2008 Harley-Davidsons First Ride

September 13, 2007
Bryan Harley
Bryan Harley
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Our resident road warrior has earned his stripes covering the rally circuit, from riding the Black Hills of Sturgis to cruising Main Street in Daytona Beach. Whether it's chopped, bobbed, or bored, metric to 'Merican, he rides 'em all.

Harley-Davidson is celebrating its 105th anniversary by offering 14 models with the Anniversary Copper and Vivid Black paint.
Harley-Davidson is celebrating its 105th birthday with 14 serialized, limited edition motorcycles with Anniversary copper and Vivid Black paint, special copper air cleaner covers, and exclusive badging.

Lost. Not only lost, but 2500 miles from home. I felt my heart pounding in my chest, my palms sweated, and my breath came in quick gasps. What to do? One simple solution. Roll on the throttle, let out the light and manageable clutch, and unleash a little more of the Twin Cam 96B’s power. My worries faded like the blast from the exhaust coming out of the sporty shorty dual exhausts.

So why was I so excited about this particular bike when Harley-Davidson has 37 other 2008 models to choose from? Because the Rocker isn’t your typical Harley. Stretched-out, slammed, with a fat back tire, wide rear fender and a look that pays homage to the hard tails of old, Harley-Davidson has moved away from its bread-and-butter style and rolls the dice with a motorcycle unlike any other in its vast stable.

A twist in fortune has taken me beyond the city limits of Baltimore, Maryland, and I’ve finally found some decent twisties to test the chassis of Harley-Davidson’s 2008 Rocker. I was concerned that its 36.5-degree rake angle and 240mm rear tire would translate to sluggish performance in the turns. My worries were assuaged as the stretched out custom-styled bike with a 69.2-inch wheelbase stuck fast as I rode with rhythm, sweeping right, banking left, and giving it more gas. Getting separated from the pack of motojournalists ahead of me heading towards Harley-Davidson’s York plant wasn’t deliberate, but it gave me more time on the newest member of H-D’s Softail family. Poor me.

The 2008 Harley-Davidson Rocker has a fat backside like no other bike rolling off the York assembly line. H-D’s intention with the Rockers was to create a bike with a slammed, hard tail custom look without the spine-jarring ride. Their first goal has been achieved. The wide sheetmetal rear-fender sits one inch off the 18-inch rear tire, so close that you can’t stick a finger between the two. You’d think that the fender would scrape the tire if you hit a good bump, but it is attached directly to the swingarm, eliminating the need for frame supports. The fender is synchronized with the rear tire so that they “rock” together. And though they move in unison, it’s still up to the hidden horizontal coil-over belly shocks mounted below the powertrain to soak up bumps in the road in typical Softail fashion.

And though Harley claims that it’s supposed to deliver a smooth, comfortable ride, the shocks are stiff, making the ride taxing on the tail bone. I hopped up and down on the springs with my 215 lbs while the bike was in motion, but the rear suspension’s 3.4 inches of travel barely budged. Because the angle of the seat is sloped more than other Harleys, it left me riding on the back of the saddle. The end of the leather seat is curved up to form a pocket for riders, but it also forms a lip that pushed against the base of my spine. By the time I completed the 60 mile trek to York, my backside tingled like it had fallen asleep. But long-distance hauls isn’t what the Rocker has been made for. Cruising down the avenue and turning heads while you’re doing it is more its style.

I kept expecting Malakai to pop out of the corn rows and chase me down the rode but all we experienced during our photo shoot was a couple of curious farmers.
I could have panicked being lost and over 2500 miles from home but hey, I was one of the first people outside of Harley-Davidson to ride its latest production bike so I took advantage and enjoyed my time in the saddle.

How do I know it’s a head turner? Because both times I stopped, the guys I asked directions from couldn’t take their eyes off of it. The questions came out me fast. “That’s a Harley?” “How’s it ride with that big back tire?” “What year is that?” The guys asking the questions were from vastly different demographics. One was early twenties, almost certainly single since I didn’t notice him wearing a wedding ring, and the other was a man approximately 60-years-old driving a pick-up. But their big-eyed reactions were equally enthusiastic.

