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Not the Hardtail

40 years of Harley-Davidson Softails – a quick overview

harley softail 1984

These days it's part of the motorcycling furniture, but back in 1984 the release of a new Softail was big news in the world of American motorcycles

(June 2024, Guy 'Guido' Allen)

The announcement of the Softail series, seemingly moments after of the launch of the new-generation Evolution engine series back in 1983-84 was a pivotal moment for Harley-Davidson. Thinking back, it was more than likely a make-or-break effort for a company that was at the time wading its way out of a perilous financial situation.

It led to an incredible run of models, through (so far) three major engine series: Evolution, Twin-Cam and Milwaukee Eight. Here's a quick overview of some highlights.

harley softail

The whole idea was to hide the rear suspension so your cruiser carried that 'classic' hardtail look, without the ongoing punishment to you kidneys dealt out by a real hardtail. Back in the 1960s-70s, there was a custom chopper movement that favoured a low-slung rear end look with zero rear suspension. Frame makers such as Santee would cheerfully sell you kits for a big range of Brit, Japanese and American bikes.

Harley's visual replica involved twin shocks slung under the frame (above). The concept was purchased from independent customiser Bill Davis who had come up with two versions of the idea: one running the underslung shocks and another version with the shocks running more or less where today's monoshock is situated on the Milwaukee Eight series – under the seat.

See the background story at American Rider

The first iteration was the FXST, at top, with other variants soon to follow.

harley heritage softail

In 1986 the Motor Company launched the Heritage Softail (above), a huge attention-grabber. At the time, no major maker was doing retro models and this was arguably at the cutting edge of the whole 'heritage' theme that was, over the coming decades, adopted across the motorcycle industry.

springer softail

Move on two years (1988) and we were presented with another very retro idea, the Springer Softail (FXSTS) with a distinctive and at the time alien front end boasting a strong 1930s vibe.

harley fat boy

From a marketing point of view, by far the most influential early Softail was the 1990 Fat Boy. The disc wheels (made in Australia) and kinda Bau Haus looks were enough to get people's attention. However it was the 1991 starring role in Terminator 2, the movie, which really put it on the cultural map.

terminator 2 harley fat boy

See the YouTube compilation of its appearances, in the capable hands of star Arnold Schwarzenegger (who rides) and his stunt stand-ins.

Early Fat Boys, by the way, are very much in demand as collectibles.

harley softail frame

While the Softail name has endured, the structure of the frame changed with the 2017-18 launch of the Milwaukee Eight engine series, where it is now running something closer to a conventional monoshock though still hidden out of sight.

hd fat bob

Though some people mourn the old 'underslung' series, the handling benefits are significant. Along the way, the range has expanded with more capable machinery and continues the often quirky naming culture, such as Fat Bob...

See the current range

See our 2023 Heritage Classic review

More features here

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