LOS ANGELES—I was working in the service department of a Harley dealer when the Softail first arrived in 1984, and those were not good times for The Motor Company.
The AMF Harleys that preceded the Softail were notoriously unreliable: they leaked, they shook so hard they broke parts, and sales in the late 1970s and early ’80s were abysmal. In fact, if it were not for 13 resolute investors who bought the company from AMF in 1981, there would probably be no American-made motorcycles today, at least not as we know them. (The defunct Victory and the current iteration of Indian motorcycles would probably not exist if not for Harley paving the way for large-displacement V-twins).
We’d most likely have never seen low-slung, foot-forward cruisers from Japan, either — though some may find solace in that thought.
However, it wasn’t just the money generated by those 13 investors that turned things around for Harley. I believe the most significant bike Harley-Davidson produced in its 116-year history was the Softail, and the timing of its launch in the mid-1980s could not have come at a better time. It featured hidden rear shocks and a triangular swingarm that gave the bike the look of hardtail Harleys of the past, but with the soft, cushy ride of a bike with rear suspension (hence, “soft-tail”).
Its Evolution V-twin was smoother, performed better, and was way more reliable than the Shovelhead it replaced. The Softail was a retro bike before the term even existed, and back then it attracted the most valued rider of all to the Milwaukee-made bikes: the non-Harley rider. Until Harley’s touring bikes began outselling its custom bikes about a half-dozen years ago, the Softail was the company’s best-selling platform.
The latest generation
The Softail entered its third generation last year entirely redesigned. It was the biggest change made to the Softail platform since its introduction. However, Harley also silently dropped the Dyna platform, which was originally introduced in 1991.
Until the end of 2017, aside from the touring bikes, big-twin models were split between the two platforms: the Slim, Fat Boy, Heritage Classic, Deluxe and Breakout fell under the counterbalanced, hardtail-look Softail platform, and the Street Bob, Low Rider, Fat Bob and Wide Glide were based on the rubber-mounted, twin-shock frame of the Dyna platform.
Harley consolidated its big twins with the new Softail. All models are now built on an entirely new frame, and powered by the new, counterbalanced Milwaukee-Eight V-twin. The engine is rigidly mounted in the frame, making Harley’s big touring bikes the only ones remaining with rubber-mounted engines. It is, of course, cost-effective to base all those bikes on one platform, though there are three different frames featuring three different rake angles, and on the bikes with the 240 mm-wide rear tire, the frame has a wider rear section and swingarm.
The Wide Glide was the only model that didn’t make it onto the new platform and was dropped from the line up, but two new models were introduced, the Sport Glide and the drag-race-inspired FXDR 114.
Harley-Davidson Canada invited me to California to ride some of the 2019 Softail models. It was an eye-opening experience, but had me wondering if the latest Softail models would have the same effect on buyers as the original did.
Our first ride terminates
I headed north on a Low Rider from Marina del Rey on a Sunday morning, and 45 minutes later, our group pulled into the parking lot of Santa Clarita Harley-Davidson. There were a few bikes in the parking lot, and the front door was wide open. A stocky guy in jeans and a plaid shirt greeted me with a firm handshake. “Hi, I’m Robert Patrick, great to see you!” he said. I tried to figure out where I’ve seen him before.
Then it clicked: he’s the actor who played the metallic, morphing robot killer in the 1991 sci-fi flick Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Patrick is part-owner of the dealership, which he bought last August. After giving us an enthusiastic tour of the store, the long-time member of Boozefighters MC led the way on his Road Glide for a ride in the surrounding canyon roads.
I rode the Street Bob, Fat Bob, Low Rider, Heritage Classic and the FXDR114, but one bike stood out as my favourite: the Low Rider. As a long-time Harley rider, it had a familiarity that immediately spoke to me, and it rekindled memories of touring the western U.S. two decades ago on my Hog.
It has a low centre of gravity, a comfortable, upright riding position with my feet resting by the engine and not by the front axle, and it has the right sound, as they all do. Its chassis is remarkably rigid, exhibiting neutral steering and unwavering stability, and it has enough cornering clearance that I’d probably be able to embarrass kid-racer on a sport bike on a winding road.
Its 107 cu.-in. (1,746 cc) engine produces mountains of low-end torque and doesn’t give up too much of it even as the engine reaches redline; like the other Softails I rode, it has a light, solid-shifting six-speed gearbox. Even its single front disc has more initial bite than the twin-disc Softails, though you eventually have to squeeze the lever harder for quick stops.
Aside from the Heritage Classic (and its pared-down offshoot, the Deluxe), it’s the only Softail that is historically styled. It mimics quite faithfully the first Low Rider of 1977, more so than the current Fat Bob mimics its ancestor, which was introduced in 1979. It’s also among the least expensive Softail models, at $19 grand, slotting in just above the Street Bob at $17,000.
About the only thing that puts me off about the Low Rider is the abundant chrome. If I were to buy one — and since riding it, I have begun considering reshuffling my small bike collection to make room for one — I’d swing a deal to trade the chrome bits for the black engine components from the Street Bob. I’d even offer to swap out the parts myself. I’d also lower the final gearing, since it is geared very tall to meet emissions and noise regulations. This would make it much stronger off the line than it already is without suffering in top gear, since the engine revs at a low 2,500 rpm at 110 km/h. [But then it wouldn’t meet emissions and noise regulations, which are there for a reason… – Ed.]
My other favourite
Also impressive, but at the opposite side of the spectrum of the Softail line up, was the FXDR 114. It has radical drag-bike styling, its 114 cu.-in. (1,868 cc) twin is a brute, and it handles way better than its long wheelbase and fat rear tire would lead you to believe.
Its Achilles’ heel (or more appropriately, mine) is its riding position, which is designed more for Instagram posts than for piling on the miles.
Even at six feet tall, I find the footpegs mounted way too far forward, and the handlebar stretches even farther forward than that. Unfortunately, the handlebars cannot be swapped out easily because it is equipped with clip-ons. Installing mid-mounted footpegs from another model is out of the question, at least if you’d also like to keep that sweet-sounding and stylish exhaust system. On the plus side, the forward-mounted footpegs provide lots of cornering clearance, more than on the bikes with floorboards or mid-mount footpegs. At $26,499, it’s also the priciest Softail on the menu.
And therein lies the conundrum. Those early Softails appealed to a younger baby boomer. They attracted both new-to-the-brand riders (or “conquest customers” as marketing experts like to call them), as well as the dyed-in-the-wool, hard-core Harley owners who saw the Softail as a logical new direction away from the leaky, shaky bikes that preceded them.
While these new Softails are the best bikes ever to leave the factory — by far —unfortunately, the traditionally styled ones appeal mostly to old-school riders like me. The bolder designs likely appeal to a newer, younger crowd, but I’m not sure they’re the type to spend almost $30,000 on a new bike, no matter how stylish it is or how well it performs.
That said, I think that despite the bleak outcome of last year’s Q4 results, Harley’s future is looking up. What the company needs is new, young riders, and it needs to give them an experience that will hook them for life. I believe that might come with the entirely new platform announced last summer for 2020, based on non-traditional, 60-degree liquid-cooled V-twins and featuring 21st Century styling. The haters will always hate, but I think these new bikes could appeal to non-Harley riders the way the original Softail did more than three decades ago.