Harley Fat Boy a screen and street star

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee – — As the name makes perfectly clear, there’s nothing skinny about the Fat Boy. Mention it to anyone familiar with motorcycles, and they’ll immediately think of the Harley-Davidson bike that gained fame in the 1991 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

This summer, the Fat Boy — one of Harley’s bestselling models for 25 years — is back in the movie franchise’s latest sequel, “Terminator: Genisys,” also starring Schwarzenegger.

“The Fat Boy has a mystique about it that was created by Arnold in ‘The Terminator.’ Whenever anyone asks me about that model, I always say, ‘Thank God for Arnold,’ ” said Clyde Fessler, former vice president of business development for Harley-Davidson.

Far more than a movie prop, the Fat Boy has held its own in a competitive motorcycle market where bikes are pulled from product lineups when sales slow or they’ve lost their original luster. Introduced in 1990, it was designed by Willie G. Davidson, grandson of one of the founders of the motorcycle company, along with co-designer Louie Netz.

“They were the motorcycle styling department at that time,” said Scott Miller, Harley’s current vice president of styling and product development.

Urban legend says the name Fat Boy was a dig against Harley’s Japanese competitors, a macabre reference to the atomic bombs Fat Man and Little Boy dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in World War II. The legend also says the original bike’s gray color was the same as the two B-29 bombers, Bockscar and Enola Gay, that dropped the bombs. And the disc wheels on the Fat Boy were similar in style to the B-29 landing wheels.

But the story is nothing more than folklore, Miller said. In reality, the name Fat Boy arose from biker culture and the look of the beefy motorcycle, which was a customized Harley Softail with a macho appearance.

Davidson and Netz concluded the name was a good fit for the prototype Fat Boy they built for the Daytona Bike Week rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1989.

Fat Boy was the first Harley to have factory-installed “shotgun” exhaust pipes styled after the barrel of a shotgun, and the bike had rider floorboards, a wide fuel tank and a fat front fork that gave it a distinctive look.

“I remember the product launch very well. The world had not seen anything quite like it. Previously, the only time you saw a motorcycle in that funk, hot-rod genre was in a custom motorcycle show,” Miller said.

Unlike some Harleys, the Fat Boy has never been pulled from the company’s lineup for a makeover. Instead, the bike has been updated while it has remained in production, getting a bigger engine, a new chassis and advances in technology.

If you rode the original model today, “it would feel vintage,” Miller said.

In 2010, a “Fat Boy Lo” joined the lineup with a new style seat and lowered suspension to give it the lowest seat of any Harley at the time. It’s a great bike for women, said Judy MacPherson, a Fat Boy Lo owner and member of Stilettos on Steel, a women’s motorcycle group.

Last year, MacPherson participated in an “Iron Butt” motorcycle ride, logging 1,037 miles on her Fat Boy in 18 hours, although technically it’s not a touring bike.

“If I ever get another bike, I am keeping the Fat Boy. I love it that much,” she said.

Of course, some of the Fat Boy’s popularity has come from Hollywood, including its role in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” where stuntman Peter Kent performs what looks like an impossible jump on the bike.

The stunt was accomplished by supporting the Fat Boy on 1-inch cables, which effectively reduced the weight of the bike and rider to 180 pounds as they hit the ground. The cables were removed from the scene in post-production.

In the movie “Wild Hogs,” actors John Travolta and Tim Allen rode Fat Boys, along with several members of a fictitious motorcycle gang, the Del Fuegos. The Fat Boy also appeared in two episodes of “The Sopranos” television series, and it has been in other movies and TV shows including “Sons of Anarchy” and “CSI: Miami.”

The motorcycle has evolved in technology and styling but has retained its macho roots.

“Part of the marketing strategy has been evolutionary, not revolutionary,” Fessler said. “The evolutionary strategy was part of driving a wedge between us and the competition.”