by Brian Day
Tell me it’s not a bitch trying to honestly review any Harley-Davidson motorcycle right now. We’ve run the Taliban out of town and flattened nasty Uncle Saddam like a $1.69 breakfast waffle at Denny’s. Car windows everywhere are plastered with huge American flag decals and moist-eyed patriotism hangs in the air just like dubbleyew-dubbleyew-too. Stir in the Motor Company’s “We’re-the-Great-American-Legend” 100th Anniversary party drumbeat and I’m gonna have to don a flak jacket and trench around the split-level just to evaluate the H-D 2003 100th Anniversary Softail Heritage Classic with any degree of impartiality.
Just as I got comfortably smug with the sit-back-and-chill touring thing, trouble snuck up like a swarm of angry bees at 70 mph. Hey, it was a swarm of angry bees at 70 mph! Chuffing through a cool pine forest 4000 feet up the San Jacinto mountains on my way to Palm Springs, I digested a lunch of Chocodiles and Starbuck’s Mocha Frappucino slugged straight from the convenience store bottle. Lost in my sugar-induced haze, I failed to notice the long, pale shadow drifting across the road ahead.
Wuzzat, dust? Oh no, just a zillion pissed-off honeybees traversing the two-lane. Too late for evasive action, the angry insects peppered me with a nasty machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat banging. Lurid yellow bee parts and wiggling stingers ran down my jacket smearing the windshield, lustrous paint and polished alloy of the bee-youtiful silvery new H-D. Ouch.
I was caught in the paintball fight from Hell: some of the lil’ fellars refused to die gracefully and crawled kamikaze-like into my jacket headed for unprotected flesh. Not good. Slamming on the brakes, I frantically wrestled 700-odd pounds of morbidly obese Harley to a tire’ smokin’ stop. The scene was reminiscent of a WWII B&W combat film where out-of-control planes hurtle off the aircraft carrier, except that’s me ejecting over the side of the bike and ditching clothes as fast as roadside decorum allowed.
Bee attacks aside, riding the Heritage Softail was great fun once I adjusted my expectations. No news flash here: this is a basic, conservative, softly-spring touring machine offering stately performance. It’s aimed at riders who value comfort and pride of ownership over speed and handling. Yes, she’s a porker: at 699-lbs plus 230-lb operator (moi) it’s no Ducati 999, but my second surprise (after the bee thing) came when I found the big bike could be leaned over until the rigid floorboards scraped tarmac and it would still track true and stable. Pushing hard on mountain roads, I’d pick sprightly lines and the Heritage Softail kept its’ end of the bargain with no ugly surprises. Suspension was plush but linear, muting road irregularities and handling changes in throttle position or purposeful trail braking. As I got familiar with the beast I actually enjoyed decreasing radius corners all the better to watch the floorboard sparks trailing behind me.
Harley’s Softail family was introduced in 1984 with the FXST, and Softail frames appear traditionally rigid (read: cool) but feature a triangulated rear swingarm with hidden shock absorber. The resulting 4.3 inches of suspension travel gives a smooth, comfortable ride. The triangulated swingarm design was invented in 1928 by a British engineer named Howard R. Davies, and did yeoman duty on HRD-Vincents.
Older softails had a reputation as marshmallows, so the line got major upgrades in 2000, including a new frame some 34% stiffer. The big twin engine gained counterbalancing in part to subdue more transmitted engine vibration. This tradeoff works just fine for the level of performance the motorcycle delivers. Front suspension on the Heritage Softail is FL-style telescopic fork with chunky 41.3mm tubes and beer-can style upper covers giving 5.1 inches of travel. As long as I didn’t demand anything untoward, the running gear felt safe and well-mannered.
