From the outside, Harley-Davidson can seem monolithic. Charles Dickens writes, "I am an old-fashioned man in an old-fashioned shop, in a street that is not the same as I remember it. I have fallen behind the time, and am too old to catch it again." It's—perhaps unfairly—a sentiment that expresses many people's impression of Harley-Davidson and the motorcycle industry in general.

When you think about Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t exactly innovation. We all know where Harley’s been, but where is it going?

To help answer that question, we decided to ride some motorcycles. We wrangled together a Forty-Eight Special, a Street Rod, and a Fat Bob—a good representation of how the 2018 model line reflects the past, present, and future versions of Harley-Davidson. Three different chassis; three different engines; three different visions.

To get in the H-D state of mind, Zack, Ari, and I donned our leather jackets and headed for the Southern California coast. What better place to contemplate these machines than in the land of Marlon Brando and Peter Fonda?

The Ghost Of Harley Past: The 2018 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Special

Forty-eight special
The Forty-Eight is the traditional, iconic Harley-Davidson. Beloved by billions.Spenser Robert

Rolling through Venice Beach on the Forty-Eight Special ($11,649), its pearly Billiard White tank gleaming in the California sun, is a throwback to a defining era. The AMF days (1969–1981) were a dark time for Harley-Davidson and the motorcycle world at large, and the Forty-Eight's iconic striped tank is fraught with the legacy of those heady times: Easy Rider, Woodstock, Nixon, OPEC, and Roe v. Wade. It's a lot for one motorcycle to shoulder.

Further referencing its own history, Harley named the Forty-Eight Special in honor of the year the iconic peanut tank was introduced. That it’s 0.10 inch away (in terms of nomenclature) from the ubiquitous gun caliber can’t be unintentional.

Of the three bikes, the Forty-Eight Special is the most classically Harley thanks to the aforementioned tank, the 1,202cc Evolution engine, and the mini-apehangers. All it's missing is a kickstarter for the '70s nostalgia to be complete.

Zack, Ari, and I all have sportbikes in our DNA, but something about this motorcycle resonates with us—not because of its performance, but because it’s unabashedly, unapologetically what it is. It’s all about giving an unadulterated experience of motorcycling in its most basic form. The rumbly engine and low and lean stance dominate the ride.

HD seat
Accommodations aren’t exactly salubrious, but the Forty-Eight is supposed to be bare-bones.Spenser Robert

The frame is exposed between the minimalistic seat and tank, and the engine is just right there: Those two big old barrels shaking the frame rails between your ankles. Its pre-war design origins are palpable in the transferred motion between those fork and blade con-rods and the barely contained explosions taking place in the big, finned cylinders. I used to own a 1941 Farmall M tractor, so I can attest that the time-worn agricultural comparison is apposite. The loping cadence of the engine gives the sensation of being big, overbuilt, and imprecise, just like my old Farmall. There's no buffer between the rider and the engine—unless you count rubber engine mounts—and because of that you feel connected to the machine.

Affected by the un-refinement of its old-school Americana charm, I just wanted to get off the thing and, I don’t know, weld something, or pick a fight, or build something useful. If a drunken Ernest Hemingway and Rosie the Riveter got together, the Forty-Eight Special would be their rowdy Baby Boomer love child.

Zack riding
Here, Zack shows us how it’s done.Spenser Robert

With 57 hp and 64 pound-feet of torque available practically from off idle, it feels like you could attach a single-bottom plow to the thing and bust some sod. All that torque and a smoothly engaging clutch mean you can dump the clutch and pull away from the lights like a champ. The thing shifts like a Farmall too, but there’s no double clutching needed here, thank you—just a firm kick with your engineer boots. It goads, “Don’t be a sissy, kick me, dammit!” You can really kick the crap out of the thing. It’s kinda great.

