30 Years of Harley-Davidson Softails

The Motor Company’s most iconic best seller for three decades.

First-year H-D Evo engines were a huge improvement over the iron Shovelhead they replaced. In ’84, you could still get a kickstarter with your four-speed.

Every motorcycle manufacturer—those that have survived, anyway—has a model that either put it on the map or kept it from tumbling over the cliff. And while Harley-Davidson has had dozens of noteworthy rides (and more than its fair share of long-lived platforms, you could say) few were as successful in the greatest time of need as the Softail.

Think back to the late 1970s. In the face of intense European and Japanese competition, Harley was clinging to its roots and paddling furiously to stay afloat. It had, essentially, two engines and three platforms. This was the age of the iron Sportster and the Shovelhead Big Twin in the FL (touring) and FX (well, not sporty, exactly) chassis. Here, at the end of AMF (American Machine and Foundry) ownership, the product was stale and the build quality deplorable. Even Harley fanatics will admit to that.

"The Softail’s pseudo-rigid-frame gave Willie G. and crew the latitude to create a bike that resembled those rigid choppers...but without the pain."

After the buyout from AMF by a group of 13 investors led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson, the new company had relatively limited development resources but went to work anyway. For the 1984 model year, two watershed events took place: the introduction of the Evolution engine and the debut of the Softail. The Evo was hugely important. With aluminum heads and barrels, the Evolution was much lighter than the old iron Shovelhead, and it was manufactured in a way that dramatically reduced failures and fluid leakage. (To call the Evo totally oil tight is perhaps an overstatement, but it was an important step in the right direction.) It was a clear sign that H-D realized it had rested on its brand image for too long.

Harley debuted the Softail the same year. It would very quickly become one of The Motor Company’s most successful platforms because it tapped into a growing sense of nostalgia. Can’t we have (sorta) modern bikes with (sorta) old-timey styling? Yes, in fact, you can.

Central to the Softail’s visual success is the rear suspension, cleverly styled to look like a traditional hard-tail design. Suspension-less motorcycles were there at the very beginning, of course, but the look maintained a new prominence in pure-custom choppers. Guys turning out custom frames in the 1970s liked the simplicity of a rigid rear end; it’s easier to build and better looking. And to make any bike—even one that started as a production model—look like it had a rigid frame, the custom-parts aftermarket industry developed an add-on fixture known as the hardtail. A hardtail was a replacement section for the bike’s rear shocks and swingarm, the goal being to emulate the lines of a bona fide rigid frame. So a guy seeking to build a cool-looking chopper might have taken his perfectly good late-model Triumph or Sportster or whatever with its perfectly good shock/swingarm combination and chopped off that perfectly good rear section, replacing the rear subframe with a bolt-on or weld-on hardtail.

It was about then that a custom bike builder from St. Louis, Missouri, had the notion to build a hardtail-like unit that incorporated a pair of shock absorbers beneath the bike’s seat. Bill Davis’ initial design was based on a 1972 Super Glide that had its rear subframe replaced with the hardtail-looking “soft tail” section he had created. The shocks were eventually positioned beneath the transmission, and Davis dubbed his design Road Worx Sub-Shock. This caught the keen eyes of Harley’s two top stylists, Willie G. Davidson and Lou Netz, who shared their discovery with management in hopes that maybe The Motor Company could buy rights to the frame for future models.

Negotiations between Harley-Davidson and Davis stalled as the buyout from AMF continued, but the new owners eventually did procure rights to Davis’ soft-tail design. They knew something that nobody else did: The upcoming Evo V-twin would look fantastic within the aesthetically pure confines of the new Softail frame. It proved to be a match made in Hog Heaven.

The Softail’s pseudo-rigid-frame layout gave Willie G. and his styling crew the latitude to create a bike that resembled those rigid-based choppers of the previous decade—but without the pain. The FXST Softail was an instant success, followed by the FLST Heritage Softail two years later. Soon these models accounted for the bulk of Harley’s sales and eventual turnaround as a company.

One more factor proved key to The Motor Company’s second coming (or was this the third or fourth resurrection?), and that was the ITC’s (International Trade Commission) import tariff, imposed April 1, 1983, on motorcycles with 700cc and larger engines brought to the US. It was no April Fools’ joke, either, as the tariff was established to help level the playing field on what many industry insiders concluded had been unfair trade in the form of price dumping by Japan’s Big Four. The tariff lasted five years, though it was reduced incrementally each year in hopes of bringing parity to all motorcycle companies operating in America.

Harley’s current 103ci Twin Cam motor is counterbalanced, ride-by-wire fuel-injected, oil-tight, and a hundred other ways more advanced than the Evo, even if it looks superficially the same.

And each year as the tariff fell, Harley’s sales rose. Throughout those and subsequent years, the Softail remained an integral part of The Motor Company’s family of models. Moreover, the FXST led to more variations on the Softail platform with each passing year.

Recently I was able to step back in time to ride a refurbished 1984 FXST to see how the Softail design has held up after 30 years. The bike, though not in 100-percent original condition, is a fine example of what was offered back in the ITC-tariff days, and it belongs to Mark Ruffalo, owner of California Harley-Davidson in Harbor City, California.

Ruffalo acquired the bike as a trade-in for a new model a few years ago, its odometer showing 31,364 miles. And even though the bike was in semi-rough condition, Ruffalo realized its potential for restoration, so he sent it to the service shop for a remake. The most notable non-original components include the 2-into-1 exhaust system, chrome fork tubes, twisted spokes, seat, and S&S E-type carburetor tucked behind the equally non-stock air filter cover. The license-plate bracket is an aftermarket part too, and the speedo is a replacement item.

