Harley’s New Flagship Model Revealed
Is it a Dyna? Is it a Softail? Who cares, the latest Harley-Davidson is finally here and it’s raring to go…
Review by The Papa Gorilla
There has been huge anticipation for the release of Harley-Davidson’s 2018 range, which has seen the most radical overhaul ever of the legendary motor company’s line-up.
The Sportsters and Tourers have not been dramatically revised, but three other categories – Softail, Dyna and V-Rod – have seen a seismic shift. In the case of the V-Rod, that has meant it’s demise; the Dyna range has also been cancelled, but most of its models have been subsumed into the Softail category, which has itself taken a major leap forward in terms of technology.
The last of the V-Rod Muscles and Night Rod Specials rolled off the production line months ago, and for now at least these liquid-cooled black sheep have been consigned to the history books.
The Dynas, beloved of many (including myself) and recently much coveted as the bikes of choice of most of the Sons of Anarchy MC, are also no more. The iconic Wide Glide (a personal favourite) has been – for now at least – retired; whilst the Low Rider, Street Bob, and Fat Bob live on, but have been converted to Softails.
So what is a Softail? Back in the day, bikes didn’t have rear suspension so the rear wheel was bolted directly to the frame – a set-up now known as a hard tail. This gives a specific aesthetic that appeals to many as a heritage look, but most people nowadays don’t want to ride a bone-shaker, so Harley-Davidson dreamed up a solution whereby the rear wheel could be bolted into what looks like a hard tail frame triangle, but which connects to a hidden shock absorption system housed within the bike. Harleys with this set-up are known by the trademarked term Softail, the first of which was released to market in 1984.
For the 2018 range, Harley has completely changed the Softail technology. The single-spring system is now housed beneath the seat rather than beneath the transmission, and mounted in a significantly lighter and more rigid frame that has been much trumpeted as revolutionary in terms of comfort and handling.
Other Harleys – Dynas, Sportsters, V-Rods and the like have always had their rear shock springs out on show; but Harley seems so confident in this new Softail set-up that it has decided to re-version all remaining Dyna models as Softails. This was a bold decision that risked upsetting a handful of the faithful but has served to generate a wellspring of excitement and anticipation.
I feasted my eyes on the new bikes as soon as I got hold of pictures. The only radical departure in the traditional Softail range was the Fat Boy – that now mixes tradition with futuristic elements in a way that appeals strongly to The Papa Gorilla.
Amongst the ex-Dynas the Low Rider looks broadly similar, as does the Street Bob, but with the Fat Bob, Harley has really gone to town. I knew right away that this was the one I really needed to get my hairy hands on… And so I was delighted to be one of the first people in the UK to get to ride this machine. I arrived at the Harley-Davidson dealership with a genuine sense of anticipation, and was not disappointed when confronted with the bike in the (metallic) flesh.
The overall look, with the chunky rounded tank and chunky wheels and tyres remains the same as the old model, and yet somehow by means of a few details the machine has been transformed: gone are the twin rear lights houses in a boxy rear fender – one of the signature features of the previous version – replaced by a slim chopped back fender looking super light sitting high over the rear tyre. This is a bobber after all, so benefits hugely from that lighter-weight look despite its overall beef. Bullet lights sit either side of the fender, looking well-designed and executed (so often bikes get let down by elements such as this when they end up looking like afterthoughts).
The front fender is small and light – again a must – sitting between beefy upside-down forks, at the top of which sits the most striking feature of the 2018 Fat Bob: the headlight. Harleys only have one shape of headlight: round. A couple have strayed a little way into oval territory, but really it’s either round or round. Not so the new Fat Bob. This bike has a chunky black, shiny, and beautifully-moulded light housing, surrounding a bright white LED headlight that is almost rectangular in configuration. To me it screams Tonka toy, whilst I’ve heard others say Storm Trooper; whatever it is -, it’s striking, it’s different, and you’ll either love it or hate it. For me it was ten seconds of head scratching and then true love.
Bronze heat shields are a feature on the exhaust system – again they divide opinion, but get my firm vote. The gargantuan exhaust cans just look like they need chopping off and throwing in the bin, but the after-market parts catalogue will soon enough take care of that. Like the whole rest of the bike, the heat shields glow but don’t shine. That’s a decision that some first-time Harley owners don’t even know they are making: does it shine or not? And yet that decision will forever determine the ratio of free time hours you spend riding the thing versus polishing it, unless you are happy to watch a shiny toy tarnish and rot. In my case, what felt (after a couple of hours’ polishing) like acres of beautiful billet aluminium on my V-Rod Muscle ended up soaked in matt black ceramic coating: no longer shiny, but bulletproof and needing no more cleaning that can be offered by a soft damp rag.
