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A Love Letter to the Harley-Davidson Street Bob

I put 7,500 miles on Harley’s barebones big twIn this summer and have only one regret: I wish I’d ridden it even more

There’s something very strange about Harley-Davidson’s Street Bob: it never stops being fun. The whole time you’re riding it, some quiet part of you is thinking: “Hee-hee. This is ridiculous.”

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Sure, a lot of motorcycles (most, in fact) give you that sensation initially. That’s part of the appeal of riding, after all: the excited feeling of thinking that, really, someone should take this ridiculous-wonderful thing away from you, that you’re getting away with something. But if you ride a lot of miles on a bike, as I’ve been fortunate to do with a number of motos, you get used to its particular kind of thrill. After a certain amount of time you grow accustomed to a motorcycle’s attributes.

It’s like marriage, I suppose. After a number of years you get a little used to your partner. It’s not that you love her any less – in a good marriage you’ll love her more – but that wild, buzzing, uncontrollable INEEDTOPRESSMYFACEAGAINSTYOUNOW passion no longer occurs every single time you see her step out of the shower.

The Street Bob is immune to that. I spent five months with the barebones bobber – from late May to late October – clocking up 7,500 miles, and I cannot think of a point when I did not want to shout to my fellow road users: “You guys! Guys! This bike is awesome! Look at me on this awesome bike!”

Yeah, it’s kinda heavy, kinda expensive, and not really high-performance, but the boundless, unebbing, rapturous love it inspires makes it all worth it.

Thanks for a great summer, Street Bob

I first rode the Street Bob more than a year ago, on a press ride in Spain, when it was introduced as part of the overhauled Softail line-up (the Street Bob was a Dyna before then). If you want a foundational sense of what it is and how it rides, check out my First Ride review. Everything I wrote in that article holds true but for the assertion that the Street Bob’s not good for distance. I was wrong about that. The seven countries I visited with it (10 if you subscribe to the thinking that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are different countries) prove it works over distance.

KEEP READING: Harley-Davidson Announces Plan to Make You Buy a Harley by 2022

If you want the TLDNR version of this review it is simply that the Street Bob is at once Harley-Davidson’s most affordable big twin and one of its best. If you want to know why I feel that way, strap in; I’ve got a hell of a lot to say about this amazing motorcycle.

The Street Bob never stops being a thrill ride.

Where it’s Best

When I was a younger man, I attended college in the far north of Minnesota, a place of seemingly infinite cold and flatness in winter. In the long drives back to the Twin Cities, where my parents lived, there was a spot not too far from Moorhead where I could look across the barren, ice-choked farm fields to see a large factory producing I know not what. It might have been a power plant, or a sugar beet refinery, or any other thing that produced massive clouds of steam that stretched for miles across the arctic horizon.

“That’s a world engine,” I would tell the imaginary girlfriend sitting next to me in my pickup. “There are several of them on Earth, keeping it spinning and on its axis. Without them, the winter would never end.”

The 1753cc Milwaukee Eight V-twin that drives the Street Bob is a take-home version of a world engine. It is massive. It has its own gravity. Fire it up and the thing sits there and growls with a sense of immense power. This is not the shake-itself-apart Harley engine of old, but a solid mountain of a thing, full of fire and torque and wild, manic laughter.

I particularly loved this bike’s paint scheme. My wife says it’s brown, but she’s wrong. To me, it looks like a bike that was originally painted red but spent several decades in a barn.

The clever trick of the Street Bob is that it feels like it’s not much more than that engine – as if someone threw some wheels and a handlebar on the thing and called it a day. That image belies the complicated electronics needed to make the bike’s throttling so smooth, its emissions within EU regulations, its brakes anti-lock, and so on. The Street Bob is a modern motorcycle, with the maintenance and performance benefits that implies, while giving an authentic spirit of something from a different time.

For me, it evokes memories of childhood, running around our blue-collar Dallas suburb, where the “cool” adults were still holding on to the 1970s denim and mustaches of their younger days. Those guys had old Harleys*, peeking from beneath oily tarpaulins in overfull garages, and it was the sound of their bikes that all the kids mimicked as we sped our bicycles up and down the street.

RELATED: Why is the Harley-Davidson Brand So Popular?

The Street Bob, in other words, speaks to things deep in the soul. On a warm, sunny afternoon, riding a quiet back highway at 60 mph or so, the emotion of memory and childhood ambitions triggered by riding the bike can be genuinely overwhelming. Actually, the weather doesn’t even have to be warm. During my time with the bike I had countless moments of thinking: “Look at me. How incredibly lucky am I that all the dots of my life have connected to this point? Here in this place at this time on this bike?”

