Common Tread

Can the popular new Fat Bob make an impact for Harley-Davidson?

Apr 03, 2018

The 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Fat Bob 107 is really, really fun. Since Lemmy’s positive introduction to the Softail lineup, I wanted to ride one. So, when the bike came out last year and Harley-Davidson gave me a ring asking if I could pick up a Fat Bob in South Dakota and ride it back to Milwaukee, I happily packed my bag and headed off to the airport.

I put 1,000 miles on the Fat Bob riding from South Dakota to Milwaukee and a detour back home to Chicago. In every situation, I never had one complaint about the bike. It was just a breeze to ride, happy to cruise comfortably along, but plenty sporty to crack some neck. The Fat Bob is the most versatile Harley I’ve ridden. But I wondered, is this bike, the performance backbone of the Softail lineup, really going to make an impact?

Public reaction to the Fat Bob

Every time I ride across the country, most of the riders I see are on Harley-Davidsons, especially in the Midwest (that goes extra during the cold months.) And, most of them want to stop and chat. This time it was no different. Plenty of folks immediately identified the Fat Bob as a new model and had lots of specific questions. In my experience, riders are reluctant to ask to sit on someone else's bike, but those interested in the Fat Bob were curious enough to blurt out, “Hey, would you mind if I threw a leg over it?” While not scientific by any means, in my mind, this shows an unusual amount of interest.

It appears that this bike has raised some legitimate curiosity among the faithful, but will it move the needle for Harley-Davidson? Looking back on that ride, I decided to ask some more questions.

Harley-Davidson Fat Bob
Harley-Davidsons are common in the Heartland, but the Fat Bob drew a lot of questions as I rode it across the Midwest. Photo by Chris Force.

“Our goal from day one was to make the Fat Bob the best handling bike in the lineup without sacrificing comfort,” a Harley-Davidson spokesperson told me. “This bike will surprise some riders who may not have believed there was a Harley-Davidson previously for them.”

More often than not, press releases don’t ring true, but in this case, I have to agree. I think a lot of non-Harley riders, if given the chance, would really enjoy this bike. Which is great and all, but with many riders aging out of the sport, are there even enough new riders out there to make a difference?

The Motor Company thinks so. The company has been very vocal about its promise to launch 100 new “high-impact” motorcycles by 2027. But, perhaps more interestingly, the company also claims to have shifted from a “we build motorcycles” to a “we build riders” mindset. In the same timespan it will take to launch 100 new bikes, Harley-Davidson also aims to build two million new American riders. For those who are constantly bemoaning perceived missteps by Harley-Davidson, it’s hard to argue against any initiative geared towards new riders. I can’t think of any other entity in the U.S. motorcycle industry, manufacturer or otherwise, that could have that kind of impact.

The company says it has beefed up its riding academy initiatives and expanded the partnership with rental giant EagleRider. Harley-Davidson has also invested in some fancy new technology to identify and target potential new riders. (I spoke with a representative involved with the new data tools but I couldn’t make heads or tails of what it is. The main takeaway was that’s its something new and it sounds expensive.)

Harley-Davidson Fat Bob
The Fat Bob could appeal to some riders who hadn't considered a Harley-Davidson before. Photo by Chris Force.

According to the company, it’s working. Drawing on a variety of data, the Motor Company estimates that 257,000 new-to-the-sport riders purchased new or used Harley-Davidson motorcycles in 2017. After subtracting the riders who quit riding (aging out or otherwise), it leaves a net total of 32,000 more Harley-Davidson riders in the United States than there were a year ago. Harley wouldn't go into detail about those numbers, including how many new riders are buying used Harleys, so take the figures for what you think they are worth. The bottom line is that winning new riders is now at the center of the company's strategy.

The Fat Bob is not likely to be many of those new riders' first bike, but I do think it has the potential to bring non-Harley riders into the fold.

What becomes of the Dyna Nation?

New riders are great, but what about all those angry existing riders mourning the death of the Dyna? Will they boycott Softails and clog up the sales pipeline? I asked this question to New York Myke, owner of San Diego Harley-Davidson for 25 years. His dealership has one of the youngest customer bases in the country, selling around 400 Dynas a year to riders around 30 years old.

“This is the best model year I’ve ever seen,” said New York Myke. “The Softail line, the new suspension, it’s just phenomenal. It changed everything. But I’m not seeing the Dyna customer coming in. There is a lot of confusion over the name. We are in the ‘Dyna Nation’ and riders here feel like they just had the rug pulled out from under them.”

“As recently as yesterday, I had a 30-year-old guy I know in the dealership looking for his third Dyna,” he continued. “He was all frustrated and upset. But our guys got him on a new Fat Bob, reluctantly, and 45 minutes later he’s back to the dealership and happy. Once customers test drive this bike they realize that even the 2018 Breakout is a better bike than a 2017 Dyna Low Rider, and that’s a lot to say.”

That doesn’t mean New York Myke isn’t a little frustrated with the way Harley-Davidson handled the change.

“I do want to know who decided to keep the name Softails and find out why they aren’t fired! I’m pretty pissed off about that,” he said. “We are sold out of touring bikes, the current model year! It shows you the popularity. Just imagine if the Softail was as popular, or more popular! It should be just as popular as the touring bikes. We would be up 20 or 30 percent if it was. I would have rolled out the Softail with a different name, but who knows, maybe in the long term it makes sense. Overall, we have a great year coming up and we’ll be up over last year.”

I chatted with New York Myke for a while (it’s impossible not to, he’s filled with great stories) and he pointed out that we haven’t yet seen too much of what custom builders will do with the Fat Bob. A 1,000-mile ride on the Fat Bob does not make me an expert, but I think the bike is going to continue to be well received, and in hindsight, we will see it as a step in the right direction. If you get a chance, go ride one.