Harley-Davidson Fat Bob vs. Triumph Thunderbird Storm

Bug-eyed Brawlers

It should have been so obvious. Last year when we tested the (then brand-new) Storm and the (then brand-new) Harley Blackline and Victory Vegas 8-Ball, we were only seeing black. Sure there were a couple of new models in the mix, but the real heads-up competition for the Storm isn’t one of the zillion or so blacked-out cruisers out there… it’s the Fat Bob.

Just look at them—they even appear to be kissing cousins. Both feature tough-guy drag bars that put your fists in the face of anyone that might get in the way. And both somehow looked stripped down, yet fat at the same time. They may be black (and proud), but safety is actually on the table too, with double headlights bringing their visibility to the fore. The Fat Bob was on the cutting edge of style when it came out four years ago; it may even have been ahead of its time. Fast forward to last year, when Triumph trumpeted the Thunderbird Storm as a muscular cruiser, or this year, with Victory’s new Judge. Chunky, bulldog-like bikes are the rage now, and these are two of the best.

But brawny cruisers like this also put us in an odd position when analyzing them. Do we judge on outright performance, or how they work as a laid-back cruiser? We’ll tell you right now that the Storm is a more performance-oriented bike in most ways, while the Fat Bob is a smoother, more carefree ride. They’re both fabulous bikes, but just like in prize fighting, there can be only one winner.

Weigh In

The ‘Bob is based on Harley’s 20-year-old Dyna chassis, and it wraps its air-cooled, 103-inch (a new upgrade for 2012) pushrod motor in a rubber-isolated tube frame to keep vibes at bay…at least when rolling. Unique from other Dynas (and the Storm for that matter), the Bob has a chunky 16-inch front tire (mated to a similarly burly 49mm fork) that gives a very aggressive look, featuring chunkier tread blocks than some adventure bikes we’ve seen. Though not blacked-out to the extent the Storm is, the Bob has a subdued mix of black, dull-polished and chrome surfaces that set just the right tone.

The Storm is meant as a performance upgrade to the base Thunderbird. The 1700cc engine (100ccs more than the base model) is not only more powerful, but has a more aggressive power delivery as well. ABS, which is optional on the Thunderbird, is thankfully included (it’s an option on the ‘Bob), but in chassis configuration, the Storm really is the same bike, only with dual headlights, drag bars, and a bunch of black paint. But even just the paint changes the look dramatically, with the black wheels highlighting a floating brake rotor, black springs, and the shocks. It comes in two kinds of black (matte and gloss), but no other colors.

Sitting on the Storm, one of the first things you notice is how close the handlebar is. In fact, the Triumph sports a fairly compact riding position, and for drag bars, they’re awfully wide. Our smaller testers liked this layout, while larger ones felt slightly hemmed in. Everybody noticed that those wide drag bars do tend to hang you out in the wind when pounding freeway miles. The Fat Bob brings arm position tighter to the bike, but stretches your legs farther out. Predictably, shorter riders had trouble reaching to the pegs, though the bars were close enough. Between the protruding air cleaner and the pegs, the Harley’s rear brake pedal was virtually inaccessible to one of our shorter testers.

The seats were a matter of some controversy. Lighter riders preferred the plush, deep Fat Bob saddle, while larger riders tended to squish the ample foam out of shape, making it seem unstable. The Triumph was the opposite, with larger riders liking the support of the firm seat, and smaller lighter folk feeling like they were on a plank.

Visually, though the bikes are roughly the same style, the Storm comes off as much larger, with a huge, wide tank, and (even) chunkier components. Picking either bike off the sidestand, they feel pretty close, but the Storm is definitely more substantial.

Starting up the bikes, you wouldn’t suspect which one would be smoothest. The Harley’s engine bounces in the frame heartily at idle, while the Triumph’s vertical twin just purrs. But twist the stick and get underway, and the Fat Bob growls its way to smoothness. If you’re not lugging the engine under 2000 rpm, anything faster than parking lot speeds sees vibration on the Hog go away. The Triumph carries some vibes through the bars, but nothing even remotely annoying.

