Harley-Davidson Low Rider S

Talking art isn’t typically what you do on motorcycle press intros. But Harley-Davidson’s Low Rider S launch was different, at least for me, and mostly because the bike itself is different. I mean, look at the thing: mean and black and elegant and gnarly and powerful all at the same time. Damn! But the moment the press event became really special is when both H-D Product Planner Paul James and Director of Styling Brad Richards agreed to talk with remarkable openness about very intimate matters for the Motor Company. It all turned into a long and fascinating discussion about, of all things, art. 

The Low Rider S is the third of a new series of higher-spec “S” models that started getting introduced last August with the Fat Boy S and Softail Slim S. So far, all share a Dark Custom type finish and upgraded suspension, but their most desirable characteristic by far is the use of the 110-inch V-Twin normally reserved for CVO models. The Low Rider S, however, is different and goes quite a bit further. First, there’s so little resemblance to the standard Low Rider that they simply look like different models. 

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Second, the Low Rider S has a specific mission of reaching out to a new and younger clientele, but also filling the need for a “more aggressive” Harley. While we’ve heard the “aimed at a new generation of riders” story before, the Low Rider S just might be the one to finally punch through the psychological wall that prevents a 30-something from buying a Fat Boy (or a Heritage Softail Classic, a Softail Deluxe etc.) because it was his dad’s or his mom’s Harley. As anyone who takes just one quick glimpse at it will confirm, the Low Rider S looks nothing like the typical Harley the older generation went for. 

I have been asking manufacturers and personally wondering for at least seven or eight years, how do cruisers evolve? How does timeless styling progress? How does an old-gen Fat Boy become a new-gen Fat Boy, if that’s even possible? How a touring machine like a Gold Wing, a Superbike like a YZF-R1, a naked like a Monster or a sport-tourer like a Concours 14 evolves is a pretty straightforward affair. But a cruiser? 

I actually interviewed Willie G. Davidson in 2009 on that specific subject and, well, it was complicated. One thing was clear even back then though, and that was they were asking themselves that very question, knowing full well that the “round and shiny” classic cruiser trend wasn’t going to last forever. No trend does.   

The really dumbfounding part of the Low Rider S’s ability to break that barrier and appeal to more than the good old boys is that, well, it really isn’t that different. It’s as if there are two bikes, one you see up close and one you see 10 feet away. 

The latter is this gorgeous ensemble of proportions and subtle choices of parts and contrasts that almost makes you gawk, but the former is somewhat underwhelming as you realize you’ve already seen that tank, that engine, those instruments, that exhaust, those fenders many times on some other Harley… If so, then what makes the Low Rider S so special? 

I discussed that at length with both James and Richards, also trying to understand what are the exact ingredients responsible for the famed Harley-Davidson look. Their answers were surprising. Personally, I long believed what made the Harley look special was one guy called Willie G. Davidson: my theory was that, as director of styling for decades on end, “his” art had simply become the look of the brand. But with him now retired, what would happen? Would Harleys start to look like Hondas or did Brad Richards, by some magical alignment of the stars, somehow inherit Willie G.’s inspiration and vision? The answer was none of the above. 

My mistake was I believed that art could only be personal, like it is with painting or writing or sculpting. It turns out the art of the Harley-Davidson is more of a communal thing where several artists can indeed feel the right creative impulse and achieve a result that, with the supervision of a talented and knowledgeable director of design, will retain the appropriate trademark flair of the Milwaukee brand. As far as the contradiction between a design that genuinely looks fresh and the use of so many common parts, well, there too, the answer is found in art: if you looked at two Vincent Van Gogh paintings from too close, you’d only see similar bundles of short brush strokes. But with just a few steps back, each piece would clearly become it’s own work of art. 

There’s obviously more to the Low Rider S than its artsy side, and although its general behaviour isn’t so different than that of other Dyna models, it still has its own personality. The main reason is that wonderfully torquey, profoundly charismatic and extraordinarily rich-sounding Twin Cam 110 that alone justifies the added cost of an S ($19,499) compared to a standard Low Rider ($16,799). 

That’s one absolutely exquisite motor right there, and nothing less than the embodiment of everything Harley-Davidson is and stands for, mechanically. It’s also, by the way, a combination that is extremely rare, having been offered I think only once before on a rare Dyna CVO. 

Dry, metallic mechanical sounds from starting, shifting and even engaging the clutch mix with the deep and heavy rumble coming out of the surprisingly vocal exhaust system to create an ambiance that to this day no other brand offers. The best part is the rubber mounting system exclusive to Dynas. Not only does this system let the motor move inside the frame in a hypnotic dance, but it also generates pulses that literally traverse the rider at low rpms, then smooth out almost completely at highway speeds. 

I’ve ridden many, many cruisers and the combination of that 110-cubic-inch engine in that chassis is hands down my personal favourite in all of cruiserdom. 

The riding position also plays its part in making the bike feel special, with the combination of mid-mount foot controls, a flat, drag-type handlebar and a firm, super low solo seat. It’s not a place you’d want to spend an entire day, but for short hops and medium length rides, it’s just fine. 

The rest is relatively straightforward Dyna stuff—high stability, good maneuverability, very decent handling and braking—with the welcome addition of noticeably better suspension action and relatively good ground clearance. ABS is standard, along with ride-by-wire and cruise control. 

Harley-Davidson needs to reinvent itself, and is working on it. Classic cruisers will likely always be part of what the brand is, but they don’t suffice anymore. Not if it intends to grow significantly again. The Low Rider S isn’t the “be all end all” solution, but I’m willing to bet it will make new eyeballs look at the brand. It most definitely ain’t your uncle’s Fat Boy and it’s easily my favourite Harley-Davidson cruiser, ever.