2008 Harley-Davidson FLSTSB Cross Bones Review

Harley with a Dark streak

What’s old is new again. The more things change the more they stay the same. The song remains the same, etcetera, etcetera.  I’m sure I’ve used those adages and clichés before, but never did they seem truer in light of Harley-Davidson’s newest machine, the Cross Bones.

Back in January of this year, both father and son, Willie G. and Bill J. Davidson, were on hand at the infamous Viper Room on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, CA, to uncover, literally, the latest addition to not only the Softail line, but also to what is something of a phantom line-up. That snaky venue was the perfect setting, and likely chosen for both its dark motif and equally dark vibe, for Harley to officially announce what it calls Dark Customs. These shadowy figures are various bikes from other model platforms that all carry a common darkened theme. The Dark Customs currently are: Sportster 1200 Nightster (XL1200N), Night Rod Special (VRSCDX), Dyna Street Bob (FXDB), Fat Bob (FXDF), Night Train (FXSTB) and the Cross Bones (FLSTSB).

The 2008 Harley-Davidson FLSTSB Cross Bones.
A chopped front fender keeps the eye focused on the fatty front rubber and springer suspension.
Von Dutchery
Sheesh! Looks painful, no? The solo springer seat is adjustable fore and aft in two positions and is surprisingly comfortable.

Most of the Dark Customs eschew the gleam and sparkle of acres of chrome and flashy paint for black-finished parts like mirrors, hand and foot controls, engine finish, headlamp nacelle, wheels, so on and so forth. If all those bits on a particular model aren’t blackened, as is the case with the shinier Night Train or Dyna Street Bob, then, at a minimum those bikes wear darker, simpler colors, often in a matte finish.

I enjoyed my time on one of the early entrants to the Darks, the Nightster, when we tested it a little over a year ago, well before the words Dark Custom were ever uttered. The Cross Bones follows the Nightster’s pattern of dark, black bits everywhere. The rear fender struts, swingarm, oil tank, round air cleaner cover, old-skool half-moon rubber-cushioned floorboards, handlebars, mirrors, turn signals, tank-mounted speedo including idiot lights, headlamp, springer front-end, front fender bracket, and laced steel wheels all have a deep black luster. About the only pieces that aren’t black are the gas cap, engine covers and dual slash-cut exhaust.

What sets the Cross Bones apart from bikes in the Softail line as well as some of the other Dark Customs is its nod to the bike-bobbing past. Mini ape-hanger rubber-mounted handlebars are an easy cue to the direction the bike’s styling is headed. The front fender is minimal; it boldly displays the chubby 5-inch wide, 16-inch Dunlop D402 tire. The rear fender follows suit as it gives plenty of exposure to the 200mm-wide (7.8”) 17-inch tire, also a D402.

'Capping off post-war styling is a simple paint scheme that’s tastefully accented with Von Dutch-style pinstriping.'

Should you purchase or take a spin on this retro ride, take note. Its adjustable two-position tractor-style solo springer saddle will have you starting and ending your trip all alone. This one-man-band saddle leaves the rear fender naked, accentuating its long look. Furthering the bare and vintage appearance out back is the pseudo hardtail look that Softails emulate by using two horizontally-mounted shocks that hide underneath the bike. Rear suspension travel is in line with most of the other Softies at 4.3 inches, but the Bones’s front travel is a hair over an inch less than the other models at 3.8 inches. Capping off post-war styling is a simple paint scheme that’s tastefully accented with Von Dutch-style pinstriping.

I admire Harley-Davidson as a company for a number of reasons. One reason being that, like BMW, the company is a masterful alchemist, able to extract several bike models all from one basic platform. The basic Softail chassis is in place on the Cross Bones – save for the front end. Powering this new old bike is the same Twin Cam 96B that every bike model beginning with an F gets. The fuel-injected 45-degree air-cooled 96ci Twin is rigid mounted and counter-balanced – hence the B in its name. The venerable workhorse is matted to a six-speed gearbox.

Expecting one thing, getting another

Years ago, long before I could give two hoots about motorcycles, I was more interested in bicycle racing. In one race I learned a great life lesson. Before the race started I sized up the competitors – their gear and bikes the latest and greatest – and surmised that I was in deep doodoo. Near races’ end I had passed at least three-quarters of the field. Lesson? Preconceived notions shouldn’t see the light of day. In the case of the Cross Bones, I was dead-wrong about my suspicions that such a simple front-end and seat wouldn’t be able to provide good ride quality and performance.

The solo seat sits 30 inches off the ground and is the most comfy cruiser seat in my recent memory. It feels simply as if it had been custom made and perfectly shaped just for me. Neither freeway nor surface street miles had me fidgeting with mild numbness or soreness. Next to be struck from my list of presumptions was what I thought would be inherent discomfort and poor input response from the mini apes. To my surprise I never felt stretched too far forward and only suffered discomfort from arm pump while doing my best impersonation of a spinnaker sail when hammering down the freeway in excess of 80 mph. The rubber-mounted bars offer a good blend of comfort and functionality.

