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2018 H-D Fat Bob and Deluxe | BIKE TESTS

Harley-Davidson’s nine-model Softail range includes a style of bike to suit just about every taste – if you’re into that sort of thing. Here, we have a crack at preaching to a non-believer

Aidan Hayes is an Australian Supersport racer. He’s also a member of AMCN’s rent-a-rider test team. But one thing Aidan’s not is a Harley-Davidson rider. In fact, with a background in enduro, and a relatively late introduction to road racing, I soon discovered that he’d never once thrown a leg over a V-twin-powered cruiser of any kind, let alone one from arguably the most recognised cruiser brand in the world.

With a plan to change that, I chose two models from opposite ends of Harley’s 2018 Softail range; choice one was the Fat Bob. It looks like no Harley before it, it’s the marque’s take on a sports model, but it’s not a sportsbike by any stretch of the imagination.

As a contrast, the second choice was the Deluxe. Outside the big-ass beasts from Harley’s touring range, no model screams H-D heritage louder than the Deluxe – it’s all chrome, white-wall tyres and attitude.

My grin widened when I discovered Aidan had never worn an open-face helmet. Link International fixed him up with a new AGV  X70 Pasolini replica so, even though he might not have ever heard of Renzo Pasolini, he could add bugs-in-the-teeth to his growing list of firsts.

H-D Deluxe

1. Shiny 16-inch chrome wire wheels and Dunlop white-wall tyres are the centrepiece of the heritage styling. Depending on how noticed you want to be, colours range from a mild Black Denim to a wild Wicked Red /Twisted Cherry combo.

2. Like the Fat Bob, the Deluxe has a single rear shock absorber that’s adjustable for preload. Unlike the Fat Bob, there is no easy-to-access remote adjuster. Harley says this is a styling decision. Adjusting the preload is achieved by removing the seat and using the supplied spanner.

3. The new Deluxe has benefited the most from the new Softail chassis. In the past, a rider needed to make sizeable compromises in the handling department if they chose to cruise on a Deluxe. That’s now a thing of the past.

4. The sidestand on the new Softail chassis doesn’t fill you with confidence when parking on an uneven surface, and this seems to be at its worst on the Deluxe due to the proximity of the footboards. You’re never really sure if the stand is locked in place.

With sunglasses in hand, the mercury already pushing 30 degrees at 8am and a full day of riding ahead of us, we climbed aboard our steel ponies. First job was to mess with Aidan’s head, so I played him the opening riff of Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf so he would have the song stuck in his head for the rest of the day – and it worked.

So as not to give the young bull too much of a culture shock, I allowed him to pop his Harley cherry on the less-intrusive Fat Bob. The futuristic styling has polarised the H-D faithful since its release last year. It’s a mash of cruiser, sportsbike and scrambler with Mad Max overtones.

Both of our test bikes were fitted with the Milwaukee-Eight 107ci (1753cc) twin-cooled eight-valve V-twin, but there’s also the optional 114ci (1868cc) mill available for the Fat Bob.

Pulling out of the carpark, I giggled as Aidan’s feet flapped around in search for non-existent mid-mounted pegs. I did exactly the same thing the first time I rode a Harley and people laughed at me too – it never gets old.

After an hour of tackling the twists and turns of the Royal National Park south of Sydney, we stopped. “It’s pretty heavy,” were the first words out of his mouth. That’s expected from a guy used to throwing around a 180kg racebike, not a 306kg (wet) Harley. “I can’t believe Evil Knievel jumped these things!

“To be honest, the handling is a lot better than I expected. I was quick-steering it into some of those corners and I’m sure that after a while you begin to work it all out, but the way it responds to rider input is unlike any other bike I have ridden. It’s not worse or better – just different.”

The fork on the Fat Bob is an inverted non-adjustable 43mm unit with Showa Dual-Bending Valve cartridges. This was the first bike I rode at the world launch and I remember being seriously impressed by its handling.