That leather swingarm bag was useful but I’m not sure it was worth the money Harley asks for it. More affordable aftermarket alternatives are available.

Lost in the Elan Valley of Wales, speeding through German farmland, and shivering in the crisp sunrise of Northern England I felt it so intently I was on the verge of crying.

Beyond revealing my need for extensive counseling, however, the Street Bob excels in areas you might not expect; it is much more than a go-straight laidback machine. Counterintuitive to everything you think you know about Harleys and ape-hanger ‘bars the Street Bob is surprisingly adept in corners. It is better suited to hairpins and squirreling mountain roads than the Fat Bob or FXDR – the Softails that Harley pitches as corner monsters – thanks to narrower tires and a riding position that allows a person** to work the ‘bars almost like those on a dirt bike, scrunched up in, as Rich Taylor of GQ would say, “angry monkey riding position.”

Yeah, the pegs scrape if you get crazy, followed shortly by the exhaust on the right side, but I never had issues when riding “normally” – which I would define as “stunning the legions of R 1200 GS riders who infest Wales in the summer by beating them through corners” – and I felt more confident throwing this heavy machine around than I do with some smaller, lighter machines.

The Elan Valley is so quiet you’ll find roadside benches. Perfect for impromptu picnics.

About that weight: the Street Bob is the lightest of Harley’s big twins, but a 297kg running weight (655 lbs) is hardly bantam. If your driveway has even the slightest amount of incline you will notice the bike’s heft when pushing it toward the garage. And certainly the sense of solidity that weight brings never goes away, hence the ‘world engine’ comparison. But the issue of weight being problematic or annoying ceases more or less as soon as you throw a leg over the saddle.

The weight is delightfully low. Remember that sledgehammer I mentioned in explaining why the Triumph Tiger 1200 is a poor choice for off-road riding? Harley’s put the weight in the right place, making it far more manageable. So manageable, in fact, that it builds confidence. The bike feels surefooted.

ALSO READ: Triumph Struggling to Sell Tiger 1200?

Add the above attributes together and the Street Bob also turns out to be an amazing commuting bike. No, really. It glides through traffic with ease, you can always put both feet down**, and, despite being tall, the handlebar is not much wider than the shoulders**. Short of the previous-generation Triumph Street Triple, the Street Bob is probably the best bike for filtering through traffic that I have ever ridden. I would never have guessed that.

The headlight throws a decent amount of light, just make sure it’s angled correctly. Mine was originally too low and useless. Easily fixed with a Leatherman, though.

Where it’s Good

I also wouldn’t have guessed that the Street Bob is so good at covering long distances. Back in July, I joined a handful of British journos on a 1,000-mile road trip to Prague to celebrate Harley-Davidson’s 115th birthday with the world’s oldest Harley riders’ club and about 110,000 close personal friends.

Before the trip, Harley’s UK press team kindly offered to let me take a touring-focused bike like the Road Glide instead, but I declined because, well, damn it, that’s not the dream, right? I mean, touring warriors like the Honda Gold Wing aren’t the starting point of most folks’ travel fantasies. Yes, many of us get to wanting such a bike eventually, but the fantasies that made us get on a bike in the first place – imagining the sort of epic journeys that somehow make us more desirable to sex partners – involved barebones machines exactly like the Street Bob with bed rolls and army surplus bags strapped to the fender.

Harley also offered to fly me home from Prague, shipping the bike back to the UK, but I declined for the same reason (as did Andy Hornsby of American V magazine). I feel to do otherwise would have been something I’d have regretted on my deathbed.

Joining a parade of several thousand bikers through the streets of Prague

Though, I’ll admit that when I first set out on that 2,000-mile ride – Kriega bags strapped to the passenger seat, American flag lashed to the sissy bar – I was anticipating a certain level of misery. “Ah well, it will make a good story,” I told myself. But with an equal mix of disappointment and delight I discovered the Street Bob is actually a solid choice for long hauls.

To some extent that’s not surprising. The Milwaukee Eight V-twin engine driving the Street Bob is the same that drives the aforementioned tour-ready Road Glide, and every other Harley big twin. It is a powerplant designed for clocking up miles. In engine and chassis, the Street Bob is effectively the same bike as the excellent Heritage Classic. Meanwhile, the Street Bob’s riding position is not nearly as uncomfortable** as it looks, and there’s an argument to be made that the absence of too many bells and whistles makes for a bike better suited to cross-country travel. It’s lighter and has less breakable stuff. With the benefit of Harley’s excellent quick-release screen (no mounting hardware required, so it doesn’t affect the bike’s aesthetics for sunny-day riding) and a stack of Kriega bags it’s ready to fulfill all your Vegas-to-Vermont daydreams.

