2017 FLTRXS Road Glide Special Review

by Dain Gingerellli

I was highballing north on US 395 along california’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Harley’s cruise control doing most of the work, when the slow-moving tractor-trailer up ahead forced me to reduce speed. I should point out, too, that this was no ordinary Harley-Davidson. I was riding a 2017 FLTRXS Road Glide Special, and its electronic odometer revealed that the Milwaukee-Eight engine had only recently been broken in by the crew at Harley’s West Coast fleet center. The big 107″ V-twin was loafing along at about 85 mph, the bike’s standard cruise control feature subbing for me while I relaxed and rested behind the RUSHMORE-inspired fairing. Life was good—until the big rig impeded our headway.

I gently applied the Reflex Linked brakes to cancel the cruise control command, hauling the speed down to about 60. A few cars approaching from the opposite direction prevented me from overtaking the slow-moving rig right away. Moments later an opening in the traffic set me free, so I purposely twisted the right grip, feeding raw gasoline and fresh air into the eight-valve engine’s thirsty combustion chambers. The single-cam engine liked that, and our speed increased proportionally until the Road Glide Special quickly found its new place on earth ahead of the lumbering big rig. Life was, once again, good for me.
Let me be clear about another point: I didn’t downshift to fifth gear while overtaking the truck. This new engine has torque (I almost feel guilty about not spelling that with a capital T!) in spades, making downshifting optional under most riding conditions. Harley claims 111.4 ft-lbs. at 3250 rpm, a figure that’s actually only a few ft-lbs. more than what the Twin Cam 103″ generated. What the 2017 figures fail to reveal is that the new Milwaukee-Eight’s torque curve is much broader than the 103″ engine’s. And I like the new torque curve. A lot.

AIM’s editor, Steve Lita, pointed out the technological highlights of Harley’s new engine in issue 341, and in issue 342 he gave a glimpse of what the new baggers that cradle the engine in their RUSHMORE frames are like. Now I’m going to tell you about what I consider to be the best bargain among those baggers: the Road Glide Special.

This bike has it all, and the marketing folks at Harley pretty much pegged it with the FLTRXS’s mission statement: “Long on features, comfort, and attitude.” Indeed, and beyond the standard RUSHMORE and new Milwaukee-Eight features, the Special sports Harley’s big Boom! Box 6.5GT touch-sensitive screen that’s positioned between the inner fairing’s two large speakers and right beneath the easy-to-read analog instruments.

Truth be told, though, I rarely use the infotainment feature. Oh, I’ll dabble with the navigation option now and then to save myself from being totally lost during an adventure, but otherwise I prefer to enjoy the drone of the engine’s exhaust note while racking up the miles. And what a sound the 2017 Road Glide Special’s new mufflers produce, a deep, rich, mellow tone, one that bikers have enjoyed for years. Harley engineers were able to attain this new, throatier sound by exorcising some of the mechanical-noise demons from the engine, primary drive, clutch, and transmission. Less clanging noise there creates a vacuum of sorts that can be filled with more decibels from the exhaust system, the end result a motorcycle with a noise factor that, in addition to complying with federal decibel regulations, sounds genuinely cool. Welcome to the 21st century of motorcycle engineering and marketing; the Road Glide Special clearly stands at the forefront of this new philosophy.

Enough about the features, let’s talk about the Road Glide Special’s comfort. I’m on record in past bike reviews stating that I love touring aboard Electra Glides. I still like those batwing fairing bikes but, in truth, when it comes to absolute comfort, this RG Special fits me like the proverbial glove. My 5′ 8″ frame and 30″ inseam are well-matched to the bike’s ergonomics. I can flat foot stops at traffic lights thanks to a claimed seat height of 25.9″ (laden), and the reach to the handgrips is relaxed and natural. The seat’s bucket shape is form-fit to my derriere, and the tinted stub windshield mixed with the fairing’s RUSHMORE ducting allows just the right amount of wind blast to entertain me without pounding me. The small winglets at the base of the aerodynamically shaped shark-nose fairing help with that, and because the High Output engine doesn’t have the Twin Cooled liquid-cooling option, there are no fairing lowers to further isolate me from the elements so I don’t feel like I’m wrapped fully in a cocoon. I’m on a motorcycle.

