You probably clicked the link thinking that I was about to spend the next ten minutes telling you that Harleys are for men with no plums, but I’m not. Ben Bowers is sat opposite me in a random Catalan restaurant. He talks posh, knows his way round Shoreditch and has the kind of moustache that makes me want to jab people in the throat. He’s not my cup of tea and I shouldn’t like him. He’s a guest of Harley Davidson on the 2018 Softail range launch, as am I. Turns out we’re the same age, like me he has a child at home (actually I have millions of children, but I’m hoping you get my point) , he’s more than happy to laugh at me or himself and he absolutely loves motorbikes, he’s a top bloke and I feel like a dick for judging him so quickly. We have plenty in common, apart from the fact that Ben has no testicles thanks to going a couple of rounds with cancer. We talk openly about it at the table and I’m bowled over by the strength of character he has. Ben works for the Movember Foundation (hence the moustache), a charity organisation that tackles health issues for men, so not only is he a nice bloke but he’s worthy as well, the Bastard. For the first time in as long as I can remember, that night I check my balls for more than just an itch. There was absolutely no danger of getting a twitch as the whole time I had Ben’s face in my mind, stupid moustache and all.
Giving somebody (or some bike) more than just an initial look up and down before you judge them seems to be an appropriate way of introducing the 2018 Softail range from Harley Davidson. To the untrained eye, one Harley looks like another and from fifty paces they still fit the same mould they did decades ago. Iconic to some and absurd to others, Harley has stuck to the principle of not fixing something that wasn’t broken. But, the cracks were beginning to appear in the Softail range. We were lucky enough to go and ride the 2018 models in Spain. Not just new stickers and some new paint, but properly all new.
The Softail range is 33 years old, first appearing as an FXST with an 80-inch motor back in 1984. Softail means exactly that, shock and comfort hiding away under the seat offer the look of a rigid framed cruiser but with mile munching comfort and, as I found out on these new models, genuine, useable handling.
The updates for 2018 have two primary highlights. The first is a stiffer, lighter frame (with suspension updates to suit) and the second is the new Milwaukee-Eight motor, available in either 107 or 114-inch variants. That’s 1753cc and 1868cc, now rigid rather than rubber mounted. After motor and chassis revisions, the styling has received the kind of rework that takes real talent. Making the new bikes look new enough to make people want them, without losing the appeal of the original design. Think about how little Porsche 911s or cans of Budweiser have strayed from their original design paths, both now completely different from where they started out, but exactly the same at the same time.
There are eight bikes in the Softail range, I rode the Breakout, the Fat Bob, the Street Bob and the Heritage. The Fat Boy, Deluxe, Low Rider and Softail Slim all benefit from the same host of changes.
My two-day ride begins with the Fat Bob, first impressions are of a bike that oozes attitude. The front end grabs my attention, upside down 43mm forks and twin discs straddle a huge 160 section front tyre and prop up a distinctive LED headlight that looks like something I’d stare at while laid back in a dentist’s chair. The Fat Bob runs either the 107 or 114-inch motor, breathing out of a very tidy looking 2-1-2 exhaust. It’s comfortable, the seat plugs you into the bike, sturdy feeling pegs occupy the middle ground between feet forward and where I’m used to pegs being. My legs aren’t uncomfortably splayed around the 13.2 litre tank and my arms don’t feel stupid despite the wide bars.
The motor is strong, fuels crisply and there’s no hesitation anywhere in the rev range whenever we get the chance to open things up. The move to upside down forks and twin discs is inspired, I know that to some people reading this, it seems ridiculous to heap praise on a bike for having something that’s been around for decades elsewhere, but in Harley terms, this setup represents a quantum leap into the modern era, so fair play to them. That said, I don’t mind admitting that the handling characteristics aren’t to my personal taste. The cornering process reminded me of holding an unwilling beach ball under the water. Pushing against the inside bar until I’d put the bike onto the line I wanted, then handing over steering control to the outside hand to hold the bars in position until I was ready to exit the corner and stand the bike up meant concentration and effort all the way from turn in to exit. A single lapse and the bike wants to pop up, thanks to that front tyre. My riding style (if you can call it that) is quite lazy. I like to do as little as possible in order to go as fast as I’m comfortable with going. Fat Bob required too much of my attention to really grab my attention. That said, I liked the fact that it wasn’t dragging pieces of metal off every apex in Spain, there’s a useable amount of lean angle and if you adapt your riding approach to suit the bike, you can hustle the Fat Bob along at a respectable pace.
I heard others on the ride saying that they expect this model to sell like hot cakes, while I don’t doubt that it’ll appeal, it wouldn’t be the Softail of choice I’d go for in my dream garage.
The one that I would go for is this one, the Street Bob. It runs the smaller 107 inch motor, has skinny tyres front and back and was referred to by the men from Milwaukee that I rode with as being the gateway Harley, the one that people start with before moving around in the Harley range.
In my opinion, if you’re going to have a Harley you need to go all in. Big bars, loud pipes, a big motor, cool paint and a bit of a fuck you attitude. The Street Bob had all of those things, plus a handy USB charger for my phone (they all feature this, actually). Within three corners of jumping on the Street Bob, I knew that the others would be hard pushed to get this one off me for the rest of the day. Rolling smoky skids away from the traffic lights, full gas corner exits and a feeling of complete compliance from one edge of the rear tyre to the other painted a smile across my face that was genuine and unexpected. I checked the paperwork and there’s only 28.5 degrees of lean available on either side, MotoGP this ain’t, but it was big fun and plenty fast enough for the dry then damp then something else conditions we had along the way. One big difference I noticed on the Street Bob in particular was the connection from front to back. A decade ago I tested the 2008 Street Bob and wrote that at times it felt like the rear was patting its head while the front was rubbing its belly. That feeling has completely disappeared on the new bike, thanks mostly to the new chassis.
