You want a modern bike with classic style. How do you choose? Steve The Toast explains how he ended up with a Harley Softail…
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It was the summer of 2002. The small ads were once again spread before me. My finances had experienced a lift which gave me the chance to buy a new bike. I mean ‘new’ new, as in straight out of the showroom. The easiest way to decide what I wanted was to short-list the features I need from a bike, and a list of what else I’d like if possible. I’m not a fussy person per se, so the list was short. It must be black, it must be loud, preferably V-twin or parallel twin, be of very large capacity for long-legged cruising and be very comfy, as I’m old. In the also-rans, ease of maintenance would be good, too.
This gives a surprisingly wide choice, big BMWs, Guzzies, some Jap ‘fake Yanks’ (which are very good in their own right), Ducatis and, my favourite of that moment, modern Triumphs.
I’ve ridden most of the above and owned a few, so I’m pretty conversant with most of their foibles. Cutting the wheat from the chaff, I dropped the Italians for reliability and maintenance reasons. I’m not a big fan of BMWs so I short-listed a ‘re-engineered classic’, the new Bonnie, or a Harley.
OK, the re-engineered or rebuilt classic. It’s almost impossible to know what’s inside the cases, only the vendor knows if it’s been done properly, and can you trust someone you’ve never met? In my experience, Mulder’s watchword covers most things: trust no-one! So a nice Commando or an A10 was out of the question (plus I cannot be bothered to rebuild it every 25k after rough use. At least I’m honest to myself about how the bike will be used).
Those nice people at On Yer Bike offered me a test ride on the new Bonnie and, as I owned five different original Bonnies in my youth, I thought this was a good place to start. I’m a patriotic soul at heart. Well, it didn’t take me very long to see that the old magic was no longer there, for me at least. The bike feels too light; the motor is far too sanitised, which makes it feel more like riding a Honda CB450 than a thumpy Brit. I was only out for half an hour, it’s true, but I felt it was all too smooth, bland and gutless.
They also offered me a ride on a 900 triple. This was more like it; a more planted feel, more poke, and the whole package was far better. I could go for one of these IF nothing else appealed, with an upgrade to the exhaust to make it a better ‘riding experience’. I do like to hear a rasp from the silencer. I don’t often read the dials, but ride by ear. This has probably come about for the simple reason that most of my early bikes didn’t have working clocks. Ah, mis-spent youth.
I next booked a ride on a Harley. The big twin, this is, now some 1450cc. I’ve owned two 1340s before so I was pretty sure of what to expect. Low c-of-g, poor brakes, no ground clearance (on the softail model with the shocks hidden under the engine), and tons of vibes. But I like them, and it’s always fun to ride a demo bike. I duly arrived on the dealer’s doorstep, they ran through the documents and, with the cheery warning that I was personally liable for the first £500 of any damage, they showed me out to the bike. It was a Night Train model, with the softail rear suspension set-up, loud pipes, tune-up kit and a few nice styling details.
‘Have you ridden one before?’ asked the Harley-attired young man. I told him I had, having owned a new softail custom in 1990.
‘OK, well, you’ve got an hour, so off you go then’ he replied and promptly walked off.
I fired it up and it settled down to a glass-shattering burble. Clunking into first, I pulled to the edge of the forecourt and waited for a gap. OK, no gap, so I forced my way out and took off. Memories of my earlier bike came flooding back — the long turning circle, the heavy gearbox, and the crappy brakes.
Wait! These brakes actually worked! I was stunned, and as my hour passed I found I was leaving my braking later and later. This is a heavy bike, it’s no roundabout eater, and I dinged the side-stand down a couple of times on the exit of a few corners. I treated it roughly, urging it up through the rev-range as I became more familiar with it. It responded with loud noise, good progress and my face split into a huge grin as my hour drew to a close. I swung her into the forecourt, almost positive of my next motorcycle choice.
After a coffee or three, I manage to relax my facial muscles enough to speak, and discuss prices. My options included an anniversary model, which will hold its price even better than a normal Harley. As we all know, the fan can get splattered at any moment necessitating the need to sell her when things financial are overly tight (which is what happened last time – doh!), so this sounded like a good idea. I trolled off with many thoughts whizzing around my brain. That evening, my good lady convinced me that I was making the right decision (a very shrewd woman), but as I wanted the anniversary model with an ’03 plate, I’d have to wait till March 03.
So a stopgap was needed as I’d got the blood lust to be out ripping tarmac again. I spotted a 1340cc Heritage Softail on a website; £6500 and low miles. I rounded up some wonga and a friend to give me a lift to see it. It was a mountain of accessories, with just about every bolt-on known to man. Alone, the bits must have been worth four grand. I do mean it had Everything. It looked like a tart’s handbag, so I was certain I’d be able to off-load it to some Harley Owners Group wannabe when my new one was ready. This bike was LOUD!
Handing over the money as security, I took it for a test ride. It handled like a slug. I have piloted Norfolk Broads cruisers that are more nimble. And, as it was a 1992 bike, the brakes were rubbish. 20 minutes later, I did the deal and we high-tailed it back down south.
The Tart’s Handbag was running far too lean, not having been jetted for the open pipes properly. This was sorted straight away, and we settled into an easy alliance, I didn’t ask her to go anywhere too fast, and she didn’t stop too quickly when we got there. It seemed like a good deal! We chuffed around together and I was back into the swing of dumper-truck riding in no time.