Time to stop looking and get in the saddle…
Like all but the cheap-and-cheerful members of the Harley Range, the Fat Bob benefits from keyless ignition. You carry a transponder fob in your pocket so you can just hop on and fire it up at the press of a button. Very cool. The engine comes to life with a satisfying shudder and rumbles with the familiar thump of the big V-Twin. Those super-mufflers kill off the best of the sound (to satisfy the decibel-counting overlords), but you know that once you’ve switched them out the beast will really roar.
Taking off, you feel straight away that Harley has made a big leap forward in terms of power delivery. All Harleys pull like trains, it’s just that most of them pull like trains that aren’t in much of a hurry. The Fat Bob comes with the new Milwaukee Eight engine, with either a 107 or 114 cubic inch displacement (equivalent to 1750 or a whopping 1870cc). I tested the 114 variant and can tell you that it pulls like a train with its rear carriage on fire that’s trying to get away from the smell of smoke.
This really is a step-change. I ride a V-Rod Muscle because it goes like a rocket ship. Where it falls down in Harley terms is by being liquid-cooled and having a radiator shroud that looks like it could catch a bison; but Harley has really had to think hard about how to get more power out of its air-cooled plants in order to satisfy the folks like me.
It’s no secret that Harley’s owner demographic – in the UK like in many (if not all) other territories – is an older one. You have to have the money to buy it. Unless you really like a depreciating asset you need a garage to store it in. You need to insure it (not cheap), fuel it (they’re thirsty), modify it (you can’t help it) and fix it when it goes wrong (it will).
Generally speaking, to afford all of that you need to be a bit older. But that doesn’t mean you need to have passed the half-century mark. There’s plenty of riders in their 30s (like The Papa Gorilla) or younger who love the idea of a Harley, the look of a Harley, the sound of a Harley and the pride of ownership that is associated with a Harley; who have the money or credit to buy a Harley but who hate the idea of a Harley as a piece of agricultural machinery – all noise but not quick enough, with crappy ride and handling, some poor finishing and bits that will rust when they really shouldn’t – all of which are associations that Harley has managed to pick up along with its legendary style and prestige.
The bike company knows all this. They know that they are thriving off the bank accounts of an ageing ridership, and that they need to safeguard their traditional appeal whilst introducing models that will satisfy a next generation of die-hard Harley fans, because otherwise one day they’ll wake up and there won’t be any left.
And so here comes the 2018 Fat Bob. This bike is all Harley – air-cooled big twin engine, Softail frame and beefy attitude. So far so good, but where many Harleys of the past may have been uncomfortable to ride and a challenge to get round corners, this one is quite simply unrecognisable. The rear suspension solution just blew me away. It’s like sitting on a velvet cushion, absorbing an incredible amount of bump and jiggle whilst retaining perfect behaviour in the bends.
I was very ready not to like the feel of this bike, fearing that my optimistic hopes would probably be dashed and that I would be forced to write it off as just so much hype, but in truth those hopes were not only met but massively exceeded.
The seating position is good. A well-contoured non-slip saddle gives ample support and wedges you in as you open the throttle. Back is straight with hands forward and down in a position reminiscent of the Vespa GTS (a compliment), whilst feet are slightly set forward for mid-controls (a little less so than I, with a 34-inch inseam, might have liked – but that is no criticism).
This position, combined with the relatively aggressive rake of the front fork, leaves you in perfect comfort and yet able to stick the bike into corner in an instant – and the bike just wants to go. It dips into its lean exactly as instructed and holds a line flawlessly, ready to open up back out onto the next straight. When I executed a U-turn I was taken aback by the nimbleness of the manoeuvre. For what remains a pretty heavy machine, the fork twists a long way and the bike is compliant at slow speed.
This is not a sports bike, and doesn’t pretend to be. It will never begin to compete with smaller-engined racers, but it isn’t trying to. What it will do is give you much faster acceleration than a more traditional Harley power plant, with the handling characteristics to go with it. This is a leaps-and-bounds improvement in handling over any stock Harley that I have ridden, and I got off the bike with a huge grin on my face, fully pumped with adrenaline and excitement.
Would I buy this bike? If I did, I’d need to modify the foot controls, the handlebars or both, just to open up the riding position a bit; but that’s just personal preference. I’d probably stick apes on it, but that’s just how The Papa Gorilla rolls.
For power? I’d buy it. For handling? I’d buy it. For looks and style? I’d buy it, possibly twice. For ride comfort? I’d probably marry it. If the 2018 Fat Bob is an indication of the direction of travel of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, then the coming years will have a lot of treats in store.