Bloodline in transition
A bitchin’ boardtracker and big… bigger… biggest meat
La Jolla, Calif., September 4–6—Green grass and high tides. That’s the setting here, and when you’re ensconced in a five-diamond resort, breathing sea air and gazing out across famous Torrey Pines Golf Course and being otherwise feted in traditionally lavish Big Dog fashion, it’s easy to forget for the moment that the national economy’s anemic, consumer credit’s in the crapper, and the motorcycle industry’s in the doldrums—especially the high-end production-custom sector where Big Dog Motorcycles has lived and thrived for 14 years.
For most of that period, Big Dog has comfortably dominated the class, and continues to do so even as they uncomfortably watch their annual sales figures recede from the 4,900-unit high water mark of two years ago to current levels of something less than 4,000. They’re remarkably upbeat about the situation. As Big Dog President Nick Messer explains it, they’re viewing the current sluggishness as nothing more than cyclical downtime, and using that break in the action to shore up operations and revisit fundamentals, focusing, he says, on “reliability, compliance, infrastructure and dealer training.” What that means in practice is an ambitious new technical center at the Big Dog campus in Wichita; a 15,000-square-foot facility housing both a “dedicated testing center”—the first of any custom manufacturer, we’re told—as well as a new educational center for dealership technicians. A thorough—and mandatory—certification program has been established to ensure the competence of anyone putting a wrench to a Dog.
They’re using the downtime for something else as well, and it’s even sexier than infrastructure, if you can believe that. It’s nothing less than the complete overhaul of their product line. That program is projected over a two-year period, and the first installment is being presented here in La Jolla and touted as the company’s “most diverse” model offering to date. The lineup for 2008 is headlined by three new motorcycles—two with familiar names, the Pitbull and Ridgeback, and one new price-conscious breed, the comically and aptly named Mutt. Returning essentially unchanged save for some operational refinements are the popular pro-street Mastiff, and the sales- leading K-9 uberchopper.
Gone from the collection this year are the Bulldog, the erstwhile top-of-the-line bike, and the long-running and utterly lovable Chopper—but their absence is scheduled to be short-lived; more of a strategic hiatus than a stroll out to pasture, as we’ll get to later.
The five-model roster unveiled here is, indeed, decidedly more diverse than the five-model roster it replaces, and the most obvious indication of that diversity is in the rear rubber department where four flavors of fat are now offered. You can choose from a 250, 280, 300 or 330, and since that’s the detail that most conveniently distinguishes the various models, we’ll break them out that way.
If the comparatively svelte dimensions of the familiar 250/40-18 are to your liking, the new Mutt’s your Dog, and this model truly is a crossbreed. What the company’s done in creating the Mutt is to bring back the pre-2007 Mastiff chassis that enjoyed a certain cult popularity among Dog fanciers for its handling manners, and dress it out with the bodywork of the discontinued Chopper—gas tank, fenders and fender struts. They also gave the Mutt the Chopper’s skinny MH90-21 front tire. And since the Mutt was designed to be a cost-conscious Dog, the company took a number of economizing steps in finishing it off and bringing it in at under $25k—$24,900, to be exact. Those measures start with using 80-spoke wheels instead of elaborate CNC billet jobs, and go on from there to the elimination of a good deal of the polishing and plating that characterize the premium models. The Mutt’s fender struts, instrument housing and license plate frame are color-match powder coated, and the motor is given a black wrinkle powder coat finish rather than the hand-polishing treatment. The Mutt is also equipped with a Supertrapp 2-into-1 exhaust instead of the proprietary Big Dog system. Those are the only concessions made to achieve the lower price point; the essential Dog soul remains intact. The Mutt shares the S&S 117″ mill, Baker Drivetrain RSD DD 6-speed transmission, Baker/Big Dog Balanced Drive primary drive, and PM brake calipers with Brembo rotors with the rest of the lineup as well as Big Dog’s signature controls, instrumentation, air cleaner and coil covers. It also shares the new Baker-designed clutch that’s been brought to the line for 2008. This clutch uses a combination of a reconfigured ball and ramp mechanism and fewer plates to reduce clutch pull at the lever by 50 percent—from 26 pounds to 13 pounds. The difference is immediately noticeable, and certainly welcome in urban stop-and-go riding, where in the past we’ve occasionally pulled a cramp.
One tall 280
Checking in with a 280 skin in back is the dramatically restyled Pitbull—the star of this year’s Dog show. This Pitbull shares little in common with its 300mm-shod predecessor besides the name and drivetrain, and it’s not the width of the tire that’s really noteworthy here, it’s the 20″ wheel diameter, which teams up with a 23″ front wheel to give the bike a state-of-the-custom street stance. And that’s just the beginning of the model’s innovative attributes. The so-called “boardtrack racer” styling is a major break with the Big Dog status quo, and brings with it an entirely new chassis. Though technically a hardtail, the Pitbull’s solo saddle is supported by a pair of honest-to-gosh adjustable shock absorbers from the suspension wizards at Works Performance. And they actually work, smoothing out the ride to the point where you forget you’re on a hardtail— at least until you hit a really gnarly pothole and the shocks bottom.
