Way, way back in my early riding days, a guy I worked with told me to go take a ride and handed me the keys to his motorcycle, a 2008 Harley-Davidson Dyna Fat Bob. That bike was the very first Harley I ever rode. Since then, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on multiple Sportster platforms, along with a few test rides on the Twin-Cam Softail and touring models, but I’ve simply missed any opportunities to ride another Dyna.
Late last year Harley dropped down nine new models powered by the new Milwaukee Eight power plant. Subsequently, Harley also dropped the bomb on some of the rank-and-file faithful, binning the lauded Dyna frame in favor of an all new Softail chassis. Looking over the new 2018 models, I was immediately drawn to the Fat Bob. I full well understand that the stat sheet is completely uncoupled from what makes a good motorcycle; however, based on all the trimmings I could see via the interwebs, this new Fat Bob seemed poised to be a contributing force of change in the realm of American made motorcycles.
But what about the Fat Bob of yore; the first Harley I ever rode? Aside from robust torque coming out of the basement, my memory of that ride is unfortunately pretty fuzzy at this point. There’s no question my taste in riding has evolved considerably since then and I have to admit, I really don’t have a dog in this Dyna-versus-Softail fight. However, considering the internet commentary about “Dyna betrayal”, I want to know how these two bikes compare. As it turns out, Powder Keg Harley-Davidson happened to have both flavors of the Fat Bob in stock and offered me a test ride session.
2015 Dyna Fat Bob
Throwing a leg over the familiar Twin-Cam Fat Bob, I found it difficult to not compare the Fat Bob to my old Speedmaster. Yes, very dissimilar engines and of course the details are different, but there’s no denying that the basic blueprint of the bikes is the same. The overall seating position certainly feels familiar to me, the swept drag bars and feet forward position was also reminiscent of my former Triumph mount.
Out on the road, I settled into the saddle and realized it was surprisingly comfortable considering I typically prefer a more neutral seating position these days. It took me a minute to get acclimated to a new set of forward controls, but after a few stop signs I managed to find the pegs consistently. Getting more comfortable through a few of the curves, I will say that the seat on the Dyna felt head and shoulders above my old ride, as far as tooling around town is concerned. I really liked how you sit more in the saddle along with a back pad that keeps you from sliding off the bike under hard acceleration.
Late last fall I took the new Road Glide, fitted with the Milwaukee Eight, for a test ride. Immediately after, I took the previous generation 103 Twin-Cam Heritage Softail for a spin. The difference between the two engines, let alone the bikes, was virtually night and day. I feared that experience might overshadow my impression of the Dyna Fat Bob. Quite the contrary; for whatever reason the 103 in this 2015 Fat Bob felt more stout compared to the ‘16 Heritage I took for a spin. I suspect the aftermarket Vance and Hines pipes didn’t hurt the performance specs, all I know is that this Fat Bob had plenty of giddy-up. Just leaving the parking lot I was impressed by the stereotypical Harley-Davidson pull from idle.
It’s been a while since I’ve been on a rubber mounted Harley; the vibration wasn’t quite as jarring as I expected it to be. It was quite evident at stop lights (even more so from the frame-mounted camera), but from the rider perspective, it felt more docile out on the road. I did find it a bit annoying at low RPM, but it mostly disappears when you start to spin it up in the curves.
Shifting through the gears, the Twin-Cam transmission was smooth and predictable. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Twin-Cam without the authoritative “clunk!” of gear engagement with each shift. As the riding got sporty, transitions were easy without missed shifts or false neutrals. Speaking of neutral, the 103 actually likes to find neutral when asked, unlike a lot of other bikes I’ve ridden; my Scrambler is no exception (even after 50k miles).
Somewhere in the early evolution of my riding career I felt like the big twin Harley clutch pull required excessive effort. I will say, on an old Sportster, that is true, however the lever action on the 103 Fat Bob is virtually the same as my Scrambler. The lever, however, is unquestionably sized to handle the most ham-fisted among us.