My confidence outweighed my talent on a couple of occasions, pushing me wide on the way out of ill thought out corners, but once I’d adapted my style a little, relying more on torque than tyre, I was able to fire off corner exits with a huge smile on my face, unless people could see me at which point I insisted on pulling that non emotional moody face that men with beards and Harleys seem to have whenever you see them. Why do we do that? I have no idea.
I do know that if I had the space and the money, I’d be more than happy to slide a Street Bob into my fantasy garage. I was pleased that it wasn’t the most expensive bike that grabbed my attention, I’d say it was the most dynamic one that did. If you’ve never ridden a Harley and you’re considering booking a test ride, ignore the salesman, ignore the chrome, ignore your mates and book a ride on this one. You won’t regret it.
Eventually I jumped on the Heritage Classic, mostly because everyone that I saw ride it got off with a huge smile on their face and I started to wonder what I was missing. Turns out I was missing quite a lot. It looks big because it is, the ready to ride weight is 330kg. Ass feet and hands all make light work of the weight at walking speed and it was far easier to back out of parking spaces than I expected. On the move, the weight disappears and the ride is very plush. The Heritage Classic is available with either 107 or 114-inch set up and where I felt happier with the 107-ci motor on the Street Bob, it was the 114 that I thought suited this bike better. Riding the Softail Heritage felt like I’d borrowed my dad’s comfy ‘old man’ car only to find out that he’d tuned the fuck out of it and not told anyone. 114Nm of torque at just 3000rpm equals the same skids away from the lights in the dry as the Street Bob. It also equals seamless drive from zero to 100 plus miles an hour.
Fuelling cleanly all the while and, providing you’re firm but fair with your shifts, six gears that compliment the motor perfectly. The Heritage was completely composed on the brakes and all the way through all but the tightest of corners. Sixteen-inch wheels and regular (rather than oversized) tyres delivered a really fluid ride on roads that were packed with corners of all kinds. I don’t mind admitting at all that I fell for the Heritage, it’s a bit of a sleeper, it looks like something out of CHiPS but rides really well.
Heritage gained a lot of new fans during our time with them. I’m putting that down to a combination of looks (with or without the screen) that hit the right notes, especially in this cool green paint. The distinctive headlight, useable storage space, ridiculously comfortable riding position and a motor and chassis combination that really surprises you once you get going all add to the experience. My fantasy garage of the future has a Heritage Classic in it, I’m not old enough to treat it with the respect it deserves yet and it’s expensive, even in fantasy land that has to be a factor.
I’ve saved the Breakout until last, possibly because it appealed to me the least but probably because I rode it the least out of all the bikes available. Once I’d realised that the Fat Bob had tyres that didn’t suit my riding style, I knew from just looking at the Breakout that it wasn’t going to be my kind of Harley.
That said, it does look trick sat on the side stand. Not that it needs a side stand, that 240 section rear tyre does a perfectly good job of keeping the bike upright on its own. The Breakout is drag strip inspired, meaning straight lines are where it wins. It’s plenty quick enough, providing the same clean drive that I found across the range. But cornering requires a particular set of skills, it’s an engaging experience hustling it along, but as with the Fat Bob, it required more of my attention than I was planning on sharing in the bendy bits.
I didn’t want to grind the thing into the ground, instead choosing to slow down a little and enjoy the ride at a pace that suited bike rather than biker. The 130 front tyre and kicked out forks require some faith from the rider, there’s adequate performance up there, it just feels a little bit numb compared to the rest of the Softail line up. I loved the stripped back feeling that the bars and clocks have and the unique to Breakout headlight looked trick in my mirrors when I was being followed by one. I got off the Breakout feeling like my ego wasn’t up to the attention that this bike brings, it draws a crowd and if you’re not up for talking to lots of random people, the Breakout is not the bike for you. If you love straight-line performance, like attention and have had your fill of riding as fast as possible round corners, I dare say this could be the perfect Harley Davidson for you.
Much like the Fat Bob, I can see the appeal of this bike, it just doesn’t necessarily appeal to me and as long as Harley keep making the Street Bob, there’s little chance I’ll ever have a home for a Breakout in the imaginary garage I’ve been prattling on about since the start of this piece.
In my opinion Harley Davidson is peerless. You either want one or you don’t. It’s not like you’ve just read a four bike group test and you’re on the fence as to whether to go for one or the other. If you want a cruiser, you want a Harley. If you don’t want a Harley I could give away free twenty pound notes to everyone that read this piece and I doubt it would tempt any of you into a showroom for a look. That’s why I’ve kept the technical detail light, the prices aren’t in here either because they wont matter to you either way. Click the link at the bottom for all that stuff.
Harley Davidson doesn’t have any competitor in the race to sell you the best cruiser experience because they provide the only cruiser experience worth having. Any comparison to metric cruisers or one of them fancy Indians just seems pointless. HD has vowed a hundred new models over the next ten years, including a production version of the Livewire electric bike that has been doing the rounds. It’s an exciting time to be a Harley fan, something which I’m more than happy to say I am.