The 26.2-inch seat height gives the Rocker a low center of gravity. That low altitude sacrifices a bit of lean angle and it doesn’t take much to scrape a peg. The forward foot controls felt ideally placed for my 6′ frame, but reaching for the hand controls left me without much bend at the elbow. The independent V-Bar handlebars sitting on five-inch curved risers place the hand controls easily within reach, but the ergos left me leaned back slightly and that required me to ride stiff-armed. First, my arms had to work a little extra to support some of the weight of my upper body. Second, I had to flex a little muscle and hold on tight because the Rocker has a strong pull on the low end of the powerband. The rigid-mounted 1584cc powerplant with H-D’s ESPFI helps the bike launch off the line with a hearty growl exiting the chrome shorty dual pipes that let the cages know that I was rolling by.

Besides the hard tail look, the 2008 Rocker has other eye-catching styling cues you may not notice at first glance. The finned cast-aluminum oil tank below the seat is a modern spin on a classic look. The five-gallon fuel tank has been stretched so it is thinner and longer. Even the trademark logo looks different on the Rocker. The H-D Bar and Shield sits slightly recessed in the tank, giving the embossed logo a 3-D effect. On top of the tank sits a low-profile console with a speedo mounted on it. The housing for the speedometer is speed-shop style and was much easier for a rider to take a quick glance at while rolling down the freeway at 70 mph than flush-mounted speedos used on other Harley platforms.

On the backside, there’s no center tail lamp on the rear fender. The Rocker instead has a pair of multi-purpose bullet-style LED turn signals mounted to the side of the rear fender that serve as stop, turn and taillights, a trend that follows the lead of custom show bikes I’ve seen before. I speculated whether the signals would be visible enough from behind until I followed another rider on our way back into Baltimore, but when they signaled or stopped, the LEDs were bright and easily seen.

H-D didn’t overdo it with the chrome on the Rocker. It’s a Harley, so of course it’s got a fair share of the shiny stuff, like the pipes and air cleaner cover. The motorcycle has a slew of powder coated components in what Harley-Davidson calls Satin Stainless Metallic. The list is long – fork lowers, triple clamps, bullet headlamp nacelle, handlebar riser, swingarm, hand controls, belt guard, oil tank and engine trim. It’s not bright and shiny like chrome, but it’s not meant to be. H-D wants the bike to have a rawer finish.

Rawer than what? Rawer than its doppelganger, the Rocker C. The Rocker C is the other new addition to the Softail family.

The Rocker C s frame is custom color-matched to the bodywork. Flame on.
The counter-balanced Twin Cam 96B is rigid mounted in the Softail frame and connects to H-D’s 6-speed Cruise Drive tranny that was reliable in every gear.

“The Rocker C has a more polished, bling-look,” said Bill Davidson, Director of Motorcycle Product Development.

The two bikes look identical at a first glance, but when you look closer you can spot the differences. Remember the long list of color matching powder coated components listed for the Rocker? These are chomed-out in the Rocker C. We’re not certain, but we believe the C stands for “cool custom chrome” or maybe “cha-ching” for the anticipated sales H-D is projecting for the model. There’s more color-matching in the paint and graphics, too. The frame, swingarm and oil tank all get the same color treatment that comes in a trio of colors – Crimson Red Sunglo Deluxe, Pacific Blue Pearl Deluxe and Vivid Black Deluxe. (I’d like to know who makes up these names.) They also spice them up with pinstripe flames that are subtle enough that they look good, not over-the-top or cheesy, but complementary.

Though the two new models initially look the same, the Rocker C has a hidden surprise. You see passenger pegs on the motorcycle but no pillion. Lift up on what looks like a solo seat and the Trick 2-in-1seat conceals a passenger pillion and a strut to mount it on under the solo seat cushion. To set it up takes about ten seconds. The strut folds out first and the passenger seat snaps right on. It has a 250-lb load rating but is small and narrow so its comfort level isn’t its strong point. But the option to ride two-up gives it a selling point over the Rocker, because the Rocker’s definitely a one-person show. But the latest in Harley ingenuity doesn’t come without a price. The Rocker model has an MSRP of $17,256. The extra chrome, cool paint and Trick seat will cost you an additional couple grand, as the Rocker C stickers for $19,495.

The other members of the Softail family are the FXSTB Night Train, the FXSTC Softail Custom, the FLSTF Fat Boy, the FLSTN Softail Deluxe and the FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic with H-D’s 105th Anniversary Edition copper and black paint, a copper air cleaner cover and 105th commemorative badging. Overall, there is a smattering of changes to the family. Harley claims that the new frame and fender joint give the Softails a 15% stiffer chassis. The 25mm hollow axles are assembled with new bearings, spacers and sleeves inside the wheel. The brakes have redesigned calipers and new black, stainless steel braided lines. The other area they’ve received a makeover is the top-mounted battery. Switching the terminals to the top will make servicing the bikes a little easier. A final footnote on the Softails is that the FX models get forward foot controls while the FLs have floor boards.