Warm Up

What you get with the Storm is exhilaration. Power delivery is abrupt, and the engine spins up quickly with a sharp and satisfying bark. The power is fairly unbelievable; most cruisers simply refuse to wheelie, while this one only requires a whack of the throttle to come close. With a 270-degree firing order, the Storm’s mill sounds just like a V-twin, but takes off like a race bike.

The Fat Bob isn’t even in the same category of motor performance, but that was just fine with our testers. The ‘Bob’s Twin Cam 103 engine creates a smooth run of power from just off idle until tapering off north of 4000 rpm. Power delivery is far smoother, with almost no driveline lash—in contrast to the jerkier Triumph.

Out on the superslab, our initial motor assessment holds up. The Fat Bob is thoroughly competent; in fact, compared to the larger bikes we’ve ridden equipped with the 103-inch Twin Cam, this one’s mighty entertaining. Gear ratios on the H-D six-speed are well-suited to the engine, with no awkward speeds between gears, and ample torque for smooth gear selection. Unlike many Harleys we’ve tested, this one was respectable on a rough, fast highway, with a good balance between responsive and comfortable.

The Storm’s engine was fantastic on the open road. Though some testers were unsure why there was even a 6th gear, others could use the bike’s massive bottom end power to click up into top gear at under 50 and just cruise. Unlike on the Harley, you don’t ever need to drop a gear to pass, unless you feel like accelerating that much harder. Unfortunately, we were let down by the Storm’s suspension. On the expansion joint-littered-interstates around Southern California, there wasn’t a setting that worked for anyone on the Triumph. Set too soft, it would bottom easily, but when we clicked the preload up just a little, we felt every wrinkle.

Float Like a Butterfly

On lonely back roads, both are a joy. The Triumph pastes a big goofy smile on your face, at least when the road is smooth. It exhibits neutral handling, a vast powerband, and a great exhaust note as you trill up and down the rev range. The Fat Bob is actually very similar, with slightly heavier steering, but even more neutral handling. The huge front tire feels glued to the ground, and is very confidence-inspiring.

And though comfort is good, range on both is even better. Chances are you’d not want to plant your butt in either seat for 180 miles, which is the range of the Harley. The Storm is goes even longer, thanks to an almost 6-gallon tank.

In tighter terrain, the Harley was easy to just hop on and ride, regardless of your style. Its almost telepathic handling and easy-to-access power made for a fun ride that even aggressive riders could get behind. The Storm is a more exacting machine, requiring you to fine-tune your inputs to get the most out of it. It’s no slouch in tighter stuff, but it requires more concentration between managing the abrupt and plentiful power and the lighter steering.

Braking is great on both bikes, though one tester thought the Storm’s were starting to fade slightly after a hard day of riding. Both our test bikes came equipped with ABS, the Triumph’s kicking in just enough, while the H-D units might have been set a little more conservatively. Transmission kudos go to the Triumph, with its very smooth gear mixer that just clicks into every gear. Harley is famous for clunky transmissions, but with a long throw and a firm kachung, the ‘Bob never missed a shift.

Sting Like a Bee

Our final test was a grueling photo shoot in downtown LA. Preference here came down to personal taste, not size. The Triumph is a great urban bike for the hooligan in you—if the somewhat brutal suspension on rough roads doesn’t bother you, its ability to blast light to light and change direction quickly is a ton of fun. The Fat Bob is more comfortable, and still a bunch of fun, with its torquey motor and predictable handling.

The Greatest

We’re unsure if there was something wrong with the suspension on our Storm test unit, but it never felt right. We know from past tests that the Thunderbird really likes its shocks set up right (keep that spanner handy), but even after tinkering with it, we never got it to feel as planted or well-damped as the Fat Bob’s. That, and ergonomic issues, were the Storm’s undoing. Everyone who rode it, liked it, just not enough to pick it.

Clearly, with its sweet motor and sprightly handling, the Triumph has the most potential, but much of it is unrealized. Upgraded power requires a suspension upgrade to match (the brakes are already up to the task), but the setup on this one wasn’t doing it for us.

It’s been a little while since a Harley had won a shootout around here, though they’ve come close. The machines we’ve tested have tended to be a bit costlier, usually with a bit less power, and so-so suspensions. The balanced Dyna chassis might be the key to the win here. FL (Glide) Touring bikes are all the rage right now, and Harley tends to think of the Softail as their Glamour machine, so that leaves the Dyna as the jack of all trades. And at that, it trades very well.

