This article was originally published in the June-July 1998 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
Which is the oldest Big Twin in current production? You could craft a good argument that it’s a Softail.
From purely a model-designation standpoint, of course, the oldest are the FLs, which trace their innovative, rubber-mount frames back to the 1980 FLT, the bike that also debuted the five-speed gearbox. FXRs have been completely phased out, replaced by the Dyna chassis that showed up in 1990. But in terms of technology and basic design, Softails have the oldest links to the past, even though the first one didn’t come out until 1983, after the FLT. A Softail is basically a simulated-hardtail suspension system grafted onto history in the form of the classic, solid-mount four-speed Big Twin frame that dates back several decades.
Vaughn Beals, the MIT-trained engineer who was the president of Harley at the time, was the person responsible for the Softail. He had seen a small aftermarket company offering the conversion at a rally, and almost instantly bought the rights to the design.
From that beginning, the Softails were retro-choppers, machines that emulated a mild Sixties’ custom that might have been built around a Fifties’ Pan. Accordingly, Softails were and are the last Big Twins without rubber engine mounts. They also were the first, in 1988, to be equipped with the ultimate piece of H-D nostalgia: a modern re-creation of a classic springer front end. Since then, the FXSTS Softail Springer has proven to be wildly popular and one of the purest statements of the Harley factory custom.
In the last couple of years, very little has changed for the Softail Springer. Other, more-nostalgic Softails have been introduced, and the Bad Boy, a Springer with a tough-guy, blacked-out look, has come and gone. But for the FXSTS, the only significant recent change is the use of the new nine-plate clutch that’s standard on all ’98-model Big Twins. Your left hand might notice the slightly reduced clutch effort, and your left foot will certainly feel the light, crisp shifts that occur in the complete absence of clutch drag. But visually, there are no clues that a new Springer is a ’98 other than the paint scheme.
Cruising along two-lane asphalt, though, you can really appreciate what a decade-and-a-half of these models has wrought. For the last several years, Softails have carried gearing about seven-percent taller than that of other Big Twins. This means that at 60 mph, it’s turning about 200 rpm less than would a Dyna or FL.
Cool, but the amazing thing about this particular Softail is how astonishingly smooth it is between 50 and 60 mph in top gear. At those road speeds, a mellow rumble wafts up from the engine, letting your backside, hands and feet know that internal combustion and reciprocation are occurring somewhere far away—sort of like being in San Francisco when the Big One finally hits L.A. This rumbling and the lazy beat of the engine lull you; you might start a ride on a Softail wound tighter than James Carville answering questions about right-wing conspiracies and Paula Jones, but even Carville couldn’t stay tense cruising on a Springer.
A roomy riding position contributes to your ease of passage. The pegs and controls are out farther than the highway pegs on Dynas, and you stretch your legs out to reach them, knees only slightly bent. The front of the passenger seat is cut at a diagonal up and back, and it cradles your butt and lower back to within an inch or two of the top of your jeans. Hold your arms at your side and just bend your elbows; your hands magically meet the pullback handlebar at that same natural rest position, with your torso leaned back slightly. This bike has been laid out by people who ride.
The handling, too, contributes to cruising pleasure. At parking-lot speeds, the 32 degrees of rake and 5.25 inches of trail, combined with the weight of the springer front fork, make the front end want to flop and fall into turns. Under those conditions, the bike feels unwieldy. But that goes away as speed increases, and on the highway, what you appreciate is instead precise steering and the bike’s strong inclination to head straight down the road with little attention demanded.
The springer front end absorbs small bumps better than could any telescopic fork raked out as much; as rake is kicked out, side loads and friction increase for telescopic forks, which is why chopper builders liked springers in the first place—aside from the fact that they looked good. In the rear, the suspension has been refined to the point where it offers a smooth ride on reasonably well-paved roads, though it can still hammer you on a big bump.
In the handling department, the wide handlebar allows the bike to be rolled into corners easily, and you can lean it until hard parts touch while maintaining complete stability, if that’s your cup of tea. But as even FLs have more ground clearance, hard cornering won’t ever be a Springer’s strongest virtue. Instead, it dispatches corners competently and securely, and for it, that’s enough.
Braking separates this latest Softail from its earlier kin. With the rounded front master cylinder of a few years ago came higher hydraulic leverage, and the front brake now pulls the Springer to a quick stop without requiring a walnut-crushing squeeze. The rear brake remains commendably powerful, as well as extremely controllable.
But although the brakes may have improved over the years, some features remain that could use change. The rigid-mount engine thrums out a relaxing beat below 60 mph, but average speeds on many freeways have increased dramatically in the last 10 years; in many western states, the fast lanes now routinely travel at 75 to 80 mph. And the Springer isn’t happy at those speeds. The engine buzzes rather than lulls, and—at least in stock form—the tall gearing tests the standard power output. Cruising at 80, the bike feels like it’s already given you its best and doesn’t have much left. The engine character, so relaxed and mellow at lower speeds, has become slightly frantic and overworked by this time.
This change of environment may explain some of the change in demand for various Big Twin models. Softails once had the longest waiting lists, but that distinction now belongs to various versions of the FLR Road King. For post-55-mph America, these rubber-mounted tourers offer some significant advantages over solidly mounted Softail models.
Of course, a Road King is never going to have the custom cruiser panache of a Springer. Still, it’s time for Harley to start evolving this and the other Softail models a bit more to fit the requirements of the current world. They really could use more power in stock form, and the engineers need to find a way to further reduce vibration—without taking away the classic, rumbley character that defines the machine.
Despite that, the Springer Softail still is a fun, fashionable ride. It may be long in the tooth, but it’s definitely not headed toward extinction.
|Ultra-smooth at moderate speeds|
|Natural riding position|
|Easy, smooth clutch operation|
|Smooth, positive shifting|
|Not enough power at higher speeds|
|Buzzy above 60 mph|
|Rear ride is harsh|