Suspension travel is a paltry 1.6 inches in the rear, but I guess it’s better than nothing—but just barely. Zack hit a pothole coming off the 405 freeway, and I thought we were going to have to pullover to let him collect himself and check to see if everything was present and accounted for. After his voice returned to its normal pitch and we filled up with gas (after only 70 miles—the norm with this batch of bikes), Zack tossed me the keys, and we headed for the hills. It didn’t take long through the curves of Topanga Canyon to get a sense of handling. Cornering clearance, of course, is…limited. Weaving in my lane and scraping from one peg to the other was a laugh, though. Handling is otherwise nimble, and those rakish hangers make it easy to toss the thing around for the imperative task of dodging potholes.

Ergos are more about presence than comfort, but do the trick for boulevard cruising and they’re way better than the Street Rod’s sadistic setup.

Mini-apehangers and forward controls
Mini-apehangers and forward controls are surprisingly comfortable for not-too-extended stints in the saddle. The Fat Bob’s seat was the most supportive of the group.Spenser Robert

Here I am typing away at my computer, my formerly farm-calloused fingers soft and my fingernails free of dirt, and I can’t help but find comfort knowing that a rudimentary instrument like the Forty-Eight Special still exists. These days, tractors are guided by GPS and most of us would be at a loss to know how to properly split firewood were it not for internet tutorials. As an antidote to modern cosseted insularity, the Forty-Eight Special makes a completely irrational machine make a whole lot of sense.

The Ghost Of Harley Present: 2018 Harley-Davidson Street Rod

Street Rod
With an eye on the global market and younger riders, the Street Rod represents Harley trying to reach a new audience in today’s economy.Spenser Robert

Words I never thought I’d say: “This motorcycle doesn’t feel enough like a Harley.”

For years, motorcyclists have been saying things like, “We want a sportier Harley,” or “We want a more modern Harley,” or “We want a cheaper Harley.” And then when Milwaukee delivers, we say, “This isn’t enough like a Harley.”

I’ve got no skin in the game, but I can’t help but feel a bit of Harley’s pain here.

Take the Harley-Davidson Street Rod ($8,994). It's not quite a cruiser. It's got 15 sacrilegious degrees too much vee angle. And, dammit, it's too quiet.

Even as a non-Harley rider I’ve got strong preconceptions, so to help me interpret this motorcycle, I’m going to remove the badge from the tank and think about it on its own terms.

Mini-fairing is mostly for looks and doesn’t offer any discernible wind protection.Spenser Robert

The first thing I noticed about the Street Rod is, unfortunately, its worst feature: the seating position. Over the course of the day, the Street Rod became variously known as “The Penalty Box” or “The Squatty Potty.” The pegs are sensibly placed beneath the rider (is that mid-controls in Harley-speak?), but it’s apparent that whoever put them there is used to putting them somewhere else. This is not the way footpegs, when they aren’t feet-forward, are supposed to feel. The cramped position isn’t so bad in the knees, but it kills the hips. After an hour in the saddle I felt like an old German shepherd with hip dysplasia.

To add insult to injury, the rider’s right foot rests on a pad on the exhaust, which heats the boot up quite a bit and also situates the feet in slightly differently positions. It’s bizarre. Plus, the pegs are in the way when putting your feet down at a stop. With a low 30.1-inch seat height, however, flat-footing at lights will be easy for all but the shortest of riders. And it’s not even as low as the Forty-Eight.

Street Rod controls
The Street Rod has a standard turn indicator switch; the others go the old-school route with a switch on each bar.Spenser Robert

The second thing I noticed was, unfortunately, the Street Rod’s second-worst feature: the throttle. The throttle play was sloppy, giving a vague disconnected feeling from the motor. The clutch has a tiny friction zone, which made it really difficult to smoothly get off the line. Like a beginner trying to feel out the basics of motorcycling, I had to slip the clutch too much to pull away from a stop.

Throttle response was also not totally sorted. On-off throttle was very abrupt. At low speeds, I had to constantly be on the gas, otherwise it felt like I was chopping the throttle. It forced me to use the rear brake to modulate speed. With less load on the engine, it’s not as much as an issue, but still, it doesn’t make for a confidence-inspiring ride. I kept thinking, “Geez, riding a motorcycle shouldn’t be this hard. And isn’t this thing for beginners?”

