We sample the new Softails (all of them!) from Harley-Davidson
Harley-Davidson’s iconic Twin Cam is no more. With the introduction of the rigid-mounted version of the Milwaukee Eight, H-D’s 1990s powerplant fades into the sunset. Last years’ introduction of the Eight on Harley’s 2017 Touring models was, in many ways, less of a generational change. With the touring models recently reintroduced in Harley’s Rushmore Project, it really was just spooning the big 107- (or 114-) inch motor into the existing models, modifying what was needed. The rest of H-D’s Big Twins required a complete rethinking. Though, technically, these are all existing models in Harley’s lineup, they’re all completely remade with a new frame and engine. The basic design intent remains intact, but like a cover version of a popular song, the new bikes are subject to interpretation by H-D’s current designers, at a post-Willie G Motor Company.
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By Billy Bartels
Photos by Kevin Wing, Tom Riles and Brian J. Nelson
Don’t focus on the fact that Harley-Davidson took their more popular line (thanks to generational trends and Sons of Anarchy, that would be the now-defunct Dyna Glide) and merged it into their less popular line (Softail). It doesn’t matter, because other than the overall lines of the bike, and where the shocks live, it’s an all-new machine. Versatile enough to make new versions of those old bikes, and not require a second frame to do it. Though every time a H-D designer says “flexible chassis,” a room full of sportbike guys snicker; it’s true. The new Softail is frame/chassis enough for all of the non-touring Big Twins. In fact, maybe more “flexible” than the other two platforms combined. Harley’s people showed us some near-incomprehensible Venn Diagrams of the spaces in the market that the Twin Cam Softails and Dynas occupied, selecting for affordability, comfort, performance, style etc. Despite their differences, all of the models were fairly tightly clustered around the same area of the graph. The intent of the new Softails was to push that diagram in every direction; one frame, with eight distinct new models, much like the old models, only “more.”
Compared to the Milwaukee Eight in the Touring models, the Softail version adds a second counterbalancer (needed on the rigid-mounted motor), and lifts the transmission for packaging purposes (to get the most lean angle possible, and leave room for an under-engine oil tank). Much like all of the Softail clones of the past couple decades, the new Softail uses a monoshock hidden under the seat. Each model has distinct suspension tuning to fit its purpose and geometry. All the models come equipped with a six-speed transmission and a belt final drive. LED headlights are standard on all models, all have a USB charging port near the steering neck, and all come with keyless ignition. The oil-cooled engine hides its cooler in the space between the front frame members.
The difference between these eight fairly distinct models comes in the peripheral components.
There’s a couple places to put the footpegs, some different shapes for the seats, differently angled steering heads, a few different front wheels/tires (along with a couple of different rears), two tanks, a universe of different possible handlebar bends, and (of course) window dressing. That’s it, really.
There are a couple of weak points. The horn is a squeaky little thing, and the new kickstand is like a less developed version of the one everybody else uses. Harley years ago spent a couple minutes in a press presentation talking about the care with which they choose the notes that the horn will belt out, but that’s clearly not a priority any longer. And while their old Jiffy Stand was awkward and different, once you got used to it, it was beefy and sure. I saw at least four bikes on this launch either hit the ground or almost hit the ground due to the kickstand. In all cases it was probably user error, but it’s a neutral change at best.
Though there are eight new machines debuting this year, Harley made a point to get us some decent miles on each (30-50) on varied roads in the mountains outside of Los Angeles. These are by no means complete tests, but a good sampling of each machine. Since these are all made to be changed, I’ll be chiming in with what I’d change about each one to better fit my six-foot, 200-pound frame.
With fists in the air and feet tucked in tight, the first new Softail I rode made me feel like an extra on Sons of Anarchy. It’s most non-motorcyclists vision of an H-D. Harley’s never made a Softail with midmount controls before, which underscores how different a machine this is for them. This bike is designed to feed your inner badass. It’s a single seat “bobber” (hence the name), designed to be a nimble and fun ride.