Now let’s discuss the Special’s attitude. There are two key elements to a bagger: it must be capable of toting a reasonable amount of gear for extended rides, and it must look cool in carrying out its mission. The RG Special’s two lockable saddlebags boast a claimed 2.3 cubic feet of storage capacity, and while I can’t exactly describe just what that equates to in real-world gear, I can say that I was able to pack three days worth of personal inventory plus my camera gear for the blast up US 395.
And the FLTRXS looked cool—you know, attitude— while making the run up 395. Start with the paint. Vivid Black remains the standard color for the base model, which places MSRP at a rather cool $23,999. Our test bike sported the Hard Candy Custom paint option (three new color choices are on tap for 2017, two of which are Hard Candy Custom colors), which boosts price to $26,999. Yeah, it ain’t cheap, so determine just how much attitude you want, and then set your budget.

No matter the color option, though, all Road Glide Specials ride with the same cool chassis features, giving each bike a stance that shouts Attitude! The parts mix includes the 19″ (front) and 16″ (rear) Enforcer cast aluminum wheels with Brembo calipers and Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series tires. The bike’s stance is further set by a lowered suspension that features Harley’s updated specs. Claimed front suspension travel is 4.6″ front, 2.1″ rear.

New for 2017, the 49mm fork legs are filled with Showa Dual Bending Valve (SBDV) technology to smooth the ride up front. Out back you’ll find a pair of coil-over spring shocks with hand adjustability to set preload. As a unit, plus the low-profile tires (130/60-19″ front, 180/65-16″ rear), the suspension sets the Special nice and low, the way a bagger should be. There’s a small price to pay, however, as shortened suspension means there’s less up-and-down travel to absorb some of the bumps in the road. To be sure, the new suspension technology works well over smaller road holes and frost heaves, but a series of repetitious bumps challenges the damping rates; expect some chatter or jack hammering at times.
For the most part, though, the ride remains controlled and rather refined. Moreover, after spending all day in the saddle, I never felt fatigued or beaten. I always looked forward to the next day’s ride. And for me, that and the attention to detail and attitude are what make the FLTRXS so special for me as a bagger enthusiast. AIM

New Bike Review – 2014 H-D FXDC Super Glide Custom

SuperGlide1One of The Motor Company’s longest-standing models

By Dain Gingerelli, photos by Riles & Nelson


So there I was, thinking, “The Super Glide has been a member of the Harley family for quite some time now.”

Let’s switch now from my deep, mind-blowing, metaphysical thought process to facts: it was back in 1971 when Willie G advised the rest of The Motor Company’s crew that it might be a pretty good idea if the guys in the shop stripped down an FL to create what amounted to a sportier Big Twin model. He even suggested removing the fat FL fork, with its bulky tin covers, and replacing that assembly with — gasp! — the spindly front end from a Sportster. And to further balance the styling equation, he suggested pirating the XL’s ungainly and unorthodox, yet stylishly flamboyant, boat-tail seat/rear fender section from the previous year, grafting it onto the bastardized FL chassis as well.

“We’ll call the new bike the FX,” reasoned Willie and the boys. Their reasoning was logical, too, because the bike was essentially half FL and half XL: F from FL and X from XL. Somebody in marketing even suggested a special and exclusive moniker, which begat the Super Glide label.SG 3-4 rearThe 1971 FX Super Glide’s 74″ Shovelhead engine was kickstart-only, too; it wouldn’t sprout its electric leg until 1974 with the introduction of the FXE, a model that outsold the FX by about two to one. Within several years few, if any, Harley customers wanted a kicker Big Twin at all. Not many FX customers were enamored with that boat-tail fender section, either, and by 1973 a more contemporary, wafer-thin banana seat atop a conventional rear fender brought the FX’s styling closer to what people expected a motorcycle to look like during those halcyon days when nobody flinched if you walked into the room sporting hip-hugger bellbottoms, and a spastically colorful, psychedelic shirt with love beads, platform shoes, and an afro.

Forty-three years later, I can happily report that clothing fashion has changed, and the FX line remains anchored by the FXDC Dyna Super Glide Custom. But what many enthusiasts fail to appreciate is that the styling of today’s Super Glide Custom closely parallels the lines of the FX that Harley offered exactly 40 years ago. Locate a photo of that ’70s bike and compare it to this 2014 FXDC, and you’ll see the family resemblance, right down to the form-flow seat, staggered exhausts, and laced-spoke wheels. But the similarity ends there, because today’s Super Glide customers are treated to a bike that is, literally and figuratively, decades beyond the original FX and FXE.

