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Muscle Cruisin'

Harley-Davidson Fat Bob 103

Despite what you may have recently read on the Internet, Harley-Davidson is not a company known for being edgy or technologically innovative.  No doubt you’ve probably heard the old saying “there are Harley riders, and then there’s everybody else.”  (Feel free to insert your own joke or personal experiences here.)  But, just for a moment, let’s assume the world is a new and different place.

In this new world, the year is 2014 and you’ve made up your mind to buy the very best muscle cruiser out there.  After months spent analyzing the top reviews, obsessing over mechanical specs, and methodically weighing the price options, you wake up one Saturday morning ready to pull the trigger.  Throwing on your coolest leather jacket and a pair of shades, you open the front door and confidently hit the road to make your purchase.

While smoothly coasting down the highway, thoughts of other biker’s opinions drift far away from your mind.  The speech “if you want to ride a REAL motorcycle you need to own this particular brand” doesn’t exist, and you’ve never seen the show Sons of Anarchy because it was never created.  Taking all this into consideration, what are the chances you’re actually headed to a Harley-Davidson dealership?



Slightly Cracking the Mold

Harley-Davidson Fat Bob 103 close-up

Back in 2008, Harley added a new model to their Dyna line in the form of the Fat Bob.  What made it stand out from other models in the family was mainly its styling cues.  Sporting a prominent 130mm front tire, twin headlights, and a 2-1-2 exhaust, the Fat Bob felt just a little bit different from the traditional lineup.  The engine was a rubber-mounted 96 cubic incher that pretty much stayed the same until 2012 when it got upgraded to a 103 (1,690 cc).  As the saying goes, “there’s no replacement for displacement.”

With drag bars and forward controls in place, this hulking hog does a great job of throwing off some serious attitude even while standing still. The low-slung seat (which is one of the most comfortable we’ve tested from Harley) gives way to a sloped rear section with strangely alluring twin taillights.  The best view, though, might be from the front right 3/4. Call me old fashioned, but there’s just something uniquely enticing about a bike that can look menacing with an Amber Whiskey paint scheme and blacked-out engine casings.  All things considered, if you’re judging it solely on style and looks, the Fat Bob is hard to beat.


Seat Time

The line between thinking you want a particular motorcycle and absolutely knowing you have to have it can often become blurred. Demo rides can be helpful, but the difference between a 15-20 minute ride and having a bike to test for a month is like the difference between grabbing a milkshake at Burger King to sate your appetite and sitting down to a four-course meal at a five-star restaurant.  During my time with this Harley, I became keen on a few things very quickly, while other surprises didn’t reveal themselves until the final days.


Harley-Davidson Fat Bob 103, Matt Hansen, California, U.S.A.

It’s strange to think that a 700 lb machine can become familiar, but the throttle response and feel of this bike’s momentum in motion quickly developed into an easy routine of DOs and DON’Ts.

But if you’re thinking that means the Fat Bob can become mundane to handle, guess again.  Riding this bike is a full-fledged assault on the senses and I mean that in the nicest way.  The air-cooled twin-cam engine ferociously rumbles between your legs and has no problem throwing a torque smackdown whether you’re heading out for a weekend ride or just picking up some milk at the store.

Low-end grunt beckons from second gear and keeps climbing all the way to a surprisingly stable 6th.  For the sake of safety and good common sense, I can’t actually advise you go anywhere in a hurry on a muscle cruiser, even if it does have factory-installed ABS (which mine did).  However, the Fat Bob gives off the impression that it could take you to Montana and back doing 90 mph the whole way without batting an eye.

Pulling in the clutch lever is a little more difficult than I expected on a brand new machine, but after all, it is a Harley, and super easy lever pull has never really been high on their priorities.  At 27.2 inches the seat is a good height to invite new riders into the Dyna family; low seats are always a plus for both men and women.  While the drag bars certainly look cool, when matched with the bike’s semi-aggressive seating position, the long term effects of riding a big bike in a stretched pose might dissuade some customers from giving the Fat Bob a green light.

One of this Harley’s surprises, corner speed notwithstanding, is how well it handled.  While the 180-rear and 130-front tires do provide a certain maximum grip “look,” the science of sidewall flex tells a different story.  While I can’t quite call it nimble, nor would I recommend trying to keep up with your buddy’s GSXR in the canyons, I was genuinely impressed with how long it took for me to scrape the forward controls on this testosterone-filled machine.  Give me pegs over floorboards any day.


Harley-Davidson Fat Bob 103, Matt Hansen, California, U.S.A.

To truly own the street with massive stock horsepower you’ll need to head to a Yamaha dealer to throw a leg over a Star VMAX.  Not counting the Boss Hoss, which contains a spectacularly ludicrous V8, if you crave the biggest engine, a trip to the nearest Triumph dealer is in order to try and wrangle their Rocket III.  If you’re looking for enough torque to pull the moon out of orbit, but also want a decent level of refinement, then Ducati’s head-turning Diavel or Suzuki’s M109R will happily oblige.  Or maybe you just want something that doesn’t look like everything else, in which case Honda is patiently waiting to introduce you to the alien-inspired new Goldwing Valkyrie.  As you may have noticed, none of the names mentioned have you going anywhere near a Harley shop.

Harley-Davidson is a company that has been around for a very, very, long time.  In the ever-changing marketplace of new adventure bikes, middleweight nakeds, and super tiny raucous racers, the H-D logo still holds strong as a symbol that trends shouldn’t dictate how you feel or what you ride.  Harley builds non-apologetic, chrome-plated, purpose-built, high gloss, blacked out, tire-smoking embodiments of Americana that have the uncanny ability to put a foolhardy smile on your face.  And to be frank, they’re damn good at it.

It’s easy to go after the Fat Bob for a lot of reasons.  Considering that other muscle bikes that have been on the road for years can outperform it, the price is a little high.  The trickle-down, beefed-up technology used in its construction is at this point really old school. And while you do get to join the Harley club, the bike just doesn’t have that many amenities.

Harley-Davidson Fat Bob 103

Brains vs Guts


Convenient Truth

While this should be an open and shut review, it honestly can’t be.  Because no matter how much research I did and what else was out there, riding the Fat Bob did something strange to my brains. Insecurities seem to melt away and are replaced with a sensation of toughness and indestructibility.  What you experience when twisting open the throttle on this pavement-eating monster is a gut reaction that cannot be denied or scientifically explained.


Is the Fat Bob the best muscle cruiser out there?  Not really.  Will it undergo a complete engine and tech transformation to become the best selling Harley ever?  Don’t hold your breath.  While riding it, does it make you feel like you can take on the whole world and to hell with anybody who says otherwise?   Absolutely.


And sometimes, that’s all that matters.



The Good

Muscle looks and feel

Ground pounding torque

Handles better than expected

The Bad

If you’re taller than 6’2 or shorter than 5’10 the rides can be a bit taxing after 30 minutes or so

Useful accessories besides saddlebags are limited

The Ugly

You can either buy one of these, or get that newly restored Classic Muscle car that just popped up on eBay

Can’t do both.

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