This bike was born for the interstate, and with a wheelbase of 64.5 inches and a leisurely 32 degrees of rake it floats serenely at speed. The hidden rear shock soaked up bumps and irregularities with aplomb, and it felt unflappable even under harsh sidewinds barreling out of the notorious El Cajon pass into ‘Berdoo. In spite of being nicely balanced, it’s still a massive motorcycle and awkward at low speed: if the Heritage Classic fell over, only a sumo wrestler or Stone-Cold Steve Austin could lift it back up unaided. This is why God made exotic dancers for pillion passengers.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan, you know the Heritage Softail runs H-D’s rigid mount Twin Cam 88 “B” engine displacing 1450cc’s. It’s an undersquare, pushrod, two-valve 45 degree air-cooled twin with (surprise!) two rotating counterbalancers hidden in the cases. My own ’00 FXDX has the TC rubber-mount non-balanced mill and truthfully it’s hard to pick a clear winner between the two. The rubber-mounted big twin shakes and bakes until 2800rpm after which it’s smooth for the duration. The solidly mounted counterbalanced “B” barely tingles at lower revs, but gets randomly buzzy when wrung out. I think “wringing out” was around 5500 rpm, but it was impossible to tell since this expensive, premium-grade Harley lacks a tachometer. At freeway speeds some light vibration danced randomly from handlebars to floorboards to the saddle.
From the cylinder bases up both versions of the big twin are identical save for the Heritage Softail’s Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI.) The system works miracles, as the bike always started immediately, ran perfectly and never burped, hiccuped, farted or otherwise suffered from its’ lost-in-the-mists-of-time design lineage.
When full, the voluptuous gas tank kept 5 gallons of 91 octane sloshing between my thighs. Fuel economy, if you can call it that, was consistently 32-38 mpg. The gas gauge appeared accurate though I chose not to drain the lizard completely. Lookie here: if your shorts are in a knot over gas prices, buy a Hyundai Sonata and spend the change on a color teevee at Circuit City. Harley Davidson makes big, solid, proud, authentic motorcycles for people who want just exactly that and aren’t afraid of paying for the privilidge.
But proud and authentic cost dearly in H-D-ville. The 100th Anniversary Heritage Softail Classic’s $17,870 list price balloons to twenty large after optional ESPFI, special two-tone silver/black paint, delivery, sales tax, DMV fees, etc. These are class-busting numbers even before adding various proud, authentic appearance items and “I’m-a-rugged-individual” mass-produced lifestyle accessories from the fat-assed catalog H-D provides gratis. This free book can easily cost you another five grand. Bottom line: it’s a very expensive cruiser, and if you’re focussed on the best cost/performance ratios, top-drawer power, handling and stopping, you may want to consider something else.
Performance in stock form wasn’t exactly shock and awe-inspiring. The massively sculpted TC engine looks nasty but whack open the throttle at 70 mph and the bike merely churns in place for a bit. Eventually the speedo needle arcs higher but the bike’s weight cancels out much of the urge generated by 88 cubic inches of moderately-tuned V-twin. More importantly, power would surely drop to unacceptable levels with an exotic dancer and her 50 pounds of costumes, high heels and makeup aboard.
This bike just needs more oomph and/or a diet. My own FXDX dynos at 75 hp and 85 ft/lbs of torque, but feels much stronger. Seat-of-the-pants testing suggests the Heritage Softail makes around 60 hp and 65 ft/lbs of torque. The official Motor Company answer is predictable: more power comes by writing larger checks. Your dealer can tweak the “B” engine to about 90 ft/lbs for about $1500 extra. Ka-ching: that’s $22,000 for a stock-looking touring H-D with a reasonably strong motor. You could also spring for the Custom Vehicle Operations Screamin’ Eagle Road King with muscular 103 cu. in stroked/bored engine and 100 ft/lbs of stump-pullin’ torque. Way big ka-ching: pony up $28,095 please. Or buy a Yamaha Warrior, tweak it to 120 horses and have many thousands in “extra cash.”
Riding position is upright, relaxed and comfortable. The bike has a soft, supportive bucket saddle, pullback bars and floorboards. The floorboards are part blessing and part curse. They do limit cornering but allow you to move your feet around for maximum comfort. My longest haul was 300 miles, lightweight by many hardcore touring standards, but I made it back without having to stop by the chiropractor’s office first.
The big tourer uses H-D’s rugged 5-speed non-unit transmission with the evergreen loud “ker-chunk” shifting noise. This noise can surely be refined out of big twin boxes, but I found the klunk comforting. I didn’t like the heel-and-toe gearchange lever since none of my other bikes use it, but I always got clean, if ponderous, gear changes. Ride a Heritage Softail and you end up taking some things a little slower.
Final drive is carbon-fiber toothed belt, the only bit of featherweight material in the whole shebang. H-D belts are so bullet-proof that both chains and shafts seem poor alternative choices (dirty and heavy, respectively) by comparison.
