• Britain is beset by Mad Cow Disease… good steaks are still available in the U.S.
• Prince Charles and Lady Diana are divorced… the guy won’t ever be king.
• France halts nuclear testing in the Pacific… no one thinks to notify Godzilla.
• Minimum wage is raised to $5.15… average cost of a new car is $16,300.
• Some goofball (yours truly) writes the first edition of a book (figure 1) that’s published in ’96… snappily entitled 101 Performance Projects For Evolution Sportsters And Big Twins. It sells better than it has a right to, because there’s nothing else out there in full living color at the time.
• The Dow Jones average ends the year at just over 6,000… speculation is, it is valued too high.
• The summer Olympics are held in Atlanta… y’all.
• Dolly the sheep is the first successfully-cloned mammal… no one thinks to notify Godzilla.
• IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer beats chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov for the first time… Deep Blue is immediately cloned.
Not much happens, frankly… although I remember seeing the new handlebar switches (figure 2) at the dealer show. The factory was stressing the water-resistant qualities of the new design by displaying them inside a water tank! Yup… you could stick your hands in the water and operate headlights, horns and starters… point made. Best part, though, the horn button was now outboard of the high/low beam switch on the left cluster. Can’t tell you how easy it was to hit high beam and miss the horn in a panic on the earlier version. And that example, in a nutshell, shows the unofficial, underlying theme for the model year… refinements and detail upgrades… all good!
Speaking of refinement… the new kid on the block in ’96 was the XL1200S Sportster Sport (figure 3). Not… as the name might imply… a redundant exercise. In my view, this machine was intended to give the frustrated FXR buyer an option, since the FXR had died. Or… at the very least… to be the FXR of the XL model line. The Motor Company really did something special with this bike… suspension was high-grade and adjustable, forks were contemporary cartridge rather than dip-shit damper rods, dual front discs and the motor was even lightly breathed on compared to other X-engines. Subtle and swift… it was the company’s “gentleman’s express” in the late ’90s and a bike for the connoisseur. If it didn’t shout at you in the showroom, it sure spoke plainly, clearly and truthfully on back roads! Three issues: they never convinced anyone at the time it was really an FXR substitute, the machine was bland and vibratory and there was a Buell right across many a showroom that would easily whip its ass… smoothly. Then… few got it… today few get it. However, two of my best friends own immaculate examples of the XL1200S and they are both gentlemen and connoisseurs who ride the things expressly. I rest my case.
On the surface
The total antithesis of today… (wherein we find the motorcycle industry pretty much flat on its ass and Harley hurting for young-blood customers to boot)… business was booming in 1996! Harley built 119,000 motorcycles (not including Buells) and there was still a waiting list… a long one! Dealers were sorely tempted by (and many succumbed to) the dreaded “additional dealer profit” ploy. Meaning, not only did you have to get on a waiting list, you quite often had to pay a “premium” price… way over H-D’s MSRP. Well, that’s over!
Speaking of Buells… the S1 Lightning was so different that the media had to come up with a new label to describe it… “hooligan.” It fit! On the other hand, the S2 Thunderbolt, particularly in its saddlebag-equipped form, was the sleeper “sport tourer” of the decade. Didn’t sell in huge numbers, but the wise folks who used them as intended were deeply satisfied.
The inside story
Life was good for the factory in 1996… not least because finally… finally… they took action to get out of the “transportation” business (as they called it) and concentrate on motorcycles! Transportation, as it turned out, meant RVs (figure 4) and golf carts and such. All of these distractions from the main event were sold or wound down in 1996… all good! Helped the Motor Company get ready for the next big thing… as we’ll see.