2018 Harley-Davidson Softails First Rides

Motorcycle designers the world over should now be asking themselves the question superbly (and repeatedly) introduced by Axl Rose a couple of years ago, which can be, "Where do we go now?"

The bike market has softened a little today as the once-spendthrift boomers start to ponder the benefits of downsizing or create "issues" (that was known as "dread diseases") and only stop riding.

Meanwhile, the more adventuresome young one of the 20-to-34-year-old Millennials (currently the biggest segment of the US population) still flock to motorcycling, but their figures are diminished slightly as a growing number decides to stare at little displays in the hands of the hands instead of adopting the terrors of the wonderful outdoors. To put it differently, it is a challenging time to get a bicycle business to work out precisely what individuals want and what is going to pull them in a showroom.

2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe
2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe | Image source: www.cycleworld.com

Therefore, it was with fantastic interest that I hauled gear and helmet bag in my new Alabama-built Honda Ridgeline pickup (my early blue Ford van having lately expired) and drove to Milwaukee to find out what leadership Harley-Davidson had shot in the plan of its eight all-new Softail models. I had considered arriving more stylishly and authentically in my Buell Ulysses, but the little screen in the hands of my spouse's hands called high warmth and thunderstorms, therefore I easily selected the truck.

This was reported to be the greatest product improvement project in Harley history, also in honor of the event our small gathering of French, Canadian, and American journalists had been granted a rare trip to the H-D Product Development Center. We also got a sneak peek to the "styling bunker," at which I half expected to see Alec Guinness poring over a map of Poland, but rather discovered a cheerful room filled with layout sketches, color, and brightness. Workers were cautioned on pain of death to not depart files stamped "TOP SECRET" lying about in their own desks. No cameras. Telephone lenses have been taped over. Each of the new versions were lined up with covers over them.

2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Heritage Classic
2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Heritage Classic | Image source: www.cycleworld.com

All of Us sat down at a desk, and since the press conference got under way, the fundamental points were these:

  1. The Dyna designation is now gone. The prior Dyna and Softail models will now share a frequent framework, all beneath the Softail family name.
  2. The new framework is lighter, easier, and more resilient, using a triangular swingarm unit shoving right on a monoshock/spring beneath the chair (colors of my older Vincent Black Shadow), instead of using the traditional swingarm/twin shock design of this Dyna or the push/pull spring components beneath the motor of the prior Softails.
  3. Milwaukee-Eight V-twins of 107 and (optional) 114ci are utilized, today rigidly mounted in the frame for extra stiffness, with dual counterbalancers to decrease chassis vibration. Oil-cooling just; no water to your Softail line. The two engines make more energy than ever before.
  4. Engine oiling is currently by wet sump, eliminating the classic independent oil tank under the seat. This places less warmth into the rider, battery, and framework and also frees up space for the monoshock below the seat. The motor itself is tilted slightly forward to increase the back main drive projecting and also make it feasible to have greater cornering clearance on all versions.
  5. Every part in the bicycles was redesigned to decrease weight, taking roughly 32 pounds off many versions.

The Dynas and Softails have traditionally been the "something for everybody" household of Big Twins, so the remaining changes between versions included ride height, substantially enhanced shock damping, fresh forks, improved rear suspension travel, a number of handlebars and footpeg or floorboard places, gas tanks of two distinct dimensions (3.5 and 5.0 gallons), fork geometry, and wheel and tire combinations. And, needless to say, styling.

Yes, yes. Styling.

Nothing increases the precautionary hackles on the trunk of this Harley traditionalist quicker compared to the words "restyling" or "radical change," and I'd been advised that Harley hired a new head of styling termed Brad Richards who had been doing revolutionary things. Not overly innovative, one expected.

For many owners, a Harley is partially a bike and partially a reassuring island of persistence in a world tired of minimal "progress," that can be just the over-application of craft or technology issues that had already been solved more than a hundred decades back.

2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Fat Boy
2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Fat Boy Image source: www.cycleworld.com

And if we walked to the design studio there was a 1950 Hardtail Panhead (previously) parked near the doorway, a heart-stopping milestone of stylistic purity. I looked at it and suppressed the impulse to shout out loudly, "Just make that, with brakes and a modern engine!"

Well, I have not feared.

