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Blue Dog Diaries: Trend spotting

By Terry Roorda

It was but a dozen years ago that the Big Rubber Revolution began as the upstart production-custom sector of the industry strayed from their bread-and-butter business of cloning Milwaukee models for an undersupplied buying public. In an effort to remain relevant at a time when Milwaukee was catching up to demand, the off-brand manufacturers became radicalized, embracing fat rear tires, big displacement high-performance motors, elaborate artist-executed paint jobs and chrome billet components out the old wazoo. And sticker prices that ran in the upscale neighborhood of $30K. Times being what they were back then, that rarefied price point scarcely raised an eyebrow.

This was the dawn of the custom Pro Street style of machine, the long, low, muscular boulevard profilers with no pretensions to anything but straight-line hair-on-fire performance and curbside envy-inducing glamour. It was the style of machine that epitomized that period of wretched excess, sitting in all its rubbery, blingy, glossy glory right on top, as it happens, of a big fat bubble—a bubble that was about to burst.

And burst it did, in a manner as cataclysmic as the general economic collapse that catalyzed it, and particularly the collapse of the housing market and the construction trades from which came a significant portion of the production-custom consumer base. And by 2009 that industry was in tatters. The Dark Ages had descended, and while a few plucky survivors hid out in the hills downsizing their ambitions and abandoning their “bring it large, or don’t bring it at all” credo, the game was pretty much over.

In those benighted times the glory that was the Pro Street was displaced, for the most part, by austere hardtail bobbers with skinny tires, monochrome finishes, and 80″ Evo crate motors. It was more than mere downsizing; it was a conceptual act of contrition for the excesses of the past.

The buying public turned similarly conservative, abandoning the high style ostentation of the high-dollar custom and seeking security in those uncertain times in the utilitarian virtues of the bagger.

And so it was that virtually overnight the fat tire, the sick paint job, the $30K price tag and all they represented were reduced to the ridiculous—the platform heels and amyl nitrate of a wrong-headed fad.

As the pall of the Great Recession began to lift, the bagger emerged triumphant, the sole survivor, the unchallenged alpha and darling of the industry and the press. The boutique builders and custom aftermarket concerns who’d survived the Dark Ages turned their talents almost exclusively to the historically stodgy form, and a new crop of specialty publications sprouted up devoted to the genre.

None of this was lost on Milwaukee, of course. As the dominant bagger producer since the dawn of time, their sales became disproportionately bagger-based, and their market share blossomed accordingly—even as overall sales slumped dismally across the industry. Just how critical the bagger had become to their bottom line and their perception of the mood of the market was made manifest in 2011 when for the first time in their history, the Custom Vehicle Operations division—a division that had gotten its start making limited edition FXR repops—became exclusively a bagger producer. Each of the four models offered were equipped with a fairing, footboards, saddlebags, cruise control and ABS. And one was actually a Softail—the CVO Convertible, which in addition to its other bagger bona fides, also offered a capacious trunk as an accessory.

And, oh my, did we eat up the Convertible. For us it represented an unprecedented and ideal melding of practical touring chops and haute couture curb appeal. And last year it only got better.

For 2012 the CVO laid it on thick, boosting the Convertible’s touring cred significantly with a more protective fairing, larger lockable saddlebags with one-hand latch operation, and even a modest MP3 sound system. It was a motorcycle that flirted with the perfect balance between form and function more effectively than any other model in memory.

And now for 2013 the Convertible is no more. We weep. But nothing lasts forever in CVO-land (except the Ultra Classic, that is—it appears a permanent fixture), so the Convertible has been replaced by yet another Softail specimen with the possibly portentous name of the Breakout. Put simply, the Breakout is a custom Pro Street with a 240/40R18 rear tire, a 110-inch high performance motor, a truly sick artist-executed paint job, chrome billet out the old wazoo, and an out-the-door purchase price of over $30K. In those particulars the Breakout is a throwback to 2007. And that’s not only ballsy on the part of the CVO given the “Baggers Rule!” meme of the times, it’s also deliciously ironic since Milwaukee essentially sat out the Big Rubber Revolution, never producing a model that would compete directly with the production-custom offerings, and limiting their use of fat 240mm tires to off-beat exercises like the V-Rod and the odd-duck Rocker.

But with the Breakout, they’ve gone there at last. And they find themselves alone and utterly in command of the Pro Street field. The competition’s nonexistent. All that remains to be seen is whether or not there’s a revitalized demand for bikes of that persuasion. That’s the bet the CVO is laying with the Breakout. That and that the bagger obsession is finally tiring out. Hopefully, they’re right on both calls.

It’s all right here in the diaries.

 

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