2012 Harley FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic Review

Here’s a surefire way to stir up the troops at the local biker watering hole: after grabbing a handful of beer nuts and repositioning your frosty mug in front of you, casually mention to those gathered round how you think that the Heritage Softail Classic — one of the long-standing models in Harley-Davidson’s vaunted lineup — makes such a fine bagger. Or calmly suggest that this Softail is a suitable everyday rider, a hog that you can rely on for work or play. Or if you really want to shake up the beer nuts, you can quote from Harley’s own propaganda sheet, citing that the FLSTC is a “custom-touring bike” like no other in the American V-twin market. Having done so, sit back to watch and listen as everyone gathered will assuredly voice his opinion on the matter, because the Heritage Softail Classic is a bike that is viewed differently by different people. More beer nuts, anyone?

No doubt, anybody who has spent time on a Heritage Softail’s two-piece saddle will have something notable to add to this debate. That’s because the FLSTC is a bike with a loyal following that dates back to 1986 when Harley-Davidson launched the Evo-powered FLST Softail Classic. That model paid homage to the original Hydra Glide of 1949, and almost overnight a classic was born. The following year, saddlebags and a windscreen found their way onto the Softail Classic, creating the FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic, and Harley has been making that model ever since. A low center of gravity, coupled with an equally low seat height (claimed 25-1/2″ off the deck), translates into an easy-to-manage ride for practically anybody to straddle the saddle. Well-placed footboards and a high-rise handlebar lends to ergonomics that, to this day, are unsurpassed in terms of riding comfort and control for the rider. If there’s a downside to the comfort factor, it’s the current passenger pillion’s configuration that digs into the small of the rider’s back. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same seating position today as in past model years.

That first-ever Heritage Softail Classic pretty much nailed it in terms of styling, too. Even though 1980s technology prevailed — like today, the early FLSTC used disc brakes and was powered by Harley’s latest-at-the-time Evolution V2 engine — the Classic lived up to its name thanks in large part to its timeless styling. And if you park today’s Heritage Softail Classic beside one of the original Evo-powered editions, at a glance you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two.

But in terms of performance, a lot has changed to make today’s FLSTC Heritage Softail the top of its class. The current Twin Cam engine displaces 103″, making it the most powerful Big Twin yet to reside in the Softail frame. Harley claims 96.9 ft-lbs. of torque (at 3000 rpm), which is over
4.5 ft-lbs. more than the 96″ engine that it replaces, while the single-cam Evo engine usually generated about 80 ft-lbs. at 4000 rpm (claimed).

But beyond improved specification figures on the printed page, today’s 103″ engine feels peppier in its all-around performance. Shifting through the Cruise Drive transmission’s six gears, you get the feeling that this engine likes to rev, which it does. Our acceleration figures revealed that the 96.9 ft-lbs. of torque propel the 730-pound (claimed dry weight) FLSTC from 20 mph to 50 mph in second gear in 3.4 seconds. A similar roll-on test in fifth gear paced the FLSTC from 60 to 80 mph in 4.7 seconds. Cruising in top gear at 70 mph, the engine churns out a lazy 2600 rpm (indicated on the digital readout), so there’s still torque to be found if you want to casually accelerate without downshifting to pass a vehicle ahead of you. In that context, the FLSTC shines as a daily rider because you can expect good performance when riding from Point A to Point B. The FLSTC stops equally well, and our ABS-equipped (optional package) test bike took 24′ to brake from 30 mph to a standing stop.

That same performance applies when taking a road trip on the Heritage Softail, too, but there’s even more good news to consider: Harley-Davidson claims a combined fuel consumption rate of 42 miles per gallon, and with a five-gallon capacity in those Fat Bob tanks, that gives a range of about 200 miles. Our best mileage figure yielded 45 mpg (admittedly, unusual for our heavy-handed riding techniques!), giving an effective range of about 225 miles.

Generally, though, we averaged about 40 mpg with our bike. But long-distance riding is more than simply going the distance in between fuel stops. You need cargo capacity, too, and again, the FLSTC shines because those two leather non-locking saddlebags can stow away more gear than you might think. You can also strap a buddy-bar bag to the backrest for additional gear, should you need additional space.

After reaching your destination, you might want to cruise the boulevard at night, so the detachable windscreen can be removed in seconds. No tools required, either. Just place the screen in your motel room and go prowl the night.

You won’t be embarrassed by the FLSTC’s looks, either. Our bike’s optional two-tone paint scheme (for an MSRP of $18,054; the Vivid Black base model retails for $17,349) drew plenty of comments whenever we stopped for fuel or food, and the Heritage Softail is proof that you can never have too much chrome on a Harley.

The 2012 model is the first Heritage Softail Classic to utilize Harley-Davidson’s new tubeless, chromed aluminum, lace-spoke wheels, and the wide whitewall tires certainly help bring attention to those hoops. At 16″ diameter, tire sizes remain pretty much in check, too. No fat tires here, folks.

There you have it — timeless styling mixed with Harley’s most current technology, and a heritage that dates back to 1986. Today’s Heritage Softail Classic is truly a classic example of Harley-Davidson’s time-honored heritage. AIM

NEW BIKE REVIEW: By Dain Gingerelli

As published in the September 2012 issue of American Iron Magazine.

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim Motorcycle Review

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.