“At the $13,199, the FXDC costs less than any other Big Twin model in H-D’s lineup.”

Besides the optional antilock braking system (ABS) and chromed, aluminum, laced-spoke wheels as equipped on our test bike, customers can order the latest Super Glide with Harley’s Smart Security System with hands-free fob or with solid or two-tone colors (all offered, of course, for additional pricing on top of the FXDC’s $13,199 base MSRP). The really big news this year, however, is the 103″ Twin Cam engine that comes standard on the 2014 Super Glide Custom. For the past couple of years, the FXDC and FXDB Street Bob were the only two Big Twin models to retain the TC 96 while the rest of the fleet was blessed with the newer TC 103. Although the 96″ engine proved adequate for propelling either of the two lighter-weight Dyna models down the highway, the 103″ certainly made a difference in how much quicker our 2014 FXDC performed over previous Super Glide Customs we’ve ridden during the past few years.

SG cockpitThe Dyna’s TC 103 checks in with slightly more torque than the TC 96. At 3000 rpm, the 103 belts out 98.8 ft-lbs. (9.6:1 compression ratio) over the 96’s 94 ft-lbs. (9.2:1), giving the 2014 model expectedly better passing power. In our March 2012 review of the FXDC, our test bike accelerated from 60 to 80 mph (fifth gear) in five seconds flat, while our 2014 did the same sprint in 4.2 seconds. A similar spread occurred in the second gear roll-on from 20 to 50 mph, with the 2012 model consuming four seconds on the stopwatch while the 103-powered 2014 took 3.1 seconds.

Otherwise, the Dyna Super Glide Custom remains unchanged for 2014. That means the 648-pound bike takes about 30′ to come to a complete stop from 30 mph, and fuel consumption of 40-plus mpg (Harley claims 43 mpg) will let you cover more than 200 miles after you top off the 5-gallon gas tank with fuel. The stacked and staggered mufflers emit a mellow, yet deep, sound, and the advertised 26.3″ seat height (with 180-pound rider) means that most FXDC riders will get both boots flat on the pavement at stops.

Even though the Custom has what equates to shortened suspension, there’s surprising cornering clearance when leaning the bike into turns. The ride is pleasant and rewarding over smooth road surfaces, but the suspension’s insufficient damping (especially rebound) gives way to the rear shocks bottoming over harsh bumps in the road. Suspension travel is advertised at 5″ front, 3.1″ rear, and the only adjustment is in the shocks’ spring preload settings.

SG ridingOverall, the 2014 FXDC maintains a tradition that blends straightforward styling cues with a no-nonsense mechanical package. The result is a motorcycle that delivers basic, yet efficient, performance under most conditions you’ll encounter on a public roadway, and the sum total might make you think twice about what kind of motorcycle you really need. And should you have second thoughts about whether or not this 1970s-style motorcycle is for you, just give the FXDC’s $13,199 price a second look. This bike costs less than any other Big Twin model in the lineup. That’s truly worth thinking about. AIM


This article originally appeared in American Iron Magazine issue # 314, published October 2014. To order a back issue of this or any other issue of American Iron Magazine, visit Greaserag.com.
Follow American Iron Magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
To subscribe to the PRINT edition, click here.To receive DIGITAL DELIVERY, click here.

2012 H-D FLD Dyna Switchback Motorcycle Review

Harley-Davidson is casting a wider net for younger customers. And its latest lure is the FLD Dyna Switchback, which amounts to the lightest and least expensive bagger in the lineup. For under $16,000, a customer can ride out on a touring bike that weighs less than 700 pounds and boasts a user-friendly seat height of 26.1″. Clearly, the folks in Milwaukee have aimed this bike at new, and perhaps less experienced, riders.

But don’t be fooled by first impressions. The FLD Dyna Switchback is a bona fide bagger, a motorcycle that will hammer out the miles during a cross-country ride, yet as the name suggests, it can readily switch to around-town mode. You essentially get two models in one, thus the name Switchback. Best of all, you can make the switch in less than a minute if you’re deft with your hands; the lockable saddlebags and Lexan-base windscreen utilize Harley’s patented detachable mounting system so each component pops off and on in seconds. About the toughest part of the conversion is finding a secure place in the garage to store the bags and windscreen so that they won’t get scratched or dinged.