In magazines, it’s hard to find a shootout winner whose underpinnings are 20+ years old, but there’s something to be said for refinement, as that was definitely the winning edge here.

Victory Judge

Just unveiled as we went to press, Victory’s Judge (other than a missing headlight) would have fit right in with these two rowdies. From our memory of other Victories past (which now all share the same drivetrain), we’d speculate the Judge has an even mellower power delivery than the Fat Bob, but significantly more power (though less than the Storm).

If past tube-framed Victories are a clue, handling should be comparable to the Storm and ‘Bob, though suspension will probably blow both of these bikes into the weeds.

Read more about our first impressions of the Judge on page 22.

Riding Positions

Damon Rutledge
**:: 6 ft. 2 in., 230 lbs., 34-in. inseam **

At first glance, the Triumph Storm wins hands down. This is the type of cruiser most guys dream of: all black, straight bars and little chrome. As I’m a taller rider however, it became uncomfortable for me around the 25 mile mark. I felt boxed in, and definitely cramped. I would say that handling was similar on both bikes; both responded well in corners, and I don’t recall any dragging in tight turns. The best aspect of the Triumph for me was a more comfortable seat than on the H-D.

The Fat Bob seems to be a solid performer—just a straight-up weekend cruising bike. I am not a fan of the aesthetics; I think the general look of the bike is bland. But this bike had plenty of room for me and my height, and I felt completely in control the whole ride. The suspension on the Harley also was a little more forgiving. I’m a big guy and the Storm had me hoping all over the place on bumpy roads. The Storm is a beauty, with a great engine, but it’s just not sized for bigger riders. The Harley felt right size-wise, and the suspension was tuned a lot better.

Betsy Nash Gabele
:: 5 ft. 5 in., 127 lbs., 32-in. inseam

I’m going to rank the Harley first. That’s even though there was that air box poking me in the leg—as with most of the other Harleys I’ve ridden. And my right foot could barely reach the pedal. But everything else on it fits pretty well. I was comfortable with the Fat Bob’s placement and shape of the bars, the seat and suspension were very comfortable and my body sat in a good position. But after riding the Triumph, it’s hard to compliment the power of the Harley. It’s a bike you need to put some action into to get it to ride the way you want. It handles the canyons well and is quite playful in the turns, and it’s very easy to maneuver about the city streets. I also think it’s nice-looking except for the straight rear fender.

The Triumph comes up short, even though it has a lot to offer. Its power delivery is perfect low, mid and high. It’s smooth on and off the throttle and when shifting. It’s weighted well and is easy to maneuver. But for me, the suspension was simply awful, and the ergonomics weren’t great. The seating position had me situated so the center of my back curved. The bars were also quite wide and at the extent of my arm reach. Overall, I would say this bike is more for an intermediate rider just because of the power alone.

Billy Bartels
:: 6 ft., 190 lbs., 33-in. inseam

I thought the Triumph would be a hands-down winner for me. Last time we had it, the competition was mellow by comparison, but this time the H-D is a capable enough bike to make you appreciate the competence that it brings. You have to be really involved with the Triumph, while not so much on the Hog.

The bike I think would really give this Fatty a run for its money is the base Thunderbird. The 1600 version of the engine is similar to the Harley’s 103, in that you can get whack it some, but it also can just stay mellow and cruise. I think the edgier 1700 should remain just as is—an upgrade kit. It’s something you should seek out if you’re bent that way, because it takes one of my favorite bikes, and unbalances it. I’m in the wrong seating position to be getting after it that hard. Especially since the suspension, which has been spot on in the past, seemed out of sorts this time around.

Because of this test, I can add another bike to the all-time list with the Fat Bob. I’ve always liked the planted front end of Harley’s Fat Boy, but was let down by the performance of the Softail chassis. With the Fat Bob, there’s no such worry.

With the considerable price advantage the Triumph enjoys, this test comes out as a near-tie for me...but since our other testers all picked the Harley, I don’t really have to choose, do I? Either way, they are a couple of great bikes. cr