Vmax Vs Triumph Rocket III – The dual of the megacruisers

As Triumph started leaking hints and concept photos of the outrageous new Rocket III a certain feeling of deja vu settled over the hallowed Motorcyclist offices. We recalled the launch—and we do mean launch—of the amazing Yamaha V-Max 20 years earlier.

The V-Max was the first real power cruiser, with a monstrous 145-horsepower, V-four motor crammed into a surprisingly nimble, shaft-drive chassis. Back then, it was the most outlandishly powerful production motorcycle we’d ever seen. After our first rides, we all came back mumbling to ourselves as if we’d just crawled out of a plane crash.

The V-Max created a whole new class of machine; motorcycles that were incredibly belligerent and exceedingly fast, but not aimed at any kind of sanctioned racing. It was a street racer, designed and executed not just to transport its rider physically, but emotionally as well.

Since then, the Harley Phenomenon made the V-twin the Official Engine Of The Cruiser Class—though no production V-twin of any size has threatened the modern triples or fours.

Triumphant Entry

Now, Triumph has rolled out its own power cruiser—the Rocket lll. It is the biggest-displacement mass-production motorcycle ever created. If you’re looking for competitive motorcycles, there’s only one. The V-Max was astounding when it was unveiled. And it has done an astounding thing in the intervening years—it has survived, even thrived, essentially unchanged. Yamaha is rolling out a 20th-anniversary model as we write.

Bad-Ass? Or Half-Ass?

Big is big these days. For better or worse, size has replaced speed as the holy grail of power-cruiser design. And size is where the V-Max and the Rocket III differ most. At 2294cc, the Rocket III’s inline- triple is almost twice as big as the V-Max’s comparatively revvy, 1198cc V-four. Can the V-Max get anywhere as a pint-sized underdog?

The Rocket III project began five years ago. At first, Triumph envisioned it at 1500cc, which grew to 1600cc, then 2000cc, and finally this gargantuan 2294cc lump. The idea wasn’t more power: the Triumph Daytona’s across-the-frame triple makes nearly as much horsepower from 955cc. It was done to give customers (especially Americans) what we want: swaggering, Harley-belittling size.

Other engine arrangements were considered—including an intriguing transverse V-six. But the triple delivered the size, presence and power that Triumph’s Rocketeers were looking for. It also evoked the old Triumph’s heritage, the original Trident and BSA Rocket III.

The subsequent engine is pretty conventional—a water-cooled, DOHC, four-valve-per-cylinder design with the cams pushing the valves via shims and buckets. The 120-degree crank spins one way, while the balance, transmission-input and final-drive shafts all spin the other, mostly counteracting vibration and torque reaction. In neutral, you can feel the bike try to roll slightly to the right with each throttle blip, but the effect is not nearly as strong as a BMW’s.

The cylinder bores are close together—so forget about boring your Rocket to Saturn V specs. The pistons’ 101.6mm diameter is the same as a Dodge Viper’s. To keep the prairie fires burning in those wide-as-South Dakota-sized cylinders, two spark plugs are allotted for each.

As it grew, the engine started to crowd out other components, and the Rocketeers were forced to cram more stuff into less space. It’s a dry-sump design, to reduce height and improve cornering clearance. The 39-pound crankshaft is set extremely low in the chassis—eight inches above pavement. The 6.6-gallon gas tank really is the gas tank (not an airbox, as per the V-Max). The triple inhales through two separate air plenums, a primary beneath the seat and a secondary under the lurid chrome cover on the left side of the fuel tank, delivering atmosphere to the three 52mm throttle bodies. As usual these days, each throat has two butterflies: one controlled by the rider and one by the engine ECU.

The result of all that supersizing is 141 foot-pounds of torque at 2500 rpm, joined by 132.4 very real horsepower at 6250 rpm. But when you twist the throttle in first or second gear, that’s not what you get—the ECU reduces that output by 7 percent until you get well into third gear. Triumph worries about novice riders being surprised by the Rocket’s otherwise violent low-speed throttle response. This misses the point of having the world’s biggest, torquiest motorcycle in the first place. Regardless, there’s an aftermarket opportunity there that will be filled before you can get a Rocket III from zero to 60.

