World War II Styling
Harley-Davidson fired a 1340cc silver bullet into the marketplace when it introduced the Softail Fat Boy in 1990. Crafted as a high-caliber response to the low-cost Japanese imports that swamped the U.S. market, the imposing “Gray Ghost”—with its metallic paint, winged USAF-inspired tank logo and solid disc wheels—made a muscular and unapologetically American statement. It helped Harley-Davidson recapture the sales leader mantle in the 750cc-and-up heavyweight division.
The Fat Boy’s market clash with the Japanese bruisers, combined with its hulking World War II-era styling cues also spawned the persistent myth that the bike’s handle derived from the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” bombs dropped on Japan in WWII. H-D posits a more benign explanation—“Fat Boy” is actually an amalgam of “Fat Bob” and “Low Boy”, two familiar Harley monikers. Nomenclature aside, the big-bore brute is a consistent best seller in the Softail line and has become one of the most iconic American motorcycles.
2007 looks to be a landmark year for Harley-Davidson, thanks to the introduction of the 1584cc air-cooled Twin Cam 96 motor. Coupled with the expansion of H-D’s six-speed Cruise Drive transmission, the TC 96/6 presents a significantly redesigned, fuel-injected power train. With this newly sculpted muscle under the saddle, the Fat Boy rolls out of the gym in ’07—bigger, more powerful and, yes, fatter. Scott Beck, Harley’s Softail Marketing Director describes the re-imagined Fat Boy as a “funky H-D statement.” The funk is delivered via the new drive train and the totally redesigned chrome and leather paunch.
The familiar hulk of the FL front end greets you like a weightlifter in a court-ordered anger management program. The big Hiawatha headlamp is mounted on a bare-knuckles-over-beer-cans chrome fork nacelle. The wide cruiser handlebars are internally wired to clean up the beast’s appearance. The signature cast aluminum disc wheels have grown an inch to 17 inches, and are now shot through with a lethal spin-art .50 caliber bullet hole pattern.
The rubber has likewise eschewed any notions of dieting. A 140 Dunlop rides up front, balanced by a big 200 under a widened, chopped fender out back. The two-up, two-tone leather seat has grown to accommodate the flowering American hindquarters, and is trimmed with a trio of chrome bullets on either side of the stitched valance. The triple shot theme continues on the matching leather strap that runs atop new pinstripe graphics on the Fat Bob tank. The new tank-mounted control panel includes a speedometer, clock, brighter LEDs and a green “6” top gear indicator.
Firing up the Fatty provides the re-engineered powerplant’s initial reward. While many of the revisions were undertaken to increase the engine’s reliability and durability, traditional H-D aesthetics were paramount as well. The Fat Boy’s dual shorty belch exhibits no sign of potato famine. The spud rumble comes from the rigid mounted, counterbalanced V-Twin that, along with rubber-mounted version for non-Softails, represents the biggest new engine program in Harley-Davidson history. Although the TC 96 visually resembles the TC 88 it replaces, the new generation workhorse has over 700 redesigned parts. Displacement has been raised to 1584cc—from the 88’s 1450cc—by increasing stroke from over a third of an inch to 4.38 inches, while the cylinder bore remains the same at 3.75 inches. Harley-Davidson claims the Fat Boy’s new mill produces 90 ft lbs of torque at 2,700 rpm, an up tick of 15 percent from 2006.
The numbers come to life as you grab the horns and plant your boots on the floorboards. Acceleration is smooth throughout the powerband, thanks to substantially improved electronic fuel injection. The emissions-friendly EFI works so well that Harley-Davidson has banished carburetors from the remainder of its production line.
Gear ratios in the new six-speed Cruise Drive have been matched to the torque curve of the TC 96B. Running up to city speed reveals a vast improvement over the old five-speed box. The Cruise Drive uses sliding steel “dog rings” in place of moving cogs, resulting in smooth, deliberate shifting with reduced lever throw. Harley-Davidson cites the beefier construction of the cassette-style tranny for a 28-percent increase in torque-carrying capacity, as well as a reduction in noise. Clutch effort is lighter, due in part to a new ball and ramp design and reduced spring rates.
The engine is surprisingly smooth as you accelerate through the gears. Stepping into sixth lowers the exhaust note to a low rumble and reduces the cruising rpm to the low-mid 2000s at freeway speed. Shifting back into fifth is likewise fluid and rouses enough power and bark to pass that Prius with confidence. The wide cruiser bars allow ample swivel room for lane checks. The four-piston front and rear brakes deliver sufficient stopping power when rush-hour traffic interrupts highway bliss, as I discovered. That rear brake lever is big for a reason. Seating position is upright and comfortable for a long push, with a modest amount of room to shift around in the plush saddle. While the Fat Boy roams the highway with authority, the corn-fed cruiser acquits itself decently in the hills as well. You won’t find it dexterously ducking into turns, but swooping curves are accomplished with a certain cumbersome grace.
The Twin-Cam 96/6 is the heart of a new generation of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Like the regenerated Fat Boy, the new power train represents the Motor Company’s dual efforts to modernize while keeping its engineering boots firmly planted in tradition— to “lead without compromise,” in the words of scion Bill Davidson. The restyled, retuned and repowered 2007 edition Fat Boy sees that philosophy firing with both barrels.
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