Street Rod cornering
Our testbike had a faulty sidestand switch. The bike would only start in neutral—a hazard if you stall at a traffic light—and inadvertently leaving the kickstand down when putting it in gear wouldn’t kill the engine.Spenser Robert

Fortunately, the 749cc, liquid-cooled High Output Revolution X motor is pretty sweet, if a bit generic feeling compared to the Evolution motor. With 61 hp and 44 pound-feet of torque, it’s got enough guts to feel sporty in its own right. It’s torquey, surprisingly smooth, and the larger inclined vee angle makes it a compact package (from top to bottom), which was Harley’s intent in the first place. It’s not the most visceral feeling V-twin on the block, but a louder exhaust would help give the impression of a brawnier personality. Of the group, the High Output Revolution X engine revs the freest, backing up its more aggressive stance.

Other than those blasted footpegs, which will still drag if you bend it in with enough speed, the handling is, dare I say it, "sporting." Its 27-degree rake is by no means sportbike territory, but it is considerably steeper than the other bikes, which is evident in the corners. Turn-in is easy and the chassis is stable, its pair of piggyback rear shocks sprung stiffly enough to prevent things from going pear-shaped should the rider try to keep up with his/her FZ-07-mounted friend.

Harley-Davidson brakes
From left to right: Forty-Eight Special, Street Rod, Fat Bob. I don’t understand why Harley levers are so chunky and offer no adjustability; it’s 2018. The Forty-Eight Special’s single disc front setup is pretty effective for what it is (ABS is available for an additional $795). The Street Rod’s dual disc front offers decent stopping power but the lever-feel is squishy; we prefer more immediate responsiveness in the lever (ABS is available for an additional $750). Brakes are vastly improved over the Street 750, however. The Fat Bob’s brakes are the best of the bunch and offer good power and feel considering Bob is a lot of machine to bring to a halt (ABS is available for an additional $795).Spenser Robert

So if we put the bar and shield back on the tank, how does the Street Rod fare?

A sportier, less expensive, less cruiser-y Harley is a good idea. I'm just not convinced the Street Rod pulls it off. It's different, but not in the right way. The High Output Revolution X has clear utility in The Motor Company lineup, though. Put it in a tracker, a pseudo boardtrack racer, a neo-XLCR, and I think it's got legs. But wait a minute, the Street Rod isn't flawed conceptually; it's in the execution where it fails to live up to 2018 standards. Putting the motor in another platform probably isn't the answer then. Hmm.

Ultimately, the badge on the tank needs to be emblematic—not of a particular exhaust sound or of a certain lifestyle but of American ingenuity and quality of the highest standard. Plus, if we have to take the badge off the tank to talk about it objectively, it means the bike is missing the mark for the Harley crowd—and for people who want to be a part of the Harley crowd.

The Ghost Of Harley Future: 2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob

Fat Bob
While not veering too far from its core values, the Fat Bob is Harley’s more modern interpretation of itself.Spenser Robert

If the 2018 Fat Bob ($17,399) is the shape of things to come from The Motor Company, it looks like it isn't so much blazing new territory, as much as it's refining where it's already been. After folding the Dyna line into the Softail line and introducing the Milwaukee-Eight engine—only its third new Big Twin in eight decades—it may seem to Harley faithful that they're standing on shifting sands, but for the rest of us, it just seems like progress.

Our Fat Bob testbike came with the massive 107ci Milwaukee-Eight motor, which puts down 73 hp and an impressive 97 pound-feet of torque. The Fat Bob is also available with the even more massive 114ci powerplant. Compared to the Forty-Eight Special’s Evolution engine, the Milwaukee-Eight is considerably more refined. It doesn’t shake like a paint mixer at idle, for one, though Harley left in some of its signature rumble—that’s part of the Milwaukee formula, after all. Refinement, not revolution, remember.

Fat Bob dash
The Fat Bob was the only bike that had an analog tach. I don’t need a full TFT display, customizable ride modes, or anything like that, but for a motorcycle this expensive, I’d at least expect fully adjustable suspension. It’s just not the Harley way—but that’s what we’re getting at here. It should be the Harley way. LED headlight is a cool touch, though.Spenser Robert

The motor is definitely more modern. With boatloads of torque, it feels more like a diesel truck than an antique tractor. Watching Ari light up the rear tire at stoplights and then blast ahead of the Street Rod and Forty-Eight Special alludes to the Fat Bob’s alpha persona. Even though it’s the most refined of the bunch, it’s also the hot rod: brash, formidable, and the most forward-looking. The clutch requires a relatively light pull and the gearbox is considerably less clunky than the Forty-Eight Special’s.

