There's nothing cooler than a vintage bobber. But let's be honest -- vintage bikes are a pain in the rear. They break down, they leak oil, they need constant babying, and they don't actually perform all that well. What if you could get the cool look of a vintage bike, but with the comfort and convenience of a thoroughly modern motorcycle?
Enter the 2008 Harley-Davidson FLSTSB Cross Bones. Carrying a base price of $16,795 ($17,985 as tested), the Cross Bones comes with a 24 month/unlimited mileage warranty, and estimated fuel economy of 35.0 mpg city/54.0 mpg highway on premium unleaded.
At the end of World War II, Army surplus motorcycles provided cheap transportation for many American veterans upon their return to US soil. The vets gathered together into motorcycle clubs, seeking the camaraderie of shared experience that they missed from their combat days. Former aviators applied some of the lessons they learned from keeping their planes in the air, and stripped their bikes of extraneous metal parts to lighten their loads, make them faster and more efficient. The resulting motorcycles are known as "bobbers" or "bob jobs," distinguished by their truncated rear and tiny front fenders, bucking the then-current trends. Bobbers evolved into choppers, which emphasize more styling elements like raked front forks and other extreme elements. The bobber was all about riding, and getting the most out of your bike by taking off everything extra. The cool looks were a bonus.
The Cross Bones straddles the bobber/chopper divide. It has the cool looks part down pat -- this is one of the coolest bikes Harley has made in years, and that's saying something. Starting with the laced wheels, which contrast steel spokes with gloss black rims (16" front/17" rear) and fat tires (90 front/200 rear). The Springer-style front end also plays with the contrast, between the gloss-black forks and shiny steel exposed springs. The speedo housing, mini-ape hanger handlebars and round air cleaner are also gloss black, standing out from the unique sueded paint job on the metal body parts (my bike wore a sharp coat of Pewter Denim). It all adds up to one cool ride.
Seat of the Pants
The stock seat on many Harley models winds up being the first aftermarket replacement that a new owner makes -- the stockers rarely provide all-day comfort or even great style. That won't happen with the Cross Bones. The Cross Bones' solo seat is the old-fashioned tractor-style, with great details and visible spring supports underneath. The side benefit of this cool look is great comfort. The seat adjusts in two positions, providing a little more room for the long of leg. Half-moon floorboards and a heel-toe shifter complete a very comfortable platform for upright riding. I'm not a cool guy, unfortunately. But I have to admit that sitting on the Cross Bones made me feel cool. It's a very iconic riding position on a great-looking bike.
There are a few downsides to the riding position. If you wear a full-face helmet like I do (and I encourage you to), you'll encounter the eternal challenge of seeing the tank nacelle-mounted speedometer while still keeping your eye on the road. I learned to trust my sense of speed rather than keeping an eye on the speedo. The mini-ape hangers are a little high for all-day comfort, especially if you find yourself on the freeway for a prolonged period of time.
And then there's the whole "solo" thing. My cousin Dave, a genuine old-school biker, gave me one piece of advice when I bought my first Harley: "Ride solo." Cross Bones makes sure that you follow Dave's advice. If you want to bring your beloved along, get a second Cross Bones. If you want to bring any luggage along, get a backpack -- there's absolutely no storage on the FLSTSB.
On the Road
Here's where the modern bike has it all over the vintage bike. Cross Bones shares the proven, air-cooled Twin Cam 96B engine with the rest of the Softail lineup. At 1,584 cubic centimeters (96 cubic inches), it cranks out a claimed 84.8 lb-ft of torque at just 3100 rpm. Harley doesn't release horsepower figures for the V-twin, but most estimates put it at about 74 hp. Smooth ESPFI (Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection) eliminates the need for the enricher knob -- just start it up, and the 96B never hiccoughs or complains, no matter what the weather. Once underway, you've got six forward gears to play with. Sixth is a slight overdrive, lowering engine rpms for easy cruising. With 5.0 gallons of premium fuel in the tank, you could go as far as 270 highway miles before filling up again.
The Springer front end takes a little getting used to if you're used to a conventional telescopic fork. My test bike had very few miles on it when I picked it up, and it felt a little stiff and harsh at first. The front end performance got noticeably better the more I rode, becoming more compliant and "breaking in." I've heard from Springer owners that this is characteristic of the front end, and I wound up really liking the way it performed, especially on imperfect pavement.
Cross Bones isn't exactly flickable, but it is very predictable when the road turns twisty. The floorboards will be the first thing to touch down and give a warning that you're taxing your lean limit. If you scrape your floorboards frequently, you should probably find a different kind of bike for your riding style.
I love to look at motorcycles. The Guggenheim's The Art of the Motorcycle was my own personal heaven, and I always find myself lingering over bikes that get their beauty from form following function. The bobbers were accidental art, taking the beefy WL down to its essence, sculpting a gorgeous work of art in the process. The Cross Bones pays homage to those great bikes of old, adding modern technology to the package to create a useful, rolling work of art.
That said, there are other options, even within the H-D lineup. The FXCW Rocker is an even more extreme take on the equation, but with a telescopic front fork in place of the Springer. The FXDB Dyna Street Bob brings the Dyna's dual rear shock/rubber mount design to the table, for a bit more maneuverability (and a lower price). Don't be afraid to look at other brands, either. The Yamaha Star Raider S is a potent piece. So is the Honda VTX 1800F, and the Suzuki Boulevard M109R adds a modern touch of cool. The Victory Hammer and Big Dog Pitbull are alternative American interpretations of motorcycling history.
My quibbles are few, and the Cross Bones is gorgeous. Even if you don't ride it much, you'll get a lot of pleasure out of just looking at it in your garage. If you've got to have a Harley, I'm not going to try to talk you out of it. The Cross Bones will fill the bill, and you'll look cool on it, even if you're a geek like me.<<Click here for a photo gallery of the 2008 Harley-Davidson Cross Bones>>