Handsome Harley has long heritage
Low-slung V-twin is a solo ride, says Paul Owen
If we Kiwis ever get tired of the interval between our frequent earthquakes we can always visit the Harley-Davidson factory in York, Pennsylvania, where a gigantic stamping machine has been pressing out the mirror-like halves of the brand’s signature ‘fat bob’ fuel tanks for 40 years or more. Each violent stroke of this three-storey high monster shakes the fillings in your teeth and momentarily blurs your vision as it noisily folds sheetmetal into a teardrop-shaped reservoir. The fact that the tooling of this machine hasn’t been changed for four decades is irrefutable proof that the tanks fitted to Harley’s long-running Softail range haven’t changed shape over that period of time.
Like the instantly-familiar engine and seemingly suspensionless frame of a Softy, the ‘‘fat bob’’ is something that a designer seeking to add a new variant to the range can’t change. That doesn’t leave a lot of scope for coming up with a completely new look, does it? Yet Harley’s designers have been prolifically adding new Softail models over recent times. Last year saw the debut of the new Blackline, for 2012 we have the Softail Slim. Both are minimalist in approach, stripping back the bling to redefine the 1690cc Big Twin as a more dynamic ride. There’s plenty of brand management going on behind the scenes. The advent of the global financial crisis saw Harley increase the number of smaller-engined Sportster models in its portfolio. Now more affordable Big Twins like the Blackline and Slim are offering ‘‘stepping stones’’ between the 883cc and 1202cc Sportsters and the other 1690cc models priced above them. They’re targeted as congratulatory purchases for the middle manager who was made redundant in 2009, spent 2010 finding his/her feet, and eventually found financial security again in 2011.
Well, that’s the official line anyway. I suspect that another factor in Harley’s desire to make Big Twins more accessible is the success of Victory. The motorcycle division of Polaris has developed a simple formula for persuading people away from purchasing Harley Big Twins: make even more powerful Big American Twin and offer it at a more affordable price. To me, it is absolutely no coincidence that the $28,995 pricetag of the Softail Slim is the same amount asked for a Victory Hammer.
Riding this Slim, coloured a shady matt back, it’s easy to admire the enduring emotive pull of the Big Twin experience. There’s the patented engine note, thankfully muffled so that everyone can appreciate it, a measure of vibration that’s been refined to the point where it pleases rather than annoys and soft riding springs that now have the more authorative damping required to completely control their contractions and expansions.
The mechanics of the experience are ancient – the 1690cc long-stroke pushrod V-twin being not a lot different from the Evolution engine that preceded it, and (gasp) a chaindriven separate gearbox that then uses a belt to drive the back wheel – yet they’ve been refined to a point approaching perfection.
Meanwhile don’t worry if you think your passenger might have fallen off this bike; they were never there in the first place. For this is a singles-only ride, the lack of pillion accommodation enhancing the slim proportions of the rear end that give this Softail model its name. At a Glance: Engine: 1690cc air-cooled ohv pushrod V-twin, stoked by electronic fuel injection to develop 50kW (67.4bhp) at 4750rpm and 120Nm at 3150rpm Transmission: Six-speed sequential gearbox, belt final drive Frame: Steel-tube twin cradle frame and steel tube triangulated rear swingarm; 43mm unadjustable Showa front forks, Twin unadjustable Showa rear shocks mounted under gearbox. Price: $28,995 Hot: Looks best in matt black so don’t pay extra for metallic red; price point steeping stone in Harley’s range between smaller Sportsters and heavier Big Twins. Not: Floorboards restrict cornering clearance further, brakes require strong inputs, pillions catch taxis.
Softail Slim: For a Harley-Davidson, that is.