Braking? Single 4-pot 11.5 inch discs front/rear, updated in 2000. Upon deciding that stopping will soon be required, telegraph your intentions to the appropriate hardware and suitable deceleration becomes available within a reasonable time segment. If you rush this motorcycle into a corner and slam on the brakes, you’ll get an immediate physics lesson. Hopefully your exotic dancer passenger carries band-aids and iodine in her makeup case.
Stylistically, the Heritage Softail answers an important question that’s often overlooked. The next time you see a VTX-1800, Royal Star, Road Star, Venture, Vulcan, Volusa, Warrior or other slickity metric cruiser think hard, Clarence: where did it come from? Not the nuts, bolts, pistons and gears, son, but the design. Long wheelbases, fat tires, bulbous lights, acres of chrome and towering deeply finned cylinders, pugnacious gas tanks, flowing fenders and in-your-face let’s-ride-from-Abilene-to-Bakersfield-today attitude. The Motor Company, that’s where.
Score a bases-loaded home run for America: no one makes big touring bikes as iconic as Harley Davidson. The Heritage Softail represents a uniquely domestic design language that’s been ripped off slavishly by other manufacturers. Instead of trying to copyright the engine’s staggered firing sound as it did a while back, H-D might have figured out how to protect the visual treasures that make this bike such an enduring chunk of pure Americana.
And what of the bad olde rumors that Harley slaps together poorly built, crude, oily, unreliable bikes? Parts on the Heritage Softail were universally well designed, strongly built and beautifully finished. Everything fit great and worked right as rain. It’s a stunning motorcycle with deep, lustrous chrome and top-dog paintwork rubbed into shiny submission. Tanks, fenders and covers were gorgeous, with nary a hint of any less-than-flawless surface. Keep it clean and waxed, and a contemporary H-D will continue to look much newer far longer than any metric cruiser as the years and miles roll by.
But my test bike had 6500 miles and the engine whined and clicked a little more than it should have. There was also an intermittent deeper rumble coming from way down somewhere. Now, journalist road test miles are the equivalent of dog years; this well-used example might as well have had 160 thou for all the abuse it could have endured. Regardless, it functioned perfectly, and in 500+ miles of hard running not one single thing happened that was out of the ordinary. Hell, it didn’t disgorge a lone drop of oil or even oil mist after my bee-soaked kamikaze LA-Palm Springs-Berdoo-LA run. H-D seems to have stomped the quality control gremlins for good.
Harleys have been refined over the years, but a few quirks persist. The instruments and indicator lights are woefully basic and I missed the non-existent tachometer. C’mon now; all internal combustion engines have power/torque peaks and valleys, and even relaxed touring riders deserve to know exactly what’s shakin’ way down South in the V-twin engine room.
The “Uncle Wiggly” horn is silly; imagine a toddler honking a fat, red clown nose and you get the idea. It’s loud but dumb coming from such a large, imposing Harley Davidson.
With the sun behind you, blinding light reflects off the chrome tank panel. The phenomenon is strong enough to mask crucial indicator lights that you may just need to see some day.
I’m six feet tall and the non-adjustable windshield was a love/hate thing, bisecting my critical line of sight but giving good protection from wind blast. I’d fit a taller screen or get out the rusty hacksaw and whack a couple of inches off the stocker. Should a normal-sized owner have to perform shade-tree surgery on a big-bucks luxo-tourer? Absolutely not.
Even after I rolled the bike up my driveway and hosed off the dried bees, the Heritage Softail remained stubbornly charismatic. This machine isn’t about big horsepower, knee-scraping cornering, loads of instrumentation, adjustable suspension or high-tech gee-gaws. It’s a perfect ride if you enjoy slowing down to smell fresh cut grass or decide to detour ten miles South of the interstate for an icy glass of real lemonade on a warm summer evening.
Riding the Heritage Softail made me feel solidly connected to all the good things that make America great. As I chugged along heads turned and kiddies waved, other motoryclists flashed me thumbs-up and even the sun seemed to shine brighter as I lumbered along in all my silver and chrome glory.
Accept this motorcycle for exactly what it is or buy another brand of machine if you want. The Harley Davidson 100th Anniversary Heritage Softail Classic has loads of genuine, made-only-in-America character and enough functionality to guarantee you will always ride in interesting times indeed.