Harley-Davidson Softail: Custom
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When you talk to motorcyclists about Harley-Davidson, you realise how polarising the brand is. There are generally two camps: those that love them and those that hate them, and nothing between.
H-D know they have the market covered when it comes to cruiser-style motorcycles, but it’s the riders in the other camps they are planning to target aggressively over the next 10 years. And that means changing the polarising view of their models.
The start of the “master plan” is the redevelopment of the Softail range, with a gang of eight “big twin” cruisers released to journalists at a different ride location to past Harley launches.
Heading out of Pasadena and into the hills of the Los Angeles National Forest, the snaking highway resembled Coromandel’s motorcycling Nirvana rather than the usual long, straight highways of Harley-Davidson launches.
Something had changed, and we were there to sample it over two days, riding hundreds of twisting kilometres.
No bolt unturned
The route choice made sense when we learnt the design brief used for the Softails, with the engineers tasked to make the new models more acceptable to a larger proportion of the motorcycling public. The new bikes had to handle, stop and go.
Those are basic requirements for most other motorcycles, but with Harley-Davidsons traditionally built for the American market where long, straight highways dominate the landscape and looking good is arguably more important than good riding.
Despite retaining the same overall look that makes each model unmistakably a Harley — the designers couldn’t go too crazy — underneath it’s pretty much all new.
Uprated suspension, engine, frame and other components all lead to a drop in weight and a rise in power.
But the bikes need to handle too, so the amount of lean angle has been increased across the board, making them more suitable for locations like New Zealand where even the main highways have serious corners.
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Undoubtedly, the biggest single improvement in the 2018 Softail range is the Milwaukee-Eight engine, with the 107-cubic inch (1746cc) or 114cu in (1868cc) V-twins — that were implemented so successfully into the touring range last year – supplying a marked increase in performance over the outgoing motor.
With the motor rigidly mounted in the new frame, another balancer shaft has been added. This means your fillings no longer rattle out of your teeth when sitting at traffic lights.
The old underslung rear suspension has been replaced with a modern monoshock; the mounting position underneath the seat allowing for easy adjustment.
Take your pick
The eight models in the range fit into three categories. The Heritage and Deluxe are instantly recognisable as Harley-Davidsons.
Both are ideal for long, comfortable cruising, and the smooth Milwaukee-Eight engine suits the genre perfectly by supplying buckets of torque from low in the rev range as you glide along the road.
But it’s the Low Rider, Street Bob and Softail Slim that are the sweetest handling bikes, with the narrower tyre profiles, lower stance and more natural riding positions allowing riders to push the boundaries further in the corners.
The new chassis — which makes the bikes stiffer by 34 per cent — gives improved mid-corner stability that means you no longer drag frame rails on anything more than a slight lean.
Then there are the bad boys; the Fat Bob, iconic Fat Boy and Breakout.
These bikes exude attitude at every pulse of the American motor, with the Fat Bob looking like it’s been designed to tackle some form of zombie apocalypse.
Many riders want to look cool, and that’s what Harley-Davidson has done so well for over a century.
Now, with the improved engines, upgraded suspension, increased ground-clearance and better road manners, there’s the ability to not only have a real American motorcycle, but also a bike with acceptable levels of performance.