Although the Rocket makes more torque than, well, anything, the clutch pull is actually the lightest in the Triumph lineup. The shaft drive, a first for Triumph, is made by Graziano. Rocky Graziano the boxer, you ask? Nope, it’s the Italian gearbox specialist that also manufactures transmissions for Lamborghini and Aston Martin.

For all its carefully conceived bad-boy image, the Rocket III is actually a very clean machine. It complies with the 2007 Euro 3 Emission Standard, using two catalytic converters in the muffler box just north of the rear tire. Good on ‘em. You don’t need to smell bad to be bad.

Framing the question

Back in the Reagan Administration, we thought the V-Max’s 62.9-inch wheelbase was pretty close to that of a Top Fuel dragster’s. But at 66.7 inches, the Rocket makes Mr. Max seem positively stubby.

With the engine smoothed into civility by inherently perfect primary balance and a tuned balancer shaft, Triumph’s rocket scientists just bolted it into a chassis free of rubber mounts. That silver-painted brick of a powerplant looks odd out in the breeze with no visible means of support, but it’s perfectly logical from an engineering standpoint. There aren’t many things stiffer than a solid block of aluminum, and running frame tubes under the mill would have reduced cornering clearance and raised the center of mass for no good structural reason.

Suspension is cruiser modern: a 43mm, adjustment-free inverted Kayaba fork and preload-adjustable Kayaba dual shocks at the rear, as God and Edward Turner intended. Brakes are, thankfully, closer to superbike-spec: 320mm front discs with four-piston calipers, and a 316mm, two-piston setup at the rear.

When the V-Max hit the streets in ’85, Yamaha bragged that it carried the «biggest tire available on a production motorcycle.» That rear tire was a 150/90-15—almost the same size as the 150/80-R17 Metzeler front tire on the Rocket. On its rear is a new «biggest-ever,» a 240/50 R16 Metzeler. In fact, the rear tire is so huge, you get the feeling that you could step off and leave the bike standing there, sans sidestand, like a square-tired dragbike.

Permission to Come Aboard

Yes, the Rocket is the biggest, but the Rocketmen, to their credit, did everything in their power to keep it from feeling that way. It has the requisite wide, pulled-back Roto-Tiller handlebar, like all the other 700-pound-plus cruisers. The single seat is big and wide as well, like many of its intended inhabitants. And the separate passenger seat clicks in without bolts, pins or pads, making it easy and seamless to go from rugged single dude to doting husband.

The Rocket III may be big, but in town it’s The Big Easy. The engine, for all its mass, is mounted so low in the frame—and chassis geometry is so well sorted—that the Rocket is surprisingly manageable at low speeds. It makes all kinds of torque right from idle, and the clutch is so smooth and predictable that one feels confident and secure within seconds.

The ergonomics are swell. Many cruisers sit you up in the windblast, battling to stay upright, but the Rocket’s low seat keeps you tucked partially behind the tall tank and the dual instrument cluster. The pegs are set forward, but the reach is reasonable, and the handlebar puts your mitts in an agreeable place. Some mega-cruisers fold you like a paper clip, putting more weight on your tailbone than on your actual tush, but the Brits got this one right. The wide tank spreads your legs apart, but not uncomfortably. The huge chrome bearclaw on the tank’s left side rubs you, but not raw. Triumph sells accessory black rubber pads for the tank, but they only serve to spread your legs further, so we’d leave well enough alone.

All Ahead Full

But what about that engine, you ask? From about 11 rpm, it pulls like the anchor winch on the USS Forestall, and just keeps on going to its 6250-rpm redline. It’s amazingly smooth at lower revs, and while it tends to thrash a bit as it approaches redline, it’s never less than civil. It doesn’t respond with the explosiveness of the V-Max, to be sure. The V-Max comes on its cams—and the V-Boost, two-carbs-feed-each-cylinder intake system—at a relatively stratospheric 6000 rpm, after all, and keeps winding to nearly 10,000 rpm.