A PERFECT FIT WITH THE STREET BOB: A Love Letter to Kriega Gear

That having been said, the padding in the stock Street Bob seat sort of gave up on me after about 1,600 miles of use. The seat itself remained in good condition throughout my stewardship but the padding shifted to leave my butt bones feeling the seat’s plastic through its leather cover. Crappy stock seats are a known Harley issue, and I would be annoyed by this but for the fact that crappy stock seats are also known issues for quite a few manufacturers, including BMW and Triumph.

The sissy bar was particularly useful when traveling, providing something to lash luggage to (as well as an American flag).

I was able to tolerate about an hour and a half in the saddle before getting squirmy. If the bike were mine (and as a result of my summer I have been giving some very serious thought to such a possibility) I would get a Corbin or Mustang replacement seat. I would probably also get some highway pegs or the like, to allow me to stretch out my legs on long motorway slogs. The disadvantage to adding these comforts, however, is that I’d inevitably start to notice the Street Bob’s 13-liter tank.

As is, it never bothered me. I was consistently able to get 160 miles from the bike before the onset of fuel-light panic. I once pushed to 185 miles on a single tank, with the range display promising another 8 miles before the need to start walking. That’s pretty good, if you ask me – more fuel-efficient than my Tiger Explorer.

Harley’s Milwaukee Eight V-twin engine is an absolute joy.

Also hurting the Street Bob’s touring chops somewhat is a suspension not as plush as that found on touring rigs. The days of backbreaking non-suspensions on Harleys are behind us, but you’ll definitely feel the bigger imperfections of a road. Highways and such are fine, but I’d probably not want to spend too much time exploring British lanes (tiny roadways that don’t appear to have been maintained since “Bo’ Selecta!” was funny).

If you want to go far with a passenger, meanwhile, you’ll probably just want to get a different bike.

Passenger seats are available as accessories but should not be relied on to carry passengers very far.

Where it’s OK

As mentioned above, the Street Bob isn’t an ideal country lane machine. Although the tractable engine is perfect for hustling through the hedges, the suspension leaves you feeling the potholes. Additionally, the bike’s ABS set-up seems particularly sensitive to uneven road surfaces, frequently triggering in the hard stops that are part and parcel of country lane riding.

A BETTER BIKE FOR LANES: The Italian Country Gentleman

But the thing is: riding in lanes is something of a specialist activity – very narrow spaces (check my review of the Ducati Scrambler 1100 to see how some lanes aren’t much wider than that bike is long), extremely poor road surfaces (covered in gravel, mud, and cow manure, and often flooded), tight corners, aggressive acceleration, hard stops, and the need to dodge all the drunk farmers and yummy mummies in Land Rovers doing the same thing. It’s a riding scenario I’ve not encountered anywhere but Britain, and even then one that can generally be avoided unless visiting sparsely populated parts of Scotland or Wales. So, I’m not sure the Street Bob’s lack of prowess here really counts as a mark against it.

The street Bob and I were together for quite a while. Sometimes things got weird.

The Requisite Complaining

But it’s not a real bike review if you don’t bitch, right? So, here’s my contractually obligated moaning about the Street Bob: even after all that time and all those miles, I never got to the point of liking Harley’s indicator set-up. I sorta got to the point of not hating it after a few months, but there was never a moment where I felt Harley’s system was as good, let alone better, than the established single indicator switch used by everyone else.

Harley-Davidson Sportsters, Softails, and Touring bikes all use a double indicator system, with switches on each side of the ‘bar. Press the left button to indicate left, the right button to indicate right. The system is very clearly set up for American riders who do not indicate their turns on the go, nor use roundabouts.

Harley’s indicator system set-up never won me over.

There is already enough shit going on with your right hand as is. To introduce the task of indicating right turns is a colossal pain in the ass that more often than not results in your unintentionally rolling off the throttle, braking without nuance, or accidentally hitting the kill switch. I like the fact the Street Bob’s self-canceling indicators are actually self-cancelling (I can’t say the same for the “self-cancelling” indicators on my Triumph) but I’d still rather have a single switch on the left grip.

ELSEWHERE: Why Harley’s ‘Not a Cruiser’ Gamble Will Work This Time 

Also, accessing the battery is a pain in the ass. I had wanted to wire in the connector for my Keis heated vest but eventually gave up.

The fit and finish on the Street Bob is excellent, with thick paint and robust parts.