The other headliner of the 2008 Harley-Davidson motorcycles is the addition of the Fat Bob to the Dyna family. The unmistakable Fat Bob fuel tank isn’t the only thing that’s plump on this bike. Its got a 130mm wide front tire with a deep tread on a chrome 16-inch by 3.5 inch slotted cast aluminum wheel. It is the first year H-D has used the 16’s on a Dyna and the look of the meaty front tire is exaggerated thanks to a small front fender. The tire is mounted on a 49mm Showa fork sitting at a tight 29-degree rake. When you’re rolling along, the wide tire gives you solid contact with the road. The motorcycle likes to bank into the turns gradually but elicits enough confidence to lean her over and muscle on through because the bike retains the Dyna family’s handling traits.

The Rockertail rear end is styled like a hard tail and rides fairly rigid as well.
The finned cast-aluminum oil tank adds a touch of old-school to Harley’s modern custom-style cruiser and has the same Satin Stainless Metallic powder coating as the swingarm, belt guard and engine trim.

The la t twist to the appearance of the front of the Fat Bob is its dual four-inch headlamps. Not traditional Harley chrome nacelle attire, but distinctive on the ’08 Dyna Fat Bobs nonetheless. The Fat Bob’s stripped-down look is deliberate. While Harley went with the slick, polished look with the Rockers, the Fat Bob is designed to look tough. The V-shaped flat drag bars mount on black handlebar risers that match the black mirrors. The fork sliders have been blacked out too, giving the bike a nice balance between dark and chrome components.

The ’08 Fat Bob is powered by the Twin Cam 96 engine that pumps out a claimed 92 ft-lb of torque at 3000 rpm. We haven’t had a chance to throw one on the dyno ourselves, but the Fat Bob had no difficulties hooking up. I didn’t notice any slips in its 6-speed Cruise Drive transmission, and the powerband was strongest in the lower and mid-ranges. The Tommy Gun exhaust, a 2-1-2 configuration that looks similar to the VRSC’s, emitted a full-bodied V-Twin note.

The Dyna Fat Bob’s forward controls, drag bars, and leather seat was much more suited to my riding preferences than the Rocker. My arms were more relaxed gripping the short flat drag bars. The seat doesn’t slope toward the tail either like the Rocker’s does so I was in a comfy upright riding position riding in the 27-inch high saddle.

In the 2008 Dyna Fat Bob, Harley-Davidson plays it closer to the cuff. There’s no tricks up its sleeves as the Fat Bob is no stranger to the family. It comes in seven solid color paint options that include three low-gloss Denim options. The Maroon model I rode had a weathered, old-school look to it that added to the overall rugged exterior of the bike. The newest member of the Dyna clan has an MSRP of $14,795.

The Fat Bob is joined by five other members of the Dyna family, the Super Glide, Super Glide Custom, Street Bob, Low Rider and Wide Glide 105th Anniversary Edition. The anniversary edition has a sweet classic chopper look with a nice rake that’s not overdone. Its got the two-tone copper and black anniversary paint with a copper Bar and Shield tank cloisonne and 105th anniversary badges on the air cleaner and timing cover inserts. Changes to all Dynas include the same upgrades to the brakes as the Softails and new air cleaner covers. The line continues to distinguish itself from the other Harleys with its exposed rear shock absorbers.

And though the introduction of the three new models ranks as the biggest news from Harley-Davidson, that’s not all they have in their bag of tricks. It seems as if quite a few of the new features that Harley introduced on its CVO models will be carried over to the Touring line. The ABS system that we saw demonstrated at the Pilgrim Road plant during the CVO launch is now available on the 2008 Touring line as a factory installed option. Throw in a new Brembo braking system, and bringing these heavyweights to a stop has gotten easier than ever.

Almost all of the Satin Stainless metallic powdercoat components of the Rocker has received a healthy dose of chrome in the Rocker C.
The Rocker C gets a touch of the bling-look. The components of the Rocker that were powder coated with Harley-Davidson’s Satin Stainless Metallic treatment have received a healthy dose of chrome in the Rocker C.

The new isolated drive system on the rear drive-belt sprocket that H-D’s Paul James said is aimed at reducing noise and vibration to the rider for improved ride quality under acceleration, shifting and cruising has also carried over to the Touring line. Cush drives have been around for years, so its been a slow process, but H-D has finally made the push to cush. Likewise goes for the Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) system. It is now standard on the big fully dressed tourers. They’ll also be able to travel farther than before between fill-ups with a 6-gallon fuel tank, a gallon larger than last year’s tank.