But the Rocket has the relentless pulling power today’s cruiser riders seem to crave above food, shelter and sex—OK, food and shelter. Let it pull out of corners from 2500 rpm, or keep it spinning for even more Viper-humiliating thrust—the choice is yours. Either way, there are few machines on the road that can match its irresistible urge, or its inimitable sound—somewhere between a Chris Craft speedboat and a big-block Chevy.

The glorious V-Max V-four, of course, also has a terrific engine note. If you’ve ever stood near the Christmas tree while a Top Fuel drag car does its burnout, you know exactly what the V-Max is saying at every stoplight…»C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.»

At the strip, reality confronted our raised expectations. The Rocket is an 804-pound motorcycle, after all, making 132 horsepower at the rear wheel. And with its ECU (slightly) neutering power delivery in first and second gear, it was not significantly faster than a V-Max.

While prerelease hype suggested it might be the quickest and fastest straightline motorcycle ever, there are in fact other Triumphs that will give the Rocket III a run for its money. That said, a best quarter-mile run of 11.27 seconds at 119.92 mph remains a very impressive achievement for such a huge motorcycle.

Where does that put our beloved, if aging, V-Max? Way back in ’85, our test bike ran a 10.67 at 128.1 mph, and we’ve seen similar times over the intervening 20 years. Changes have been limited to a bigger fork, a slightly quieter muffler, better brakes and a succession of paint schemes. In the interests of scientific honesty, we admit that our last V-Max strip session actually put the V-Max a gnat’s eyelash slower than the Rocket, with a 11.30 at 119.84 corrected run. The two monsters were essentially equal from zero to 60—the V-Max was a couple tenths faster to 100 mph, and the Rocket fired from 60 to 80 mph about half a second quicker. We know that many standard Maxes have gone quicker and faster. And of course, there’s a 20-year stockpile of go-faster parts available for V-Max addicts—which they can afford, since the basic Max sells for almost five grand less than a Rocket.

The Rocket’s transmission, while not quite GSX-R crisp, works smoothly and positively. Neutral is easily located, and the shaft system is similarly refined—for all the torque it’s transmitting, it’s remarkably free of the shaft-induced stiffening of the rear suspension under power, due in part to its rigid, modern frame and long swingarm. There’s some driveline slop detectable in on/off throttle situations, but one adapts quickly on the road. The injection mapping is excellent—you simply get what you ask for, right now, with no discernable hiccups or flat spots.

Whoa there, Big Fella

Straights inevitably end in corners, and such bends are the, er, downfall of many cruisers. The Rocket’s brakes are up to the demands of a very fast, very heavy machine, pulling the Rocket back from low orbit with a minimum of drama or lever effort. When you arrive at those bends, the stiff frame and reasonable geometry make for a generally positive experience. Even with the widest set of tires ever spooned onto a production motorcycle, the Rocket’s steering is agreeable. The wide bars afford plenty of leverage to roll quickly from side to side, and the steering stays neutral even braking deep into apexes.

If the road is smooth, all’s well; the Big Guy arcs around like one of those roadracing German big rigs you see at 2 a.m. on the Speed Channel. If there are significant bumps, however, things are not so rosy. We learned to pick our lines carefully, as the wrong bump at the wrong place in a corner could bounce us clean out of the seat and off line. The sheer weight of the machine overwhelms the shocks’ ability to control wheel movement. Blame cost-conscious shocks, with stiff springs, compromised damping and limited rear suspension travel (designed to keep the seat height low and the shaft effect to a minimum.) Not to mention the mass of the huge rear shaft housing struggling to track undulations.

Triumph has pages of accessories ready to help you dress up your Rocket, but we’d spring first for a nice set of aftermarket shocks, with adjustable damping and more ride height.

