Harley-Davidson Softail Range 2018
By Ross Sharp - 13 Oct 17
I bought a Harley-Davidson once, and rode it for a whole junction of the M11 before deciding it was the worst bike I've owned. I turned around and sold it within days. That was a Forty Eight and it soured my opinion of the brand which is a shame as so many guys and gals roll into the Bike Shed aboard a Harley and seem to have really enjoyed their journey. My trip to the press launch in Barcelona for the all new Harley-Davidson Softail range was preceded by a degree of apathy. I do like riding new bikes but marketing hyperbole spilling from a powerpoint presentation isn't always backed up by the metal. Had the crew from Milwaukee actually redesigned the Softail or just added some accoutrements to steepen the sales charts? The headline grabbing looks of the Fat Bob certainly had chins wagging but what about the Breakout, Heritage and Street Bob? Thankfully the Softail is a bonefide new motorcycle rather than a facelift. The chassis has been completely redesigned and is now stiffer than Mandingo on Viagra. 65% stiffer than the outgoing frame leading to 34% overall chassis stiffness - that's a lot of stiffness. Gone are the rubber engine mounts allowing for less tubing and gussets, instead using the engine as a stressed member which has reduced weight considerably across the range. There's differing geometry between the models too. The Breakout has the slackest headangle and the Fatbob the steepest and most aggressive. The swingarm arrangement is new too, with an adjustable underseat monoshock - a simple tweak with a wrench or socket on all but the Fat Bob and Breakout which have an external preload adjuster knob. Most of the range sports a burly conventional RWU fork except the Fat Bob which boasts a black anodised USD unit held by some meatiest triple clamps I've seen on a stock bike. The motor is also new. The old adage of "there ain't no replacement for displacement" is certainly true of the four valve per cylinder Milwaukee-Eight. It's available in 107 & 114 cubic inch versions - for us modern folk that's 1745cc & 1868cc. I'm not sure how large the brown envelope of cash was that was delivered to Brussels but somehow these lumps are Euro 4 compliant. Actually that's a bit unfair. This isn't just a big pair of pots shoved onto the ancient air-cooled guts of the original engine. The oil tank is missing, replaced by a wet sump and small, unobtrusive oil cooler tucked into the frame's downtubes. Some of this oil is piped around the exhaust port to wick-away heat and increase efficiency, not only to comply with strict regs but also to reduce heat soak from the wide bore headers which is particularly important on the rear cylinder which sits inches below the rider's thigh. Not a problem for our ride in the lower Pyrenees 90 minutes north of Barcelona but a big deal on the boulevards over in the U.S. Fuel consumption isn't too horrendous either, given the ludicrous capacity. We had a Josh to fill our steeds during lunch breaks so I can't report factually but there's a link at the bottom with tech specs and useful figures but apparently early forties to the gallon are possible (not sure if that's a diddy Yank gallon or a generous Brit one). Needless to say you don't buy a near two litre thug of a machine to then search for a cheapo supermarket to fill up. A few other improvements caught my attention too. There's just a single camshaft, this time chain rather than gear driven but still running good ol' fashioned pushrods. So keen to remain true to their heritage that there's a collar on the pushrod assembly that still carries the same part number as the early motors. It'll fit a WLA or Fat Bob and comes in the same wrapper - I quite like that. More impressive though was the bold move to do away with valve clearance adjustment. After a million plus miles of dyno testing the engineers concluded that that the cam, rods and rockers would wear in unison meaning lash could be set at the factory. The real world benefit to owners may only be cheaper servicing and a smidge less valve train noise but it shows that development is forefront in the designers' minds, even if it does mean leaving a few components out. The heads are also twin plugged and a more advanced ignition system ensures all of those hydrocarbons are forced into yielding every last bit of energy. Multiple knock sensors allow the giant jugs to reach near detonation for maximum efficiency. The scores on the doors are 145 & 155 NM of torque, horsepower figures are largely irrelevant on such a machine so I'll tell you what all this metallic machismo feels like instead. Not being able to compare this new range to the outgoing models is perhaps a good thing on this occasion. I'm not into the posing thing and prefer an inconspicuous motorcycle so the engineering improvements would, for me, need to measured in smiles and riding pleasure. That, and I haven't yet developed the ability to cruise. I may be a bit loose around the edges and have grey hairs sprouting but give me a milk float and I'll still try and grind the wing mirrors. FAT BOB The weather man had delivered bad news so we had to cram four bikes into one day's riding - unusual for a press test but exciting given the smorgasbord of Softails Harley had laid on for us. Like a German at the beach I muscled through and bagsied a Fat Bob, the 114cu. in. version figuring that if the rain came I'd have at least tried the most Bike Shed applicable machine.
