“Form follows function, but both report to emotion.” – Willie G. Davidson
I have never been a Harley guy. Even though my idea of the perfect looking motorcycle conjured up images of a standard/cruiser-style naked bike with the exposed engine and the round headlamp, I never really considered owning and riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle. My first foray into motorcycling was more than a decade earlier when I had just turned 18 years old. My father got me an extremely light-weight 125cc single cylinder road bike telling me I couldn’t handle anything bigger. He was probably right as I was a puny 5’7″, 120 lbs teenager excited to finally have my own mode of transportation.
I have since owned and ridden a 500cc single Royal Enfield Classic, a Triumph Bonneville T100, and my current bike is a BMW R NineT with the iconic air-cooled Boxer Twins. I progressed from caring only about form to appreciating and valuing function. The R nineT with 110 hp at 7550 rpm and 88 lb-ft at 6000 rpm stoked raw emotions by providing ample engine vibration feedback to the handlebars and pegs. With your feet tucked in and a forward leaning posture, it was almost sports-bike like when ridden aggressively on the twisties. However, even though the performance of the Beamer was eons ahead of my previous two bikes, I still occasionally missed their standard looks and upright riding position. The Enfield also had mid-controls with my leg perpendicular to the road, which felt more comfortable to me compared with having to tuck them inwards.
The first Harley Davidson that I rode was the 2016 Street Bob with the 103 Twin Cam engine when my colleague bought one several months ago. With the mini-ape hangers, mid-controls, and the iconic rubber mounted V-twin vibrating the entire chassis with that familiar potato-potato sound erupting from her chromed exhaust pipes, she looked and sounded absolutely bad-ass to me. The low-seat height and the high handlebars were the opposite to the high-seat, low handlebar setup that I had become used to. The rumbling low-revving engine felt lazy yet powerful to me and she was a complete blast to ride! I realized that I was enjoying rumbling along, taking in the surroundings, and feeling like a “boss” (wtf does that mean) rather than focusing on speed or how far I could lean over in the next bend. I was so taken with the Street Bob ride that by the end of the week I had become familiar with the entire Harley Davidson lineup of Street, Sportsters, Dynas, Softails, and the Touring bikes. I knew that the brand-new 107 Milwaukee-8 engine was a success and the future of Harley. I had heard rumors that the M-8 which was introduced only on the Touring bikes in 2017, would likely make its way to the Softails and maybe even the Dynas. Throughout the months of June, July, and August, I used to periodically keep checking their website and hdforums for any news/leaks on the new 2018 lineup. It wasn’t unusual for me, since it is something I always do for the BMWs, Triumphs, Ducatis, and the Royal Enfields each year.
I was truly excited when I got a notification from Youtube informing me that Matt Laidlaw (the best social-media savvy harley dealer I know in the USA) was live-streaming the dealer-only event introducing the new 2018 lineup from Harley Davidson. My jaw literally dropped when I heard about the eight all-new Softail models. I remember thinking that no other motorcycle manufacturer had announced this many new bikes at once. One by one, the executives started showing the shiny new machines based on a completely redesigned frame, with the new mono-shock rear suspension. One of them immediately stood out to me. She was unlike any other bike I had seen. The bike looked mean, menacing, strong, powerful, all muscle. Harley Davidson’s Chief Design Director Brad Richards used terms like “Battlestar Galactica” and “Zombie Apocalypse” to describe her. The curved rectangular LED headlights looked gorgeous to me. The brushed bronze/aluminium colored 2-1-2 exhaust curved upwards slightly un-harley like. It was the new 2018 Fat Bob.
I knew I wanted to test ride the Fat Bob when it was announced that the new bikes would be in dealerships across the country in less than a week since the introduction-event. I remember calling all the San Francisco Bay Area Harley dealers to see if they had the Fat Bob in. I was seeing updates from dealers in other states who were starting to get the new models including the new Fat Bob. I was exasperated when none of the dealers close-by had gotten it yet. The closest location at the time was a dealer in Chico, CA, which was 200 miles away from my city. They had just received the 2018 Fat Bob with the 114 M-8 engine. Before I knew it, I was out of my house driving to Chico after being promised that I would be allowed to take her for a test ride should I make the effort to visit them. After a brutal four hours drive in steaming 110 Fahrenheit conditions, I arrived at the Sierra Steel Harley Davidson showroom.
My first glance at the Fat Bob 114 confirmed my earlier feelings about how stunning the bike looked. By now it was clear that the most polarizing feature was the new headlight. You either loved it or hated it. To me, it was the best part of the bike. I had never seen anything like it before, and I was actually surprised because I had always thought that a simple elegantly designed round headlamp was timeless and the best look on a motorcycle.
