This skunk works project could have revolutionized H-D in the 1980s.
Alternate history fiction can be interesting. What if JFK hadn’t been assassinated? What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? What if Harley-Davidson had built Project Nova, instead of going with the Evolution platform? If you’ve never heard of Project Nova, this instalment of Harley-Davidson's “Off the Shelf” YouTube series gives a quick overview of the ambitious, mostly forgotten pre-EVO Harley concepts.
First, some Harley history and background. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Harley-Davidson was in trouble. Manufacturing conglomerate American Machine and Foundry (AMF) had owned the company for about a decade, but wanted to sell it off to invest elsewhere. At the time, Harley-Davidson's lineup was based around the Ironhead and Shovelhead engines. Both had poor reputations for reliability, and the made-in-Japan competition was making inroads into the cruiser market as a result.
Harley-Davidson bosses knew they had to improve their products to keep buyers interested. To rebuild its brand, H-D started developing the Evolution engines, and also started working on Project Nova.
Project Nova was an aggressive plan, one that would have revolutionized Harley-Davidson. It was partly a makeover of the Harley-Davidson image, with a sportbike and high-tech touring machine as the stars of the lineup. It was also a major technological rejuvenation; the project had plans for a new water-cooled V-twin engine, a V4, and a V6, developed in conjunction with Porsche. Alone, this would have been considered cutting-edge in the early 1980s—V4 engines were just starting to make it to consumer bikes, with Honda’s VFR line. Nobody else was even building a V6 motorcycle at that time.
Project Nova wasn’t just about building exciting new engines, though. In the video, you can see the perimeter front brake on Harley-Davidson's sport bike. This idea did survive in the Buell lineup, with divided opinions on how well it worked. Either way, it was highly innovative during Project Nova’s lifespan.
The sport bike’s styling doesn’t look that aggressive today, but at the time, it would have been a musclebound mash-up of the era’s big-bore superbike lines with classic Harley roadster DNA.
The touring bike was also packed with wild departures from the Harley-Davidson pattern. Sure, it looked more or less like a standard H-D highway machine, but hey—check out the 4-into-2 exhaust coming from those V4 heads! There’s even a horizontally-mounted radiator under the seat; the V4 had the benefit of liquid cooling, but still looked like an air-cooled engine, an important feature for many old-school Harley-Davidson riders.
That sort of trickery spread through the rest of the bike. For example, the gas tank wasn’t a gas tank at all, it was a cover for the airbox and electronics. The fuel cell was centralized in the bike, with the gas cap behind the passenger seat, a novel feature for the time.
Eventually, R&D funds ran low. Designers wanted four-valve heads, but ran out of budget, so the V4 was saddled with two-valve heads that lowered performance. It was a harbinger of Project Nova’s disappointing end.
Ultimately, Harley-Davidson ditched Project Nova, and went with Big Twin and Sportster versions of the Evolution design. You’ll hear different explanations for that; some people say the company’s execs and the buyer base didn’t want such a revolutionary change. Other insiders say it came down to a simple matter of financing: bankers wouldn’t lend Harley-Davidson enough money to build both the Evolution and the Nova engines, so H-D went with the safest bet.
For years, it looked like the right decision. The Evolution engine is credited with saving Harley-Davidson; the Big Twin version powered tourers, Dynas, and Softails until 1999/2000. The Sportster version of the engine is still in production today, and many consider it the most reliable engine Harley-Davidson has ever built.
As for Project Nova—although the machines never made it into production, Harley-Davidson did re-use the fairing and saddlebags from the touring bike prototype, bolting them on the FXRT model in 1984. The V4 was a dead end, but Harley did team up with Porsche again in the 1990s, developing the Revolution motor, Harley-Davidson's first liquid-cooled engine, as used in the V-Rod line. Otherwise, if you want to see Project Nova, you’ll have to head down to the Harley-Davidson museum to see the prototypes, or check them out via YouTube. While you’re looking at them wonder: If Harley-Davidson had bet on the Nova, where would the company be now?