This article was originally published in the October-November 1999 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
A few of you out there are going to hate this bike. You’re easy to recognize: Given the choice between sleeping on rocky ground or an air mattress, you’ll pick the natural surface. Rather than fish your pocket knife out of your jacket, you’ll open a bottle with your teeth. And you actually enjoy that long-lasting tingle you get from a full day spent on the interstate aboard your Softail.
But the rest of you? You people are going to flat love this Fat Boy—or, for that matter, any year-2000 Softail of your choice. Because that tingle is gone. Forever. The Motor Company has embued all Y2K Softails with a revised version of the Twin Cam 88 engine, one equipped with dual, counter-rotating balancers. And as described in the preceding story about the entire line of new Softail models (“Softails For The Next Century,” pg. 32), it’s not just the engine that’s been revamped; practically every significant aspect of the bike is new and different.
So, while the Fat Boy might look like a carbon-copy of its predecessor that simply has had a Twin Cam motor stuffed in its engine bay instead of an Evo, it’s nothing of the sort. This is one of the most improved, most capable, most enjoyable motorcycles ever to wear the bar and shield, a true milestone in the long, storied history of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
On our Y2K Fat Boy test bike, we experienced the results of some of those engineering improvements the instant we fired up the engine for the very first time: Nothing moves. The motor doesn’t jump around the way it would had Harley’s engineers given the new Softails rubber engine mounts, and the handlebar ends and front fender don’t blur the way they often do on other solid-mount Harleys. Instead, the Fat Boy just sits there and runs with unprecedented smoothness, the kind usually associated with some of the most refined multi-cylinder engines.
“It was time to stop beating people up,” says Softail Platform Manager David Rank, explaining the reason behind the changes. There may indeed be a few of you out there who are wedded to Evo Softail levels of vibration, but Harley has been listening to both its current owners and its potential customers; and it has been hearing that vibration on rigid-mount Big Twins was considered excessive. Yet many of those very same people also felt that the Softail models were classics. Any changes, therefore, would have to allow Softails to maintain their direct, rambunctious and traditional character.
That is why the Softails’ new Twin Cam 88 engine—referred to within The Motor Company as the TC 88B, for “Beta”—has balancer shafts and rigid mounts. It’s also why the engine—although by several orders of magnitude, the smoothest H-D V-Twin ever—still speaks to you as you cruise down the road. Twin balancer shafts cannot eliminate virtually all perceived vibration the same way soft rubber mounts can, but they can get rid of most of it while not masking the more-interesting engine sensations.
So, when you pull away from a stop and accelerate through the gears, you can feel the complete texture of the new Twin Cam. With lighter flywheels, more displacement, more torque and shorter gearing, it revs more quickly and accelerates far harder than any stock Evo Softail. Some sensations, however, remain the same: At lower revs and wider throttle openings, individual firing pulses rumble through the chassis, as satisfying and reassuring as a horse’s heartbeat. As always, that pulsing still increases in direct proportion to engine speed; but compared to a rigid-mount Evo, the magnitude of that thrumming is greatly diminished.
On an Evo Softail, the wonderful rhythm of the big V-Twin at 50 to 55 mph would begin to turn into an annoying electric buzz somewhere around 65 to 70 mph. Harley tried to mitigate those vibes by giving all Softail variants the tallest gearing in the Big Twin line; that helped just a little, but it also sapped acceleration.
On the new Fat Boy, though, that sweet spot has been extended much farther up the rpm range. It feels good at 50 in top gear, and still feels great at 70. There is a light buzz from secondary vibration that increases directly with speed; but even at an 85-mph cruise, the new Fat Boy remains tolerable, with just a trace of the buzz striking the handgrips and gas tank, but failing to bother through the seat and floorboards. That is a quantum improvement over an Evo, which, at 85 mph, would give off a buzz that made you feel like you’d been plugged into a wall socket wherever you touched the bike.
So, as Rank stated, the time was right for the change. This country is a different place than it was at the original Softail’s introduction in 1984, when the 55-mph national speed limit still prevailed. Travel speeds on many Interstates have increased by 20 mph or more since then, and any bike that can’t comfortably cruise at 80 is at a handicap.
