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Special Retrospective: The Birth of Victory Motorcycles

Mark TuttleMarch 17, 2017

Victory logoEditor’s Note: This story first appeared as a regular One-Track Mind column in the September 1997 issue of Rider.

Unless you’re a snowmobile, ATV or personal watercraft (PWC) enthusiast, America’s newest motorcycle manufacturer may be a stranger to you. They certainly were to me, so I sat down for about 2-and-a-half hours with Matt Parks, general manager of Polaris’ Victory motorcycle division, to find out just who these Polaris guys are, and what their plans are for the Victory (you can read our review of the first Victory, the V92C, here).

Turns out Polaris Industries is a $1.2 billion company that makes about 40 snowmobiles, 18 ATVs and about 10 PWCs, so it’s no stranger to the contemporary powersports business. The company also has a long history of R&D to back up its development of a new motorcycle line. Polaris began making snowmobiles about 43 years ago in Roseau, Minnesota, where it gets so cold they have electrical outlets in the factory parking spaces so that employees can plug in their cars’ engine block heaters.

Polaris’ good contemporary reputation is built upon its high-performance snowmobiles and successes in snowmobile racing. To round out its seasonal business the company began building ATVs in 1985, then introduced PWCs to its product line in 1992. Though partnered with Fuji Heavy Industries for most of its engine supply since 1968, Polaris is about to introduce its first in-house-built PWC engine, and the Victory motorcycle engine and chassis are completely designed and built in-house.

“Victory began in 1993 as a where-do-we-go-from-PWCs project,” said Parks. “We hired two outside consulting firms to work in parallel on a marketing study on the street bike business to see if it made sense for Polaris. We asked, ‘Does this fit with our current distribution and dealer networks and the demographics of our other products–in other words, could we sell these to our existing consumers? Does it fit within our engineering structure, does Polaris have the mentality for it, do we have the whole infrastructure to make it work? Then, if we do, where would the entry point be and what are the key features of that entry point?'”

That study, which went on from the spring of 1993 through the summer, determined that there was an opportunity for the company. “The cruiser customer was not being as well served as he or she could be,” said Parks. The Victory Team also talked to hundreds of riders, ralligoers and dealers, then in August of 1993 made a presentation to company officers. They approved, so the next step was to examine the competition to “see if we were to make a cruiser, could we make any money at it?”

The answer was yes–as long as they went with a Polaris engine. “We could build it more economically than Fuji, have more control over the design and development, and eventually be more timely.”

R&D ruled the team’s lives from that point on. They immediately went out and bought a dozen of the competition’s products, including several out-of-segment bikes like standards and sport-touring machines as well as all of the cruisers.

“And we rode them, and we spent a lot of time doing detailed analysis. Not just, ‘Well which one do you think is great?’ but detailed analysis of things like the front brakes–which one stops better, which one feels better. Then we took that analysis and instrumented the bikes (with data acquisition equipment) to see if what our rear ends were telling us was actually true. There was some stuff that we thought was really good in the cruiser business, but there wasn’t one bike that was really the pinnacle. For example, we didn’t like any of the cruiser brakes, but we did like the Ducati (Monster’s) brakes. People said, ‘You can’t use those, those are sportbike brakes.’ And we said, ‘Well, why not?'”

“In terms of chassis stiffness, we felt that a lot of the bikes had a big hinge in the middle of them. We wanted a stiff chassis with premium suspension components, so we measured torsional stiffness by twisting them on a very large jig. Our goal was to have this (the Victory) as stiff as one of the sportbike standards, and we hit our goal. We used the engine as a stressed member, and it really helps the handling.”

The large 45mm fork tubes and humongous forged triple clamps don’t hurt, either. “On a cruiser bigger is better in many cases. Wimpy doesn’t really fly.”

In early 1994, the team was ready to take the project to prototype, and the result is detailed [here]. But there are more questions to answer. What about price? Reliability?

“We’ll be competitively priced with the Japanese and Harley, but we didn’t cut any corners. It’s a premium motorcycle. Take a look at our brakes or 45mm fork and compare them to the other cruisers out there. We’re not going for a premium-segment bike that’s way up there in price, but we’re not going for an $8,999er either. We’re shooting right in the heart of the market, where the volume is.

“We know what the market expects out of a premium cruiser motorcycle. Each prototype we build will be taken to a full lifetime durability test and address any issues that arise prior to it coming on line. All engines will be dyno tested for the first year of production, then shipped from the Osceola (Wisconsin) engine facility down to Spirit Lake (the Minnesota assembly plant) and put in a bike. Then the bike will go on a chassis dyno where we can document the performance of all the items on the bike and make sure that everything works properly. So each will be run and thoroughly tested before the customer gets it. Each bike is also going to be shipped 100 percent setup so that there won’t be any setup issues.”

Polaris says it has no plans for other bikes in the immediate future, but that its long-range plans include a range of cruisers and bikes in other segments.

“We’re extremely pleased with this bike, ecstatic. But there are needs out there that we’re going to take care of with models, not by changing our base bike. We knew what those models were three years ago, and our future plans extend beyond 2003.

“Our plan is to be in the street motorcycle business, worldwide, not the North American cruiser business. Our intent was never to copy anybody, but to do it our own way, no preconceived notions, no old names from way back when–just start with a clean sheet of paper and do a better job of it.”

Click here to read our September 1997 First Ride Review of the preproduction sample Victory V92C.

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