First off I was impressed with the fit and finish. On the whole care had gone into hiding wires and cables and there's very little on display that's anything other than pretty, beefy or mechanical. The oblong LED headlight is striking and the bar risers and clamps are gorgeous. The triple clamps have been smoothed before the crackle powder coat has been applied. No biggie you might say but go and have a look at a new bike showroom and spot the rough castings that have just been painted over. VP of Design and Styling Brad Richards joined us for our group ride, not only is he a nice bloke and rapid through the twisties but was refreshingly candid about the aesthetic vs cost vs regulatory battle that ensues with bringing any new product to market. His team appear to be way better at scissor, paper, stones than the others.
The standout part of the bike, apart from the powerplant of course, is the seat. It's perfect, full stop. I thought the Triumph Bobber had a comfy one but this takes ergonomics to the next level. My rump is perhaps a quarter of the size of the average U.S. based Harley-ist but it felt like it had been designed for me especially. My Forty Eight concentrated my entire mass on the area between my sphincter and coccyx and made me weep at the sight of a Catseye, let alone a speed bump. On the Fat Bob I stood up for the first bump and gave up after that, hitting them without slowing instead. The first part of the shock's stroke smoothly soaked up the initial hit before firming without ever feeling like the bumpstop was anywhere close. The forward controls aren't my favoured position but the saddle cradled me and prevented any sliding fore or aft. Which is pretty handy when calling the engine room for a portion of full beans. Anyone who's ridden a V-Rod will recall the unnerving feeling of creeping backwards under acceleration thanks to the windsock like body position. On the Fat Bob, you're in the Fat Bob, free to turn on the taps push that chassis to release it's potential.
And release the potential we did. The pre-coffee run was interesting thanks to the composition of Spanish roads when moist. On a couple of occasions the rear stepped-out on both the way in, and out of sweeping mountain curves. This wasn't due my hamfistedness but the guagantuan dollops of torque dished out at low revs. Maintaining a gear lower for increased engine breaking worked a treat until the surface dried. And when it did boy did we have fun, kept in check by twin discs up front which were more than sufficient with a two finger tug. The rear is pretty good too, its position and feel akin to driving a car.
It's rare that I smile when riding, partly because I'm a grumpy malcontent but partly because I'm not easily impressed. Wringing the Fat Bob's neck had me giggling like a child. Our group was relatively pacy which required less forceful inputs than I'd expected. Granted you can't exactly tip it into a hairpin with a flick of the hips with such fat tyres, 150 section front and 180 rear, but relatively light pushes and pulls of the bars had the Fat Bob carving turns in a manor that it's spec sheet shouldn't have allowed.
Despite all that torque there's nothing intimidating about the Milwaukee-Eight, simply pick your exit and twist the satisfyingly oversized grip to the stop confident that squirms are easily collected and that grippy seat allows the super-fat bars to remain light in your hands. Whether you ride the glorious torque or keep the motor spinning you'll be rewarded with an addictive soundtrack and sense of safe hooliganism. But don't get me wrong, this isn't just a B-road basher, there are so few vibrations thanks to the well calibrated balance shaft that you can happily trundle along in 6th gear for as long as the 13.6 litre tank will allow. The fuelling is impeccable, roll on the throttle from near idle in top and you'll wait no time before the scenery blurs. I'd gladly strap a bag to the Fat Bob and ride to the South of France, either the autoroute or wiggly way. It's that comfortable and versatile.
The only criticism I have is the lean angle 31/32 degrees (right/left). The diddy pegs, actually that's a criticism too as it needs bigger ones, touch down fairly easyily and then you're into zorst grinding territory. We were pushing to the point of graining the front tyres and that's unlikely to be the case in most people's real world rides but an exhaust change would be my first mod if I owned one. And that is actually something I'd do...own another Harley, the Fat Bob erased the tar I'd brushed the brand with after my Forty Eight experience.
I'd knock-up a new exhaust to give another couple of degrees of lean and unleash the slightly more appealing soundtrack of the 8 valve motor. Purists will spit at the screen and call me a twat but I'm not fussed, to me this silky new heart of the Softail line-up is a proper weapon and I think it sounds wonderful. There's still the traditional potato-potato thump but with a whiff of refinement. If there's a cam kit and remap I'd go for that too. If I'm going to ride something with an engine the size of Dim Kardashian's buns it may as well be free of legislative restrictions.
As with nearly all manufacturers these days there isn't all that much to change or remove. The designers have, on the whole, won-over the beancounters and produced really good looking machines with attention to detail a starting point rather than an afterthought. There's of course the 3 inch thick accessories catalogue to wade through and no doubt Roland Sands et al will already have CAD renders of upgrade parts but I'd take a few bits away rather than add more.
The obvious orange bits would go, to be replaced by Motogadget minimalism and I'd whip the number plate bracket off. I'd also see how easy it is to remove the in-tank speedo and amalgamate the bar clamp version from the Street Bob. Not that the Fat Bob tank isn't pretty but I'd just prefer a smoother silhouette. If I was really going to town I'd try to be clever and re-engineer the rear mudguard brackets and slim the guard down a bit. And although I do like the look of the dual sport inspired tyres I'd go for more of a dragster visual and fit some road legal slicks - just to make it completely impractical for UK roads. But hey, daydreaming is exactly that, right.