The Pitbull’s bodywork is also fresh, and features an elegantly sculpted 4.6-gallon one-piece fuel tank as the centerpiece. Simple fenders, a slammed front end and beach cruiser bars round out the bike’s stunningly unique appearance. (The Pitbull will be offered with any one of the paint schemes in Big Dog’s extensive catalogue, but for our money, it’s impossible to improve on the paint job pictured here.) Price on the Pitbull is $27,500.
The 300 club
The 300/35-18 tire that was pretty much standard equipment on the ’07 Dogs—appearing on four of the five models—is still used on the two most popular models, the Mastiff and K-9. You don’t mess with success. But that doesn’t mean you don’t tinker with the formula, and the newsworthy upgrade that these models get for 2008 is the availability of the superb S&S dual-feedback closed-loop fuel injection system as an alternative—a highly recommended alternative—to the standard Super G carburetor. That EFI system debuted on the ’07 Bulldog and performed brilliantly in all circumstances. (And it averaged a remarkable 46 mpg on our test specimen. With the Bulldog temporarily sidelined, the ideal pro-street alternative is the injected Mastiff, which actually rides on the same chassis, among a number of other commonalities.) Carbureted, the Mastiff goes for $28,900 and the K-9 is $29,900. The EFI system tacks on an additional $2,000 to either model.
The final frontier
And that brings us to the 330 tire, and the return of the Ridgeback. The hardtailed Ridgeback originally appeared for the 2005 model year and lasted two seasons before being sidelined by the success of its softailed sibling, the K-9. Given the choice between essentially the same radically dimensioned, 300 tire-equipped models, most opted for the one with the suspenders. In bringing the model back, the Big Dog designers pushed the fat frontier even further than they’d dared before, and created the most unapologetic behemoth of a chopper ever mass-produced. To pull that off they simply dispensed with sanity entirely and reengineered the nine-foot beast to run a 330/30-17—and what a slug of meat this thing is. I know it’s only an optical illusion, but, swear to Christ, it looks to be as wide as it is tall. It does, to give due credit, feel pretty good on the road, so long as you don’t get on an uneven surface where the tendency of even a 300 to tip queasily to the low side is amplified with this monster. On the upside are a plump new seat that cushions the harshness of the hardtail, and the impressive slow-speed stability of the machine, which is perfectly balanced in its bulk and riding on rubber that makes a kickstand superfluous. For me, personally, it’s a size too far in the stubbornly ongoing fat frenzy—at least as a daily rider. But by the same token it’s the rubber I want under me in high- profile, boulevard-cruising, barhopping settings like Daytona Beach, where the respect you can expect to get is directly proportional to the size of your meat. Bring it large or be ignored. Retail on the Ridgeback is $28,400.
The Bulldog saga
The backstory on the Bulldog’s unexpected absence from the 2008 model launch goes like this: Big Dog Motorcycles was closely involved with S&S Cycle on the development of the groundbreaking X-Wedge motor—inarguably the future of large-displacement air-cooled V-twins in an ever more restrictive regulatory climate. Among the custom-built machines showcasing the new mill at the V-Twin Expo in Cincinnati last winter was a Big Dog creation derived from the 2007 Bulldog. The absence of a center post on the Bulldog chassis facilitated the build, and it was informally mentioned at the time by both Brett Smith of S&S and Big Dog’s Nick Messer that, indeed, an X-Wedge-powered Bulldog could be expected in the fall as the first production machine so-equipped. Big Dog was given, in essence, first crack at the motor as a payoff for their long involvement.
When such a model failed to materialize as originally anticipated, we were naturally led to inquire: “Whussup?”
And the answer is two things, actually. The first is that Big Dog’s new vice president of engineering, Jim Moorman, who came on staff in January, isn’t satisfied that they’ve done sufficient testing on the X-Wedge to rush it into the showrooms just yet. And the second is that they’ve decided against using the existing Bulldog platform to launch the new motor. You might call it a case of “everybody take a deep breath.”
What that portends for the overall 2008 model year is a midyear launch—sometime in early ’08—of an X-Wedge Bulldog that will look nothing like the existing model. It will instead, it’s hinted, follow the stylistic lead of the new Pitbull with a similarly boardtrack-inspired profile. Picture a Pitbull with a softail suspension and you’ll get the basic visual. Also scheduled to return— but probably not until the ’09 lineup—is the Chopper, again as a thoroughly redrawn machine.
Hmmm. Is there such a thing as a boardtrack chopper?