The heavily grooved 16-inch balloon tyres and canoe paddle-style handlebar had me flummoxed – until I rode it. The Fat Bob takes good-handling logic and punches it fair in the face. The few extra millimetres of ground clearance allows additional lean angle to make the most of the improved handling too.

Our morning run was probably the only time I have gapped Aidan through a twisty section of road. He was discovering that to punt a Harley along at any pace you need to brake early and hard, and use the mountain of torque to drive out the other side.

“It almost feels like a diesel, with all that low-end torque,” Aidan offered. “When I was riding in third or fourth gear you could hardly hear the engine because it was ticking over at such low rpm.

“The first thing I noticed is the seating position, and how you need to ride it. If I slouch and just hang off the bars it feels right, but it goes against everything I know about riding a bike. If I sit up straight, I feel really uncomfortable and Born to be Wild stops playing in my head.”

H-D Fat Bob

1. A 43mm USD fork, 28-degree steering-head angle and 132mm of trail gives the Fat Bob a sporty turn-in. The additional lean angle provided by the 120mm of ground clearance (112mm on the Deluxe) allows the rider to put the quick steering to good use.

2. The huge inverted fork has a Showa Dual Bending Valve cartridge, but it’s non-adjustable. The rear single shock has a remote adjuster so you can have a play with the preload. Just make sure you don’t burn your fingers on the hot exhaust system.

3. Despite the Fat Bob’s stripped-back appearance, Harley decided not to fit its insanely small riser-mounted digital dash. The tank-mounted analogue tachometer, with an LCD insert for speed, is an interesting old-school touch, as are the retro graphics on the tank.

4. Adding to the ‘zombie apocalypse’ look are the fat deep-treaded tyres, which were designed by Dunlop especially for the Fat Bob. The 150/80-16 front and 180/70-16 rear fly in the face of conventional thinking for well-mannered handling.

Having discussed the idiosyncrasies of a Harley’s handling, I left Aidan on the Fat Bob for the next section. That’s when he started to get his head around the big V-twin. 

“The front end feels so well planted, but you don’t get heaps of feel from it,” he said. “Through the tight sections there were large sticks on the road but I felt like I could have run over a log and not crashed.

“What has surprised me is how well it changes direction. That big fat front tyre makes no sense to the way it handles, and the change of direction is quick and easy. The wide bar probably helps; if the thing had narrow handlebars you’d never turn it.”

Aidan stiffened up the preload (using the remote adjuster) to see what difference it made.

“There’s no adjustment on the fork, but if there was I’d probably fiddle with the damping so the fork doesn’t bounce back up as quickly when you get off the brakes and onto the power though a corner.”

The gearbox was also a new experience.

“You really need to click it into each gear, and you feel and hear each gear engage. It’s an unhurried process, so no need for a quickshifter. The clutch lever feels a bit stiff when you’re stopped, but once moving it’s just a one or two-finger job.

“There’s also no effort required to get the tail sliding out using the compression when going down the gears, but there’s less need for gear changes than any other bike I’ve ridden; you quickly forget what gear you’re in.

“The engine produces so much torque, either way it will still drive out of the corner. Rev it past 5000rpm and the only thing you’re doing is making noise.”

H-D Deluxe

We had one last run through the same twisty section to see what difference more preload made.

“There was more feel at the rear that time, but up front it became harder to turn it; it just didn’t respond as well.”

The heat from the big air/oil-cooled V-twin and the header pipes on both bikes was making itself noticed in the hot weather and Aidan was forced to wear a glove when adjusting the preload. On cooler days, this may not be such an issue. We are both wearing urban-style ankle boots too, and our ankles were copping a lot of heat from the exhaust.

We swapped bikes at the half-way point and Aidan said he was enjoying his first Harley experience, but was still a little perplexed.

“I still don’t really get the whole Harley thing, it’s a nice bike, but I’m not sure if I would own one. Let’s see how I feel after I ride the Deluxe.”