The riding position is not going to be everybody’s cup of cold brew, but it does put you in an “active” stance, perfect for bombing through traffic, or attacking a back road. It’s missing the cool vintage-style tail light of previous version (opting for the combo turn signals common to several other H-Ds), but cuts basically the same look (Something you’ll be reading several times in this article). The brief “cool-guy” seat (that is shared with the Slim) has me missing the great H-D seats of just a few years ago. In general, across the board seat quality is reduced on the Softails. The ‘Bob rocks the smaller of Harley’s two tanks, which is perfect for the look of the bike. The clean looking tank and bars are made possible by an impossibly small (but easy to read) display in the top handlebar clamp.
As one of the lighter bikes in the lineup, the 107-inch v-twin felt really strong; and the new frame, totally stable. Suspension and braking is about what you’d expect: totally up to the task, but nothing extraordinary. Shifting is deliberate, but tight and accurate, with a clutch that won’t lead to arm-pump.
If the Street Bob was mine it would need forward controls and a better seat. I might be able to adapt to the foot controls by tilting the bars forward a bit, which would straighten out my back, but the seat is a non-starter for me. My tailbone was screaming in under 50 miles. Other than that, well suited to my moderately aggressive riding style.
Harley’s other sub-$15k model is the one designed for the smaller rider. Like the Street Bob, it sports a 19-inch front wheel, straddling the line between the 21 of a custom machine and the 16 of a classic. In many ways they are similar, this one appealing to smaller rider or those who like bright colors and lots of chrome, while the ‘Bob is blacked out and stretched out.
Trading badassery for beauty, on the Low Rider, H-D’s designers didn’t feel the need for a thin, unsupportive seat. Also, instead of the small, unadorned 3.5-gallon tank, the Low Rider gets the larger five-gallon classic-style unit, with a generous gauge set atop it. Though none of these motorcycles has a dedicated tachometer, they all have the option of switching the LCD display to tach along with dual tripmeters and range.
Side note, this bike (along with it’s Street Bob twin) are the first time H-D has put a 19-inch front wheel on a Softail, or had midmount controls, or (in the case of this machine specifically) had a Sportster-style “eyebrow” headlight mount. In other words, they were trying really hard to preserve the Low Rider’s Dyna and FXR heritage.
The reason I’ve rattled on so long about how it compares to the Street Bob, is that it’s functionally the same motorcycle. Same wheels, engine, brakes and steering geometry. The wider bars give the front end a different feel, but it’s the same bike.
Harley calls this one of their two Big Twin entry-level models, but I’m not sure it’s an entry, but rather a destination. It is bound to attract the gaze of small riders looking for more than a Sportster or Street. I’m not sure those riders will be looking at much past this, however. Maybe the new Heritage if they’re looking for a touring bike. For people attracted to the Low Rider’s 80s aesthetic, it’s also the only one that rocks it New Wave style in this lineup.
For me? I prefer the last version of the Low Rider. It’s the most recently redesigned of the models reintroduced. It had some groundbreaking size-adjustable features on it that this iteration lacks, while striking the exact same profile. When queried about the Dyna Low Rider’s quick demise and the lack of size-adjusting features on this bike, the answer (from one of H-D’s designers) was telling: “Did anybody ever adjust that stuff?” He followed up that the clutch cable (on all Softails) is a two-piece design, to make handlebar changes less complicated and costly.
Settling into the low-slung cockpit of the Breakout couldn’t have felt better. The fat bar has a wide radius bend that puts my hands right where I like them. The seat drops me close to the ground, but is still supportive. And it was the first model I rode with forward controls, which is my preferred layout on a cruiser. This is, essentially, what a Softail has been for most of its existence.
Unlike the Softail Custom that was the purest version of the Softail for its first 20ish years, the Breakout is what those Customs became when they were actually customized. With wide tires front and rear, and just the right mix of chrome and black, flat and gloss, and nice clean touches like the same handlebar clamp display as the Street Bob, it is all the custom most riders will need.
