Blackline Softail, Harley’s newest Dark Custom
Over the past few years, Harley-Davidson has chosen to make new bike announcements gradually. Usually we’ll hear about most of next year’s models around July, but then a couple more releases will come in the dead of winter. I’m not sure why H-D does this. Perhaps certain models aren’t ready for production, or maybe H-D wants more press over a longer period of time. Fortunately for us, the unveiling of the 2011 FXS Blackline Softail took place in New York City, about 50 miles from American Iron Magazine’s offices, this past January. I was on hand for the evening’s festivities and was excited with the newest Dark Custom.
Once the drape was pulled and the bike was shown to the eager reporters, none other than Willie G himself got up to speak, and in his off-the-cuff presentation said, “You can call it a bobber, you can call it a custom. There’s a lot of words you can use for it.” Initially, I scratched my head. A bobber? Really? I just don’t see it. But when he capped his speech with “I think it’ll look great parked in front of any bar in the whole country,” I could see that. But I had to wonder, who is Harley building bikes for? Barhopping hipsters who take undue risks with their lives? Or real riders who want to enjoy time in the saddle? Due to record snowfalls in New England (and most everywhere else in the United States), it would be two months before we had a chance to actually ride the new Softail.
The nuts and bolts of the FXS are similar to other Softails. It uses a fuel-injected 96B V-twin engine with a six-speed Cruise Drive transmission and rear belt drive. This combo moves this 682-pounder down the road just fine. But the differences between this Softail and the others in the lineup are where the FXS shines. Lots of detail work went into making this powertrain distinctive. From the top down, the rocker box covers are gloss black, the cylinder heads feature a silver powdercoat finish, and the cylinders are finished in black powdercoat. The crankcase has a wrinkled black finish, and gloss black powdercoat covers the outer primary cover and transmission side cover. Other parts such as the derby, cam, and air cleaner covers are featured in mirror chrome. The finished product is impressive-looking, to say the least. An old-school chrome round air cleaner cover lends the bike an overall minimalist look.
The engine package is carried in a new Black Denim powdercoated frame with matching swingarm. Up front hangs a FX conventional front end with black powdercoat triple clamps and black fork lowers. The real eye-catching centerpiece of the bike is the new Split Drag internally wired handlebar arrangement, which mounts directly to the top triple clamp. The instrument gauge is nestled deep between the two downturned bars. The left bar is separate from the right and looks like no other in the Harley lineup. For function, I find the overall width of the bars too narrow, and they don’t provide much leverage for maneuvering the bike. But they get big styling points. A by-product of the narrow bars is that they place the mirrors too far inboard and only provided a clear view of my elbows. Any look to the rear required me to tuck in my arms and crane my neck to see what was back there. Without a doubt, the new handlebars are a form-over-function decision. However, by the time you read this, H-D’s P&A department will have wider bars and other accessories available.
I appreciated the left switch-mounted mode button, which allows the rider to toggle through several functions on the single gauge instrument. The speedo is analog, but the inset LCD displays a tachometer, clock, gear, odometer, A and B tripmeters, and miles to reserve. The entire package is low profile and tucked cleanly in the gap between the bars.
Flowing back through the cockpit, you’ll find an attractive, smooth, die-cast top gas tank panel atop an asymmetrical, 5-gallon Softail fuel tank. This is clean on the left side, with a low-profile fuel fill on the right. This is the only place you’ll find color on a Blackline, which can be had in Cool Blue Pearl ($15,998), Sedona Orange ($15,998), or Vivid Black ($15,499). That clean top panel with tasteful Bar & Shield logo is primarily there to cover fuel pump hardware. The seat’s hung low and is advertised to be a mere 26.1″ from the ground (unladen). While some shorter riders might be attracted to this, I met one vertically challenged test rider who found the reach to the bars too far. But for my 6′ frame, the ergonomics were comfortable, even if the seat padding isn’t.
Pulling strings and dropping names got me an extended ride on the 2011 Blackline, and, unfortunately, I regretted it. I couldn’t see spending much time riding the Blackline long distances. This condition was worsened by the harsh suspension and the heavy steering feeling. To me, a true bobber is small, light, and taut. I don’t see the large Softail line as an appropriate foundation for a bobber. The 21″ front wheel, combined with rake and trail figures of 30 degrees and 4.84″ respectively, plus over 680 pounds of heft, produced lethargic steering and required muscle to maneuver at low speeds to keep the front end from flopping over. At speed, it was perhaps a bit too easy to touch down a footpeg on corners, and I noticed the right forward control footpeg protrudes a bit farther than the left. Perhaps that is to allow the rider’s right leg to bend around the air cleaner.
Some final high points of my impression of the Blackline include the attractive, smooth black rim lips on the spoked wire wheels, the use of a simple plastic license plate bracket, which is bound to be removed and discarded by the owner anyway, and a trendy grenade-like coil cover on the left side of the engine. Simple styling with attitude is the perfect summation of my overall impression of the Blackline. If attitude is more important to you than comfort and function, this is the bike for you. Unfortunately, it’s not the bike for me. AIM
Check out the January Blackline unveiling story here
Story as it appeared in the June 2011 issue of American Iron Magazine.