frame holding kicked-out forks and a pair of angled-forward shocks. Wheels are five-spoke alloys, and come in 19-inch front, 15-inch rear sizes, the rear wearing a chunky 170/80-section Dunlop. Braking is by a big single 336mm front disc with twin-pot caliper, plus a 180mm rear drum.
Everything about bikes like the Shadow is designed for round-town pottering and posing, for which there are few better places than Los Angeles, where I started my trip. The handlebars are high; the footrests so far forward that on the first few trips you tread air after pulling away. The upright riding position and low, shaped seat encourage a slow-speed style that’s perfect for seeing and being seen.
The big motor chuffs softly through its shotgun pipes, and thuds away pretty cleanly from low revs, with a little evidence of drive-shaft torque reaction as you go up and down through the rather slow four-speed box (Euro-spec Shadows will be five-speed).
American magazine’s comparison tests have rated the Honda motor less torquey than its Harley and Kawasaki rivals, but for leaving the lights on Sunset Boulevard I can’t say I was disappointed. Peak torque of 70ft.lb arrives at just 2750rpm, which makes for enjoyable short-shifting. Compared to most bike motors, the VT lump is impressively flexible.
Happily, the same thing isn’t true of the frame. With a wheelbase of 1650mm the VT is massively long, but for such a barge it handles tolerably well. Its wide bars give plenty of leverage, and the suspension is not too bad, having plenty of travel and a fair amount of damping at both ends. The tyres are adequate and so are the brakes, which slow the 539lb Honda with an urgency Harley would do well to note.
The Shadow is simple and convenient to use, too. Basic instrumentation is backed-up by good mirrors and push-to-cancel indicators. There are even wire guards to stop your throwovers getting caught in the back wheel. Nevertheless, I wasn’t expecting too much as I strapped my worldly goods to the back in preparation for the 300-mile trip north to Monterey for the US Grand Prix.
Thankfully, I needn’t have worried. The Shadow worked just fine on the freeway, at least given my fairly lazy (but still illegally fast) cruising pace of around 65-70mph. The big motor was impressively smooth, and remained so even on a quick blast up to the indicated 95mph that is not far short of its top speed.
The exposed riding position isn’t designed for long-haul comfort, and my shoulders and bum were starting to complain after the couple of hours it took to empty the 13-litre gas tank. Still, a useful range of over 100 miles is not too bad for a cruiser. (The key, I think, was my camera bag, bungeed to the pillion seat and acting as a useful backrest.)
Yes, it works pretty well, this Honda. Better than I’d expected and better, perhaps, than a glitzy showboat like this has any right to. To some people, of course, that’s not enough. For all the Great American Public’s positive comments, home-town boys Harley have 65 per cent of Stateside cruiser sales (the biggest sector of the market), with the opposition nowhere in sight.
It’s much the same story over here, too, and unlike most European importers Honda UK will not even be bringing in the Shadow. But the bike is bound to be grey-imported via France, probably selling for around £5000. Not everyone wants to ride the Milwaukee bandwagon, after all, and the VT1100C is a handsome and competent alternative.
Engine……….Watercooled SOHC 6-valve 45-degree V-twin, cc 1099
Claimed power (bhp)……….59 bhp at 5000rpm
Transmission……….Gear primary, Four speed box, shaft final
Front tyre……….110/90 x 19 Dunlop F24
Rear tyre……….170/80 x 15 Dunlop K555
Front suspension……….41mm telescopic; 160mm travel
Rear suspension……….Twin shocks with 5-way preload adjustment; 100mm wheel travel
Front brake……….336mm disc with 2-piston caliper
Rear brake……….180mm drum
Top speed……….95 mph
Fuel capacity……….13 litres