With vibration so substantially tamed, even the naked Fat Boy starts to show its touring side. The broad seat coddles your backside, the floorboards stretch your legs comfortably forward, and the wide handlebar meets your hands naturally when you’re sitting almost erect. It’s an all-day riding position, one that encourages pointing toward destinations far, far away. Now that the highway buzz is gone, expect to see far fewer Twin Cam Softails arriving at Sturgis, Daytona and other common destinations in the backs of pickups.
If the vibration reduction enhances interstate attractiveness, the chassis changes pull you toward backroads. The Fat Boy’s frame is as new as its engine, with a finely detailed cast steering head that plugs into a rectangular backbone (similar to that of a Dyna). The seatpost remains, but only as a rubber-mounted stay on which to hang a few electrical components.
But the really big frame changes are in the engine mounting. The Twin Cam engine and gearbox are, for all practical purposes, one big, stiff, unitized powertrain, and hefty front mounts and a rear mount bolt that also passes through the swingarm increase frame stiffness by 35 percent when the engine is in place. And you can feel that new stiffness on every turn. The Fat Boy responds quickly and surely to every movement of the handlebar. Sure, you can stick a floorboard into the ground if you try to treat the bike like a Buell, but given the limits of ground clearance, it’s the best-handling FXST ever. At the same time, it tracks straight and true on its own when the curves end, with minimal demands on your attention.
Even more year-2000 delights are provided by the Fat Boy’s improved shifting action. With every component in the linkage having been changed to reduce friction or inertia, the shift lever moves with a smoothness and precision previously unknown on a Milwaukee product. The throw is just a touch longer than that of an Evo-powered equivalent, but the required effort has been substantially reduced. Gears shift crisply and cleanly, and neutral falls into place any time you want it—and only when you want it. Heck, you even can shift into Neutral from Second, a feat deemed near-impossible with previous H-D gearboxes. The improvement is so significant that there’s likely to be real jealousy from buyers of 2000-model-year Dynas and FLs, which won’t get the new shift mechanism for a while.
Similarly, the new four-piston brakes—standard on all Y2K Harley models—elevate stopping ability and control feel to unprecedented levels for Milwaukee Iron. It wasn’t that long ago that a Softail’s front brake lever felt about as effective as if it was pushing wooden blocks against the front rim; pull hard enough and you’d eventually stop, if the ligaments in your fingers didn’t pop first. The new fixed caliper and single front disc aren’t the lightest-acting brake in Harley’s current lineup; but even a two-finger squeeze has the nose of the bike instantly starting to dip, and a hard stop can be achieved with a squeeze far short of the Superman grip once thought essential by Harley engineers. That encourages use of the front brake in ordinary stops, and helps you build habits that may save you in an emergency. As always, the rear brake remains powerful, and the new caliper design brings an added degree of linearity and control. Once again, the Fat Boy does something better than any of its predecessors.
And that’s just the big stuff; the details are almost as attractive. Take the new fork lock, for example. While there may be a few tears shed for the macho padlock that formerly served to lock the fork, it’s hard not to like the simple mechanism set into the steering head activated by the ignition key. Or the one-piece gas tank that’s fillable only from the right cap, while the left cap houses a fuel gauge. Or the routing of the wiring harness that eliminates many cable ties. Or the Allen bolt in the bottom of a frame tube that serves as an oil-tank drain, rather than the dangling hose of earlier years. Or the seat that comes up with the turn of a single thumbscrew. Almost everywhere you look, you see refinements that make living with the Fat Boy easier or more pleasant.
Even the styling is enhanced while maintaining tradition. A low-and-to-the-rear exhaust crossover unshrouds the engine, and the chromed oil lines add a Forties-retro look. The new fuel tank has an absolutely classic shape, while eliminating the hassles of twin tanks and the additional plumbing required.
When David Rank described what Harley was attempting with the various FXSTs, he said, “It was time to clean house. We wanted to redo the Softail without losing its image or what it means, but make it better and update it.” With this Fat Boy as irrefutable evidence, Rank can consider his mission accomplished, and the Softail house not just cleaned, but gleaming.
Considering how fabulously well this new Fat Boy works, even the most hardcore Evo Softail traditionalist may, in the long run, find the tingle, well, dispensable.