March 03 loomed, and so, severely looking forward to my new bike, I popped the Heritage on a couple of websites. RealClassic came up trumps and off she went to a ‘private dealer’ and I got my money back. If I’d been willing to wait a bit longer for summer, I could have easily made a grand on the transaction, but that would have meant breaking into savings to collect the new one. And my garage was at bursting point anyway. Having off-loaded the Handbag, Saturday the first of March arrived and off I went to collect the new pride and joy, the FXST Softail Standard Anniversary edition. Documents stuffed into backpack, servicing requirements covered, they brought her round and she sat there, crobbing to herself.
Crobbing, I hear you ask? Yup, I had a stage one kit fitted to the carb to make up for the, ahem, free-er breathing pipes I also had fitted, along with back-rest for my kids, plus pannier rails to keep my throw-overs out of the back wheel.
‘Keep her under 50 for 500 miles, then you can take her up towards 60 as you head for the first thousand – but don’t lug the engine.’
Ulp. The best way to deal with this is to ride her all day for two weeks and get it over and done with, as none of my mates would show me any mercy if we were out for a ride. The gearchange was a little stiff, the brakes weren’t great straight off but all else was fine. A thousand miles later, I was finally allowed to start opening her up a bit. It was worth the wait. She responded to the throttle with a good surge forward, booming exhaust note, leading to the wide grin. By this time, the gearbox was positive if a little heavier than a Jap, and the brakes had bedded in nicely. I was a happy little biker.
And now – with over 3500 miles covered in all weathers in five months, my honest opinion? Well, having spent eleven and a half grand on it, I’d be a twit if it didn’t ring my bell for me every time I ride it, which fortunately it does. It’s great, hugely enjoyable; it feels fully planted on the road despite crosswinds, passing trucks or nuclear explosions, seams in the tarmac etc. It’s only the cleaning I hate, but that’s because I’m a self-confessed lazy git.
As to what it takes to run it, the archetypal modern Harley, well, here’s a bit of info. Servicing? Mainly oil and filter; tappets are hydraulic, ignition is electronic, so after checking the gearbox oil, belt tension, there’s brake pads to check and only a bit of greasing up to do. Doesn’t take long, as you can imagine. As to the belt drive, they cost around £400. Did I hear you say EEK? Well, hold on, and take this in: they are very smooth, they should last four years, and need adjusting only rarely. In that time how many dirty, oily chain and sprocket sets will you replace, as well as having to adjust and lubricate regularly? (As well as covering the back of your bike and girlfriend with lube… the only positive side of chains!). Shaft drive? Would have liked that, I admit. It is my personal favourite.
Practicality? I’d say 80% in the better weather, 10% max in the winter due to the time needed to keep its looks from fading. For touring, they are brilliant. I have 40-litre throw-overs; I can get tent and sleeping bags on the front, a pillion passenger and still have the backrest to strap a rucksack to. As an ex-dispatch rider, traffic filtering holds no fears for me, but I do have to watch the wide bars a bit. I’ve clipped a few mirrors with them, but somehow not been moved to tears about it. S’funny, that.
How does it perform? Well, no reliability problems so far, it fires up on the button first prod. During running-in (with a really tight motor) it turned in 45mpg, but since then I’ve not noticed a tankful going any less. The motor requires a long time to warm up; I don’t ride until I feel some warmth in the cylinders, and for the first 20 miles I take it easy. You can tell easily when it’s warmed through as it smoothes out considerably. If you want a bike for local shopping, look elsewhere!
It’ll cruise very nicely at 75, I have held 85 around half of the M25, but on my model you are hung out to dry. There are some very useful H-D tools, noticeably the Sport Glide, but that’s not really what this bike’s all about. A-road blasting is my favourite, as the speeds are lower than motorways, and I get to run up and down the box and glory in the roar it makes. It’s a very satisfying bike in that respect.
Even the Standard Softail weighs a bit but once rolling, even slowly (had to look that word up), in traffic it is easy and reliably planted. Very stable, at any speed. Top speed? I had my first softail (1990; 1340cc) up to 115 once, but this one’s only reached the heady heights of 90 so far. One day, it’ll get a whipping, but not until it’s covered a bit more mileage. They take a long time to be fully bedded in. I bought the Softail to enjoy, and enjoy it I do. I’ve had no faults or warranty claims thus far. It comes with a factory-fitted alarm which has functioned perfectly, as well as giving me a discount with the special insurance deal Harley-Davidson have set up, so costs me just over 500 sovs unlimited mileage and green card included. And yes Officer, I have a poor record with insurance companies…
Why buy one? Well, I was brought up on Brits, my first post-moped bike was an Enfield 250 Crusader, followed by a Norton Jubilee 250 twin, 500 Ariel, then five Bonnevilles, a 5TA chop and a Commando. Loved them all. They epitomise what bikes are to me. All were loud, mostly twins, and nearly all were black. There wasn’t a current Brit I really wanted, though the new 2-litre plus Triumph looks interesting for the future.
What I wanted, the Harley does in spades, as well as being new with a pretty tough motor too. And for my advancing years (and damaged bones!) the seating position is perfect. I wouldn’t recommend an 883, too light and gutless, but the big twins are great, whichever styling you go for, be it custom, sit-up-and-beg, or the full-on in-your-face tourer with all the toys.
If you like classic Brits, then I suggest you go test ride Uncle Sam’s big twin. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised. A bike that harks back to the days of yore, much like the Britbikes we grew up with, but tougher and refined. There are plenty around secondhand, just don’t expect to get a bargain. They hold their re-sale value well, especially in the summer months. If going the secondhand route, do take some one who knows about them with you and try to buy off-season, like in December! Rusty ones should be well below the normal value, and if you’re shrewd then you’ll buy one with all the necessary ‘upgrades’ and accessories already fitted. Just don’t buy all the Harley merchandising junk that seems to go with it!
Harey. Brit Bike Substitute?