Before I confess that I didn’t kickstart the FXST’s 80ci Evo engine, I should point out that this 1984 model has significance to Ruffalo’s personal timeline on earth because 1984 also happened to be the year he joined the California H-D dealership as parts manager when owner and founder (in 1975) Ron Ruffalo (yep, Mark’s dad) hired him away from the local Suzuki dealership, which also happened to belong to the Ruffalo clan.

Author Dain Gingerelli (left) and Softail owner Mark Ruffalo compare notes on old-versus-new Softails--—as both are apparently distracted by the Breakout’s Hard Candy metalflake paint.

“This is a landmark bike for me,” Ruffalo, who owns about two dozen older models, many of which carry personal significance for him, told me before I swung a leg over the bike’s saddle. Now I’ll tell you I didn’t kickstart the old Evo: I opted instead to use the electric leg’s nerve center located on the right handlebar control to get this story rolling.

Okay, I admit it. I later took a few gratuitous swipes at the kicker, but persistent wrenching back pain forced a retreat. Before trying to start the engine, I first opened the fuel petcock under the left side of the gas tank. And what’s this? A carburetor? With a choke? Well, actually, it is a fuel enrichener that serves as the choke for the S&S aftermarket carb, and it comes in handy for cold starts to assure the engine has adequate fuel for fire-up. As I fiddled with the knob, I cast a pitiful glance at Motorcyclist’s editorial assistant, James Laub, as he merely thumbed the starter on the 2014 Breakout we brought along for comparison; clearly he wasn’t experiencing the spiritual connection I enjoyed with my pre-EFI motorcycle.

After a few minutes letting the Softail warm up, I pulled the clutch lever in before giving the shifter a deliberate push to engage first, at which point my ears engaged in the chilling sound of gears grinding—or at least resisting meshing with one another. I remember that sound oh-so well, and back in the day some goofy bystander would chide, “Grind a pound for me, too, will ya?” We didn’t have Facebook back then, so we had time to concoct corny jokes like that instead.

It was no joke shifting into second gear though. The old four-speed transmission prefers a sudden, forceful up-kick with your foot to firmly set second gear into motion. Third and fourth posed little problem, though, and I should say a word about the old four-speed boxes too. Fewer gears mean the ratios were spread a lot wider than those in the Cruise Drive six-speed cluster on all new Big Twins, the Breakout included. Consequently, with a four-speed trans you would rev the engine to a pleasant “it’s time to shift now” tone, and by the time your left foot and hand orchestrated the up-shift, the engine’s revs would drop to a low, “let’s start over again” rumble. Personally, though, I always enjoyed the slow rhythm set by the old four-speeders. It created a visceral, back-alley exhaust cadence that encouraged you to participate in the whole procedure of getting the bike up to speed.

Perhaps the biggest surprise awaiting me was the ride itself. That old Softail presented a rather smooth ride, though the fork felt vastly under-sprung and under-damped over bumps. But the gas-filled shock absorbers residing under the transmission soaked up many of the same bumps that overpowered the fork, and the whole experience reminded me just how ingenious Bill Davis was and how right Harley’s engineers were to put his theory into practice.

I was equally underwhelmed by the FXST’s stopping power. Well, “power” might be too strong a word; more like stopping intention because the single one-piston calipers front and rear strained hard to slow the 650-pound (based on period road tests of the time) Softail. And even though lad Laub overshot the braking markers for one traffic signal aboard the Breakout, that new Softail’s four- and two-pot front-and-rear combo reveals the strides that motorcycle technology has taken in the past 30 years. And don’t even think about factoring ABS into the equation. That term was generally brought up only at engineers’ concept meetings back in the 1980s.

Perhaps the most telling thing about this comparison is in the Softail’s consistent overall design. Although evolving technology has led to performance that’s leaps and bounds better than what we had 30 years ago, the overall Softail design itself hasn’t changed much. Oh, belts have replaced chains, skinny tires have made way for fatter skins, and the boneshaker single-cam Evo engine gave way to the smooth-running Twin Cam with its internal counterbalancers in 2000, but the Softail’s basic overall lines remain timeless in appearance and have been given only minor swoops and swirls for styling statements (such as the Breakout’s, which, with its clamshell riding position, serves as the quintessential “barhopper”).

Success can be measured a hundred ways. For the Softail, it’s tallied by more than simple longevity. That the original idea was so good and so sound that it remains in updated but essentially untarnished form is proof enough. Harley has been smart, extremely smart, through the years to refine and develop the Softail—and let’s not shortchange the new model, since it’s massively more refined than the paintmixer ’84 machine—without diluting the styling influences that made it so successful in the first place. Sometimes intelligence is revealed by what you don’t do. In this case, succumb to change for its own sake. Harley’s too sharp for that, keeping the Softail alive and relevant for 30 years. Will we be printing a similar story in 2044?

Author Dain Gingerelli (left) and Softail owner Mark Ruffalo compare notes on old-versus-new Softails--—as both are apparently distracted by the Breakout’s Hard Candy metalflake paint.

First-year H-D Evo engines were a huge improvement over the iron Shovelhead they replaced. In ’84, you could still get a kickstarter with your four-speed.

Harley’s current 103ci Twin Cam motor is counterbalanced, ride-by-wire fuel-injected, oil-tight, and a hundred other ways more advanced than the Evo, even if it looks superficially the same.


More Stories