Article By: Rob Keller
Photos By: Riles & Nelson
The history of the Softail is a tale of innovation that has taken the motorcycle industry on a 40 year ride into the world of modern day style and comfort. A place where our past meets the future and nostalgia lives on.
Since Harley Davidson began manufacturing motorcycles in 1903, they have captured the imagination of free spirited
Americans everywhere. With every new model year, comes decade after decade of creative designs and new innovations. Every engine from the Flathead, Knucklehead and the Panhead were mounted on hardtail frames. This means there was no rear suspension
except for a hard rubber tire and a spring seat. To improve on the comfort you could take air out of the tire to get some cushion. They all had Springer frontends until a hydraulic front fork system was used on the Hydra Glide in 1949. Then the 1952 K Model came along and had rear shocks. It wasn’t until 1957 that the new Duo Glide came with rear shocks and hydraulic forks.
In 1966, the Shovelhead was introduced, and that brings us to 1969 when Harley Davidson merged with American Machine and Foundry (A.M.F.) New models were rolling off the assembly line and there were plenty of bikers choppin’, bobbin’ and building their creations. Around this time, Bill Davis from Saint Louis, Missouri was ridding his 1972 FX Super Glide and wasn’t happy with the style of his bike. Like many others, he preferred the look of the classic hardtails. The problem was, he also wanted to ride on longer trips and didn’t want to give up the comfort of the rear shocks. This dilemma started a new chapter in motorcycle history.
As Bill was designing his plan, the motocross world was already getting a taste of innovative suspension. A Belgium motocross
racer, Lucien Tilkines, developed a new rear suspension that used a single shock. It was tucked under the seat that attached to the
swingarm and allowed for 50% more travel than the two shock system. On the track, this was a huge advantage. This 1972 design is still being used today by most factory dirt bikes. Bill Davis didn’t need a shock with more travel; he wanted to hide the shock so his bike would look like a hardtail. His invention worked well and got the vote of approval from others so he filed for a U.S. patent in March 1976.
With a new design came new opportunity. Bill received the chance to meet with Willy G Davidson and Louie Netz of Harley-Davidson in August 1976. Although they liked the concept, they didn’t purchase the idea. Bill kept moving forward with his idea and was
able to adapt the shock system to a Sportster. Six months went by and he was contacted by Jeff Bleustine of Harley-Davidson but Bill
passed on the offer. Bill continued to refine his design and came up with a new sub shock concept that would allow for the shocks to mount under the transmission. After some research and development, he took the idea and started a new business called Road Worx. His frames were selling but not fast enough. He got into a financial bind and called Bleustein again. This time Bill reluctantly sold to the Factory which had just 6 months prior bought back Harley-Davidson from A.M.F. The first Harley Softail FXST hit the sales’ floor in the summer of 1983. Harley introduced the bike with a new Evolution 1340 powerplant and a 4 speed transmission with a chain final drive. It was a huge success and played a big part in the comeback of Harley-Davidson.
Over the past twenty-nine years, the Motor Company has added new Softail models to their lineup. We have also seen a few
disappear. The latest bike to be added to this prestigious line of motorcycles has been named the Blackline. The Blackline FXS is powered by the new Twin Cam 103B with Automatic Compression Release (ACR) for faster and easier starts and a clutch spring
compensator for easier clutch pull. This engine has an increase in peak torque ranging from 92 to 94 ft. lbs. at 3000-3500 rpm with the TC 96 c.i.d. to 97 to 100 ft. lbs. at 3000-3500 rpm with the TC 103. This added power is acquired by increasing the cylinder bore from (3.75) to (3.875). This larger bore also increases the compression ratio from 9.2:1 to 9.6:1.
The hand controls are new with Ergonomic Key Caps and a Flash-to-Pass feature. Also available as an option is the H-D Factory Security System with ABS Brakes. The Blackline has a real sweet profile while sitting on the kickstand. I especially liked the blacked-out wheels combined with the black engine and subtle chrome accents. It has a lot of the Night Train features but still has its own cool look about it. When you throw a leg over the seat and sit down, you realize right away this bike sits low. The 24.6” seat height
squats down a little lower while taking on my weight. The reach for the handlebars is nice; no stretching for me at 5ft 10in, or someone smaller. Again like the Night Train, the handlebars have a narrow feel but the overall reach gives a good comfortable bend in the elbows. Pulling the bike up off the stand is rider-friendly and now I realize that this bike is another option to owning a Softail Deluxe.
The easy pull clutch works well with the increased torque of the TC 103 engine. As I raise my feet to the pegs, I have a nice bend at the knees and I’m in a very comfortable profiling position. This bike does not stretch you out; I can control the Blackline with ease while performing slow speed maneuvers.
Out on the highway, the ride is comfortable and smooth. There is almost no vibration at all as I ran through the six gears. I’m really impressed with the power-to-weight ratio. In the twisties, it’s easy to maneuver and the low center of gravity gives you confidence in the tight corners. The Blackline is a Softail, and while not the best cornering bike because of its low stance and rear shock design,
it does handle relatively impressively. I like the fact that the Factory put feelers on the foot pegs. They fold up when you lean deep into the corners and this feature helps to get the most out of your ride. The ABS brakes are also something I am a big fan of. If you ride this bike or any bike with ABS brakes, test them to see how they react before you find yourself in a panic stop situation. If you are looking for a good looking bike that is easy to ride, check this model out. We would like to thank Harley-Davidson for giving us the opportunity to test ride the new Blackline.
Juneau Avenue – Milwaukee, WI