I had the opportunity to put about 1,300 miles on the Switchback, riding our Ember Red Sunglo test bike (also available in Vivid Black or Brilliant Silver Pearl) from Park City, Utah, to Sturgis, South Dakota. You can read in our sister publication, Motorcycle Bagger, about how the bike performed during a tour, but for now, my biggest observation is this: the more I rode the Switchback, the more I appreciated what it has to offer. By the end of the week I found myself defending the bike’s honor — this is not a baby bagger. This is a real motorcycle, folks, one that even a seasoned rider like myself, who has nearly 50 years riding experience, can enjoy.

But for the doubting Thomas who contends that this Dyna-based bagger really isn’t a bagger, let’s draw up a few historical facts that will help position the Switchback as a real motorcycle, not just a beginner’s bagger. Among the styling features that Harley-Davidson pointed out during its presentation are its chromed tube shock absorbers that purposely resemble those on early Duo-Glides, considered the world’s premier touring model in its time. The first Duo-Glide was offered in 1958, so let’s use that as a benchmark.

The Duo-Glide checks in with a 60″ wheelbase and weighs 648 pounds. The Switchback’s specs are 62.8″ and 696 respectively — both more than the manly Duo-Glide’s figures. Top speed for the 1958 model is 100 mph; I cruised across Wyoming’s wide open stretches at 90 mph aboard the FLD, and its big 103″ engine could have easily sustained 100 mph had I made the request. We won’t even get into the vibration factor; those 74″ Pans are notorious earth shakers. I can go on, but you get the point. The Dyna Switchback is bigger, and offers more and better performance than an early Duo-Glide in practically every way.

Despite my spirited riding habits, our Switchback averages 43.8 mpg, nearly 2 mpg above what Harley-Davidson advertises!

So let’s cut to the chase to discuss the Switchback’s most alluring feature, the detachable bags and windscreen. The windscreen uses the familiar detachable mounting system, and the bags have three proprietary rubber-grommet mounting points to isolate the bags from vibration. A quick twist of a knob inside each saddlebag releases its latching mechanisms. Slide the bags rearward for removal and you’re good to go. The grommets on the lower fender mount popped out on our test bike’s right saddlebag, so be vigilant here.

Visually, the saddlebags resemble those on the larger FL models, but in truth they have about 75 percent of the storage capacity. Like the familiar FL bags, the FLD’s bags have top-loading lids that lock using the bike’s ignition barrel key. The lids use a different latching mechanism than the standard FL bags, too. To close you swing the lid in, down, and then back toward you before securing the latch. They’re watertight and hold a surprising amount of gear. The saddlebags also necessitated the 2-into-1 exhaust system. Stacked or staggered pipes would have interfered with the saddlebag placement. It’ll be interesting to see what the aftermarket delivers as replacement pipes.

In terms of rider comfort, the Switchback has full-length floorboards for your feet, what Harley-Davidson describes as a mini-apehanger handlebar on pullback risers, and a two-up seat. In addition to the low seat height, the rider’s chair is contoured so that most vertically challenged riders can place both feet on the pavement at stops. I’m a shade taller than 5’8″, and I found the seat’s front taper to be excessive; a long stint on the interstate proved too uncomfortable because there wasn’t adequate thigh support for me.

But for back road riding, the Switchback’s saddle was fine, and I could move from side to side for weight transfer when cornering. Moreover, the FLD’s suspension proved to be compliant, with damping rates in the cartridge fork and nitrogen-charged shock absorbers matched closely with their corresponding spring rates. The rear springs have five preload adjustment points, too. I set my bike’s preload on number three and with a full load (including a strap-on trunk that I placed on an optional quick-detach sissybar/luggage rack); the Switchback felt surefooted and steady through the turns. You’ll probably want to dial back the spring preload a notch when riding without a load.

