It was hot in St. George, Utah. The temp had grudgingly fallen from 112 degrees to 106 in the early evening. A small group of motojournalists were present for the introduction of a new Harley‑Davidson model. It was the late 1990s.
After a day in the saddle – interspersed with misting tents to keep death at bay – we did what sane people do: We retired to the hotel bar. I sat next to Earl Werner, then head honcho at Harley Engineering. I’d always thought him an interesting man because he didn’t have a Harley pedigree, which can often lead to a reluctance to innovate. He came over from General Motors, where he worked on Corvette projects, among others. We talked in generalities, mainly about the uncomfortably hot day we had just spent together.
I asked him what his goal was for Harley‑Davidson. His answer has stuck with me for decades. “I want to build the biggest, baddest motorcycle in the world!” It wasn’t just the words that grabbed me but also the passion with which he said them. I wasn’t sure if what he said was wishful thinking or if there was a specific idea behind it. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask.
Any journalist worth their keyboard continually hears rumors and receives tips. Most of these never pan out, and many are red herrings used to distract. The idea that Harley was working on “big” motors was always a hot topic.
I kept hearing about a 122-cubic‑inch motor under development (the largest at that time was the Twin Cam 88), but I could never find any solid proof. Occasionally, the word “Conan” would pop up. At that time, I assumed it was an internal code word for another H‑D model. I asked a friend at the executive level if he could offer any details. “Nope, don’t know anything about it,” he said – or words to that effect. Conan gradually faded from my mind, and I assumed it was just another red herring. Until recently.
Setting a record for what is surely the longest period between an answer and a follow‑up question, I recently (20‑some years later!) asked Werner, now retired, about his quote. He confirmed that Conan was an actual project, and the surprising part was its configuration: a 3‑cylinder radial motor of more than 180 cubic inches, more than twice the displacement of Harley’s production motor. He offered no further details, so I’ll guess that this radial design was an inline graft of a third cylinder with the 45‑degree spacing maintained.
This brought to mind the W3 motorcycle, a 3‑cylinder radial of 150ci displacement that was brought to market by Feuling Motorcycle Company in 2001. I recalled that Jim Feuling had worked with H‑D in the mid‑1990s on developing the Twin Cam 88 motor. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that fact.
So what happened to Conan? Odds are that tradition killed it – it was just too far outside the Harley aesthetic box. I can’t help but think that somewhere in the secret chambers of Harley‑Davidson still sits a dusty “biggest, baddest” cruiser with Earl Werner’s fingerprints all over it.
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