Looks-wise, the Deluxe is all classic Harley style. It’s got white-wall tyres, miles of chrome, big wrap-around guards and a choice of awesome bold colours. Under the skin, the new chassis has transformed the bike from a dodgy handler into a predictable cruiser; it’s been like putting an HQ Kingswood body onto a 2018 Commodore chassis.

Being a single-seater, there’s a little more room to move around and, compared to the slightly shorter Fat Bob, which is also higher and has a steeper steering head angle, the Deluxe feels long and low. The reach to the ’bar and forward-mounted footboards is comfortable for me, but had Aidan stretched a bit.

H-D Fat Bob

A blast down the freeway and up Jamberoo Pass to the Robertson Pie Shop gave Aidan a true taste of the Deluxe and Harley life.

“There’s so much chrome, you can’t ride it without sunnies,” he said grinning. “When you ride this thing, everyone is checking you out… and this one is grey – the red one I saw you ride at the launch is even more wild-looking!

“Everyone is checking out the bike. Most would have no idea if it’s old or new or what model it is but they all know it’s a Harley. I saw some girls checking out the bike and I think they were blushing – it’s the weirdest thing.”

Aidan was amazed that both bikes are based on the same chassis/engine combination with only the USD fork and styling setting the two models apart.

“The front of the Deluxe is so raked out compared to the Fat Bob, and that wide bar has your hands really far apart; it looks pretty wild.

“I don’t mean it in a bad way, but it’s more like driving a boat than riding a motorcycle. The Fat Bob feels much shorter.”

With his preference obviously leaning towards the Fat Bob, I asked Aidan if there was anything he liked more about the Deluxe.

“The pegs on the Fat Bob seem a little too high. I guess it helps with ground clearance, and I had no trouble dragging the footboards on the Deluxe through corners, but I prefer the Deluxe’s ergonomics even though riding with footboards and a giant brake pedal was a whole new experience.

“The seat is much wider and more comfortable, too, but it feels very similar; you need to just flop into it like a sack of potatoes to make it work.”

Being used to race-spec brakes, I was surprised Aidan didn’t single out the braking performance.

“Even though the Fat Bob is 10kg lighter than the Deluxe (306kg to 316kg wet/claimed), I didn’t notice a great deal of difference between the two, braking-wise. The Fat Bob does stop a little better but it does have the twin 300mm discs and four-piston calipers up front, where the Deluxe is heavier and has just one disc. But the brakes are good.

“Looking at performance as a whole, the last thing you would want is brakes that bite like a race caliper because it would be too much of a contrast to the way the bike performs. It would be horrible to ride like that.”

“One thing these bikes really need is span-adjustable levers. I found the controls were way too close to my fingers. And what’s with the idea of having a button on each switchblock for the indicators?!” Oh, yeah. I meant to mention that.

Possibly showing his much younger years than the average Harley-Davidson rider, Aidan said that if his buying decision was based purely on looks, he would still go for the Fat Bob.

“It’s more sporty looking, and the pegs are high and out the front there. The Deluxe looks a bit too traditional for me. I like all the chrome and stuff, but it’s probably a bit too over-the-top.

“It’s also odd that there is no remote preload adjuster on the Deluxe, even though both bikes are built on the same chassis platform.

“One thing that really caught my eye with the Fat Bob is the rear fender; I really like the short style but it looks like it is missing something under there. A row of thin LEDs for the brake light would look really good, I reckon.”

So the kid doesn’t like too much chrome but wants more bright LED lights – kids today, eh?

After a full day of riding and comparing, Aidan and I had differing views in what riding a Harley-Davidson is all about.

Even though the Deluxe is $2000 more expensive ($29,495 ride away) than the Fat Bob with the same 107 engine ($27,495 ride away), I would still choose the Deluxe every day of the week because it delivers the classic Harley-Davidson cruiser experience with a chassis and engine package that’s better than anything before it.

Aidan likes the Fat Bob for its sporty handling nature, but this is coming from a bloke who’s got a diamond stud in his ear. ’Nuff said! 

By Chris Dobie