The tank was sleek, a modern teardrop-like design, smallish at 3.6 gallon fuel capacity. I had read that it was intended to show off the big V-twin Milwaukee-eight engines, and it certainly did that. The 114 engine came with a stage-1 air filter and I remember being concerned if it might protrude against my right leg while riding. I also loved the industrial grey denim finish, it seemed like it fit with the overall character of the fat bob.
She wouldn’t be a fat bob if she didn’t have fat tires. The 2018 fat bob has 16 inch wheels with 150mm front and 180mm rear tires with a brand-new Adventure Bike like tread pattern from Dunlop. The bike was the only one in the new softail lineup with a dual disc front brakes from Brembo (but Harley branded). She was also the only one who had been given inverted front forks. Both the front and the rear mono suspension were premium offerings from Showa. I had heard good things about the Showa suspension on Harley’s 2017 touring bikes, so I was eager to ride and see for myself.
Harley Davidson had designed a brand-new small form-factor stand for the softail lineup which was supposedly easier to engage and also kept the motorcycle more upright. To me it looked better while parked, and made it easier to lift the bike off the stand. Coupled with the fact that Harley engineers had shaved more than 35 lbs off the bike compared to her previous version, she felt quite nimble when I first sat on her and lifted her off the stand. I’m 5’8″ 160 lbs and I felt very comfortable with the ergonomics. The stock seat has some gel padding embedded which felt extremely nice on my backside. The wide flat bars were easy to reach and also have angle markings on them to make it easy for riders to adjust up to 15 degrees up or down to suit their preferences.
I switched her on, and the bike started smoothly, falling into a low rumble, idling at about 875 rpms. It was instantly apparent that there was absolutely no vibration compared to the previous year Street Bob. The 114 M-8 engine has dual counter-balancers inside which are meant to cancel 100% of the vibrations. Last year’s touring models were tuned to cancel only 75% of the vibrations, so I’m not sure why Harley Davidson wanted to take out all the vibration. It didn’t feel like a Harley to me. Slightly bemused, I shifted to first gear and twisted the throttle. What the…!!!!! That torque! I had forgotten what it was to ride a low-revving engine with oodles of torque available instantly at the lowest end. The 114 M-8 puts out 118ft-lb at 3500 rpm. Compare that to 88ft-lb at 6000 rpm on my R nineT. The difference in the feel of the ride was staggering. The fat bob lurched ahead at the slightest turn of the throttle at the low end. I got my feet up on the pegs and it was unbelievably comfortable. The fat bob officially has forward controls, but it felt somewhere in between mid and forward. The only other bike with forward controls that I had ridden was the Indian Scout and it was a very different experience. I felt that mid-controls were the most ergonomically comfortable position for me, but the fat bob’s mid-forward position felt even better. I quickly shifted to 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. The shifts felt very smooth, and each shift sounded with a confident clunk. I’m not sure how the taller riders would fit on the bike, but it felt perfect for me.
I rode about half hour on the bike with stretches on a local highway and some narrow streets with acute angled turns. The bike felt amazing to lean, and no scraping anything. I was told it was one of the main areas that Harley Davidson concentrated on – to improve the lean angle of the Softails. I was pretty aggressive on the turns and I didn’t scrape the pegs. The fat bob felt nimble, stable, and as good as my R nineT during the leans. The suspension is one of the best I have ever ridden on. It was better than my BMW, and it felt almost as good as the after market Ohlins’. I tried hitting some pretty significant bumps on the road and it didn’t come close to bottoming out. The fat bob also comes with a preload adjuster knob that can be easily turned to adjust whether you are riding solo or with a passenger or luggage. Harley engineers also stressed on how the new chassis and frame is 65% stiffer than the previous softail frame and it felt certainly believable during leans on a particularly bumpy street. The gearing felt quite tall, and I didn’t feel comfortable shifting up to 6th gear unless I was going above 70 mph. Not really an issue though.
Overall, I loved the new 2018 Fat Bob 114 and I was thankful that I heeded my wife’s advice to drive to Chico instead of riding my BMW because otherwise I may have just traded in my R nineT and ridden the fat bob home. If Harley’s goal to attract two million new riders is even partially attainable, it will be because of bikes like the Fat Bob. It certainly made me a believer in Harley Davidson to produce a genuinely fun-to-ride bike to go along with the iconic looks and sound. The Fat Bob 114 will be my next bike, whenever that happens 😉