Built by gray-haired engineers and it runs on diesel
Up to 100 mph; Up to 80 mpg; Built by gray-haired engineers; And it runs on diesel
http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=716897 (link with pics and vid)
Ex-Harley staffers go full-throttle with their idea of fun
By RICK BARRETT
Posted: Feb. 11, 2008
They call themselves the Gray Eagles, a group of senior engineers who would rather build motorcycles than play golf.
In a small, modest workshop in the Menomonee Valley, the Gray Eagles have built a powerful street bike that looks like a Harley-Davidson, kind of sounds like one, but has a diesel engine.
The motorcycle was developed over the past several years as a demonstration of engine technology for the U.S. military. With a little luck, it could become the nation's first turbocharged, diesel-powered bike aimed at riders wanting something different.
The bike could easily top 100 mph and get about 80 miles per gallon of fuel at normal highway speeds.
Harley-Davidson officials have looked at the bike three times, perhaps because several of the Gray Eagles are former Harley engineers and executives.
Nick Hirsch, head of the project, was Harley's director of advanced engineering for about nine years. Now he is president of Advanced Engines Development Corp., a small Milwaukee firm that has developed engines for the military.
Karl Nilson, another Gray Eagle, was a Harley engineer involved in a secret project to produce a sophisticated motorcycle that would have been years ahead of its time.
Called the "Nova project," it sputtered to a halt in the early 1980s when Harley teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
Dave Caruso, another Gray Eagle, was a Harley executive and now serves as a consultant to the motorcycle company.
Don Kueny was chief engineer at the former Outboard Marine Corp., the maker of Johnson and Evinrude outboard engines.
All together, the Gray Eagles have decades of high-level engineering and business experience.
Nilson has a more humble description of the group.
"We are just a bunch of old guys with a common background. Gear heads is the term you might call us," he said.
Room for improvement
The diesel-powered motorcycle is a prototype based on a Harley 1988-vintage FXRS chassis and a V-twin gasoline engine converted to run on diesel fuel.
"This is our first cut at it. We can improve the performance to where it's better than a stock gasoline engine," Hirsch said.
The project started as an experiment meant to show the military the potential of a V-twin diesel.
It has morphed into something that might attract a motorcycle manufacturer wanting to offer an alternative in an industry that's based on gasoline engines.
"There's going to be a niche for diesel bikes. I would be very surprised if the Japanese aren't working on them now," Nilson said.
Harley officials won't comment on research and development or products pitched their way from outside the company.
But if the Gray Eagles are successful, Nilson said, it could be reminiscent of the Nova project.
Plans for that bike included a six-cylinder, 150-horsepower engine capable of blistering acceleration and speed.
There were about a dozen Nova prototypes built, with thousands of miles driven on rural Wisconsin roads.
The bikes were camouflaged to conceal some of the radical technology, which included an unusual under-the-seat radiator.
"But we had plenty of (trade secret) leaks," Nilson said. "Every time that we stopped for gas, people asked about the bike."
The Nova grew from a series of meetings that Harley executives held in 1976 at a North Carolina resort. One goal was to develop an all-new motorcycle that would appeal to riders craving more power and speed.
About $15 million was spent on the project before Harley decided to shelve it in the early 1980s.
The company's engineering resources were severely strained at the time, he said, and company executives decided to channel their money into a major redesign of the company's traditional V-twin engine.
"You can't blame Harley for what they did. It saved the company," Nilson said.
The Nova wasn't supposed to look like a traditional Harley. Co-designed with German engineers from the Porsche company, the bike was radical for its day.
"There was an unbelievable amount of technology packed into that motorcycle," Nilson said, including features that Japanese motorcycle manufacturers didn't have for another seven years.
Some of the bikes still are in Harley's warehouse, Nilson said.
The Gray Eagles' diesel bike also is laden with advanced engine features, including a computer-controlled fuel injection system.
Each of the Gray Eagles has brought something different to the project, based on their decades of experiences.
"We just sort of cross-pollinate ideas, and we aren't afraid to criticize each other," Hirsch said.
The diesel bike has been an interesting experiment which, like the Nova, might never make it to mass production.
"The problem is that investors don't want anything to do with engines because they are capital intensive, have a long gestation period and have a slow payback," Hirsch said.
The military has a limited number of dirt bikes powered by diesels.
"There's no reason that a diesel wouldn't work in a motorcycle. There's just no huge market push for it right now," said Mike Osenga, publisher of Diesel Progress magazine in Waukesha.
About 50% of the automobiles sold in Europe are diesel powered, and their use is growing about 20% a year in Asia.
The new diesels, including the one developed by the Gray Eagles, are built to meet stringent pollution standards.
"If you are buying your first car in Europe and want to be environmentally sensitive, you are probably going to buy a diesel. With 20% to 30% better fuel economy, they produce less carbon dioxide and have very sophisticated (exhaust) treatment systems," Osenga said.
The Gray Eagles aren't betting their pensions on the success of their diesel bike.
"None of us are depending on this becoming a smashing success," Hirsch said.
Their passion for engines and motorcycles keeps them coming back to the shop they call the "skunk works."
Nilson has about 15 bikes in his home garage. At 66, he still rides high-performance motorcycles.
"I know the diesel will come to fruition someday. I just hope that I live long enough to see it," he said.