Harley-Davidson's Big Twin cruiser line has been redesigned for the new century in "the largest product development project in company history."

It's not easy being The Motor Company. Having created the most successful motorcycle style in history, the company is rigidly held to that high standard by its customers. That makes change dangerous—something to be undertaken only after exhaustive study. Yet if you get the heritage part right, get the proportions, the colors, the unspoken but clear message right, you may earn the right to move ahead with change. Harley Earl, General Motor's great styling chief, once said, "You must lead public taste. But not by too much."

2018 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic
Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic with Milwaukee-Eight 107ci.Harley-Davidson

Ben Wright, H-D chief engineer for Softail, listed the goals of the redesign:

  1. To integrate the new Milwaukee-Eight V-twin into the product
  2. To design-in improved dynamic capability, handling, and reduced steering effort, with more Softail lean angle
  3. To include an improved suspension and increased payload
  4. To make a more aggressive product through reduced weight and a 100 percent balanced M8 engine

The men from styling said, “It starts with lots of customer research. Research showed us that, yes, people want the heritage values, but they also want handling and tech. When we asked them about the cruiser space we saw this opportunity, to have one platform to combine Dyna and Softail to make a motorcycle that marries the best of both.”

Harley-Davidson Fat Boy Engine
Trapezoidal black oil cooler tucked between the front frame tubes at crankcase level.Harley-Davidson

This merges the Softails—Slim, Fat Boy, Heritage Classic, Deluxe, and Breakout—with the Dyna line—Fat Bob, Low Rider, and Street Bob. The Milwaukee-Eight 107ci and 114ci four-valve engines in these models are traditionally air-cooled but with their paired exhaust valve seats protected against heat distortion at modern highway power levels by circulation of cooling oil between them. There is a trapezoidal black oil cooler tucked between the front frame tubes at crankcase level. Some folks think they don’t like a cooler, but look at it this way: Liquid-assisted strategic cooling lets these engines run safely knock-free at high compression ratios up to 10.5-to-1. Inescapable fact: Compression boosts torque. Conclusion: oil cooler good!

If you read through the fine print, you find that the tremendous extra valve area (up 50 percent over the previous two-valve engines) and high compression of the Milwaukee-Eight 107 cuts 0-to-60 time by 10 percent compared with the previous High Output Twinkie 103. The added displacement jump from the 107 to the 114 is said to make the 114 9 percent faster in 0-to-60 time than the M-8 107, and in the important-for-passing 60-to-80-mph fifth-gear roll-on, it gets it done in a claimed 13 percent less time than its 107 “little brother.”

milwaukee engine 107
Milwaukee-Eight 107ciHarley-Davidson

See the angled pushrod tubes? Their line of convergence tells you this engine has a noise-reducing and simplifying single four-lobe camshaft, just like that of Harley’s original DL OHV engine of 1937. The release calls this “…a single cam design that slims the bottom-end for a more muscular contour.” All models offer the 107 base engine, but four also offer the 114 option: Heritage Classic, Fat Boy, Breakout, and Fat Bob.

The central feature of all eight Softail models is the single rear shock for: 1. Weight reduction 2. An efficient load path from the triangulated rear frame straight to the steering head 3. The classic hardtail look of the strong straight diagonal line from steering head to rear axle that comes directly from the ground-breaking 1937 DL, a.k.a. “Knuck”

Our informants are clearly proud of what they have achieved in these machines. They described, “Phenomenal handling, improved power-to-weight ratio, vehicle competence at a whole new level never reached before.”

Adios, Dyna

showa suspension
High-performance Showa suspension with linear damping.Harley-Davidson

The stiffer and quicker-responding single coil-over shock Softail chassis with improved suspension brings handling up to date. Gone and surely to be lamented by some is the twin-shock Dyna platform, but in a weak economy what counts is price control: the new frame’s 50-percent reduction in component parts and 22 percent cut in number of welds. All eight new Softail models are carried by high-performance Showa suspension with linear damping thanks to SDBW valving—that’s “Showa Dual Bending-Washer,” the variable damping orifice system that makes damping force smoothly proportional to damper velocity. The press release calls this “the damping performance of a racing-style cartridge fork.”

harley-davidson softail frame, milwaukee-eight engine, Showa Shocks
A bike with a flexy chassis transmits less of the rider’s steering effort to the front wheel while the rest gets lost in chassis, handlebar, and fork flex.Harley-Davidson

There are three basic styles of fork on these “Softails,” but all carry the new damping system. The single rear shock is also Showa. Why Showa? Menasco, a US maker of aircraft landing gear, made parts for the original Hydra-Glide. It is not in that business anymore. This is now, and that essential new buyer has ridden other kinds of bikes. To compete, a maker needs state-of-the-art components.

