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Harley-Davidson Softail at 40: Legendary Custom Styling Dominance

The foundation of an iconic family of factory custom and cruiser motorcycles.

It was the ideal merger of form and function. In 1984, Harley-Davidson introduced the new Softail motorcycle platform. Hidden rear suspension and a clever swingarm design gave the frame the clean, uncluttered profile of a vintage motorcycle with no rear suspension at all — a so-called hard tail. The Softail chassis would prove wildly successful and was the foundation for a number of iconic Harley-Davidson factory custom motorcycle models. Harley-Davidson celebrated the anniversary of the introduction of the original FXST Softail model, a design that has evolved functionally over 40 years but retains the same classic “hard tail” lines as the original.

A Family of Cruisers

The current Softail chassis introduced in 2018 is the foundation of nine models in the 2024 global collection of Harley-Davidson Cruiser motorcycles, each engineered to be stiff and lightweight, for agility and performance that will exceed the expectations of the most-demanding cruiser riders.

The centerpiece of the Softail chassis is a rear mono-shock designed for premium suspension performance — a smooth ride and outstanding handling. The coil-over shock absorber is located below the seat, where it’s easy to reach for pre-load adjustment and placed at the optimal angle to achieve efficient control of wheel motion. The mono-shock rear suspension preserves the signature “hard tail” lines of the Softail chassis. Each current Cruiser model is powered by the proven Milwaukee-Eight V-twin engine featuring dual counter-balancers tuned to eliminate all primary vibration at idle speed, to enhance rider and passenger comfort and to permit the engines to be rigid-mounted in the frame. Rigid mounting stiffens the overall chassis and connects the rider more directly to the powertrain.

The 2024 Cruiser lineup is the most diverse in the Harley-Davidson motorcycle portfolio, featuring models from nostalgic to very modern. No matter the destination, the versatility of a Harley-Davidson Cruiser motorcycle makes the journey more enjoyable. The 2024 Cruiser models include:

  • Softail Standard model: This is the essential Harley-Davidson cruiser experience with a lean, lightweight frame; classic chrome; and polished finishes at a price that leaves budget headroom for customization.
  • Street Bob 114 model: No-nonsense raw bobber attitude from the mini ape handlebar to the chopped rear fender that’s coupled with modern tech like the digital riser gauge and signature LED forward lighting. The ideal ride for customers that want equal parts style, performance and rideability.
  • Low Rider S model: Straight from the factory, this bike bundles the big attitude of West Coast style and unrelenting performance previously only attainable with significant investment in accessories.
  • Low Rider ST model: Detachable hard saddlebags and an aerodynamic fairing create a weekend escape machine for the rider who digs pure clean-and-lean West Coast style and craves outrageous performance.
  • Breakout model: With long and lean chopper styling, the Breakout model flexes more muscle than any other bike out there. The unrelenting power of a Milwaukee-Eight 117 engine is delivered to a fat, 240-millimeter rear tire exposed by the arrogant flip of a bobtail fender.
  • Heritage Classic 114 model: The quintessential American cruiser with show-stopping vintage details and pure rock and roll style drapes the Softail platform in pure nostalgia inspired by Harley-Davidson models from the 1950s.
  • Fat Boy 114 model: The original fat-custom icon commands the road with a steamroller stance, cast aluminum Lakester wheels and a unique headlamp nacelle.
  • Fat Bob 114 model: Built to conquer city streets with power and agility with a full arsenal of high-performance technology: dual front disc brakes, an inverted race-style front fork and 2-1-2 custom styled exhaust.
  • Sport Glide model: Detachable bags and fairing make this bike a true convertible in style and attitude — a great solution for the rider that craves versatility.

Softail Origins

In the early 1980s, Harley-Davidson acquired a concept motorcycle from independent design engineer Bill Davis, who experimented with suspension supported by hidden rear shock absorbers on a Big Twin frame. Harley-Davidson engineers perfected the design, introduced in 1984 as the FXST Softail model. The frame offered customers clean styling and the classic “hard-tail” lines favored by custom bike builders but sacrificed none of the comfort and handling offered by full rear suspension. The placement of the horizontal, gas-charged shock absorbers beneath the transmission also allowed for a lower seating position.

The 1984 FXST Softail model also introduced the all-new Evolution V-Twin powertrain, which would replace the aging Shovelhead engine as it was phased into the Big Twin lineup. At a time when the company was struggling financially, the Evolution engine and the Softail chassis combined to help return Harley-Davidson to a competitive position in the marketplace.

“When I think back on the timing of the FXST Softail model and its impact on the market — we were struggling new owners — I realize how critical this great new engine and chassis were to our survival,” wrote former Chief Styling Officer Willie G. Davidson in his “100 years of Harley-Davidson” book. “The Softail line has been a perennial best-seller and a favorite among motorcyclists. It successfully blends the past with current technology and appeals to Harley riders everywhere.”

The versatility of the Softail platform would enable the introduction of subsequent new motorcycle models in a wide range of styles. Some historic highlights include:

  • 1986 Heritage Softail: The FL front end, full skirted front fender, laced wheels and prominent headlamp reflect styling elements of the 1949 FL Hydra-Glide models. It’s a classic look that says “Harley-Davidson” to riders and non-riders alike.
  • 1988 Springer Softail: The resurrection of the visual excitement of a Springer front suspension — discontinued by Harley-Davidson after 1952 in favor of hydraulic forks — was a bold styling move.
  • 1990 Fat Boy: One of the most iconic models in Harley-Davidson history, distinguished by its solid cast aluminum wheels and massive presence, remains in the Cruiser portfolio today.
  • 1999 Softail Deuce: Perhaps the most radical of the Softail factory customs, the Deuce introduced a new “stretched” gas tank, sleek chrome fork sliders, all-new rear fender and the new Twin Cam 88B engine.
  • 2008 Cross Bones: This exercise in pure vintage bobber styling featured a Springer front end framing a wide tire, laced wheels with black rims, a sprung solo seat, half-moon footboards and the introduction of flat Denim paint.

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