Softail, hello. Dyna goodbye. Harley-Davidson marks the end of an era

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Harley-Davidson’s tomorrow begins 

For 2018, Harley-Davidson begins to unfold the aggressive 10-year/100 bikes plan it recently announced with an all-new Softail platform. Aimed at pleasing long time fans and gaining new customers, it is both exciting and controversial.  We were given the opportunity to attend a more business-oriented sneak peek inside the usually welded-shut Willie G. Davidson Product Development Center.

After a short presentation stating we were about to witness the result of the largest product development in Harley-Davidson’s history, we were led into the Company’s design studio, which, we were told, was the first media presence there since the building’s unveiling some 20 years ago. Turned off monitors, desks without even a pencil on them and a couple nervous guys watching over from the back of the room made for a weird ambiance, but our attention was instantly grabbed by a dozen covered bikes lined up in front of a mood wall filled with various images and sketches that inspired designers for this project.

The first lifted cover unveiled the new Softail rolling chassis. Literally everything is new. The Twin Cam 103B is gone, now replaced by a dual counterbalanced version of the Milwaukee-Eight engine introduced last year on the touring platform. «Precision-cooled» with oil and using a small radiator neatly tucked between the front down tubes, it’s one beautifully crafted motor without a single unfinished piece on it. It sits in an all-new frame which Harley-Davidson claims to be 65% stiffer than the previous one (overall chassis stiffness is increased by 34% over 2017 Softails). The most obvious change to the frame design is the switch from twin horizontal rear shocks to a centrally located monoshock connecting the frame spine to the swingarm in a straight line. The vastly more accessible new shock makes preload adjustments much easier: just lift the seat and use the provided tool or simply twist a knob, depending on the model. A «High-Performance Showa Dual Bending Valve (SDBV)» front suspension completes the chassis. 

The second lifted cover revealed the 2018 Softail Slim which looks… just like the 2017 Softail Slim. Trained eyes will recognize the Milwaukee-Eight, spot the 107 on the air cleaner and notice the discreet oil cooler, but others will just see a Slim. The same can be said about the Deluxe and Breakout. The Heritage Classic, while still retaining the look of a classic Harley-Davidson, is nicely restyled with noticeably younger, less «Elvis-like» style. Explains Paul James, Harley-Davidson manager of product portfolio : «We talked to A LOT of people, all over the world. Fans of the brand and others. We asked a lot of questions and we listened carefully. And we learned a lot. One of the most important answers we got was that our customers would allow us to grow stylistically, to try new things, BUT, only if we took care of and preserved the quintessential Harleys, models like the Slim and the Deluxe. We understood that these bikes don’t have the same role as they did, say 15 years ago. That look has not only been around for so long, but has also been imitated so much that it’s not cutting edge anymore, at least in the cruiser world. It’s still an iconic and very important look for us as it represents our foundation, our rich heritage, and it must and will be preserved. But it’s now what we call our classic styling.»

The difference between that classic styling and what could be called progressive styling was revealed a few cover lifts later when the stunning 2018 Fat Bob was revealed. Wait, what? The Fat Bob is a Dyna and this is the new Softail family, so why are we talking about it? That’s because as of 2018, the Dyna platform is no more. Models like the Street Bob, Low Rider and Fat Bob are still offered, but they’re now all Softails built on the same chassis as the rest of that family. That part of this «future news» presentation shocked me. Why would the Dyna platform be killed? It makes no sense. Its rubber-mount system provided one of the most special mechanical experiences in all of motorcycling. It was actually unique, a true signature for Harley-Davidson, something no one else would even dare to attempt. To me, mechanically, Dynas were the essence of the Harley-Davidson cruiser experience. And now they have just been eliminated? I pressed Paul James on the reasons behind that choice. Was this a tough decision? Was there a lot of infighting about it? Up to a certain point, wasn’t it dangerous for the uniqueness of the brand to scrap something so unique? «Yes it was a difficult decision, and although I won’t divulge the content of internal discussions, I can tell you there were heated exchanges. I agree with you that Dynas are special, very much so, but you know what, the reality is not everyone can appreciate that.» I told him I understood the business sense behind the decision, but that I still disagreed with it. Half-jokingly, I even predicted that in ten or twelve years we’d see this «new Harley» that shakes and makes mechanical noises like the old ones did. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe Dynas are now just a part of Harley-Davidson long history, like the Shovelhead engine, H-D snowmobiles and whatever else they did for a while, then stopped doing and moved on. 

