This week, Harley-Davidson rolled out their new 2018 models, revealing not only sweeping changes to not only their entire model lineup (Dyna models have gotten the axe) but also design changes that run completely counter to the traditional Harley look. Are these changes good for the Motor Company?
Harley-Davidson has been in a quandary for the last few years. As we’ve been reported on extensively here at BikeBandit, the trend of weakening Harley-Davidson motorcycle sales that started in 2014 has forced the Motor Company to do some soul-searching in order to boost sales and get themselves back on the right track.
Their recent major investments in marketing, massive outreach to “non-traditional” Harley markets (read: women, minorities, and Millenials), and the introduction of the new lower-end Street line have all failed to turn around the slump. What most industry analysts and customers have been saying that Harley-Davidson really needs to do instead is simple (and, perhaps, should be obvious) – build better, more modern bikes.
But this is much easier said than done for America’s most dominant motorcycle brand. Harley-Davidson has built much of its success on an intensely loyal following among a certain target market; specifically, American males between their 40s and 60s, with high incomes, frequently silver-haired and goateed, and fiercely loyal to both Harley-Davidson bikes and the lifestyle that surrounds them. As a brand you couldn’t ask for a more loyal customer base than Harley-Davidson commands (in fact, it is widely thought that no brand in the world is tattooed on peoples bodies more than the H-D logo.) In the industry, they are appropriately referred to as “the Harley Faithful.”
But despite their loyalty and buying power, that age group is aging, and an increasing number are retiring from riding altogether. In order to grow or even maintain market share, Harley has to change things up to appeal to new markets. This is a move they have long resisted, as they know major changes will turn off their core customer and hurt their brand, in the short term at least. In other words, Harley has suffered from a kind of identity crisis in recent years – and nothing short of bold, sweeping changes to their products will change the company’s course.
Well, it appears that 2018 is the year that process begins.
Earlier this week, Harley-Davidson announced it’s 2018 model line-up which included major changes to their product line, and immediately got the industry talking.
The biggest change is that the entire Dyna model, the company’s mid-sized “performance” model characterized by its rubber-mounted engine and twin rear shocks, will be getting the axe. The death of the Dyna is surprising, given the model’s explosion in popularity in the last decade. In particular, the Dyna appealed to younger riders – which many credit to both the popular “Sons of Anarchy” and a growing custom Dyna scene on the west coast – which is, incidentally, the age group Harley has been trying hardest to recruit. Nevertheless, the Dyna, a Harley staple since 1991, will be no more starting in 2018.
Instead, all of Harley’s mid-size bikes will converge under the Softail name, with a new frame at its core, along with the migration of the all-new Milwaukee Eight engine down to the Softail line. Some models that were previously built on Dyna frames – the Street Bob, Low Rider, and Fat Bob – still exist, but they are instead built on Softail frames for 2018.
With so many new Harleys being built on the Softail platform, the Motor Company has a lot riding on the new frame. So they made it better. And not just typical Harley “new and improved,” but dramatically better – the redesigned frame boasts a massive drop in weight of up to 35 pounds (depending on model), and an equally impressive 34% increase in rigidity. Along with high-performance suspensions, in particular the Showa front forks, the lighter, stiffer new generation of Softail should be a serious contender in the handling department.
The handling improvements are compounded by a big jump in power from the rigid-mounted, counter-balanced 107ci Milwaukee Eight engine, which boasts major increases in both 0-60 times and roll-on acceleration over the outgoing Twin Cam 103. If that’s still not enough power, a high-output Milwaukee Eight 114 will be available in select models.
With eight models total now in the Softail lineup, they run the gamut in terms of styling, from the 1950s styling of the Heritage Classic to the modern custom look of the Breakout. But there’s one in particular that is a radical departure from the traditional Harley look – a departure so obvious, it actually has some Harley riders really pissed off.
That model is the new 2018 Softail Fat Bob. Performance-wise, it is an impressive machine – in fact, the 114ci version is the highest performance machine Harley-Davidson has ever built. It loses 33 pounds over the 2017 model, uses high-performance Showa Dual Bending Valve 43mm forks set at a quick-steering 28 degrees, has an externally adjustable rear shock, and dual disc front brakes.
But what really has the Harley community in an uproar is the styling. The new Fat Bob aesthetic doesn’t just eschew traditional Harley styling cues, it goes directly against many of them – the matte finish with asymmetrical graphics, 2-1-2 matte-copper finished upswept exhaust, bobbed fenders, narrow drag bars, and rugged tires look nothing like what comes to mind when you think of a Harley (a stock one, at least.) But the most polarizing is that wide, flat LED headlight, the likes of which have never been seen on any stock Harley.
“The Faithful” generally hates it. A few comments from around the web: “It looks like an overgrown Honda Ruckus!” “It’s now a muscle bike, lost all it’s charm. Looks plump and ugly, and worst of all – ugliest headlight imaginable.” “I’ll just buy a VMax and get better performance!” Harley-Davidson is making major changes to their product line in general, but they knew the new Fat Bob was an exceptionally bold move, especially for a company so rooted in tradition.
True, it doesn’t look like a Harley. It doesn’t behave like a Harley (according to Harley’s marketing department, anyway.) The Harley Faithful doesn’t seem to like it one bit. But that’s exactly what I love about it most. Of the entire Harley-Davidson product line, the 2018 Fat Bob is, incidentally, the only one I immediately picked out as something I personally would like to own.
I think that was precisely Harley’s intent. I am not Harley’s traditional customer – while my life as a rider started on one (an ’05 Dyna), and I have a special place in my heart for them, they’ve lagged in performance for too long and their styling is still too stuck in the past for me. But the Fat Bob’s high-performance DNA is intriguing to me, and the post-apocalyptic look may be ugly to some, but I think it just looks badass. Sure, it may look like a VMax or some other Japanese muscle bike, I’ll admit that. But it’s not one, and in my American mind – though I am indeed a big Yamaha fan – Harley-Davidson still represents the cream of the crop in cruisers to me.
The 2018 Fat Bob is causing quite a bit of commotion in the industry. But with Harley-Davidson finally awakening from it’s decades long innovation slumber, and clearly reaching out to new customers, I think you’ll actually begin to see a lot more models like this in the future. The old guard may scoff at it, and it will definitely be hated on – but someday, there will be a whole new generation of “the Faithful,” as the nearly 115-year-old company knows well. Heck, if they keep this up…I may even become one of them. Click Here…