Harley-Davidson Softail Slim | First Ride

Making Weight

By Andrew Cherney/motorcycle Cruiser, Photography by Alfonse Palaima

They say: “A modern ride with unmistakable old-iron attitude.”
We say: “Unmistakably.”

Harley-Davidson can’t seem to help reinventing the past. Cruising on a euphoric high from its latest financial report—new bike sales were up 10 percent worldwide in the last quarter—The Motor Company decided to celebrate its good fortune by unveiling two reinterpretations of the glory days.

The bike we rode first, the Softail Slim, harks back to the post-war 1940s—when returning GIs took a hacksaw to their chunky baggers, paring them down to the bone to create bob-jobs, or bobbers.

Black components blanket the cruiser world for 2012, and stripped-down is trumping chrome these days, so the Slim obliges with an even more—wait for it—old-school look. This newest Softail is minimal in a retro way, with details like brief fenders and a narrow rear end that clearly conjure up the post-war vibe. Harley should have dubbed this bike the “Slim-Lo”—its 25.9-inch-high seat is the lowest on a production Harley.

The Slim’s subdued look incorporates Harley’s now ubiquitous combination stop/turn/tail lights and a side-mounted license plate for a clean and simple rear end. The elemental profile was no accident, says Senior Designer Casey Ketterhagen: “We put a Softail on a diet. Scale down the rear with a narrow tire, and the heart of the bike—the motor—once again becomes the focus.”

Because it’s a Softail, the twin rear shocks are hidden out of sight within the lower frame rails, but the rear fender struts are left uncovered, exposing the forged steel. The love-it or hate-it design exercises continue with a thin, formed-leather strap bisecting the fuel tank, plus polished covers and a round, gloss-black air cleaner contrasting the black powdercoated engine. If the Slim is indeed meant to be styled after the homebuilt customs of the ’40s, I’d say mission accomplished.

Having a seat in the Slim’s tuck-and-roll patterned solo saddle means dropping your butt waaay down, and swinging your arms up and out to the new “Hollywood” handlebar, denoted by its wide bend and cross brace. With that street-scraping seat height and rider floorboards, the Slim should fit a wide range of riders—though not necessarily comfortably.

Thumb the starter button and feel the rigid-mounted Twin Cam 103B V-twin shudder to life below, counterbalancers working to minimize the shakes. Release the heavy-effort clutch (which should be lighter if the Slim really is aimed at female riders), engage the heel/toe shifter to the usual Harley clunk, and roll on the throttle to a perfectly mellow cruising speed. For all its lauded torque (98.7 lb.-ft. at 3000 rpm), the 103 cubic-inch mill is well-matched to the Slim’s six-speed Cruise Drive tranny, and there’s ample power on tap, especially down low.

Handling is a mixed bag. As you’d expect, the Slim steers heavy, taking its time to negotiate all but the mellowest sweepers. The relatively narrow Dunlop blackwall tires track well, and the bike rides in a stable and well-balanced manner at all speeds. With 700 lbs. to tow, you won’t be calling it a power-cruiser, but you can feel the results of the Slim’s liposuction compared to other Softails when you blip the throttle. In any case, that’s probably a good thing, because the Slim’s brakes aren’t exactly high-performance. The single four-piston caliper does an adequate job of slowing the front wheel, while the two-piston unit out back works comparably. Fortunately, ABS is available as an option.

Suspension travel is usually the first thing to be sacrificed on a machine this low, but I was pleasantly surprised to feel only the hardest-edged bumps. The Slim’s 4.3 inches of rear-wheel travel should still qualify as the bare minimum, but frankly it’s more than some Harley models (the Blackline, for example, has just 3.6 inches).

And for all its stripped-down aesthetic, the Slim tucks in some pretty trick details. Period styling cues include a shapely “cat’s eye” tank console with a retro-cool speedo face and half-moon rider floorboards. The subtly louvered headlight nacelle is finished in gloss-black, and the wire-spoke 16-inch wheels boast gloss-black rims and hubs.

By Andrew Cherney/motorcycle Cruiser
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