How does a frame 34 percent stiffer improve handling? Enduro veteran Jimmy Lewis pointed out that two bikes can have identical steering geometry yet completely different control “feel.” How? A bike with a flexy chassis transmits less of the rider’s steering effort to the front wheel while the rest gets lost in chassis, handlebar, and fork flex. The new Softail’s greater structural stiffness sends your steering message to the front wheel loud and clear.

How can the chassis be stiffer and lighter? The 100 percent counterbalanced M-8 engine adds chassis stiffness by being bolted rigidly into its frame, without transmitting tiring vibration to seat, pegs, or bars. Don't worry—you'll still feel the engine's power pulsing and secondary vibes.

To make room for the single rear shock, the function of the previous under-seat-mounted oil tank is handled by moving the oil to an engine wet sump. The look of the previous horseshoe-section oil tank (originally wrapped around the seat tube) is continued by side panels.

Again, engineering change is never just a choice: It is forced upon manufacturers by strong external forces. The world economy is weak, making a common vehicle platform for several models just good sense.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles are big and they look it. Their strong syncopated rumble is muscular and exciting. They feel like machines, not appliances, for a cruiser is your personal locomotive.

bright Daymaker LED
Daymaker LED HeadlampHarley-Davidson

All of these models have today’s bright Daymaker LED forward lighting, keyless ignition, and USB charge port.

Much of the attraction of Harley-Davidson motorcycles is that their traditional design, feel, colors, and finish take us back to “the time when life made sense.” My uncle’s 1948 Buick straight-eight convertible, with its deep-red leather seats and pale-green cream finish, is long gone, but it’s stuck in my imagination—including its special straight-eight hum. Vehicles speak to our unconscious minds. When I was little, every car and truck, every airplane seemed to have a face whose emotion I could feel. That stays with us.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles are big and they look it. Their strong syncopated rumble is muscular and exciting. They feel like machines, not appliances, for a cruiser is your personal locomotive. Many of us now earn our pay at computer terminals, seated in five-caster office chairs. Yet in living memory men controlled big noisy machines; thousands crewed B-17 and B-24 bombers, drove road graders, operated 10,000-ton forging presses. Sound has psychological force.

2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim
2018 Harley-Davidson Softail SlimHarley-Davidson

For 30 years, The Motor Company has told us, “We’re killing the noise so we can keep the music.” That has meant identifying every unintended sound source by Fourier analysis (breaking sounds into their constituent frequencies) and taking steps to suppress it so that what we hear is mainly this valued exhaust “music.”

Always prominent in Harley promotional material is the word “freedom.” Our lives are strongly regulated. We don’t like it, but too often there’s not much we can do about it. Make the mortgage. Smile for the in-laws. “Could you put up that shelf in the bathroom? You know—the one we’ve talked about for years?” Traditional adult roles are changing, not always comfortably. We need time to be ourselves. Because otherwise there may be no self to be. Freedom.

The most-sought-after commodity in today’s life is identity, and no one understands identity marketing better than Harley-Davidson. That’s why these machines are designed to please not just a single kind of buyer but a broad range of tastes and preferences from past to future, traditional to far out.

Here’s the new lineup, by category: The Foundational Standards—Heritage Classic, Deluxe, and Slim. The Modern Classics—Low Rider, Street Bob, and Breakout. Revolutionary DNA—Fat Boy and Fat Bob, conceptually inspired by what the custom world is now building.

Foundational Standards

2018 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic
2018 Harley-Davidson Heritage ClassicHarley-Davidson

Heritage Classic—FLHC (FLHCS with 114 engine)—Stylist Kirk Rasmussen described looking at historic bikes in Harley's museum, envisioning the evolution of the original Panhead of 1949, and taking it to an edgier place. Start with the Vegas Elvis, all chrome and whitewalls, then move to the darker '68 comeback Elvis. Decipher your thoughts. PD-style windscreen, dual chrome pipes, Hydra-Glide-look fork, fat tires, hard-form locking bags-without-sags, 16-inch wire-spoke wheels, large-section blackwall tires. Five-gallon tank with console, 26.3-inch seat height, ABS, 32-pound weight cut.