Speaking of moving on: the new Fat Bob. As much as I was disappointed to learn of the death of the Dyna, I was floored by the design of the Fat Bob. It was always a different Harley, but now it’s striking. Paul James : «This is what our customers told us we could do. They told us if we respected our heritage models, they would allow us to experiment, to stretch our creativity. The new Fat Bob is a very good example of that. I’m absolutely convinced it will bring to Harley-Davidson a customer that, previously, wouldn’t have considered a Harley.» 

I couldn’t agree more with him. Images are one thing, but in the flesh, it’s almost surreal, as if it was a movie prop. But it is the real thing. Maybe not surprisingly, it’s the brainchild of one of the youngest designers in the team.  

I may have let out a gasp when the black cover was pulled off  the new Fat Boy, the last model unveiled that day. It too looks like it’s straight out of a movie and even more so than the Fat Bob, pictures don’t do it justice. The proportions are massive. Actually, after a couple minutes staring at it, you understand they’re simply exaggerated, as if it was making a statement about being called Fat. The front nacelle is particularly striking, as are the steamroller wheels. The back wears a 240 mm tire and the front a 160 mm! The new Fat Boy isn’t only surprising because of its design, but also because it has always been one of those iconic Harleys that had to look the same. It did evolve over the years, but it was always instantly recognizable. 

It may also be the most copied design in all of motorcycling. I’ve regularly written that cruisers from competing brands often looked like their version of H-D’s Fat Boy. Personally, I interpret the new 2018 as a middle finger to rival companies who shamelessly «inspired» themselves with the original design to create their own cruisers. And I also appreciate very much not just the creativity of the design, which is remarkable, but also the risk taken by Harley-Davidson. That new Fat Boy definitely won’t go unnoticed and will probably be quite polarizing within H-D’s core customer base, and outside of it. To go ahead and put a design like that in production takes some courage. 

I came away from that presentation more impressed with Harley-Davidson’s work than I have ever been over the two decades I’ve covered the brand. Other than the V-Rod and maybe the Night Rod Special, I don’t think I’ve ever been caught off guard by what I saw announced for the upcoming model year. But this time I genuinely was. More importantly, for the first time, it feels like Harley-Davidson is serious about tomorrow, about the fact that cruisers have to move on. Over the years and especially in the last ten, I’ve regularly asked people at H-D, amongst them Willie G. himself before he retired, how do you make cruisers evolve? It’s not hard at all to figure out how to make a sportbike or a touring machine evolve. But what about cruisers? I’d argue we haven’t seen them do that so far. We’ve seen come along bigger motors and better brakes and fuel injection and ABS, but all of that isn’t the essence of what cruisers are. Styling is. What I mean by that is you can upgrade the mechanical part of the equation all you want, but if the emotional appeal of styling isn’t there, a cruiser just won’t sell. So it all comes down to creativity. So once more, I asked Paul James that same question. To which he replied «How do you make cruisers evolve? You’re looking at it.»      

 SIDEBAR : HANDLING

Because the sneak peek presentation happened before the official unveiling of the 2018 lineup, we weren’t allowed on the open road with the new 2018 Softail. However, we were brought to a racetrack in order to at least get a taste of how the new chassis handled and how the dual counterbalanced Milwaukee-Eight performed. One bike after the other, we went through the entire family, riding the previous generation four a couple of laps and the 2018 for a couple of laps. Laps on a racetrack isn’t how you evaluate a Harley-Davidson, but it was better than nothing until we got to properly ride the Softail at the real launch which would be a few weeks later. At least that was the plan until it wasn’t as no invitation from H-D Canada came our way. So, only based on that short time spent on the new bikes, here’s what stands out. First, the Milwaukee-Eight is clearly more powerful. H-D claims about 30 pounds on average were shaved from each Softail for 2018, which improves performance even more. The 114 available on some of the models is a blast. I particularly enjoyed it in the Fat Bob which truly is a different kind of Harley. The new engine is also emits less mechanical noises which allows the exhaust and intake notes to be bumped a bit. As advertised ground clearance is improved on every single Softail, but because we rode the bikes on a racetrack, everyone of them easily touched down in corners,  even at a moderate pace. It’s difficult to judge how big the improvement will be on the road in that regard, but improvements there will be. Finally, the new chassis’ higher stiffness can be really felt and makes for sharper, more precise handling at every speed. All in all, even with such a restricted testing environment it was clear every aspect of handling and performance has been greatly improved on the 2018 Softails.