Taller, better shocks would also improve cornering clearance. One hesitates to run the Rocket into a bumpy, decreasing-radius corner while the long peg feelers are already trailing sparks like a flak-riddled kamikaze. Those peg feelers are probably a good thing for most of the Rocket’s real target customers, who are not buying it for its back-road scratchability, after all. And it should be noted that, at the press intro, few riders touched down anything but the pegs.

Still and all, the Rocket III makes even gnarly, twisty roads lots of fun; you just take your fun a little slower in the corners than you would on, say, a V-Max. The Yamaha is taller, lighter and more responsive—all in all, it feels like the Rocket’s more excitable little brother. Its relatively short wheelbase and taller chassis let you go faster. Where the Rocket paws the ground, the V-Max paws the sky, and that’s one of the reasons for its legendary status.

A comparison of these two bikes’ handling comes down to a stiff, modern chassis limited by cornering clearance versus a dated cycle capable of leaning over a little further. The V-Max chassis is decidedly flexy compared to the more modern Rocket, and its short swingarm and underdamped rear shocks let the rear suspension extend whenever it’s asked to handle a lot of torque…which means about every five seconds.

The narrow, bias-ply tires are also less than confidence-inspiring, despite providing enough grip to let you drag various hard parts on the pavement. The net result is that through the bends, the V-Max can walk away from the Rocket. But neither bike is designed for this foolishness—a fact that becomes very evident when you reach the first decreasing-radius switchback.

The Rocket crushes Mr. Max on longer, straighter rides. First off, the Yamaha only holds four gallons of fuel, giving you a nervous 90 miles before the underseat tank goes on reserve. The Rocket carries a full 6.6 gallons, giving it a real 200-mile range; the V-Max might be faster for short sprints, but on a 500-mile day it’ll be left behind at the pump. The Rocket also wins in the luxury department&151its seat is wider, softer and more comfortable, and its ergonomics hold up better as the miles roll on. The Rocket has the classic wide-armed, wide-legged, big-guy cruiser riding stance. The V-Max position is much more distinctive; with your hands relatively close together and your feet right under your haunches, you feel like Toby Maguire on Seabiscuit. And the V-Max’s oddly rounded saddle doesn’t work for long-haul touring.

Where the V-Max does work is on the streets of just about any city you can imagine. Where the Rocket’s ample mass, ultra-wide bars and splayed-leg riding position make one hesitate to attack congested streets, the V-Max’s narrowness and explosive power turn short-haul commuting into a tire-smoking, license-shredding bachelor party.

Style Over Substance Abuse

We can jaw all day about the function of these two-wheeled manhood enhancers, but how they look is at least as important as how they work. The V-Max set a new mile marker for manly styling cues when it debuted, with its art-directed V-four, mantislike tank scoops and hunched-vulture profile. And to truly succeed, the Rocket III will have to be seen as equally nasty if it expects to set the new standard.

The Rocket also has to justify its inline-triple architecture. A comparison between the Rocket’s initial concept drawings and the final production machine show one glaring revision: the exhaust system on the engine’s right-hand side. The designers’ renderings show beautiful tubular headers swooping forward before they curve back underneath and to the rear. The production version has stubby pipes dropping straight down, in a fashion that suggests more Massey-Ferguson than Harley-Davidson.

The Triumph folk say the short, straight headers are the result of practical ergonomics: They had to be that way, in other words, to keep from toasting a rider’s boots against the headers. And in the heat-management arena they succeeded brilliantly; we noticed few stray BTUs sneaking around the elaborate heat-shielding system.

The surface of the engine may also be cause for some controversy; its silver finish and ribbed texture may be appropriate from an engineering standpoint, but it lends a certain Celica-missing-a-cylinder look to the engine itself. We’ve often criticized cruiser stylists for adding faux fins to liquid-cooled engines to impart a more «traditional» look. And we’d probably be berating Triumph if it had done the same, callow and fickle critics that we are.

We suspect that both Vance and Hines are furiously designing more curvaceous headers and pipes for the Rocket III, and that some future Rocket will be offered with black-finished engine cases to tone down its sheer aluminosity.