The Switchback has the same 29 degrees of steering rake found on most other Dynas, but additional trail was factored in to improve straight-line stability. Even so, the bike is easy to maneuver in tight places and at low speeds. Moreover, steer-in for turns is precise and predictable, and the net result is a bagger that’s easy to ride under practically every condition you’ll encounter, and there’s none of the headshake that’s common on Electra Glides.
Like all Dynas, the Switchback’s 103″ engine is rubber-mounted. Even so, I noticed vibration in the floorboards — more than I’ve experienced in a larger FL, but not enough to hinder the ride. There’s no heel/toe rocker shift lever, though. The Switchback has only a toe shifter, but the payoff is that you have more room to place your left foot on the board. The most comfortable foot placement for me was to wedge the sole of my boot just ahead of the ankle onto the rear of the board. This seemed to minimize the vibration factor to my feet.

Single front and rear disc brakes proved enough stopping power, but for riders looking for the safest stopping performance, Harley offers optional ABS as part of the Security Package Option bundle that includes a hands-free security key fob for the Switchback. Our bike was so equipped, as evidenced by the small black box beneath the battery box. Fortunately, I have never had occasion to use the ABS, but my experience in the past tells me that this option is worth the additional $1,195. No doubt the Switchback is going to be popular among new riders and women who want their own baggers. But in truth, the FLD is a model that is suited to a wide range of riders, from beginners to experienced saddle tramps. It’s a bagger whose time has long been overdue. AIM

NEW BIKE REVIEW By Dain Gingerelli

Story as published in the December 2012 issue of American Iron Magazine.

2011 Harley Davidson Blackline Softail FXS

NEW MODEL PREVIEW By Chris – Maida Harley-Davidson’s newest Dark Custom

The H-D crew was rocking it pretty hard at Don Hill’s, a major punk and alternative club in lower Manhattan last January! The event was the launch of its new Blackline Softail. Willie G and wife Nancy were on hand, as well as Karen Davidson who also launched a new line of H-D clothes to go with the new bike. Of course, a number of engineers and H-D media people were also present, all of whom were a pleasure to hang with. Whoever picked Don Hill’s for the launch really aced it! Right up there with the legendary CBGB, you just don’t walk into DH’s. The rope is up and you wait your turn, but that was not the case for those invited to this special unveiling. As you can see by the photos, we had a great time, and most of the H-D staff and a number of hot models were painted with the Blackline name. Nice work, H-D!

But enough of that; on to the bike! The Blackline Softail is “stripped to the legal limit,” as our H-D press kit states. The style of the Blackline is thanks to  Industrial Designer/Stylist II, Casey Ketterhagen at the Motor Company. According to Casey, he first built the concept bike shown below with no regard for DOT regs. He was then told to move as much of that look as possible over to a modern Softail chassis while staying inside DOT requirements. Casey worked with Softail Platform Staff Engineer Korry Vorndram to build a stock H-D that is barely legal.

Besides DOT constraints, the amount of cash allotted to the build was also a limiting factor.  For example, if you can use an oil tank that’s already been certified, you have more money to come up with a totally new handlebar setup. And that’s exactly what Casey did on the Blackline, as you can see on the accompanying rendering. The gas tank trim is another totally new part, as is the headlight and speedometer. Though H-D lists 104 parts as new on the Blackline, many are stock components with a new finish, but that’s not a slight of hand by H-D. If it has a new part number, it has to be listed as a separate (new) part.

Since you can get the full specification sheet online, we’re not going to reprint it here. However, I do want to mention one spec that’s close to my heart: the Blackline boasts the lowest seat height in the H-D lineup for 2011. Being 5’4″, that means a lot to me! AIM

Story as it appeared in the May 2011 issue of American Iron Magazine.

Harley Magazine Review Sportster XL1200C

Guilty as charged.

I admit it. I used to say that Harley-Davidson was perhaps diluting its bloodline by releasing a plethora of dolled-up versions of its various motorcycles over the last 20 years or so. I was concerned that maybe the Motor Company was taking the joy of customization away from the enthusiast by prepackaging its bikes in various stylistic formats. Yes, I may have even been overheard complaining that the massive corporation was bilking the aftermarket with its extensive line of accessories.

What changed my mind? The simple, elegant Sportster Classic 1200. As benchmark of the Sportster line, the XL1200C is the ideal entry-level bike. It’s easy to handle, with a decent amount of power. The closest Harley-Davidson comes to building a standard, the Classic 1200 is likely the most generic bike in the entire H-D lineup. True, Harley offers a ton of bigger, faster, and/or sexier bikes, but to me, none of them are any more versatile or satisfying to ride than this one. It’s a faultless commuter bike, a capable tourer, and a heckuva lot of fun to push through the twisties. And when you ride with Sam Whitehead, you’d best be prepared to push it.