I'm really interested to see what the non H-D dealer network do with the Fat Bob. For sure, Warrs, Shaw Speed & Custom, Maidstone H-D and the other outfits will build some show stoppers but I'd like to see someone make the most of the new chassis and engine package and produce something really radical.
During one of the photo stops I tried the Street Bob and thanks to it's narrower rubber and ape hanger bars I was caught out by its nimble nature. Which sounds ridiculous for a 297kg machine but to me it was plenty flickable and easy to turn. Sadly I didn't get a proper run on the Street Bob as that was hogged by Superbike's John Hogan. He liked the smaller 107 cu. in. engine and lighter handling so I chased him down the mountains on another model, more on that in a minute.
The Street Bob is only available with the one engine configuration and is stylistically much more traditional which should appeal to both the aficionados and newbies to this genre of motorcycle. Despite the weather gods playing ball on day two it was nearly impossible to pry a Street Bob from the other journos and testers. Hands down it was the crowd favourite, causing grown men to wear all-day perma-grins. I’ll need to wait until the nice man from Harley-Davidson sends one to Club Moto London so I can have a proper go and see what all the fuss is about. That said, the roads around Bike Shed aren’t exactly comparable to the winding sinews of pleasure found in the Pyrenees.
The Breakout was my least favourite. Maybe I just don’t have enough experience on fat tyred cruisers to extract the most from them. I had no problem with huge inputs required to make the thing turn but was slightly unnerved by the immediacy of pegs smashing Tarmac and subsequent inability to change line. On more than one occasion I started to run out of road and lost confidence.
In the right hands I’m sure it’s a real blast but 240 section rear tyres and slack head angles ain’t my bag. The perfect opportunity presented itself to ruin Hogan’s photo shoot so I took it, jumping on his pillion pad and instigating a strictly no touching dude canoe. First corner and we managed to scrape the rear pegs which induced giggling from us and the cliff mounted photographers.
Wanting to leave no stone unturned I swung a leg over the handsome looking Heritage. Footboards, leather bags, big wide bars, chrome bits and a big squishy saddle. Surely the antithesis of the Bike Shed and what we stand for… stripped down, bobbed, cut, trimmed, neat and slick are words used to describe the bulk of customs on our pages. The Heritage Classic is one checkbox away from tassles. But the scores of people who turn up to our Shoreditch HQ on current Softails can’t be that wrong, can they?
Apparently not. I fricking loved every second of it! Hogan was ahead pushing his puny 107 incher hard into the bends and I took great pleasure in being right up his chuff. The Heritage Classic 114 is 24 kilos heavier than the Fat Bob and runs a RWU fork and single disc but that made it no less fun. You can carry loads more corner speed than expected, change line easily and brake pretty hard should a hairpin catch you out. It doesn't bend, flex and tie itself in knots easily and the ally footboards are sprung loaded and will gladly take loads of abuse allowing for lean angles that should result in a trip to hospital.
It’s also super comfy, as you’d expect, the bars are a perfect reach for me (5'10", non chimp arms), the pegs not too far forward or too high and the saddle is an all-dayer. At motorway speeds the magnificent motor is barely yawning, ask for an overtake and it’ll do little more than stretch it’s arms and deliver. I get it now, heck I even want one, in the dark olive green metalic but without the bags and screen. I tried one with a screen and it buffeted too much for my sensitive ears. A hacksaw would sort that but I actually prefer the more naked look.
Anyone who knows me probably thinks I’ve either lost the plot or am trying to get my hands on some Milwaukee money for our shows but that’s genuinely not the case. If the badges had been peeled off and I’d been blinkered for a couple of days my opinion would be the same - I simply enjoyed riding these motorcycles. The fact that they look pretty damn decent too says to me that the dealers will have no problem shifting showrooms full of them. They cost money and you can find prices by following the links below but as so many motorcycles are bought on PCP (Personal Contract Plan) it kind of seems churlish to scrutinise a bike based on headline price. For many though the wallet has to rule the heart and thankfully the rock solid residuals of nearly any Harley means that monthly payments should be very affordable.
We didn’t have the opportunity to try the complete Softail range, there’s also a new Fat Boy with futuristic machined, solid aluminium wheels and a beautifully brushed “squircle” shaped headlight. The traditionalists are well catered for with a mag wheeled Low Rider and if white walls and spokes are your thing there’s a big fendered Deluxe.
The Motor Company has turned over an aggressive new leaf and boldly stated that they’re on course for releasing 100 “significantly new” motorcycles over the next 10 years. That’s more than bold fighting talk to grab headlines, the plans have already left the drawing board. If the bikes we rode are a sign of things to come I for one am more than happy to dump my prejudice and be embraced Milwaukee's modern muscle.
See previous Harley-Davidson road tests on the Bike Shed Archive
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Helmet - Hedon Heroine Club Racer
Boots - TCX Hero
Gloves - Furygan James
Jacket - REV'IT Lane
Jeans - Tobacco