The History of Harley-Davidson Softail Motorcycles
The Birth of the Softail
The Harley-Davidson® Softail® was designed in the early 1980s. It all began when Harley-Davidson acquired a motorcycle concept designed by mechanical engineer Bill Davis.
Davis had been experimenting with the design of hidden rear shock absorbers on a large framed motorcycle with a V-twin engine. In 1982, Davis sold his design patents to Harley-Davidson. He would then work alongside Harley-Davidson engineers to perfect the design.
Harley-Davidson released the FXWG Wide Glide in 1980. This model was successful, as were most models in the FX family. When designing the first Softail, Harley-Davidson used the Wide Glide as inspiration, due to its recent success.
The original H-D® hardtail lacked rear suspension, which made long drives uncomfortable. In the Harley-Davidson Buyer’s Guide 1984-2011, by Peter Gantriis and Dain Gingerelli, it states that during this time, it was common for builders to customize motorcycles. Gantriis and Gingerelli further explain that, for this reason, many aftermarket companies tried to solve the rear suspension issue by installing traditional “plunger”-style suspension systems.
However, Davis’ design would prove to be superior. It became an instant hit due to its nostalgic, old-school look and new-age technology.
The motorcycle that Davis designed looked like a traditional hardtail, however, under the seat, there was a pivoting, triangular swingarm. A swingarm holds a motorcycle’s rear axle in place and pivots in order to allow the suspension to absorb bumps in the road.
Furthermore, twin shock absorbers damped the rear suspension. In their guide, Gantriis and Gingerelli also explain that shock absorbers keep a motorcycle stable by maintaining the tires’ contact with the ground. These were mounted horizontally under the transmission, out of sight.
The very first Softail model was the 1984 FXST. It had a low seat, sleek design and the classic H-D look. However, this model stood apart from previous H-D models due to the comfort and handling provided by the full rear suspension.
Harley-Davidson debuted the 1340cc V2® Evolution® engine on the Softail and five other models the same year. This engine had better quality materials and improved mechanics. This is why it was more powerful than the previous models. It also had less leakage and ran cleaner and cooler than previous H-D engines.
The Softail was an instant success, climbing to the top of H-D sales within the first year of its release. Both, motorcycle enthusiasts and nontraditional customers loved it.
Two years later, in 1986, Harley-Davidson released the FLST Heritage Softail. H-D 1950s motorcycles inspired the classic retro look. Its bold style and clever engineering made it a stunner, a classic and a fan favorite. This is undoubtedly why the FLST Heritage Softail is still available today.
The Harley-Davidson Data Book, by Rick Conner, describes the design of the 1988 Heritage Softail in detail. It states that instead of having a 21-inch wheel like the original FXST, the Heritage model had a 16-inch front wheel. Moreover, its rear half and the style of its front forks were modeled after the hardtail Hydra Glide® Big Twins of 1949-1957. The FLST Heritage Softail also featured a five-speed transmission, wide handlebars, and belt final drive.
In 1988, the year of Harley-Davidson’s 85th anniversary, they released the FXSTS Springer® Softail. The gas tank featured graphics unique to the anniversary model. The design included the side profile of a fierce bald eagle, the classic H-D bar and shield logo and text that read “85 years of great motorcycles.”
In the Harley-Davidson Field Guide, Doug Mitchel describes this model as even more retro than the previous Softail design. It featured a “springer” front end, which describes the exposed front fork’s springs. Mitchel further details that these forks were designed with the latest CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software, despite their retro appearance. More recent models featured telescopic forks. Harley-Davidson hadn’t released a motorcycle with leading link sprung forks since 1949.
The FLSTF Fat Boy® Softail made its debut in 1990. This model had a vintage look and minimalistic design. Its monotone silver paint, disc wheels and the now-iconic wide, “fat” style made it a hit. According to the Harley-Davidson Field Guide, it would become the most successful Softail design thus far.
Designer Willie G. Davison created this motorcycle based on the feedback Harley-Davidson received at Daytona Bike Week. Because H-D gave its customers exactly what they wanted, the FLSTF became an obvious fan favorite and a legendary part of American culture. According to the Harley-Davidson Field Guide, a whopping 4,440 copies were built in the first year of production alone. The FLSTF even made an appearance in the film Terminator 2: Judgement day, in 1991.
In 2000, the FXSTD Softail Deuce® was introduced to the world. Harley-Davidson made some daring design decisions, coming into the new decade with a bang. The Harley-Davidson Buyer’s Guide describes that the 2000 Deuce was covered in chrome finishings and capable of 63 horsepower, making it easy on the eyes and lightning on the road.
Harley had improved the design of the FX frame. The Harley-Davidson Field Guide states that the Softail Deuce featured a “stretched” gas tank, chrome front forks, solid rear disc wheel and 34 percent increased stiffness. The new Twin Cam 88™ engine, also known as the Fathead, gave this motorcycle more power than other models. And, the staggered dual exhaust pipes became a Deuce trademark. Motorcycle enthusiasts everywhere fell in love with the Softail all over again.
The Heritage Softail was first introduced in 1988 and has received upgrades and improvements with each release. It’s the perfect combination of retro style and modern mechanics. The 2010 FLSTC Heritage Softail has a bolted in Twin Cam 96B engine, six-speed transmission and 1584cc displacement.
The Softail Slim® was added to the lineup in 2012. Post-WWII style bobbers inspired its design. Bobbers were a type of custom motorcycle. The builder would strip the bike of all “unnecessary” parts, hence the name “slim.” Having merely its essential parts, the Softail Slim is lighter than other Softail models. And its retro look and feel take riders on a blast to the past.
Five years later, in 2017, the Softail frame was completely redesigned. The redesign included a single rear shock absorber, which was mounted under the seat, and a new form of swingarm construction. This edition of the Softail maintained the classic look of the original but with a lightweight design and stiffer structure.
In 2018, Harley-Davidson released a line of all-new Softail models. This was the largest product development process in Harley-Davidson history. The innovation that took the world by storm was the new mono-shock rear suspension with an accessible pre-load adjuster.
Also, the Twin Cam motor was replaced by the Milwaukee Eight® engine. This upgraded engine came in 107 and 114 cubic inch variants, making it a force to be reckoned with.
The new 2018 Softail frame was 35 pounds lighter than that of the 2017 Softail models. Harley-Davidson explains that the lightweight design makes for better handling, helps “harness the torque of the new dual-counter-balanced Milwaukee-Eight 107 and 114 engines” and delivers “an improved power-to-weight ratio that provides quicker acceleration.”
Throughout the decades, the Softail has been held close to the hearts of motorcycle enthusiasts and Harley lovers everywhere. It’s undoubtedly one of H-D’s best creations. The Softail is adored for its retro look and praised for its handling, comfort and mechanical design. Its unique combination of new and old school features truly gives riders the best of both worlds.
What’s your favorite thing about the Softail lineup? Let us know in the comments below!
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Gantriis, P., & Gingerelli, D. (2011). Harley-Davidson buyers guide: 1984-2011. Minneapolis, MN: MBI Pub. Co. and Motorbooks.
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Mitchel, D. (2005). Harley-Davidson field guide: all-American bikes 1903-2004. Iola, WI: Krause.
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