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- Written by Carole Nash Editor
- Created: 08 August 2008
You might not want to be seen on a bike called a Fat Boy, but there are plenty who do, making this one of Harley’s most popular models during the 1990’s.
First appearing in 1990, the bulbous gas tank and solid dish rear wheel became immediately recognisable signature details of this machine.
There are too many styling options and accessory possibilities to mention with the Fat Boy, but most end up with a screen, louder exhaust pipes, uprated brakes, sissy bar and several acres of chrome before their owners are totally satisfied.
A great way to travel, especially aboard the 2000 model Fat Boy onwards, which has the new 1450cc engine fitted.
The guy on the old Softail didn’t suspect a thing. He rode down the freeway on-ramp just as I droned by on the new Fat Boy, and nodded in friendly fashion as I overtook him on a bike that must have looked much like any other example of Harley’s most popular Big Twin.
But from where I was sitting there was nothing ordinary about this Fat Boy at all. The orange bike rumbled along the New Hampshire freeway feeling far smoother than any rigid-mounted Harley I’d ridden before and when I cracked open the throttle to overtake, it accelerated with considerably more enthusiasm than any standard Softail.
When I needed to slow down, too, a light squeeze of the handlebar lever was enough to make the Chubby Lad shed speed notably faster and more efficiently than its predecessors. This Softail might have looked like any other one, but it was a very different motorbike to ride and with good reason.
There has surely never been a development program quite like the one that undertaken by Harley to revitalise the Softail line. The Milwaukee firm’s stated aim was to "change everything, without changing a thing". In other words, give its most popular and profitable family of bikes a complete overhaul make them faster, more comfortable, easier and more pleasant to ride while altering their style and character as little as possible.
These Softails look almost identical to their predecessors, but if anyone on the launch thought they might have come all the way to America’s east coast for nothing, that cynicism didn’t last long. Earl Werner, Harley’s Vice President of Engineering, introduced the new range with the words: "Six new bikes with new engines, in the most important sector of our range, makes this the largest product introduction in the 96-year history of Harley-Davidson."
Any lingering doubts about how much the bikes were changed disappeared when Dave Rank, the engineer in charge of the Softail line, carried out a medium-sized cardboard box and began unloading its contents. These were the parts of a new Softail Standard that have been carried over from the ’99 bike, and the list was short: handlebars and their risers, headlight, top yoke, horn and its cover, footboards and pillion pegs, shift levers, axles, a small chrome panel, and the chromed fork shrouds known as "beer cans". Apart from the tyres, which didn’t fit in the box, everything else is new.
Some of the Softails new parts have been seen before on other models, it’s true. Their engines are heavily based on the 1450cc, pushrod-operated Twin Cam 88 motor that was introduced on the rubber-mounted Dyna range a year ago. In setting out to reduce vibration, Harley considered introducing rubber mounts for the Softails too, but rejected the idea, partly on grounds of tradition, and also because giving the motors room to shake around in the frame would have meant the chassis having to be enlarged.
Instead, the V-twin was given a pair of contra-rotating balancer shafts the first Harley has ever used situated low down on the right of the engine. This modified motor is known as the Twin Cam 88B, the B standing for balancer. The shafts, driven by chain from the crank, neutralise the remaining 50 per cent of primary vibration, the flywheel having taken out the rest.
The balancers reduce power output by up to three per cent as well as adding 6kg of weight, but the more powerful twin-cam engine can stand a little loss. Its long list of changes from the Evo motor notably increased 1450cc capacity, short-stroke dimensions, higher compression, revised combustion chamber shape and redesigned bottom-end give a peak output of 63bhp at 5300rpm, compared to the old Softails’ maximum of about 50bhp.
While smoothing the Twin Cam motor for Softail use, Harley also took the opportunity to uprate the transmission with modifications that will be incorporated into all 88ci models. The transmission case is now a structural member of the chassis, along with the engine. And the gearbox internals have been redesigned to improve shifting and make neutral easier to find.
The engine and gearbox provide about half the rigidity of the chassis (compared to ten per cent with the old Evolution motor), which is based on a redesigned steel frame made from 17 parts instead of the previous 34. Front forks have revised damping, and the rear shocks have been repositioned to make removal easier. A new, straighter swing-arm is more rigid, allows a wider rear tyre, and facilitates changing of the thinner, stronger final drive belt, which is now made from carbon-fibre instead of Kevlar.
