Recently, I saw a headline about the Michigan State Police doing motorcycle performance testing for police department use. It reminded me that not too long ago the city of Myrtle Beach switched motorcycle brands, moving away from riding Harley-Davidson models and switching to Hondas. Ironically - and I am sure purely coincidentally - the change came not long after the city’s mayor and city council members decided to do away with the annual Harley-Davidson Rally (at least inside the city limits) by enacting a series of ordinances designed to discourage motorcycle tourism (most of which were eventually nullified by the state supreme court) and banning Bike Week vendors inside city limits.
Part of me can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t just another expression of hating on Harleys. Harleys, after all, have a long and distinguished history as service vehicles for the United States military and law enforcement agencies, so I decided to take a closer look at the switch made by Myrtle Beach from Harleys to Hondas.
When asked about the change, Myrtle Beach City Spokesman Mark Kruea replied, “We switched to Hondas a few years ago. As I recall, reliability and serviceability were factors in that decision, but [Myrtle Beach City Support Services Division Police] Capt. [David] Knipes is better qualified to answer.” Unfortunately, Captain Knipes, who I also tried to reach, did not answer my e-mail, but the top dog in the MBPD, Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall, did.
According to Gall, “We were leasing Harley-Davidson Motorcycles and motor officers tested and liked the maneuverability of the Honda Police Motorcycle. When the [Harley] leases expired, we purchased the Hondas.” The city has a fleet of seven 2009 Honda ST 1300s that the Chief said are used year-round. I asked if either Harley-Davidson or Honda dealers or manufacturers gave any special considerations to the department in the form of motorcycle donations or exceptionally low leases (which I didn’t say out loud might sway the city’s decision) and the chief replied “No.” When compared to the Harleys they used to ride, Chief Gall said he didn’t have any specific figures about the financial impact of the change readily available, but he summarized, “Performance and maneuverability have been a plus. Repairs, due to damages from training and collisions have been a negative.” He didn’t elaborate on what specifically he meant by “collisions”, but obviously there’s a learning curve; and, changing brands required some getting used to.
I asked him how his motorcycle officers felt about riding the very different Hondas compared to their Harley predecessors. He told me, “The feelings are mixed...some like them; some do not.” At Chief Gall’s suggestion, I reached out to get a little more specific feedback from Myrtle Beach Police Traffic Supervisor Sergeant Mark Beatty, but I did not get a reply. (In fairness to Sgt. Beatty, my calls came shortly before my deadline.) I wondered how using motorcycles would compare to using horses, but Gall said the city isn’t using any horses. Maybe that will be something I could look into in a future column.
A report conducted in November of 2010 by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department compared five different motorcycles including a 2009 Honda ST 1300 similar to the ones being used by Myrtle Beach Police and police edition Harley-Davidson Electra Glide and Road King models, which are similar to what Myrtle Beach would have used in the past. (Also evaluated were the BMW R 1200 RT-P and 2010 Kawasaki Concours 14 ABS.) The report was titled “Law Enforcement Motorcycle Test and Evaluation Program”. According to the report, all major motorcycle manufacturers were invited to participate. The motorcycles were subjected to testing that included: a 32-lap high speed course; a pursuit course; turning, acceleration, and braking exercises; a 157-mile riding ergonomics and rideabilty evaluation simulating an 8-hour police shift in different riding environments, which included fuel costs; engine heat analysis; mechanical reliability assessment; and sound level testing. (Note to the uninformed: Harley-Davidson motorcycles are often known for their loud, guttural exhaust system sounds, but they actually come from the factory with very quiet mufflers. The loud exhaust systems are modifications made by the owners. The L.A. survey shows that Harleys were comparable to the other makes and even quieter than the Kawasaki models at 20 miles per hour.)
So how did they compare? Not surprisingly, the heavier Harleys with longer wheelbases rated lower than the 150-pound lighter and shorter Hondas on all of the maneuvering, handling, pursuit and braking evaluations. I was surprised that Harley lost to the imports on the 157-Mile Ergonomics Ride too, but it did. In fact, at the risk of being accused of blasphemy by many of my readers and friends, the Harleys were outperformed in basically every area except ease of maintenance by the Honda (and the BMW). Ultimately, the report declared that all five motorcycles “completed the test satisfactorily,” but there is no denying - at least according to the L.A. Sherriff’s report - the Hondas that our fair city’s finest switched to were an upgrade.
To read the full report, go to www.lasdhq.org/sites/motorcycle-test/2011.pdf. (I used this older version because it included the same model year Honda the MBPD is using.) For the latest November 2011 edition of the report that also includes Victory’s Vision and Commander motorcycles, go to www.lasdhq.org/sites/motorcycle-test/2012.pdf.