The Softail® platform may be one of the most well-known Harley-Davidson motorcycle ranges, but it has undergone a number of innovative changes since it was first born in 1984.
Styling cues drawing on the long Harley-Davidson heritage – the ‘hardtail’ look, horseshoe oil tank design and clean styling – have made the Softail an undisputed design classic. Yet under the skin, constant development and technological advances have kept the range as relevant and contemporary as when it was first introduced 35 years ago.
The Softail family was born in the early 1980s when Harley-Davidson acquired a concept motorcycle from a design engineer named Bill Davis, who experimented with hidden rear shock absorbers on a big twin frame. Davis worked alongside Harley-Davidson’s engineers to perfect the design with the 1984 FXST Softail. The frame presented clean styling, low seat height and the classic ‘hard tail’ look of yesteryear, but with the comfort and handling offered by full rear suspension via horizontal, gas-charged shock absorbers beneath the lower frame tubes (Harley-Davidson opted to go with Davis’s alternative design, which placed the shocks underneath the transmission). Returning to round out the antique look was the classic horseshoe oil tank first introduced on the 1936 Knucklehead, which is still a Softail design element today.
The 1986 FLST Heritage Softail – still in the line today – resurrected the classic look of the 1950s with the ‘Hydra-Glide’ style front end. Then, in 1988, the retro styling was dialled up even further in the FXSTS Springer® Softail, complete with ‘springer’ front end – stylish front forks utilizing exposed springs, the gleaming chrome perfectly complementing the clean Softail look.
Stars on screen
In the 1990 model year, a true icon was born – the FLSTF Fat Boy®, designed by Willie G. Davidson after listening to the feedback of riders at Daytona Bike Week. A vintage look and feel with a minimalist theme was the intent, and the Fat Boy delivered in spades. The first year model had a striking monotone silver paint scheme, disc wheels and a wide, or ‘Fat’ look, and would become famous for its appearance in the 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The retro theme continued with the FLSTS Heritage Springer in the 1997 model year, resplendent with springer forks, classic saddlebags, white sidewall tires and ‘tombstone’ tail light. Then for 2000 came the FXSTD Softail Deuce™, perhaps the most radical of the Softail factory customs, featuring a ‘stretched’ gas tank with centre gas tank panel, sleek chrome front forks and the new Twin Cam 88B™ engine.
The ‘Rocker’ models of the 2008 model year were truly innovative: the rear fender was attached to the swingarm for a slammed custom appearance. In the same year, the Cross Bones® brought denim paint, pinstriping, springer front fork and a blacked-out look, harking back to post-war ‘bobber’ motorcycles. A retrofitted Cross Bones featured in the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger.
By 2012 the retro-styled Softail Slim® joined the family, and then in 2017 a completely redesigned Softail frame was launched, featuring a single upgraded rear shock absorber mounted below the seat and a new swingarm construction. This made the new Softails significantly lighter and stiffer than the previous generation platforms. The following year, the Twin Cam motor was replaced by the new Milwaukee-Eight® engine in 107 and 114 cubic inch variants, bringing significantly increased power. Finally, the Softail platform had the whole package – the raw power of the Milwaukee-Eight housed in a radical new chassis, and all rounded off with the inimitable style that has always been part of the Softail DNA.
The Softail has become one of the most successful platforms ever to be introduced by the Motor Company – and one that continues to define the ‘look and feel’ of the Harley-Davidson brand to a new generation of riders.
Now, in 2019, the Softail range is broad enough to encompass a model to suit every rider and every riding style, from the stripped-down minimalism of the Street Bob® to the muscular modern chopper style of the Breakout®. Here’s to another 35 years of Softail style and performance!