The sign outside the Viper Room offered the most minimal of clues. "Newest dark custom" was all it said. But lurking inside, under an appropriately black motorcycle cover, was Harley-Davidson's latest: the 2008 Softail Cross Bones, a bike that spins back the hands of time to an era when Harleys weren't ridden by dentists.
Everything about Saturday night's unveil spoke to its intended audience. The Hollywood nightclub, the vintage rock soundtrack, the grainy skateboard videos. They all screamed Gen X and Gen Y, rather than baby boomer, with an old-school bobber-type bike that finds its cool in the past.
The new Cross Bones harkens to a time when thrill-seeking WWII pilots returned to civilian life and adopted motorcycles as their preferred mode of transport, chopping all the extras off their bikes to ride faster and recapture the uncertainties and highs of combat. That mindset lives on in both the design and psychology of the Cross Bones, which cross-breeds Harley-Davidson's history with the company's recent embrace of modern technology and its new focus on younger buyers (which may find a parallel in returning Iraq war veterans).
Though inspired by Harley's earliest overhead-valve engines -- the 1930s knuckle head and '40s pan head -- the Cross Bones uses the same fuel-injected 96B twin cam that Harley introduced for the 2007 model year. Though counterbalanced for less vibration, it's also rigidly mounted to the frame so riders still feel like they're riding a motorcycle.
The idea, it seems, is to give the bike a moderately nostalgic feel along with its retro style, but one that isn't so nostalgic as to be painful. The Cross Bones is a softail, after all. The swingarm only mimics the lines of a rigid. There are coil-over rear shock absorbers to stop fragile spines from taking the impact; they're just hidden below the powertrain.
The 30-inch-tall solo seat is also mounted with a pair of coils. And it's adjustable by an inch, so shorter-legged riders can slide it forward -- the better to reach the old-school, half-round foot boards. Other retro touches that give this bike some edge without making it unrideable: a front fender that's chopped to an inch of its functional life, baby ape-hanger handlebars that won't solicit tickets from the authorities, and a pair of straight slash-cut pipes.
I'm not one to parrot the company line, but I think Bill Davidson nailed it when he used the term "bad ass" to describe the new Cross Bones on Saturday. Based on its looks and philosophy, Harley's latest really does seem more authentic, less poseur-like. Or maybe I'm just showing my age, which squarely fits with Harley's must-have demographic.
2008 FLSTSB Softail Cross Bones
Base price: $16,795
Powertrain: Rigid-mount; fuel-injected; air-cooled; twin cam 96B; pushrod-operated overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters; two valves per cylinder; 6-speed cruise drive
Displacement: 96 cubic inches, or 1,584 cc
Maximum torque: 87.9 pound-feet at 2,750 rpm
Seat height: 30.19 inches (unladen)
Dry weight: 700 pounds
Claimed fuel economy: 35 mpg city, 54 mpg highway