Since the bicycles were introduced, the immediate impression was of tasteful and subtle change that accommodated itself well with the cleaner and easier bones of this bicycle and its new framework. Since the cover came from the new Softail Slim using a deep-red tank, my instant reaction was that, despite the fact that I'm a sequential FLH proprietor instead of a cruiser man, I would not mind having one at the garage simply to look at. Spare, classic Harley contours, free of artifice.

Obviously, not all of Harley buyers are hair-shirt minimalists, therefore the Softail line comprises bikes with much more swagger and bling. But even these are done within the boundaries of decency. The most revolutionary new contour could possibly be the "Atomic Age" headlight on the FLB Fat Boy, a somewhat oval-ized type reminiscent of my parents' 1957 DuMont TV, which actually fits the overall look of the bike quite nicely. The new Breakout model also has a headlight with a bit of "take me to your boss" ray-gun effect, but, again, it fits the aggressive intent of the bike.

All these bikes, incidentally, have new LED headlights with a "touch" halo of brightness around the edge, intended to make the bike instantly recognized as a 2018 Harley, coming your way.

2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Fat Bob
2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Fat Bob Image source: www.cycleworld.com

Okay. All of us boarded a large, black Harley bus and directed to Blackhawk Farms Raceway, just across the Illinois border near Beloit. This, incidentally, is my home monitor. I began racing sports cars there in 1973 and has been happily among the first cyclists to have a bicycle (1975 Honda CB400 Four) outside on the trail. The owners wished to determine whether the circuit was secure for bike racing, so that they encouraged four people from WERA's 400 Box Stock course to perform an ancient spring lapping afternoon in 1979. Obviously, we advised them it was absolutely safe for bicycles, and soon the area was shrouded in RD350 smoke each other weekend.

And today, 38 decades after, we disembarked from the bus to locate 22 Big Twins sitting in pit lane, in 2 columns of 11. We'd be switching between the present version 2017 Dyna and Softail models along with the brand new replacement versions, 1 set at a time. Two laps with every bicycle, including a complete stop and speed jog down the front straight. No more wheel-to-wheel racing without a passing: simply remain well separated and test out the bicycles at your own real-world route. Very good information, because almost none of us had full leathers, also, regardless, I'd never done a trackday on a bicycle with forward controls and miniature apehangers. Or floorboards.

Track-time limits and the occasional brief rain shower intended we basically jumped from bike to bike like Pony Express riders for many hours, so there was not a great deal of philosophical thinking between stints, but the general fluctuations in the new bicycles made themselves clearly sensed.

Most important to me was that the enhanced handling with all the new chassis and suspension, in addition to the enhanced cornering clearance. For each version, the more recent bike felt more unified, written, and confidence inspiring, not as a group of scenic elements and more a good thing. The Blackhawk circuit has lots of sidewalk changes where repairs are created or the more recent chicane has been added, and, while those are essentially a nonissue on four wheels, they could be disconcerting on 2 if you chatter round the irregular apex of a corner. In other words, the new bicycles handled these sidewalk changes with greater shock and fork compliance and stayed more settled and online. They are just easier to ride quickly.

The H-D engineers’ attack on limited cornering clearance has also paid off. Floorboards that scraped on sweeping turn seven with a few of the “old” bikes didn’t on the new versions, even with the wick turned up. And when you’ve overcooked a corner, as I did at least once (but who’s counting?), this is worth a lot.

As mentioned, horsepower and torque have been raised on all the new Milwaukee-Eight engines, but I can’t claim to have had my mind boggled by the changes, at least on the track. All these bikes felt satisfyingly quick and torquey, and I think the improvements would be better appreciated in roll-on acceleration on the highway, relative to other traffic, which is where Harleys really work best.

Incidentally, some of the visiting journalists worried that, despite the solid engine mounts, the new twin counterbalancers in the engine would render the bikes overly smooth and serene, detracting from the traditional H-D character, but I think they've left just enough vibration in to keep the purists happy and the impure unaggravated. For those who still prefer the more fluid smoothness of rubber mounting, this system will be retained in the touring range of Harleys.

Overall, I would say the new bikes have combined the old Softail and Dyna lines quite seamlessly, improving both in nearly every way. It's hard to argue with cleaner, lighter, simpler, faster, more comfortable, and better handling, with no loss in character. I also think the new frame architecture and styling have made them better looking, but in a traditional rather than revisionist sense, bringing the bikes closer to their elemental roots, without making changes purely for the sake of change.

So in answer to that pressing question, "Where can we go today?" I'd say sometimes we do not need to go anyplace. We only need to keep getting better at what we already do.

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