The vintage-inspired half-moon floor boards also have vibe-isolating properties courtesy of rubber tops, and offer a relaxing place to park your boots. But, the combination of their forward bias and a large boot size may create difficulty in wiggling your left foot out in a hurry from under the heel-toe shifter.

Despite what it may look like, this is a rather comfortable riding position, especially around town and in the country. Blitzing down the freeway means less comfort as the open riding position makes a big wind scoop out of the rider.

That seat I like so much is accented by a braided leather tank strap that visually connects it to a simplistic instrument console mounted on the 5-gallon tank. The console is so simple in fact that the analog speedo only reads in single and double digits with a “MPH x 10” reminder at the bottom. It’s inlayed with a tiny LCD displaying time, dual tripmeter, odo, low fuel and oil warning. The usual array of idiot lights blends inconspicuously into the console, only appearing when lit. As slick as the instrument package is, I should note that while wearing a full-face helmet I was forced to tilt my head down to see the gauges, thereby taking my eyes off the road for whatever length of time.

Putting the Cross Bones in its natural habitat of urban surface streets and fun canyon roads was the first place I realized that I expected one thing from this motorcycle and it gave me something else.

Yet another area of surprise is the Bones’ handling. Good leverage from the handlebars means light steering effort, and the large tires don’t impede handling.

Shock and amazement! The big bobber imitator rides like a dream. The fat front and rear tire combo doesn’t hinder steering or make the bike run wide in corners. Mind the lean angles, though, as is the case with any cruiser, ground clearance is an issue. Holding a smooth continuous arc is effortless, belying the bike’s 737-lb claimed wet weight. No small feat considering, for example, that the Bones weighs a full 55 pounds more than the Night Train with fuel, etc.

The retro springer front-end looks hellacool and is nicely accented by the simple headlamp. Ride quality is surprisingly good save for really crummy pavement or sharp-angled bumps.
The dark horizon is befitting of the dark image Harley has chosen for its newly themed bikes called Dark Customs.

Half expecting chassis flex in quicker transitioning corners, I was doubly pleased that I experienced little, if any, movement in the frame. The low-tech front provided excellent damping over just about every surface with the exception of high-speed (steep-angled) bumps. The simple spring and associated covered and chromed shock simply can’t react fast enough and with enough damping to soak up such imperfections. Otherwise, it was sufficient.

Extended freeway time may or may not be a chore depending on your chosen rate of travel. Anything above 80 mph or so can be work not only holding on against the wind, but the classic springer front end starts to resemble riding a several-hundred-pound jackhammer. Keep freeway speeds reasonable and you’ll feel as cool as you look.

'I would stop and look at it and think, “Man, this is one good-looking Harley. I can’t think of anything about it I’d want to change.” The Cross Bones has become my new favorite Harley-Davidson.'

Harley-Davidson may have turned back the hands of time in styling the Cross Bones, but not at the cost of forward progress in performance. This bike has a smooth, responsive ride in all but the upper reaches of the speedometer; the reliable Twin Cam 96B is plenty torquey and smooth. The six-speed transmission isn’t the slickest shifting but it engages with the reassuring ka-thunk that it’s proudly American made. The single-piston, single-rotor front brake works well, but the two-piston rear brake works better. Throttle response is good, and the note emanating from the custom-looking exhaust sounds like it just slipped under the EPA’s radar, but an observed 32 mpg should keep the agency happy.

More important than the Cross Bones’ abilities is its obvious aesthetic appeal. I often found myself passing the bike in the garage only to get caught in its hypnotic pull. I would stop and look at it and think, “Man, this is one good-looking Harley. I can’t think of anything about it I’d want to change.” The Cross Bones has become my new favorite Harley-Davidson.

Whether you’re ready to relive your past or are young and want a tie-in to motorcycling’s days gone by, the Cross Bones may be your fountain of youth. The price of admission starts at $16,795; available colors are Vivid Black, Olive Pearl, Dark Blue Pearl, Black Denim, Pewter Denim and Dark Blue Denim.

The Perfect Bike For…
Someone who’s looking for bobber-inspired styling in a bike with modern ride quality and performance.
 Highs:     Sighs:
  • Head-turning retro styling
  • Comfortable solo-saddle
  • Custom looking and sounding exhaust
  • Not comfy above 80 mph
  • Some difficulty getting boot out from under heel-toe shifter
  • Solo seat means you can’t share the fun

Related Reading
2008 Harley-Davidson Cross Bones Unveiling
2007 Harley-Davidson XL1200N Review
2007 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special Review

View all Photos PHOTOS & VIDEOS

Get Motorcycle.com in your Inbox