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Looking across a vast display of motorcycles and platinum blonde women asking leather-clad show-goers if they want to enter a raffle to win a $500 gift card, I found Harley-Davidson product portfolio manager Jeff Strunk at H-D's booth at the IMS Chicago motorcycle show. We had a good, long talk about Harley-Davidson's product line, where the brand is headed, and if it's really following through on that hot gossip about an electric motorcycle in the next 18 months.
Harley-Davidson is starting 2018 in a bit of a rough spot. H-D saw an 8.5 percent drop in U.S. sales in 2017 and a 6.7 percent sales decline worldwide. The brand had its lowest number of shipments in six years last year, and while Harley-Davidson expects sales to dip this year, the company has a long-term turnaround plan to attract new riders and much of that plan is rooted in the products it sells.
Being a product guy, what Jeff Strunk really wanted to talk about was the bikes. That was fine with me because I really wanted to hear about them from a guy who knows everything about them.
First, we talked about the Harley-Davidson Street lineup of small-medium sized liquid-cooled bikes that are, for some reason, often overlooked.
“In the last 12 months we’ve come out with new bikes like the Street Rod,” said Strunk. The Street Rod is at the top of the Street lineup sharing a frame and fuel tank with the Street 750 with several performance and appearance upgrades. It has a cafe racer vibe thanks to repositioned ergonomics, a cafe-shaped seat with a rear cowl, and a small front fairing. Performance upgrades include a bigger airbox, a revised 60-degree Revolution X V-Twin engine producing 8 percent more torque and 18 percent more power, and a 9,000 rpm redline.
“The Street Rod builds on the Harley-Davidson Street platform. We really took it to the furthest extents developing a motorcycle for somebody who lives mostly in an urban environment,” said Strunk. “This is something they can get around on every day, but can also venture out of the city on a weekend and carve up some corners. This is a bike that really meets both of those needs from lane-splitting on a Monday to hairpin turns on a Saturday.”
We also discussed the entry-level Street 500 which Strunk says is a great starter bike. “The Street 500 has been around for several years now,” said Strunk. “It has a nice, neutral riding position. We use that for our riding academy courses. It’s a bike you can learn on and you can also sit on one on the showroom floor and put one in your garage.”
Last August, Harley-Davidson pulled the wraps off a fully revamped Softail lineup. It consists of nine all-new models, each with its own purpose and personality. Strunk walked me through some of the featured models and gave me the rundown on what makes each one distinct.
“We’ve launched nine new models since August,” said Strunk. “An all-new chassis, 90 percent stiffer than the previous Dyna chassis. It uses a rear monoshock with preload adjustment that on some models is exposed for quick adjustment and on the more classic models we keep it under the seat for more of a vintage look.”
At this point, we walked over to one of the standout models in the Harley-Davidson lineup, the Street Bob, which is the most affordable Softail. “The first model in the lineup that gets most people's attention is the Street Bob,” said Strunk. “The Street Bob has been around for a long time, but with the new improvements in the Softail lineup, this is a bike that has that retro cool, but performs in a modern sense. This is a great example of blending classic stripped-down looks and enabling modern technology.”
It’s worth noting that the Street Bob was once a beloved member of the Dyna family of Harley-Davidson. The all-new Softail lineup saw the merging of the Dyna and Softail lines which was met with some predictable criticism from purists who miss the “rubber soul” of the Dyna.
“The thing that always makes me proud about working for Harley-Davidson is I can’t think of any other product I could be associated with where the owners are so passionate,” said Strunk when I asked how strong the resistance has been to the elimination of the Dyna. “We knew that with a change like that there was going to have an opinion. What I’ve noticed is that after folks ride them they say ‘Oh, this is wonderful,’ and the name change is less of a concern after they actually put some miles on. These bikes are just far and away on a whole different level from the previous models.”