After years on the Speedmaster, I feared the classic twin shocks on the Dyna would be of similar caliber. The MoCo’s shocks weren’t so bad, a bit harsher than I’d like, but better than I expected; easily better than the Speedmaster’s shocks on its best day. The front forks would naturally receive the same scrutiny; front end dive, while present, was reasonable considering the heavier bike and aggressive maneuverability (for its class). Ultimately, I was impressed how hard I could pull the lever under hard braking; the springs were stiffer than I expected, a testament to the Fat Bob’s rank in the Dyna lineup.
Speaking of that brake lever pull, dual front disk on a bike with forward controls was a welcome addition for me. I believe the dual front disk exacerbated the front-end dive, but lever input required was very minimal. I actually felt like I had more brakes than I had tire (three-year-old stock Dunlops). I suspect with alternate tire selection and progressive springs the Dyna Fat Bob has the potential to be quite sporty, stocky front tire and all.
The rear brake on the other hand… that’s different story. I’m not sure what description is most accurate, but I suppose “wooden” will suffice. Pulling up to several stoplights I kept asking myself if I should put more input to the rear brake pedal… “Never mind… I locked it up just now”. Right or wrong, I tend to use a little rear brake headed into the curves to trim the line up a little tighter on a bulky cruiser. I was pretty timid about putting much pressure on the Dyna’s rear brake, for fear of locking it up mid-turn and dealing with the calamity that would follow.
Putting the Fat Bob through its paces along the hairpins outside Kings Mills, I also found the Fat Bob’s lean angle better than I anticipated. Riding the Heritage Softail last fall, the floor boards touched down on the pavement alarmingly early; comparably, the Dyna was much more apt to carve a clean line around the hair-pins with effort akin to my former Trumpet. It was nice being able to throw the Fat Bob through the corners a bit harder; but I was still a bit timid pushing the envelope on the bigger cruiser.
After 7 years and many miles on different motorcycles, I expected the ride characteristics of the namesake “fat” front tire to irritate me; especially after so much time riding with the larger hoops on dual-sport bikes. I’ve been curious as of late, what’s with the popularity of the fat front tire, particularly on cruisers? To my surprise, I really didn’t find anything to fuss about out on the road. As a guy who doesn’t know better, it felt to me like the bike had better resistance from tracking imperfections in the roadway; quite contrary to the skinny spoked wheel on my trusty Scrambler. While at the same time, the turn-in was not as crisp as I would expect from modern adventure bikes, but the chunky fat tire held the line well, even when higher demands were asked of it.
Pulling back into the lot, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed myself after giving up cruisers back in 2016. Having been on several Harleys in recent months, the Dyna Fat Bob managed to stir the soul a little; a much more playful machine than I expect it to be.
2018 Softail Fat Bob
Forget everything I just told you… well… most of it.
By definition, one of my gripes about cruisers is forward controls; insult to injury, I often find it cumbersome to manipulate the brake and shift pedals accurately when the pace hastens. What if you could have the best of both worlds? Forward controls with levers that are properly positioned for sufficient tomfoolery. Dropping into the saddle on the Softail Fat Bob, I was immediately impressed by the ergonomics. At 5’10” and 185 pounds, the Fat Bob fits like it was designed specifically for me. I’m in the bike, securely, closer to the bars, in total control of the machine. If I close my eyes, everything is within reach. The controls, intuitively placed. Yes, this Fat Bob has forward controls, yet they behave more like “mids” as the placement is higher and closer to the rider than the preceding Dyna.
Letting the clutch out, putting my feet up on the pegs, as I left the parking lot I was struck by the commanding feeling provided by the wide bars. My hand placement on the bars felt natural and this new Softail Fat Bob felt even more nimble from go. Similar to the bars, it is unmistakable, my feet felt closer to the seat than former cruisers I’ve ridden; again, instilling confidence to maneuver the machine rather than just glide and participate. Turning onto the main roads, rolling on the throttle, wow… That engine…
How does one best describe the Milwaukee Eight to someone that rides a Twin-Cam? More power… Everywhere. There’s no question, the most outstanding difference between the Dyna Fat Bob and the new Softail is the power plant. The Milwaukee Eight mill is rev-happy, begs to be flogged, and pulls steady to the red line. Exactly what I want from a twin cylinder engine. Beyond power, there’s also a big difference in the engine character. Similar to the outgoing Softails, the new Fat Bob’s M8 mill is hard mounted and counter balanced. However, as advertised, the M8 V-twin vibration is still present; offering depth and personality to the engine, without being offensive.