2018 Harley-Davidson Deluxe
2018 Harley-Davidson DeluxeHarley-Davidson

Deluxe—FLDE—M-8 107 engine. Acres of chrome for those who bask in its brilliance. Bagless. Deeply valanced fenders that have always existed, 16-inch drop-center wire-spoke wheels since time immemorial, and Clark Gable whitewalls—park this bike in one of Dashiell Hammett's mysteries—25.9-inch seat height, 5-gallon tank with console, ABS. This bike is 33 pounds lighter than the previous model.

2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim
2018 Harley-Davidson Softail SlimHarley-Davidson

Slim—FLSL—107 engine. Dark polished finishes. Coke-cap front fender, bobbed rear, blacked-out fork and air filter case, single headlight, dark engine cylinders, 5-gallon tank with console. Gloss-black Hollywood handlebar, 25.5-inch seat height, ABS option, 35 pounds less weight.

Modern Classics

2018 Harley-Davidson Low Rider
2018 Harley-Davidson Low RiderHarley-Davidson

Low Rider—FXLR. Brad Richards, H-D chief stylist, said, "I'm a Dyna rider. But I can lean this one more." Willie G. and the team in the early 1970s brought together the Big Twin and Sportster-style front end. See the narrow short-arc front fender, bobbed rear, nine-spoke Black Radiate cast wheels with machined highlights, dark cylinder fins, a 5-gallon tank with console, and dual tank gauges. Custom builders can take this one in many direction. ABS option and 26.2-inch seat height.

2018 Harley-Davidson Street Bob
2018 Harley-Davidson Street BobHarley-Davidson

Street Bob—FXBB. "We spent a lot of time sculpting those Milwaukee-Eight heads and we want people to see them," H-D said. A narrow 3.5-gallon tank reveals those heads to the rider. This is the price leader. Blacked-out bare bones with only pushrod tubes and a single headlight bezel to give away your position. Gloss-black steel-rim wire 17/19-inch wheels. Rubber fork gaiters, zero dark mini-apes, and big front wheel recalls late-'60s choppers. Minimal fenders, 25.8-inch seat height, ABS option, 17 pounds lighter.

2018 Harley-Davidson Breakout
2018 Harley-Davidson BreakoutHarley-Davidson

Breakout—FXBR (FXBRS with 114 engine). Long and low, on low-profile tires. Spider-web "Gasser II" 20-spoke, 18/21-inch wheels, bright engine against dark cycle parts. A 3.5-gallon smooth-top tank. A vertical oval headlight tucks between the raked-out (34 degrees) fork legs, 25.6-inch seat height, ABS, 35-pound weight reduction.

Revolutionary DNA

2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy
2018 Harley-Davidson Fat BoyHarley-Davidson

Fat Boy—FLFB (FLFBS with 114 engine). "Removing the jewelry makes the basics—the proportions—stand out." It's about the giant cast 18-inch disc wheels (a mean thrust-reverser look!) with 160F/240R lowest-profile super-wide rubber, bobbed rear fender, 1949 Panhead FL-style "boulder-sized" headlamp, and fork. A 5-gallon tank with console, 25.9-inch seat height, ABS, 31-pound weight cut.

2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob
2018 Harley-Davidson Fat BobHarley-Davidson

Fat Bob—FXFB (FXFBS with 114 engine). "A motorcycle on which to escape the zombie apocalypse." Brad Richards, H-D chief stylist, said, "Love this bike; it's the fave in the lineup for me. The traditional bikes [above] allow us to push into this new space. We stretched the DNA here the most." Skinnied, staring death-ray headlight has Battlestar Galactica proportions. What have we looked at all our lives but never really seen? This not-chrome, not-black exhaust is warm gold. You know the darked-out engine is there only from the glint of its pushrod tubes.

Fattest-ever beach-cruiser tires on 16/16-inch wheels contribute to best-in-show 31-degree right, 32-degree left lean angles. Shortest fenders, a 3.5-gallon tank with console. This motorcycle has a sportbike-style stood-up 42mm inverted fork (28-degree rake makes that fat 150mm tire steer) because today’s custom builders have no prejudices in their search for fresh shapes. ABS option and 27.7-inch seat height.

Okay, that’s it. Sorry if this smorgasbord of stylists’ comments, my words, and details from the new-model release can’t say it all. Fill in the blanks. Today’s motorcycling is about how these things make us feel and not about con-rod ratios. Get out there and feel it for yourself.