Bikes You Should Know is a new feature that will appear weekly as part of Two Wheel Tuesdays. Since Hooniverse primarily caters to automotive enthusiasts, this column will focus on historically or culturally significant motorcycles that are likely to interest a non-riding audience.
You wouldn’t know it to look at Harley-Davidson now, but about 35–40 years ago, America’s only surviving major motorcycle manufacturer was on the ropes, and in genuine danger of going under altogether. The Universal Japanese Motorcycle was in its heyday and was vastly superior in performance and reliability. By 1978, Harley sold off its Italian holdings and abandoned the lightweight bike market. The only people who wanted Harleys were people who wouldn’t consider anything else for cultural reasons: outlaw motorcycle gangs, tradition-bound cops, rabid nationalists and labor union supporters who refused to buy foreign imports on principle, and those who had grown up in a Harley-riding household. That’s certainly not the case today, and this bike, the Harley-Davidson Softail, is one big reason why.
Industrial conglomerate AMF (of bowling equipment fame) had added Harley-Davidson to their corporate portfolio in 1969, and conventional wisdom lays the blame for the crisis at the feet of AMF management, for irrationally starving Harley of the cash needed to regain their competitiveness. However, if we could dial our Wayback Machine to the late 1970s, we would discover a wholly more complex reality. AMF had purchased an outdated, inefficient, ailing company with an entrenched, belligerent corporate culture. The parent company’s prescription was to slash the workforce and demand cost-cutting measures, which resulted in strikes, work slowdowns and (if urban legend is to be believed) even deliberate assembly-line sabotage of the product. By 1981, AMF had given up hope of making Harley profitable, and sold Harley-Davidson to thirteen investors, many of whom worked for Harley. Today, The Motor Company’s somewhat deliberately crafted corporate mythology implies that once Harley’s fate was in the hands of independently-minded, “real motorcycle” people, they rapidly undid the damage AMF had inflicted, and the rest is history. The truth is that Vaughn Beals, who headed the new board of investors, had been head of AMF’s Motorcycle Products Group. Harley was on much better footing due to the admittedly painful changes AMF had made, and in contrast to how the story gets told today, AMF actually bankrolled a significant number of R&D projects: a hugely expensive watercooled V4 superbike project codenamed Nova, a redesigned Sportster, several new frames incorporating badly needed improvements in comfort and handling, and the Evolution V2 engine, a significantly upgraded replacement for the existing “shovelhead” V-twin. The new Nova and Sportster engines were eventually canned, but the “new” Harley-Davidson would reap the fruits of the other development projects within a few years of taking over.
The Evolution design was the home run Harley desperately needed. Whereas the old shovelhead motors were built with rather dated tooling and had all sorts of problems due to uneven expansion between the cast iron cylinders and the rest of the engine components, the Evo engine was all-aluminum and was produced with new, state-of-the-art manufacturing methods and machinery. It was oil-tight, reliable, and smoother running. It debuted in 1984, replacing the shovelhead in models such as the much-improved, rubber-mounted Super Glide II chassis that had gone on sale right after the buyout. It also showed up in a dramatic new motorcycle: the FXST Softail. The Softail was based largely on the Wide Glide, which had debuted in 1980. The Wide Glide had chopper-derived features that are common cruiser features now, but were outrageous for the time: widely-spaced front forks, skinny 21″ front wheel, foot controls in front of the engine, and even optional flames on the tank. The Softail didn’t get the flames but was even more extreme, thanks to a rear suspension design that cleverly mimicked a “hardtail” frame. Riding one of these old-style hardtails, which had no rear suspension at all, was considered a badge of distinction among hardcore chopper riders. The Softail offered the look without the punishing ride and iffy roadholding. Harley hadn’t actually developed the “soft-tail” frame. An engineer from St. Louis named Bill Davis had been developing and perfecting what he called the “Sub-Shock” design since the mid ’70s. Davis and Harley execs had discussed licensing the patent on several occasions during the AMF years. With the introduction of the Evo motor and Harley’s fortunes looking up, the time was right.
WHY IT’S SIGNIFICANT
Harley’s original Softail was significant not only for the new suspension and engine it had, but for what it didn’t have. It didn’t have the rubber-mounted drivetrain, dual front discs, increased cornering clearance or 5-speed transmission that made some other Harley models better performers. The Softail was all about traditional chopper styling, not performance. Even though the Softail had a big kickstart lever hanging off its 4-speed transmission, it really only required a push of the starter button. Suddenly, any lawyer, dentist or insurance salesman with $7,999 could buy a genuine Harley that screamed outlaw gypsy biker but didn’t require the sacrifices in ride-ability and reliability a hardcore chopper had previously required. It took a couple years to get traction in the marketplace, but buy them they did — in droves. (Thus giving us the premise of Wild Hogs.) The Softail morphed into a whole range of derivative models with names like Fat Boy, Springer, Heritage, et al. These led the charge in fulfilling the Baby Boomers’ increasingly ravenous appetite for new Harleys throughout the 1990s. In 2000, the original Evo Softail was replaced with a version using the newly introduced Twin Cam 88 engine, but the Softail suspension design and name live on in current 2014 models. If the Softail had flopped in favor of better-performing, less traditional Harleys such as the Lowrider Sport, perhaps Harley would have adopted products and marketing that stressed function over style. But as it is, the Softail communicated loud and clear what Harley’s strategy would be for years to come: traditional looks that were easy to live with.