What Everyone Else Says

To look at, the Street Bob is refreshing. In a world where bikes are all too often covered in plastic and other visual claptrap to hide what they’re actually made of, the Street Bob lays everything out in front of you to look at… You almost get the impression that the engineers in Wisconsin set out to challenge themselves to figure out how little motorcycle they could get away with building while still producing something that qualifies as a motorcycle.” – Rich Taylor, GQ

The bike is deceptively simple, and the chassis and motor are well paired to one another. It’s a nice cruisin’ machine, but if your buddies decide to be hot dogs, this bike is up to the task. The Street Bob may be the ‘entry-level’ Big Twin, but I think this is the best bike of the bunch, dollar for dollar.” – Lemmy, Common Tread

Whatever the reasons, the Street Bob represents the claimed spirit of Harley-Davidson – and to a lesser extent the spirit of motorcycling – better than any of the Milwaukee brand’s other models.” – Quote from my first-ride article

I can’t hear you over the rumble of my freedom.

Would I Buy It?

There’s an argument to be made that the Street Bob is, all things considered, the best motorcycle Harley-Davidson makes. That argument falters a bit in the face of a Road King Special, and I’ll admit I’d probably still choose the Sport Glide if I wanted to do a lot of touring on a Softail, but, man, the Street Bob a fantastic bike. The most affordable, lightest, and best-handling of the big twins, it’s a motorcycle that helps you understand the cult of Harley – kinda makes you want to be a part of it.

KEEP READING: Check Out All of TMO’s Bike Reviews

Every time – every single time – I pressed the starter and the Street Bob’s world engine shook to life I fell in love again. No, really: every single time. It was almost unsettling; I’m not sure it’s healthy to feel so connected to a piece of machinery. A month after returning the keys to Harley-Davidson I still feel pangs of ache when I open my garage and see the Street Bob’s not there.

I miss having this in my life

So, the answer to the question of whether I’d spend my own money on a Street Bob is an easy yes. Writing this as a winter storm soaks the windows of my office, I’ll admit suffering a moment of hesitation when it comes to the question of whether I would take on the Street Bob as my everyday, all-the-time, everywhere bike. But… yes. Add a more comfortable seat, heated grips, the removable screen, and highway pegs for really long stretches (and perhaps cruise control, which is available as an accessory), and I’d compromise on the absence of things I like about other bikes (eg, taller seat height, riding modes I don’t ever really use, the ability to wear Michelin Road 5 tires, etc).

I wouldn’t enjoy the cost of 5,000-mile service intervals, but the knowledge base on Harley-Davidson bikes is vast; most mechanics understand them, manuals are plentiful, and YouTube is littered with “how to” videos. So, once the warranty is up you can take on all the maintenance work yourself.

Relatively easy to work on

The Three Questions

Does the Harley-Davidson Street Bob suit my current lifestyle?
I would not have guessed this beforehand, but after living with the bike for five months – traveling with it, commuting daily with it – I found myself very happy to adapt to the ways in which it does not fit perfectly. A large part of this compatibility, it has to be said, comes from the fact Jennosaurus is working toward getting her full license. If she were still a regular passenger there is no way I could keep a Street Bob in the garage.

Does the Harley-Davidson Street Bob put a grin on my face?
Hell yes, it does. This bike is ridiculous in all the good ways. As much as I swoon for the Street Bob I recognize it is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you don’t giggle like a nut whilst sitting on a Harley you may want to seek professional help.

Is the Harley-Davidson Street Bob better than my current motorcycle, a 2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XRX?
Apples and oranges, but, yes. True, the Street Bob doesn’t have riding modes or electronic suspension or traction control; it doesn’t have as much horsepower or weather protection; and it’s not the first bike I’d choose for navigating a flooded country lane. But it is so much more fun than my bike. It’s infinitely easier to move around a garage, despite weighing more, and easier to navigate through rows of stopped traffic. It looks better. It sounds better. And 50 years from now, when your hips are shot and you can’t ride anymore, it’s the bike you’ll be bragging to your grandkids about.

The best bike Harley makes? Quite possibly.

PICTURED GEAR:

Helmet: Schuberth C3 Pro
Gloves: Weise Romulus / Aerostich Elksin Competition Roper
Jacket: Indian Motorcycle Rocker
Jeans: Pando Moto Boss 105 Indigo REG
Boots: Indian Motorcycle Spirit Lake
Luggage: Kriega

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* And, inexplicably, AMC Gremlins. Man were there a lot of rundown Gremlins. If my neighborhood was at all representative, North Texas is a Gremlin graveyard.
** Claims that relate to ergonomics should be taken with the understanding that I’m 6 feet 1 inch tall. I recognize that my experiences will not necessarily be the same as those of a person who is, say, a foot shorter than me. That said, seat height on the Street Bob is a stout 680 mm (or 26.7 inches).