Next, we walked over to what might be my personal favorite new addition to the Softail line, the Sport Glide. “The great thing about this is, again, all of the wonderful technology of the new Softail chassis is used like dual-bending valve technology in the inverted front fork,” said Strunk of the Sport Glide. “Two out of the nine models, the Fat Bob and the Sport Glide, use the cartridge-style inverted front fork. The rest of the models use a traditional front fork, but uses the SHOWA dual-bending valve which we first debuted on the touring models the year before.” The Sport Glide has a sport-touring vibe from the factory, but that can easily be modified. “You can easily strip it down,” said Strunk. “The fairing is quick-detachable, no tools required. Same thing with the saddlebags.”
The most characteristic and perhaps the most controversial of the new Softail bikes is the new Fat Bob. “The Fat Bob has probably gotten the most attention out of all of them,” said Strunk. This is one of the four new Softails available with either a Milwaukee Eight 107 or the bigger 114, the Heritage Classic, Breakout, and Fat Boy being the other three.
“Some of the cool features of this bike, one of the trademark features of the Fat Bob is a big, beefy front tire. It has a 16-inch front wheel with a nice, wide front tire. It can shrug off anything the road throws at it. Great lean angle, the stiffness of that chassis really makes it a great-handling bike,” said Strunk. “This has kind of an aggressive-looking riding position, but it’s also very comfortable. This a tapered aluminum drag bar nested in an all-new riser designed specifically for the Fat Bob. Again, blacked out finishes with subtle hints of chrome just highlighting some of the characteristics of the powertrain. The signature of this, and totally unique to the Fat Bob, is the LED headlamp. I have this exact bike and I absolutely love it.”
The Fat Bob got us talking about different riding positions available throughout the Softail lineup. “There are three control positions across the Softail range,” said Strunk. “There’s mid which you’ll find on the Street Bob and the Low Rider. Then there’s forward, which is really more of a mid-forward. They’re not as far forward as a traditional stretched out forward control. Then there are floorboards on the Deluxe, Heritage, Fat Boy, and Slim.”
“This one is a little more classically styled,” said Strunk as we looked at a Low Rider. “A little more use of chrome. The tank and the graphics are definitely a throwback to the custom cruiser era of the 1970s. This is definitely on point right now with an emerging custom trend.”
Next, we looked at a Softail Slim which is in the sweet spot for a Softail that’s classically styled but delivers strong performance partially thanks to meaty tires. It’s also the most affordable Harley you can get with floorboards. “It’s very popular for its retro look,” said Strunk. “A combination of black and polished finishes, a low seat height makes it very accessible and confidence inspiring for new riders and riders of all sizes and shapes. We’re very cognizant of trying to make the bikes fit the widest range of riders. Where we hit a limit, the accessories department always comes in to help with the seat that might get you a bit closer or more stretched out more, changes to handlebars, changes to the suspension. We can accommodate just about anyone who wants to ride and make them comfortable.” The Slim is a blank slate when it comes to customization.
Next, we walked over to a Softail Deluxe. If an alien came to Earth and asked me what a Harley-Davidson is, this is the bike I would show them. “This is the only new model in the Softail lineup to feature classic wide whitewall tires. It has chrome-laced wheels, a little bit of use of chrome for a more heritage, classic look,” said Strunk. “Exclusive to the Deluxe is all-LED lighting all the way around. We’ve got a very retro tombstone tail lamp, but it’s 100 percent LED as well an art deco style turn signal stalk which again, LED really enabled us to get the shape that we wanted. There’s a similar treatment up front with combination turn signal and passing lamp bar. This is definitely for the rider looking for a very classic Harley-Davidson look.” This model, maybe more than any other new Softail, is much more striking in person than it comes across in pictures. You can really see the attention to detail in things like the thoughtfully styled lighting that you might not notice otherwise. It’s definitely on the retro side of the retro-modern ethos.