Picking up the gear shifter with my toe, the M8 transmission, like its predecessor, is again authoritative, yet with more refinement and precision. The new gearbox is equally smooth, meanwhile “deliberate” in its execution. Impressed by the Milwaukee Eight’s torque band, I purposely short shifted the bike a few times; lugging the engine. Regardless of speed, the M8 pulls confidently in all the gears except 6th. That’s reassuring as a bike that feels so aggressive on the backroads also has a tall 6th gear to keep you comfortable on the expressway.
While I was impressed by the feeling of dual front disc on the preceding Fat Bob, I found the new Softail’s front binders even more exceptional. I spent most of the test ride using no more than two fingers on the brake lever; inducing confidence sufficient to do quite a bit of trail braking through the curves, simultaneously on the brakes and the throttle. On the back end, the rear brake actually had feedback and range; quite the contrast to its predecessor. That range wasn’t especially plentiful, but predictable and most importantly, usable. I did manage to lock it up (deliberately) approaching a stop sign; it behaved as expected (or better) for a heavy weight cruiser. I didn’t notice until reviewing my test ride photos, this new Fat Bob has a floating rear rotor, unlike the fixed rotor on the outgoing model. I admit, it’s unlikely this is the cause for such improved function, but I suspect it’s still a contributing factor.
It’s tough to speak intelligently about the suspension on the new Fat Bob, or at least in an entertaining way. A new chassis with a rear mono-shock and upside down from forks… let’s suffice to say, it’s just better. The bike feels less disturbed by potholes, manhole covers, and other imperfections on the roadway; while it’s simultaneously more confidence inspiring when things get twisty. The rear end feels a shade more plush, yet doesn’t wallow through the curves. The front end, softer than the Dyna front forks, dives a little harder under braking, but is more adept at handling the same urban road challenges while somehow also permitting a more spirited pace.
With the revision of the Softail frame, new rear shock, wide bars, and upside down front forks, the steering is crisp and accurate. The Fat Bob lures you into the curves with haste, where it incessantly begs for more winding backroads. I will also note the steering input on this new Fat Bob is much different than almost any bike I’ve ridden on before. This bike will not fall into the corners; the tip-in is instinctive, requiring minimal effort, and maintaining lean attitude is natural. What’s different is that once the bike has leaned over and begins to track through the corner, as you push the bars further, they demand a little more effort to increase the lean; the bike actually wants to stand back up as you approach the maximum lean angle. I don’t consider this a flaw, I just find it an interesting characteristic of the bike’s handling; something I assume is attributed to a more aggressive rake and the combination of a wider front tire. I found the clutch pull to be on par with the Fat Bob of yore. I love to shift gears, especially when riding gets energetic; I like to keep the needle in the heart of the power band. After hitting the best local twisties, I wasn’t at all taxed after spirited riding on this more capable Fat Bob.
Fit and finish is also notably better; I agree it’s tough to improve on Harley-Davidson’s reputation for finished quality, but it has been done. Again, more precision and attention to detail, yet tastefully, and in conjunction with modern technology. It goes without question that I love the subdued paint and overall blacked out treatment. While I feel the subdued styling has grown in popularity, in this case it’s a tasteful evolution of both the Fat Bob and Harley-Davidson as a whole. Obviously, Harley has been doing the “blacked out” dark custom series for some time, but the entire Softail lineup is more subdued than previous generations of Harley-Davidsons. The latest iteration of the Fat Bob has also corrected the “bobbed” rear fender that I hated on the post-2013 taillight setup. What looked like a modern art afterthought, the former slash-cut rear fender seemed at odds with the otherwise classic look of the muscular Harley cruiser. The new Softail nails the “bobbed” motif by exposing the rear tire, concealing the rear brake light, while tastefully incorporating the (DOT required) rear fender.
