DARTH VADER WOULDN’T LOOK OUT OF PLACE ON THE NEWLY REVITALISED DARK CUSTOM RANGE
If there was one thing a Japanese police officer would not have expected in typhoon-stricken Tokyo, it was a gang of Harley-Davidsons ridden by foreigners.
We were journalists, there for the launch of the 2016 Dark Custom range — the updated Forty-Eight, Iron 883 and Street 750.
Why Tokyo? There isn’t a better place in the Pacific Rim to put the urban-focused Harleys to the test.
Even without a typhoon ...
Starting the updates was the Street 750. Last year’s bike had woeful brakes; Harley got the message and fitted a huge 300mm Brembo-sourced unit to the front, which has greatly improved feel and ability. The wiring loom has also been tidied up and is more aesthetically pleasing.
We don’t get the 750cc Revolution X motor in NZ. The 500cc LAMS-approved version is silky smooth and well matched to the baby Harley. It does lack the character that the air-cooled units on the 883 and Forty-Eight are blessed with. The suspension was a bit unrefined but, being the entry-level bike, concessions have to be made to keep prices down.
The Iron 883, designed by Dais Nagao, has been revitalised with a new factory bobber look. Drawing inspiration from garage-built bobbers past and present, the new model is chopped, drilled, and intentionally a little raw and rough around the edges to give it more authenticity.
It’s a look that really works, with a blacked-out engine and exhaust, drag-style handlebars and a solo tuck-and-roll seat making for a mean-looking bike — a deserving refresh as the former “piglet” of Harley’s range has a new little brother. Nagao gave his reason for the styling: “It’s always been my vision that this bike will look better with some dirt or patina. It’s quick and nimble and encourages the rider to be aggressive.
“As it’s ridden it may get some scuffs, scratches or other character marks. We can’t do that at the factory. That’s the privilege of the owner and becomes part of the story of the bike.” I asked who he had in mind for riding the bike. “I like to think of Darth Vader,” was his response. His answer makes a lot of sense.
Everyone likes to play on the stereotype that Harleys are the ultimate mean machine, and no rider can be meaner than the American Film Institute’s third-best movie villain of all time.
Ride and handling are improved by new cartridge-style forks and a set of new emulsion rear shock absorbers with progressive-rate springs and a threaded pre-load adjustment collar, which makes it easy for the rider to dial in shock performance to match road conditions.
The Iron 883 handled well in the terrible weather conditions
That extra handling prowess meant the world to us when riding the wet and windy streets of Tokyo as Typhoon Etau landed and authorities advised nearly one million people to prepare to evacuate.
Riding in such conditions might seem stupid, but when our hosts gave the option of bowing out or taking the hardcore “no typhoon is stopping me” stance, every journalist ticked option B.
Leaving from Tabloid, a warehouse-cum-bar on the shores of Tokyo Bay, we had our pick of the three Dark Custom rides to start. I’ve lusted after a ride on the brilliantly styled Forty-Eight since it launched and found an olive green example near the back of the pack. The Forty-Eight has received new 49mm Showa forks and massive triple clamps giving the front end a much weightier look, as well as improving the handling. Similar shocks to the 883 are found on the rear with the same level of adjustment and ease of use. It is arguably one of Harley’s best-looking bikes, with a silhouette designed to emulate the classic 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead, with big 130mm front tyre and low and light rear end.
Mathieu Day riding the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight in Tokyo.
“The big front wheel is like a steamroller coming down the street, and we went with the smaller round steel air cleaner and some chrome on the exhaust to draw your eyes to the engine,” says lead stylist Ben McGinley.
Riding it through the wet streets, you’d think that big front end would be tiring and heavy, but you’d be wrong. The Forty-Eight was a comfortable ride around a huge city.
Touring will be problematic thanks to the tiny 7.9-litre tank, but that is such a large part of the visual appeal. For touring you could buy a spare tank from Harley’s 10,000-plus parts catalogue.
Of course, keeping an eye out for fuel/coffee stops can be a fun way of meeting people — and showing off the Forty-Eight.