The Softails other big chassis change is the adoption of the four-piston caliper disc brake set-up recently introduced on the Dyna Super Glide Sport, and now fitted to all bikes apart from the Springers (whose front suspension doesn’t allow it). Front and rear single discs are identical. Their rotors are fixed, not floating, as they have curved slots to allow for heat expansion.
Other Softail mods include a new 19-litre, one-piece fuel tank with a Dyna-style fuel gauge instead of a second filler cap, plus a redesigned oil tank with old-style external lines, and an easier-to-use dip-stick. The sidestand has been relocated to make it easier to use for shorter riders, the electrical system and rear light assembly have been revised, and wheel bearings are sealed for improved durability.
Softail exhaust systems have also been redesigned to incorporate a catalytic converter, and with a relocated balance pipe to allow a clearer view of the engine. When I settled into the low, broad seat and hit the button the Fat Boy came to life with a familiar bark through that reasonably fruity-sounding pair of pipes, but I didn’t have to ride far to realise that this was a very different bike.
The traditional big V-twin shaking of the sold-mounted Harley has almost gone, reduced by 90 per cent according to Harley. Some traditionalists will doubtless regard this as a backward step but there’s still enough going on down below to let you know you’re riding a big V-twin. As far as I’m concerned, the old-style vibes are not missed at all.
As I rode a Fat Boy north through verdant New Hampshire from the launch base in the anonymous town of Nashua it was great to be able to sit at a steady 70mph not only untroubled by shaking handlebars, but even able to see clearly in the mirrors. Only when speeds rose above 80mph, heading for the Harley’s maximum of about 110mph, did vibes start coming through bars, seat and footboards and even then it wasn’t too bad.
Few people will bother riding the Fat Boy at such speeds, but even so the performance boost that the Softail models get from the Twin Cam lump is well worth having. Peak torque of 106Nm is produced at just 3200rpm, and even with as little as 40mph showing on the black-faced speedo set into the tank top (there’s no tacho), the Fat Boy responded to a tweak of throttle by charging forward like a Chicago Bears linebacker.
Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But this Portly Youth is distinctly more lively than its predecessor, and its new-found smoothness means you’re tempted to accelerate harder, more often. The new gear change is a big success, too. The cogs still go in with a loud clonk, but the change is positive, I couldn’t find a single false neutral, and the real neutral can be found easily from first or second.
Harley’s chassis changes are less dramatic but still welcome, and haven’t changed the laid-back feel that is a big part of the Fat Boy’s charm. The sensations experienced from the ultra-low seat are much the same, for all the revised suspension: plush, pretty comfortable (at least until the upright riding position makes your back ache), slow-steering, unshakeable.
Changing direction in a hurry isn’t exactly the Corpulent Kid’s forte, and its footboards went down with a loud scriiitch when I got the slightest bit enthusiastic in a bend. We are talking about a bike that weighs 320kg dry and has a 32-degree steering angle plus the wheelbase of a truck, after all. But hey, that’s all the more reason to slow down and chill out.
And talking of slowing, the new anchors are a major league improvement. Even with just one disc brake bolted to the 16-inch disc front wheel, a reasonably firm squeeze of the handlebar lever is enough to get the front Dunlop squealing like a stuck hawg. Adding a touch of the identical rear brake brings the Harley to a halt with enough force to banish one long-term Harley complaint for good.
All in all the new Fat Boy and its family were not just impressive, they were good enough to make me a bit embarrassed to recall writing, two years ago, that Harley’s impressively high-tech new Product Development Centre was wasted on all those stone-age V-twins. On the contrary, these latest Softails are good enough to suggest that the huge investment that Harley has made in its future is already producing big results.
Changing almost the whole bike to end up with one that looks just like it did before might seem strange at first. But you don’t have to ride the new Softails very far to know that Harley’s effort has made its most popular big twin a more practical and usable machine, without compromising its style or character. Which, as the price is also staying pretty much the same (up by a few per cent from the current £12,995), sounds like a pretty good deal.
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|Engine||Air-cooled 45-degree V-twin|
|Claimed power (bhp)||63hp @ 5200rpm|
|Transmission||Five speed gearbox, toothed belt final drive|
|Front tyre||MT90 x 16in Dunlop Touring Elite II|
|Rear tyre||MT 130/90 x 16in Dunlop Touring Elite II|
|Front suspension||41mm telescopic, 129mm travel|
|Rear suspension||Twin shocks, 103mm travel, adjustments for preload|
|Front brake||Four-piston caliper, 292mm discs|
|Rear brake||Four piston caliper, 292mm disc|
|Top speed||110 mph|
|Fuel capacity||18.9 litres|