Fat Boy wonder: How a bold take on the cruiser put Harley-Davidson back on the map

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‘I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle…’ It’s been 30 years since we first heard Arnold Schwarzenegger utter those immortal words in the film Terminator 2.

Little did anyone know then that the machine which the mechanical assassin would go on to violently liberate (along with the unfortunate owner’s leather kit) in the film’s bar-room brawl scene would become the most iconic of all Hollywood two-wheelers.

With its solid wheels and shotgun-style pipes, the Fat Boy boasts an unmistakable style that not only re-popularised Harley-Davidson more than any other model through the 1990s but also re-energised the whole US cruiser sector.

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Launched in 1990 as a pet project of Harley design guru Willie G. Davidson, the Fat Boy’s starkly industrial silver livery was a stylistic breath of fresh air that saw H-D back on the covers of mainstream magazines and helped return the firm to the popular consciousness.

That, combined with the Fat Boy’s dramatic appearance with Schwarzenegger in the following year’s summer blockbuster ensured its success.

The Fat Boy also acted as a catalyst for a renaissance in American cruisers. Its 1950s styling themes were carried onto the hugely popular Road King (and later Street Glide) and their success helped fuel the emergence of new American cruiser brands in the late 1990s such as Excelsior-Henderson, Victory and Indian, the latter flourishing to become Harley’s main rival.

In short, without the Fat Boy, Harley-Davidson and all US-style cruisers today, simply wouldn’t be the same.

Today the Fat Boy lives on as one of the cornerstones of Harley’s range and, until 2018, had lived longest as one of the Milwaukee marque’s least modified machines. Not bad for a bike that was first conceived on something of a whim.

Heir of the Founding Four

Back in the late 1980s Harley’s line-up was far more conservative (and less technically advanced) than it is today.

At one end of the Milwaukee firm’s range were its ‘Big Twins’, the 82 cubic inch (1340cc) ‘Evolution’ V-twin introduced in 1984, which powered its FL ElectraGlide tourer, twin shock ‘Dyna’ cruisers such as the Low Rider and Wide Glide and the hidden shock, ‘Softails’, first introduced in 1984, conceived to replicate the clean, ‘hardtail’ look of bikes from the 1940s and ’50s.

While at the other, smaller, end were the entry-level Sportsters powered since 1986 by 883 or 1100cc versions of the Evolution engine, the latter growing to 1200cc in 1988.

Willie G Davidson helped develop the Fat Boy

Willie G Davidson, grandson of Harley co-founder William A Davidson and, in the early 1980s, the only direct descendent of ‘the founding four’ working at board level, had been employed in Harley’s design department since 1963, quickly rose to Chief Styling Officer and grew to become a key figure at the firm.

In 1971 he designed the FX Super Glide, reputed to be the first factory custom, by mating a Sportster front end to a Big Twin engine and chassis. That bike, although not successful, paved the way for the first FXS Low Rider in 1977, which was a huge hit for the company.

No Soft option

In 1981 Willie G. was one of 13 Harley executives who raised more than $75m to purchase the firm from AMF, leading in turn to its reinvigoration and revival in the 1980s.

While around the same time he was instrumental in the creation of the Softail after he was approached by design engineer Bill Davis with the concept and, impressed, worked with him to produce the first bike – the 1984 FXST.

The Softail’s potential for retro styling was soon explored further by Willie G. and his team, first with the 1986 FLST Heritage Softail, which resurrected the classic look of the 1950s with a ‘Hydra-Glide’ style, fat-tyred front end including shrouded forks.

Then, in 1988, the retro style was dialled up even further in the FXSTS Springer Softail, complete with ‘springer’ front end that harked back to the 1930s. All of these proved so successful he was encouraged to ramp up the Softail style even more.

Industrial style

A side view of the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

Working with co-designer Louie Netz and starting with a Heritage Softail as a base, his idea was to turn up the minimalist, industrial, retro 1950s style of the Softail even further.

So, where the Heritage was fussy and fancy, with conchos and studs on its saddle and lashings of chrome on its wheels and mudguards, the Fat Boy was ultra-clean and simple with bold, plain styling.

In came the solid cast aluminium disc wheels front and rear that came to define the bike in place of the Heritage’s wires, a new front fender which was almost devoid of chrome but had a gentle flare, plus new ‘shotgun’ up-and-over twin exhausts which were styled after the barrel of a shotgun and were another first for the brand.

And while the rest of the new bike had much in common with Heritage – the hidden twin shocks, fat telescopic forks, floorboards and handlebars – the forks and much else were stripped down and exposed with the result that everything looked clean, almost hewn from solid.