As I mentioned before, it even fit me perfectly (so it may be a touch large for shorter riders). But the one thing it doesn’t do is go around corners. It steers just fine, and is mighty stable, but cornering clearance, for riders that like to turn it up, is a bit lacking. There are some hairpin corners we encountered in the San Bernardino Mountains that you practically had to go jogging speed to navigate.
Along with the Fat Boy, it’s one of the two with an ultra-wide 240mm rear tire, and it actually handles it well. When 200+mm tires first started finding their way into cruisers the results were not good. This one handles really well, and it totally stable, right up until it runs out of ground clearance.
So what would I change? Absolutely nothing. Maybe my riding style. This is a hell of a bike.
After the super raked-out Breakout, the Deluxe felt unhinged. Nimble and quick-steering, it takes a very light touch to get it to change directions. It also has no trouble turning heads. Filling the role of the Chrome Pony, made famous in 1980s music videos (like Motley Crue’s “Girls Girls Girls”), there has continuously been a certain kind of rider for whom this is the style they think of, when they think Harley-Davidson. With bright paint, slathered in chrome, LED lights coming out of every lens, and wide whitewall tires riding on spoked 16-inch rims; the Deluxe lives up to its name.
Born as the flashier cousin to classic cruisers like the Heritage and the Fat Boy, it’s the epitome of a boulevard cruiser. It’s only missing a long set of fishtails that extends past the rear tire. It’s also missing a back seat, if you plan on picking up a passenger. And a heel shifter, if you’re used to floorboard-equipped bikes to have those. Actually, all of the floorboard-equipped Softails sport just a single shifter now.
This is a fun bike. It’s basically a stripped and chromed version of the Heritage. Not to be confused with the Slim, which is not chromed and even more stripped. The wide seat is moderately supportive, the footboards make for a few riding positions, and the wide, low bar looks good and works great. For me, I’d probably get a slightly more supportive seat.
Introduced in 1988 (‘86 for the base Heritage Softail), the Heritage Classic soldiers on as the oldest model in H-D’s Softail line. Now on its third frame and engine set, the Classic still has roughly the same profile it cut three decades ago. With a removable windshield and bags, it’s also the only Softail that passes for a light touring rig. It was also the first with a 114 engine that I had a chance to try.
Also available on Fat Boy, Breakout, and Fat Bob, the 114-inch Milwaukee Eight is a $1300 upgrade that improves power across the board. It doesn’t change power characteristics much, it just gives a bit of a boost across the board. The larger motor gets along with its transmission just as well as the smaller unit does, positively shifting, with light clutch effort.
Aesthetically and functionally, the Heritage harkens back to Harley’s early tourers of the 1950s and 60s. Sure, the current Softail package is worlds ahead of the bikes of over half a century ago, but it shares their bare-bones approach: bags, floorboards, and a windshield. In some ways, the old ways were better; the mostly plastic saddlebags feel flimsy and have a learning curve to get them to close every time. Perhaps as a counterpoint to its shiny functional twin (the Deluxe), the Heritage features finishes in black and matte and low polish. The functional handlebar clamp and cat eye dash recall the 1950s FL model.
Along with the others with a 16-inch front wheel (Deluxe and Fat Boy) and normal-sized rubber out back, the Heritage has very light steering, almost to the point of being unsettled (at least compared to the other Softails). Braking is as good as the other single-disk equipped models. I never got really comfortable riding at a brisk pace. But maybe “sedate” is the Heritage Classic’s key word, both in looks and appeal.
As most bikes with floorboards fit a range of riders well, so did the Heritage. I prefer the flatter bars of its Deluxe cousin though.
The old-school bobber of the Softail family. Just like back in the 1950s (see a trend here?), it’s been stripped of all non-essential parts and dropped into the weeds. It’s got basic running gear in common with the Heritage and Deluxe, but feels so different. Brief fenders, no central taillight, tiny seat, blacked-out everything, and an old-school racing handlebar; it may have DNA in common with the Chrome Pony, but it sure doesn’t look it.
Perhaps it’s the lowered suspension, but handling feels very different from the Deluxe; more planted, involving the rider more, and also dragging parts more. The suspension is stiffer, and the seat is thinner, so long range comfort is less of a thing, but not jarring like on Harley’s Sportsters. It just feels, raw.