To the Dyna faithful, I’m sorry, this new Softail Fat Bob is simply better than its predecessor… in every way. Stock bike to stock bike, I might give you a little leeway by saying the factory front springs are a hair firmer on the outgoing model; so the front-end dive feels a bit more noticeable. On the flip-side, I’ll make the argument that the front binders are better, and the new front end is more compliant for city riding where the asphalt is often less than ideal (especially here, well north of the Mason-Dixon Line). In a world where the factory pipes are often ditched from the jugs back, a few dollars for a new set of springs is small price to pay for a machine this refined.
I admit, I may have some beef about the rear jug’s head cover and its close proximity to my thigh. Despite the advancements in the Milwaukee Eight mill, that engine still gets pretty warm in your nether regions when you’re crawling up the tank when the riding intensity clicks up a notch. That said, for the average Joe, that’s probably a rare occasion, and Harley has made “deflectors” for the touring models in the past; it’s only a matter of time before an aftermarket solution is available. This situation is actually caused by the size reduction of the fuel tank; something else I might nitpick. Personally, I would rather have the extra gas, however I will accept argument that the range is comparable to outgoing models and the target audience doesn’t insist on additional range. I will also concede, the narrow fuel tank does let you tuck in pretty tight on this bike when you start hustling along the bendy tarmac. Which I expect I would be doing a lot of, if this new Fat Bob came home to live with me.
Personally, I find the most important factor in this comparison is how the different bikes feel, and which one puts the bigger smile on your face. The Softail Fat Bob with its new Milwaukee Eight is a real gas. Much more lively than its predecessor, the new Softail chassis requires so little effort to maneuver. I can’t get over how it just lures you into bends, as I was continuously surprised by how fast I was approaching the next curve, and yet felt confident negotiating the corners at speed. Looking back at the 103 Twin-Cam, the M8 engine character feels slightly more mechanical, but as a whole, the entire machine is just more “precise”, leaving the Dyna feeling lethargic and dated by comparison. The Dyna was a fun bike to ride, but the Softail Fat Bob had me giggling in my helmet from the moment I left the parking lot.
Why you should consider a Softail Fat Bob
When considering the purchase of a new motorcycle, there are unquestionably those that have removed Harley-Davidson from their list because they only offer “cruisers”. I will contend that if you look at the stat sheet, that might be a true statement. However, per other public comments I’ve made, the Motor Company has made significant strides in recent years to blur the lines between “Cruiser” and “Standard”; first with the 2016 Roadster, and now with the Fat Bob.
With quasi-forward controls, the Fat Bob may fall into the category of cruiser, but I will argue that these forward controls are the most commanding of any I’ve experienced. Yes, if you insist on a sport bike or sport naked, this bike is (probably) not for you. However, if you’re turning away from a life of clip-ons and triple digits, I think you may be surprised by what you’ll find at your local Harley Dealer.
On the other side of the spectrum, shoppers on touring bikes that simply don’t ride long distance anymore and want to take advantage of a chassis with a little more poke, the Fat Bob should be on your list. As part of the Softail line, there will be alternative bolt-on luggage solutions for those less frequent long trips you do take, while offering a more lively alternative for your morning commute and weekend adventures.
It goes without saying, with the modern advancements of the new chassis, more modern strokes were utilized in the styling. I understand that the face of the new Fat Bob is probably a bit… polarizing for some; especially the rank and file Harley enthusiast. Fear not, I also took a short spin on the new Sport Glide while out and about with the Fat Bob; I will tell you, it too is more energetic than its Twin-Cam ancestors. If aesthetics takes priority over raw performance in your world, I recommend you consider the Low Rider, Softail Slim, or perhaps the Heritage Classic (with the 114 of course).
To the Dyna faithful, the “Soft-Tail” moniker is a misnomer. The MoCo failed to call me when evaluating names for this new line of motorcycles, and I agree with other comments I’ve heard; perhaps a different title would have been prudent for this redesigned chassis. What was once the “low and slow” classic relaxed staple of the Milwaukee fleet, now includes several rowdy siblings. Certainly there is little argument between new versus used, however if you’re completely distraught about the fact you can’t purchase a new Dyna, I suggest you book a test ride and see for yourself before you pass judgement. If I’m wrong, I anxiously await your argument in the comment section below.