For all our overanalysis, the Rocket III is an unambiguous hit in the innocent eyes of the general public. Just as the V-Max did when it hit the streets in ’85, the Rocket III gets about the same positive reaction as a healthy, uninhibited coed on Girls Gone Wild.

Sorting It All Out

In many ways, the Rocket III represents not a competitor to the hallowed V-Max, but rather an evolution of it. The Yamaha was a sensation for three reasons: it looked great; it was crazy fast and felt it; and it worked as an urban assault vehicle. It was beautiful, crazy and smart, all at the same time. But like most of the Motorcyclist staffers, the idea of the perfect power cruiser has become bigger, slower and more deliberate with age.

The Rocket III is no less of an engineering achievement—but for an audience that wants more than sheer blistering speed. Size, sound and show are everything to today’s cruiser riders, with actual velocity relegated to fourth place at best.

Triumph has done a wonderful job of turning the Rocket III from what initially looked like a Photoshop Frankenstein into a very real and very effective all-around motorcycle. The final product combines an audacious look with some very impressive engineering. It is at once outrageous and practical, raucous and refined, balls-out and laid-back, macho and manageable. We applaud Triumph for its vision, for its determined execution—and for its sheer corporate courage. Like the V-Max before it, the Rocket III may have changed motorcycling forever.

Off the Record

Age: 45
Height: 6 ft. 3 in.
Weight: 210 lb.
Inseam: 35 in.

I’m constantly, consistently amazed by what people are willing to do with this whole cruiser thing to get some attention. At first all you needed was a new Harley to turn heads at Chuy’s. Then everybody had one, which meant writing a huge check to Jessie James or Arlen Ness or those Orange County Chopper lobotomites. Once upon a time, an 88-inch Milwaukee twin really was officially big. Now Kawasaki’s top-of-the-line Vulcan comes with a two-liter V-twin; bigger than any engine that doesn’t live under a hood. As if that wasn’t enough already, there’s this 2.3-liter Triumph thing. Plenty of people more discerning than I already love it. Whack the throttle and it pulls with the same hypnotic velvet whoosh that Dad’s 440-inch Chrysler New Yorker did. Trouble is, the Triumph feels like it weighs only slightly less than the ’70 New Yorker. Its comic-book styling is perfectly proportional if your significant other is built like Jessica Rabbit, but it’s too much for me. This just in: Bigger is not necessarily better. If the idea is carting the biggest engine imaginable from place to place for others to ogle, I’ll load a blown 526-inch Keith Black Hemi in the back of a pickup. Or maybe I just don’t get it. On second thought, I’m sure I don’t.

—Tim Carrithers

Age: Frequently
Height: Barely
Weight: Patiently
Inseam: 30 in.

Even before he took the name Muhammed Ali, Cassius Clay was a brash, colorful, trash-talking loudmouth. His Olympic gold medal almost automatically made him a contender for the heavyweight title. The reigning champion, Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston, was Clay’s antithesis: a sullen, mob-connected thug with the hardest punch in boxing. At the weigh-in, he predicted that he’d knock Clay out in the second round, if not sooner. The bookies seemed to agree, making the champ an 8-1 favorite.

When it came time to compare the brash, over-the-top Rocket 3 with the long-reigning power cruiser champ, I felt the same way. «Sure the Rocket is big and a media darling,» I thought «but the V-Max’ll knock it out.» And in a straight fight – on the drag strip or between traffic lights, for example – the Yamaha can still outpunch the Triumph. Riding the 20th Anniversary V-Max reminded me why this two-wheeled thug has so many fans. But…

I’m not damning the Triumph with faint praise when I say this: the Rocket simply works better than the V-Max as an all-round motorcycle. And let’s face it: the bruiser-cruiser class is all about attitude. People shouted «What is that?» from crosswalks, gave me the thumbs up from cars; one rider on a Honda 919 stared so long he almost crashed. That’s why the Rocket 3 is the new champion in this category.

Is it the next V-Max? Ask me again in 20 years.





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