I really like the feel of this bike, so the only thing I’d change is the seat. Hopefully that doesn’t lose the low-slung cool the Slim offers, but if I want to go more than 50 miles, it’s needed. This is easily my favorite of the floorboard-equipped Softails, even if the boards are half the size of the others.
Some call the Fat Boy one of H-D’s original factory customs. Battleship Grey, with yellow rocker cover inserts and solid wheels, the 1990 Fat Boy set the stage for what a cruiser would look like in the 1990s. The modern remodel does a good job of recapturing that magic. Unlike most of the new Softails, which are trying to retain the look and feel of the prior model (while building on a new chassis), the Fat Boy does what the original did: look like nothing else on the road.
Nods to the original include the solid wheels front and back, the iconic tank logo, and a brushed aluminum and chrome aesthetic. Art deco headlight tins, drilled metal pieces, and an outrageous 240mm rear tire are nods to the original’s groundbreaking style, in a 21st century execution. The Fat Boy was the second 114 I tried, and it was overkill in this bike, the most uneven handling of the bunch.
Turn-in is easy, but once you get it over, you have to fight to get it to full lean, which comes fairly quickly; a side effect of all that rubber out back. You can get used to it, but after the superb manners of most of these bikes it was a surprise. Sometimes bikes with really heavy wheels/tires like this one will lose some suspension quality, but that doesn’t seem the case here. The Fat Boy fit me well enough, with neutral bars and a moderately supportive seat.
The Fat Bob is the other bike of the new Softails that doesn’t try to replicate the model that came before, but rather, redefine it. The prior Fat Bob copped a rough and tumble attitude and had pretensions of being the performer in the old Dyna line. This one doesn’t play around. While the other models have tuned cartridge-style forks, this one has a charged inverted racing fork. It’s also the only one with dual disk brakes. A thick seat puts the rider up and forward, which puts the small forward controls in a more aggressive position. A flat taper-style handlebar (like on a motocross bike) controls the front end. The whole thing has a very post-apocalyptic vibe, like it could show up in the next Mad Max movie unchanged and you might not notice. The list of details (like the oval LED light set into the forks, or bronzed patina on the exhaust pipes, or the “Harley-Davidson” scrawled on the inside of the rim) just goes on, it was obvious this was a labor of love from H-D’s design department.
And it works almost as good as it looks. The riding position puts the rider in the perfect position to be a hooligan, and the equipment will back that stance up. The bike turns quickly and predictably, and holds a line through corners. The high forward controls stay off of the ground quite well, meaning you can push this one pretty hard. The front is a little soft, but the high-end fork should be internally adjustable. The rear shock is externally adjustable via a hand crank, a feature shared with the wide tire Softails (Fat Boy and Breakout).
There is an old saying about saving the best for last, and I managed that trick. This is the perfect merger of attitude and performance. On the other Softails, I liked the bad boys, but didn’t want to ride them very hard or far; while the more respectable bikes just didn’t feel like me, or handle the way I’d like. This one does it all, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Except maybe opt for the 114.
Make no mistake, this bike will be a customizers dream. As I pointed out throughout the article, there are small changes I’d make to several bikes to fit me better. Given H-D’s huge aftermarket (both internally and from other companies) all of these changes will just be the tip of the iceberg. Having a unified frame for all of Harley’s non-touring models makes a world of possibilities open up. Just looking at the diverse lineup Harley-Davidson managed should give you a hint. To some extent or another, all of the parts are interchangeable.
Listening to the other attendees at the launch you could hear people calling the exact same bike “stupid” or a “hoot.” One would complain about the bars on the Breakout, while another pondered why they couldn’t all be like that. With so much variation in ride quality and riding positions, it truly is like Harley-Davidson released eight bikes at once.
Talking to one of the designers, he volunteered that his favorite bike was the one underneath all of the outer stuff. It was the Milwaukee Eight, in the Softail chassis, because with that, he could do anything. CN