Don’t let the name fool you. The Slim is more than just a trimmed-down Softail. It’s a bike that salutes the immediate post-World War II years when motorcycling redefined itself in America. It was a wild and rollicking time, too. And, despite today’s misperception that the 1947 Hollister incident served as ground zero, the real activity shaping the future of biking took place at competition events across America. Speed merchants like Tom Sifton and Chet Herbert built dazzlingly fast motorcycles for ironmen such as Joe Leonard, Ken Eggers, and Jimmy Chann for closed-course racing, and for a guy named Al Keys to ride as fast on two wheels as possible.
Among the lessons learned from racing was that excess weight can hamper a bike’s speed and handling performance. Indeed, even before the post-war era, competitors realized this and it was common to see Harley VLs and Indian Scouts with cut fenders and extemporaneous components removed in the interest of speed. Those early bikes were known as cut-downs, and across the aisle in the automotive world, racers removed fenders, floorboards, bumpers, even windshields from their cars, in the process prompting new names for their vehicles. Those early hot-rod cars were actually known as soup-jobs and bob-jobs; only later did someone coin the term hot rod. Bikers settled on the term bobber for their bikes, and it was common to see them at the Jack Pine Enduro, and TT races and scrambles across America.
Perhaps the ultimate bobber, though, was the Knucklehead-powered bike that Chet Herbert built for Al Keys to race at El Mirage Dry Lake. Keys, riding a bike known as The Beast, was clocked at 158 mph. In July 1950, Herbert, who went on to build high-performance race cams for
motorcycles and cars, also entered The Beast at the nearby Santa Ana Drags, which was to become the first continuously sanctioned quarter-mile drag races in the world. Keys and The Beast performed magnificently, too, finishing the day as Top Eliminator, a title he held week after week, defeating the top car driver, a guy named Dick “Krafty” Kraft.
Krafty Dick was a quick learner, though, and he took a lesson from Herbert to remove as much hardware from his modified Model T as he could. Ultimately, Krafty Dick showed up at the starting line with a bare rolling chassis sporting a firewall cowl section, a small gas tank, a flimsy roll bar, and a seat for the driver. The reduced weight was enough to finally help him slay The Beast, but the big lesson to everybody was that weight was a hindrance when it came to absolute performance. Power-to-weight ratio became part of every racer’s mantra.
But winning races wasn’t the objective behind Harley-Davidson’s new FLS Softail Slim. Instead, the Motor Company’s design team wanted to get back to basics, to focus attention on the heart and soul of the bike: the engine. After all, we’re talking about motorcycles. To do that, the stylists, led by Senior Designer Casey Ketterhagen, took the same approach that the racers did more than half century ago, in the process conceiving a bike that pays homage to those pioneers of speed.
The difference, of course, is the Slim was developed to win customers, not races, so Ketterhagen’s crew paid close attention to what components found their way on — and in some instances, off — the bike. Most obvious features are the bobbed fenders, and the rear lighting utilizes lessons originally applied to the Nightster, including the iconic side-mount license plate assembly. The rear tire is slimmer, too, the Dunlop listed as a MT90B-16″, which makes this the narrowest 16″ tire found on a Softail.
What you won’t find much of on the Slim is chrome plating. There’s just enough of that glittery stuff to catch the eye, but for the most part black paint or powdercoating takes its place. That’s just another nod to being period correct; chromium was scarce after the war, so for several model years, new bikes rolling out of Milwaukee didn’t have many chromed parts on them.
The Slim’s 103″ engine sports a raw aluminum/semi-polished finish to its primary and ignition covers, and even the rocker boxes have that poor boy finish to enhance the post-war heritage. The fork legs share a similar finish, and the old-style round air horn is coated in black.
Black highlights other trim items, too. The wheel rims, headlight, and nacelle are black, as are parts of the hand controls and that stylish Hollywood handlebar, a design that was found on early police models because its crossbar served as a place to position pursuit lights. And when you look down at the tank-mounted speedometer, you’ll also see the black cat’s eye console, another throwback to the time.
Perhaps the only point of contention that I have with the Slim’s styling is in the solo seat. While the tuck-and-roll vinyl cover looks period correct, a tractor seat as used on the Cross Bones would have been more in tune with the post-war times. But that’s a minor point, and no doubt the Slim’s saddle suits the bike’s profile well. It also sets your butt a claimed 23.3″ off the deck, although a long stint in the saddle makes it obvious that comfort wasn’t paramount to its design.
But the half-moon floorboards — another bobber-era feature — position your feet well for long rides, and the reach to the Hollywood bar places you in a comfortable riding position as well (an optional 2″ pullback riser can be installed without having to change control cables — nice touch). You practically feel like you’re sitting in the Slim, not on it, and you can only imagine what guys like Leonard, Eggers, and Chann must have been thinking about when they rolled their bikes to the starting lines so many years ago (although by the time Leonard won his first AMA Grand National Championship in 1954 he was riding race-bred KR models).
In any case, you won’t be sliding the Slim around any dirt tracks, but you might be scraping those floorboards around some corners because there’s not much clearance if you ride this bike aggressively through the turns. But
riding moderately, the way any Softail is designed to be ridden, rewards you with all the on-road enjoyment you can expect from this 671-pound motorcycle. It’s a ride that can take you across town or across country, or even back in time to when life was a little simpler and bikers were exploring new ways to go faster on their machines. AIM
NEW BIKE REVIEW By Dain Gingerelli
Story as published in the July 2012 issue of American Iron Magazine.