The Harley-Davidson touring lineup is mostly unchanged for 2018, but there are a couple changes. “The trend to black has been stronger and stronger every year,” said Strunk as we looked at some touring bikes with a noticeable lack of chrome. “We’re excited to have launched the Street Glide Special, the Road Glide Special, and the Road King Special this past year. These bikes take that great American touring custom look and make it contemporary with blacked out front forks, blacked out engine guard and engine treatments, blacked out exhaust, and stretched saddlebags. Black is very much the popular norm right now. You’ll see more and more of that in our lineup.”
Moving on to the Sportster lineup, the name of the game is attitude and customizability. Granted, those two characteristics are sort of the theme of the whole Harley-Davidson brand, but it's really pushing the custom Sportster scene for 2018. And it’s doing a pretty good job by having this gorgeously customized 2018 XL883N Iron 883 on display. Among its many mods which you can get straight from H-D are a cafe solo seat, a satin black clubman handlebar, a compact sport wind deflector, a front spoiler, and a red brake caliper kit. Factory mods from Screamin' Eagle include a round high-flow air cleaner kit and jet black street cannon mufflers. Being Screamin' Eagle, they upgrade both the performance and the aesthetic of this Sportster.
But the real story with this custom Sporty is the brass accents. Yes, real brass straight from the factory. The fuel cap, foot controls, front axle nut covers, engine trim, and hand grips are all brass. The brass on the grips have been worn down just from people grabbing them and they're nice and shiny and worn in the coolest way. “It’s only a handful of pieces, but it definitely helps the rider set their bike apart from anything else,” said Strunk. It's a great look and I'm anxious to see if this trend grows throughout the industry.
Moving up through the Sportster lineup, we walked over to a 1200 Custom which has the lowest cost of entry into the Evolution 1200 engine. “The 1200 Custom was traditionally a very chrome-styled custom. In this case, we’ve taken it a little bit darker,” said Strunk. “It’s a combination of black and chrome. It’s got a great new paint scheme on the 4.5-gallon fuel tank with a racing stripe inspired theme available in a number of different color combinations. It has mid controls and a fairly neutral handlebar position. This bike has traditionally been one that a lot of riders looking to customize will start with and change the bars or change the seat and make it very much their own.”
Just for kicks, I asked if some variation of the Milwaukee Eight engine was in the Sportster’s future. “I can’t say at this point, but there’s definitely a lot of love for the Evo Sportster powertrain,” said Strunk.
We moved on to the Sportster Roadster which came out in 2016. “Taller suspension in the back gives it a little more of a sporting feel in terms of lean angle,” said Strunk. “The handlebars are positioned a little bit downward so the rider is a little bit tucked in a tight position. This one is just a lot of fun to rip around on.”
Next, we discussed Harley’s range-topping CVO models. CVO stands for Custom Vehicle Operations and they’re heavily decked-out versions of existing Harley-Davidson models. “For the 2018 model year, our CVOs received an even bigger set of options than before. At the heart of it is the all-new 117 ci Milwaukee Eight. One of the most notable colors this year is Gunship Grey,” which is gorgeous in person. “CVO is the pinnacle in terms of features and exclusivity. The lineup this year includes the Street Glide, the Road Glide, and the Limited. Three different CVO models with three different finishes each.”
A recurring theme Strunk brought up while we discussed the 2018 Harley-Davidson lineup is blending classic, genuine Harley styling, and character with modern technology and engineering. This is a trend that's been going on in the industry for a few years now with some brands having more success than others with mixing the old with the new. Harley deserves credit for bringing that ethos to its lineup which, quite frankly, wasn't aging so well until recently. The Milwaukee brand fell behind on innovation and it's picking up the slack in a way that's very characteristic of the brand. Harley has gotten back up every time it's been down over the past 115 years. With declining sales, a pretty big recall, and a factory shut-down, Harley might be off to a rocky start in 2018, but resilience is a virtue the brand has always carried. No matter how hard Harley-Davidson falls, it should never be counted out of the game.