The 2008 Harley-Davidson Touring Class includes the Road Kings, Electra, Street and Road Glides and the Ultra Classic Electra Glide. During the CVO launch, the Screamin’ Eagle Road King was one of my favorites. Riding the CVO model must have spoiled me, because after riding the 2008 Road King, the roll on acceleration of the Twin Cam 96 wasn’t quite as responsive as the power of the CVO’s Twin Cam 110. Don’t get me wrong. I was still rolling down the highway at 80 mph with the rpms a tad over 3000. But it took me a little more throttle to get there. The 2008 Road King I was aboard in Baltimore also had more engine vibration when idling than I recall on the CVO but it smoothed out as soon as the bike was in motion. Nothing in comparison to the Harley shimmy of old, but still enough of a chug-chug-chug that I took notice.

The VRSC line will also be offered with Harley’s manual, independent ABS system. The V-Rods brakes are better all around, helped out by Brembo performance triple-disc pinchers. Which is a good thing since the V-Rods Revolution Engine has been boosted from 1130cc to 1250cc. The VRSC’s continue to be the only H-D platform powered by a liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-Twin. The mill puts out a claimed 125 hp at 8250 rpm with 85 ft-lb of torque around 7000 rpm. A 5mm bigger bore and a radiator shroud with twin vortex air scoops help the increased power numbers. While riding the VRSCDX Night Rod Special I looked down at the speedo. I was doing 90 mph with plenty left on the tach but I had to slow down because I was beginning to separate from the other motojournalists. And I had already had my fill of being lost after my escapades on the Rocker.

Another notable change to the V-Rods is its addition of a new slipper-style clutch. According to James, it’s not a true race-bike slipper clutch, but still helps prevent rear wheel lock-up during rapid downshifts. It will work to complement the ABS by avoiding unnecessary ABS activation if the rear wheel locks up during a high-speed downshift. New engine, brakes, and a slipper clutch. Not a bad year for the VRSC family, I would say. The V-Rod, Night Rod and Night Rod Special are hotter than ever.

No tools are needed to deploy the strut for the pillion.
No tools are needed to hook up the Trick 2-into-1 seat of the Rocker C. The strut folds out easily, the passenger pillion snaps right on and you’re ready for some two-up riding in less than ten seconds.

Which leaves us with the original Harley-Davidson hot-rod motorcycle, the Sportster. Last year was the big year for the Sportster. The model celebrated its 50th anniversary and staked claim to the title as Harley’s longest continuously produced model. It was the last to convert to EFI, also in 2007. H-D broke the wrapper on the retro-rod styled Nightster last year as well.

So what’s the big news for the Sportster this year? Take a look at the tank. No, they’re not changing the definitive peanut tank. It wouldn’t be a Sportster if they did. But H-D claims that with the Sporster logo adorning the side of the tank, some people were unaware that the Sportster was made by Harley-Davidson. So the Sportster logo is no more. The graphics have been refreshed so that now the Harley-Davidson logo is prominently displayed on the peanut tank to avoid any confusion.

The Sportster line offers seven different models, all powered by the XL Evolution engine. Displacement continues to come in two flavors, 883cc and 1200cc. Styling varies, from the Nightsters’ blacked-out rims and hubs, forks, handlebars, foot and hand controls to the dirt-track handlebars and mid-mount controls of the Roadster. The Sportster remains the most affordable entry into the Harley-Davidson family. Its status as ‘gateway’ bike to bigger and better things coming out of Milwaukee is backed by H-D’s claim that 82 percent of Sportster buyers are new to Harley-Davidson. Out of those buyers, 33 percent are new to motorcycling. At the intro, the Sportsters provided burnouts in abundance and had a bunch of road-seasoned motorjournalists acting like it was their first time on a bike.

So which one of these models will be venerated in the hallowed halls of the Harley-Davidson Museum? All of them. That’s because H-D sets aside a factory-fresh model of each of its motorcycles for historical purposes. It all started back in 1913 when the company was approached to do an exhibit for the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the time of the request, Harley-Davidson had only been in business for ten years, so at the World’s Fair they displayed the motorcycles they had built since 1903. But the Milwaukee motorcycle company has made it a tradition to set aside one model of each motorcycle it has manufactured and now, 105 years later, they will finally have a world-class facility to permanently display the collection. The Harley-Davidson Museum is set to open in 2008. It’s going to be a hell of a party when it opens. See you there.

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