Let this bad boy breathe. The 107ci Milwaukee-Eight is a good mill and deserves a slightly louder exhaust. Harley did a good job of bringing a more modern design to what is in many ways an archaic architecture—not an easy task, one would imagine. Fork and blade con-rods, pushrods, and air cooling don’t bespeak of modernity, but the Milwaukee-Eight is more powerful and refined than its predecessors.Spenser Robert

The Fat Bob derives its name from its fat 150/80 bias-ply front and 180/70 radial rear tires, but they let the bike down when the road gets at all twisty. The new Softail chassis is solid and the 43mm cartridge fork provides the best damping of the lot; Harley’s glance toward modernity here is effective. The first time I turned onto a cross street, my eyes went wide, my grasp tightened on the oversize grips, and I struggled to keep the thing in the right lane. Rather than using pressure on the bars to only initiate a lean, the Fat Bob requires constant pressure on the bars to prevent it from automatically standing up. It’s like one of those inflatable clown punching bags. I always found the handling vague and unsettling, but for riders who love the look, the sacrifice in performance will be worth it, I guess.

Not content to let Zack have all the fun, Ari lights one up. You know, for the kids.Spenser Robert

After cruising through Venice Beach, we made a beeline for home on I-405, splitting lanes the whole way, the Bob's slovenly tires wriggling on the grooved pavement. The bike kind of felt like it had a mind of its own, but I quickly got used to it and could focus on not putting a handlebar through a Ferrari mirror. There were a couple of dicey moments when larger vehicles nearly squeezed me out, but the Fat Bob's brakes proved strong and offered good feel. So that's a new level of performance on the suspension and braking fronts.

The Fat Bob succeeds as an evolution of the Harley formula. It’s one of the best-performing box-stock Harleys we’ve ridden. If you were hoping for a revolution, this is not that bike—and it isn’t intended to be. Call it a typecast if you must, but to me, riding the Fat Bob conveyed that Harley doesn’t view itself in a vacuum. Type and stereotype are two different things.

Where The Rubber Meets The Road

Which one tempts you?Spenser Robert

In EIC Hoyer's recent interview with Matt Levatich the Harley president and CEO stressed The Motor Company is determined to grow the industry by creating new riders. Build riders first and then build bikes. To me, there's an intrinsic openness to change in that strategy.

Levatich says, “…the customers are much more willing to see innovative and progressing things from Harley than probably we are allowing ourselves to do.”

With Harley taking an equity stake in Alta Motors, it's clear it doesn't want to be left behind. Nor does it want to leave behind legions of loyal customers as it searches for new riders.

Harley faithful: The Forty-Eight Special is for you. Harley converts: The Fat Bob is for you. While the Street Rod just misses the mark from a functional standpoint, going after new riders with an unconventional Harley is worth doggedly pursuing.

After a day exploring SoCal’s iconic boulevards, coastline, and canyons, this batch of Harleys revealed the range of the bar and shield’s wares. Aboard the Forty-Eight Special, I began to understand why people love the bone-rattling charm of traditional Harleys. It was our unanimous favorite; count us among the voices that cry, “Harley, keep at least one model that feels like a tractor.” While $11,649 isn’t cheap, nothing else feels quite like a Forty-Eight Special.

The Fat Bob, as the most advanced and refined of the group, earns its badge with a strong performance; it comes in second. Yes, $17,399 can buy a much more advanced motorcycle than the Fat Bob, but most riders considering it are unlikely to care that they can get an Aprilia 1100 Tuono Factory for only a few hundred bucks more.

The Street Rod gets a distant third. In its current state, we don’t believe it’s a great beginner bike, nor does it give the rider automatic entry into the H-D club. At $8,994, it’s not a budget bike and it’s a lot more money than most beginners are willing to spend.