Another key factor in the success of the Fat Boy was the vigorous testing, refinement and customer feedback it was subjected to over two years of development before its final unveiling in late 1989 as a 1990 model.

What’s in a name?

Famously, Willie G. himself rode a prototype Fat Boy to Daytona Bike Week in Florida in February 1988 and then again in 1989 to gauge public feedback.

These trips were essential in fine-tuning its style and are considered to have contributed significantly to its success.

Among the details and features which were honed during these trips were the Fat Boy’s bold, monochromatic silver paint and silver powder-coated frame set off with yellow detailing, the lacing on both the seat and fuel tank which were indicative of Willie G’s fondness for the handmade look and his self-penned Fat Boy logo which was conceived to evoke ‘patriotism and nostalgia’ and has featured on every Fat Boy since.

While the name itself – Fat Boy – was inspired as well: bold, simple and pure… although in truth not with the controversial origins urban myth soon suggested it had.

Soon after the Fat Boy’s arrival, there were rumours that its name was a dig at Harley’s Japanese competitors in being a macabre composite of those of atomic bombs Fat Man and Little Boy as dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in World War II.

The Harley-Davidson Fat Boy's iconic movie role. Credit: Tristar Pictures

It was also suggested the first Fat Boy’s silver colour and yellow detailing was the same as the two B-29 bombers which dropped them and that its disc wheels mimicked its landing wheels.

Not true, according to Willie G. himself in his book 100 Years of Harley-Davidson published in 2002 (the great man himself retired in 2012): “You are probably wondering how we were able to decide to choose a name like Fat Boy,” he wrote.

“I have heard many stories about it, almost all of which are false. Here’s the real story: it’s hard to find names that will win everyone’s support. We always wondered, ‘How are people going to nickname this machine?’ And we worked by reflecting with this question in mind.

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“We were looking for the unusual and maybe even a little irreverent. For me, and for many of the other collaborators who had seen it, this motorcycle had a massive, fat look. So the marketing people have come up with the name Fat Boy. And everyone adopted it.”

More recently Scott Miller, who worked in H-D’s styling department at the time and later rose to be head of styling, has said the styling cues for its solid wheels came from a steam roller and that its silver-grey paintscheme – which led to the original bike being dubbed internally as ‘The Grey Ghost’ – was meant to resemble forged steel.

Either way, the Fat Boy made a huge impact when launched in 1990 drawing crowds and attention like no other Harley of recent years – enough in fact for Hollywood to take note and select it for Arnie to ride in Terminator 2.

That priceless extra publicity was enough to cement the Fat Boy as a Harley icon and for it to become an instant best seller and, although later bikes such as the Road King and Street Glide, have now overtaken it in terms of pure sales, the Fat Boy remains one of the most influential Harleys of modern times.

Fittingly, Harley created a special 30th Anniversary Edition of it for 2020. No Hog deserves it more.


Secrets behind the Terminator stunts

Jumping the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. Credit: Tristar Pictures

The appearance of the Fat Boy in Terminator 2 is the stuff of legend. Less well known is how this lumbering, heavy Harley was made to jump 30ft from an overpass and survive unscathed.

Ridden by stuntman Peter Kent, the jump was accomplished by supporting the bike on inch-thick cables, which were designed to take the weight of the bike and rider as it hit the ground. The cables were then digitally removed in post-production.

Two cranes were placed by stunt coordinator Joel Kramer to the left and right, out of shot, 600 feet apart with the cable tethered between them. This was then attached with an eight foot ‘spreader bar’ in its centre and the Fat Boy, complete with Kent on board, hung from it.

A further cable was attached to the front of the bike and to a truck out of shot in front which pulled the pair off the bridge at 35mph and caused him to sail 85ft through the air before landing with the impact softened by the cables. Kent’s justifiably proud of the result.

“It was a nice moment. The jump put me in the Hollywood Stuntman’s Hall of Fame and is rated as one of the top ten stunts of all time. That’s something that no one can ever take away from you.”

Harley-Davidson Fat Boy timeline

  • 1990: Original 1340cc model launched.
  • 1994: New seamless exhaust fitted for cleaner look.
  • 1996: New switchgear and master cylinder, as with all H-Ds that year.
  • 1999: Fitted with new ‘twin-cam’ 1450cc engine.
  • 2006: Engine enlarged to 1584cc. New six-speed gearbox fitted.
  • 2018: All-new model as part of total revamp of Softail family: new chassis, new ‘Milwaukee Eight’ engine in 1746/1868cc, fatter wheels, updated styling snd more.
  • 2020: 30th Anniversary model launched, limited to 2500 and featuring black livery and wheels, larger capacity blacked-out engine, contrasting detailing and numbered plaque.
Phil West

By Phil West

MCN Contributor and bike tester.