As a commuter, the XL1200C is a dream. It isn’t big and heavy, nor is it wimpy. Instead, it’s light, narrow, and easy to maneuver. Plus, it boasts ample giddy-up (79 ft-lbs. of torque) and fantastic fuel economy (42 mpg in the city). Around town, it’s the ideal urban warrior: big enough to be visible, yet nimble and quick enough to avoid hulking truckers, distracted drivers, and texting jaywalkers.

Touring riders would obviously prefer more creature comforts and power, but in a pinch, the Classic performed admirably. At 57 mpg on the highway, you won’t find a more fuel-friendly motorcycle. The tank holds a deceptive 4.5 gallons of gas. On the highway, the five-speed transmission never sounded as if it were winding out, and the comfortable ergonomics made the bike a pleasure on our two-day test run last autumn. The Classic features forward foot controls, which for me were ideal for this particular bike.

A bike this size is maneuverable in a lot of different ways, and one of my favorite methods of moving the Sportster Classic around was to simply hold the bars steady, and shift my weight while pushing with one leg or the other. Throttle was plentiful, handling superb, and on that peaceful autumn jaunt through upstate New York with the Brothers Whitehead, the Classic complied willingly and kept up admirably, with a
modicum of effort.

For 2010, H-D’s line of 1200cc Sportsters is limited to four models: the new Forty-Eight, Nightster, Low, and Custom. The differences between the Custom and the Low are negligible, so I may as well point them out here. It boils down to aesthetics: while the Low sports a 19″, 13-spoke, cast-aluminum front wheel (same type as out back), the Custom was upgraded to a 21″ rim and snazzy, laced-steel spokes. The Low features midcontrols, as opposed to the Classic’s forward ones. Both bikes rock a black powdercoated Evo V-twin engine highlighted with chrome covers, and both have dual, staggered Shorty chrome exhaust pipes. The Low’s rear fender rail is black, while the Classic’s is finished in chrome — same deal with the respective bikes’ bullet headlights. The seat height in the Sportster Low is indeed lower — but only by 0.2″. Its seat is discernibly narrower up front, though.

Harley’s press kit claims the Custom features a “low-rise handlebar and chrome pullback riser,” while the Low boasts a “pullback handlebar on chrome 1″ riser.” Whatever. In either case the hand controls are easily accessible. The bottom line is that the Custom’s bar is straighter and less buckhorn-like. Both are available in red, black, or red/black two-tone, as well as custom schemes of red/Cherry, and black/White Pearl. The Custom we tested came in a spiffy blue/silver two-tone, a combo unavailable on the Low. Finally, the Custom will run you $100 more than the Low, up and down the line. Must be those laced spokes.

So I admit it: I was wrong. It was foolish of me to claim Harley was spreading itself too thin; H-D saw that one of its product lines needed attention, and pared it down accordingly. Sure, there are some niche bikes that bewilder me — I’m looking at you, Cross Bones — but the fact is that the Motor Company knows its customers. There’s not a motorcycle manufacturer on God’s green earth that relies on customer feedback, good or bad, as much as Harley-Davidson does, and its dedicated and enthusiastic fan base is evidence of that. H-D spends a lot of man-hours (and man-dollars) to find out exactly what its customer wants and needs, and damn if it doesn’t provide it. So who am I to question Willie G. and family? From now on I’d better just shut up and twist the throttle.
Besides, Sam’s way up ahead of me by now.

Jonny Langston as published in American Iron Magazine

Talking Head
In the past few years Harley’s given us a wide range of styles and performance with its Sportster line. Fortunately, I’ve been able to ride most of them. Yeah, I know; it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. The 1200 Custom doesn’t have that low, flat black, 883 bobber style I like, but it does have comfort, classic lines, and an appreciable boost in power. This was a really fun bike to ride: easy to whip around through twisty roads and solid at speed on the highway. With a fairly generic look, it’s not my favorite Sporty, but as far as performance and everyday reliability go, the 1200 Custom ranks high.

Matt Kopec

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