Magazine Review Harley Heritage Softail Classic

The '09 Harley Heritage kicks up some '40s nostalgia.

Since its introduction in 1986, the Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic has been a staple in the Motor Company’s lineup. For 2009, the model’s 23rd birthday, the Motor Company has given the bike a makeover. It can’t be simple to refresh a bike that pays homage to the past, but, not surprisingly, Willie G. and his design team have found a way to make old new again.

The Heritage is the quintessential modern interpretation of classic Harleys from the ’40s — a time when Knuckleheads ruled the road and riders used the same bike for everything: touring, commuting, and cruising. Back then, motorcycles weren’t as specialized as many are today, and there weren’t different families of Harleys to choose from like there are now. As the name suggests, this bike proudly carries nostalgic styling of days gone by. At its core, it’s obviously a Softail created to mimic the lines of a vintage hardtail frame. It also flaunts studded-leather saddlebags, seat, and backrest. For almost 20 years, this bike was the lone retro Softail available. The Deluxe was introduced in 2005, and the Cross Bones in 2008. Sure the Springer Softail first appeared in 1988, and the Heritage Springer in 1997, but those bikes came and went, leaving this model to carry the torch.

Over the years, I have met and talked to many old-timers who rode the heck out of their rigid Knuckleheads back in the day because that’s all they had. When riding this bike, I can imagine what it was like, and I feel as if I’m keeping that spirit alive. Thankfully, I have the powerful benefits of a rigid-mount 1584cc Twin Cam 96B balanced engine, smooth six-speed Cruise Drive transmission, and the comfort of suspension. Call me a cheat if you must.

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of Softails in general, so I find it curious that I’ve always had an affinity for the Heritage Classic. Part of it has to be the fact that over the years, I’ve used this specific model on several spectacular trips, most recently blasting around Reno and the Sierras (see tour story on Page 92), and once while storming the Big Island of Hawaii. On both those trips, this model proved to be a capable and adaptable motorcycle. So when the opportunity came up to ride the refreshed 2009 seen here, I thought it only fitting that I take it on a nostalgic West Coast road trip to visit some old high  school friends scattered along the Pacific Coast Highway, from Sonoma, California, right down to Long Beach.

Joe K. burns a turn on the Harley Heritage, his favorite Harley Softail.

In all, I racked up a leisurely 800-plus miles in three days, reconnected with good friends, and rode some really cool roads. The Heritage easily handled everything I asked it to do, including navigating the crowded California highways, climbing the hills of San Francisco, and scraping floorboards on twisty, costal routes.

Thanks to the nonlockable, soft, leather saddlebags with quick-detach buckles, I was able to carry (and easily access) everything I needed. In hindsight, I should have brought along a lady friend because I had storage room to spare, and the bike could have comfortably accommodated a companion who I’m sure would have loved the newly enlarged passenger seat and backrest.

Truth told, the majority of the 2009 Heritage’s makeover is cosmetic. Immediately noticeable to me are the new fuel tank graphics with glass-filled, 3-D badges, new chrome nacelle, and the distinct trim that adorns the seat, front fender, and saddlebags. On a closer look, it’s hard not to appreciate the chrome cat’s eye console, retro speedometer face, half-moon rider footboards, and oval brake pad — all of which have been lifted from the Cross Bones, but fit nicely into the classic styling of the Heritage.

From an ergonomic perspective, the makeover has given this Softail taller, more ape-like handlebars and an enlarged passenger seat and backrest. Because of my size, the low seat heights that are associated with most Softails are a point of discomfort. But on this bike, it’s a nonissue thanks to a combination of the bars and half-moon floorboards, which create a fresh rider profile that provided me with considerably more room to move my feet and hands around. The tradeoff to having the extra room for my feet is the fact that those half moons stick out pretty far and scrape easily.

By the way, the photos seen here show the bike sporting its stock, detachable, king-size Lexan windshield. As regular AIM readers can guess, I removed it as soon as the photo shoot was done, so I have no comment on its functionality. At this time, I would like to thank the H-D engineers who came up with the quick-detach windshield system used on this bike and the Road Kings. Because of the design, I can always leave the shield behind.

The Harley Heritage received a cosmetic and ergonomic makeover in 2009.

Maybe it’s the combination beefy FL front end, classic 5-gallon Fat Bob tank, and FL rear fender, but I don’t see this bike as a Softail so much as a tourer from yesteryear, when the machine you had did it all. My time on this Heritage has convinced me this is a simple, versatile bike that’s equally at home on the highway as well as secondary roads, while paying worthy homage to Harleys past and present. As long as you don’t need the creature comforts of an Ultra, the Heritage makes a fine touring machine. It will take you wherever you need to go. ’Nuff said. AIM
–Joe Knezevic