Harley's Fat Bob: Minimalist Monster

The retro motorcycle mixes sleek sophistication with thoroughly modern muscle

2009 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob

  • Length: 91.7 in.
  • Seat Height: 26.1 in. laden/27.0 in. unladen
  • Wheelbase: 63.7 in.
  • Fuel Capacity: 5 gal.
  • Dry Weight: 669.7 lbs.
  • Displacement: 96 cu. in.
  • Miles Per Gallon: 53 hwy / 34 city
  • Front Tire: 130/90 R16 67H
  • Rear Tire: 180/70 R16 77H
  • Price of the one I rode: $16,531.95

Full disclosure: the 2009 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob is the first Harley I've ridden. And a woman (Angie Cole, who rides a Fat Bob and saw me struggling through the window at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson in Maryville) had to show me how to start it. So there. I don't get my testosterone from the dealer.

We chose to ride and review a bike from HD's Dark Customs line, which launched a bike at a time beginning early in 2008, because they seem kind of under-advertised. And they're supremely understated. A Harley person had mentioned them to me and described several models, and I was convinced that I'd never seen one. But as I became schooled on the bikes, I realized I'd seen them all over and not noticed. They're factory stripped and/or chopped and/or primed and/or pin-striped and/or tattooed. On the road or at the curb, they appear to be extremely personalized and of indeterminate age; typical of Harley nuts, who put motors from one generation under tanks from another on frames from yet another. The truth is that these bikes look that way coming out of the crate.

One reason I chose the Fat Bob from the many Dark Customs that Smoky Mountain has on the floor was that it has forward footpegs. Of all the bikes I sat on sitting still, it seemed most natural. The Crossbones is a factory Softail bobber with a springer front-end and looks cool as hell, a la Lee Marvin in black and white. But it has boards instead of pegs and that just felt odd. I did not wish to feel odd for any reason while flying down Highway 321 on a borrowed $17,000 motorcycle. And let's face it, flying down the highway is what it's all about.

The Fat Bob—and perhaps all Harleys—is all about mass. With fluids and no rider, it weighs over 700 pounds. I always thought they'd be clunky and cumbersome at low speeds, but the bike seems to have its own deal with gravity. Beemer boxers have that gyroscopic flywheel and crankshaft thing going on that allows you to ride no-hands or balance almost without moving. This bike just pushes straight down on the planet, giving no preference to either side. It handles impressively well going slowly and in close quarters. I was over-cautious on sharp curves at speed, for reasons stated. But I sensed that once the bike was mine and I could get it dirty without feeling bad, it could do some mean leaning and stay sticky on the pavement.

Both the 96 cubic inch motor and exhaust are surprisingly quiet. If you're torquing out of a parking lot or passing a car, you can make the Harley noise. Otherwise you perceive the engine through the frame and related force. Mechanically, everything is smooth as silk. The Fat Bob has a six-speed transmission. No doubt that would be great for a day in the saddle, and I worked my way up and down many times. I also got the distinct impression that the motor would not care what gear the bike was in, no matter what you were asking it to do. The fuel-injected V-twin is extraordinarily powerful. There was an awkward moment involving a slow-moving pick-up with trash blowing out of the bed in front of me, and a fast-advancing gravel truck coming up from behind. When I finally asked Fat Bob to get me the hell out of there, it did, without hesitation or qualms. I was in a gear.

Like I said, I don't know much about Harleys. So I can't compare the Fat Bob to bikes you may know. However, I did call Milwaukee, and asked to talk to someone who could.

"It takes cues from bikes from many, many years ago," says Paul James, Harley-Davidson's director of product communications. "That movement really started post-World War II. A lot of veterans were coming home from the war, looking for some fun and excitement. A lot of them had been exposed to motorcycling during the war. They started chopping the parts off of them to make them lighter and faster. They basically just rode the hell out of these things. The idea that a motorcycle could provide this transcendental experience without all the chrome and paint is not a new idea. But it's one that seems to still really have a lot of appeal.

"The Fat Bob captures some of that elemental feel, but in a much more modern looking package. The twin headlights and the Tommy gun exhaust, kind of evoke this custom look that's very popular in Europe. The drag bars put you in a very cool riding position. The fat tires really emphasize its aggressive nature. At the same time, it has this raw and almost unfinished feel."

The bike I rode included the optional hands-free proximity security system. Just like a Prius, if you have the key in your pocket you can walk up, get on, and ride away. James says that even though the Fat Bob is distinctive due largely to the nostalgic design elements, what makes it a modern Harley is largely invisible.

"A lot of people kind of write-off Harley-Davidson engines," he says. "They say, ‘Those are old tractor engines.' It's true that they're still air-cooled and haven't changed much visibly. They're intended to have that Harley-Davidson look, sound, and feel. But they're modernized with fuel injection and with all the sensors that make sure it has the right air/fuel mixture based on what fuel you have in your tank and what your throttle position is. It has a six-speed transmission, which gives you a really broad array of gear choices, including a top-end gear for highway cruising. It's got very modern four-piston caliper front brakes. It's got a very modern cartridge fork system. There's a lot of hidden technology that people wouldn't expect to see and you really can't see with the naked eye."

James says HD's 2010 models get rolled out later this month.