To return to Dickens, a great part of American motorcycling hinges on whether or not the old-fashioned man can be the one to change the old-fashioned shop. One hundred and fifteen is not too old to catch time again. If these three bikes are any indication, the old man is bearing down on his armrests, finding his footing, and fixing his clear-eyed gaze on the horizon.

Cruisin’ the coast.Spenser Robert
Horsepower dyno
Horsepower and torque curves illustrate the difference in character between the three bikes. While the visceral feel and the amount of power the Milwaukee-Eight and Evolution deliver is very different, the way power is delivered is classically Harley. Low rev ceilings and progressive power delivery are inherent to big twins with massive bore and stroke numbers. The Street Rod’s peak power is delivered 4,200 rpm higher than the Forty-Eight Special’s. Provenance and design differences aside, the High Output Revolution X motor is clearly a departure from standard H-D mills.Spenser Robert
Torque dyno
Looking at the dyno torque chart tells a similar story. The Fat Bob and Forty-Eight Special’s torque curves show that these bikes aren’t meant to be revved out; after peak output, torque drops as revs increase. Gunning it from stoplight to stoplight and opening the gas at low revs is what it’s all about. The Fat Bob is in a different performance league, with its 107ci motor churning out close to 100 pound-feet of torque just off idle. Again, while the Fat Bob and Forty-Eight Special seem to be cut from a similar cloth, the Street Rod exhibits its own character. Other than that dip at 2,500 rpm, the Street Rod has a pretty flat torque curve throughout its rev range. It’s a tractable powerplant and those extra revs give it a more sporting persona.Spenser Robert

2018 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Special

PRICE $11,649
ENGINE 1,202cc, air-cooled 45° V-twin
BORE X STROKE 88.9 x 96.8mm
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 56.5 hp @ 5,390 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 64.4 lb.-ft. @ 4,020 rpm
FRAME Tubular steel
FRONT SUSPENSION H-D 49mm fork, free valve right hand and cartridge style left hand; 3.6-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION H-D dual 36mm shocks adjustable for spring preload; 1.6-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE H-D two-piston calipers, 300mm disc
REAR BRAKE H-D two-piston caliper, 260mm disc
RAKE/TRAIL 30.2°/5.3 in.
WHEELBASE 58.9 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 27.8 in.
WET WEIGHT 555 lb.
FUEL ECONOMY (HI/LOW/AVG.) 48/40/44 mpg
RANGE 70 mi.

2018 Harley-Davidson Street Rod

PRICE $8,994
ENGINE 749cc, liquid-cooled 60° V-twin
BORE X STROKE 85.0 x 66.00mm
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 61.7 hp @ 8,850 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 44.2 lb.-ft. @ 3,810 rpm
FRAME Tubular steel frame w/ rectangular backbone
FRONT SUSPENSION H-D 43mm inverted fork; 5.2-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION H-D twin piggyback adjustable for spring preload; 4.6-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE H-D two-piston calipers, 300mm discs
REAR BRAKE H-D two-piston caliper, 300mm disc
RAKE/TRAIL 27.0°/3.9 in.
WHEELBASE 59.4 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 31.1 in.
WET WEIGHT 529 lb.
FUEL ECONOMY (HI/LOW/AVG.) 51/39/45 mpg
RANGE 68 mi.

2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob

PRICE $17,399
ENGINE 1,746cc, air-/liquid-cooled 45° V-twin
BORE X STROKE 100.0 x 111.1mm
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 73.4 hp @ 4,620 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 96.9 lb.-ft. @ 2,210 rpm
FRAME Steel tubular frame w/ rectangular section backbone
FRONT SUSPENSION H-D 43mm inverted fork; 5.1-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION H-D monoshock adjustable for spring preload; 4.4-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE H-D four-piston calipers, 300mm discs
REAR BRAKE H-D two-piston caliper, 292mm disc
RAKE/TRAIL 28.0°/5.2 in.
WHEELBASE 63.6 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 28.0 in.
WET WEIGHT 675 lb.
FUEL ECONOMY (HI/LOW/AVG.) 47/42/44.5 mpg
RANGE 71 mi.