Up until the introduction of the 1952 K model, all Harley-Davidson motorcycles were without any type of rear suspension. The bikes were hard-tail designs, where the rear wheel was mounted directly to the motorcycle’s frame (the only rear suspension came in the form of springs beneath the rider’s seat). Harley’s association with tradition strengthened as the years progressed and in the early 1980s H-D purchased the soft-tail patent from an independent designer and in 1984 launched the FXST Softail.
The Harley-Davidson Softail’s engine was solidly mounted to the bike’s frame (in traditional Harley fashion) but the rigid-style frame was an illusion. The rear portion of the frame was actually a swingarm attached to shock absorbers hidden beneath the transmission. This simple yet ingenious design is a hallmark in the progression of using contemporary technology to create a modern throwback to a past era.
Harley-Davidson also used the launch of the Softail model to introduce the company’s new Evolution engine. The Evolution was the first all-new engine for Harley-Davidson in 50 years. Like the Harley-Davidson Softail, the new engine was modern in function, with aluminum replacing iron as the metal for constructing the heads and cylinders, but it purposely retained all the visual elements of the preceding Shovelhead engine such as air-cooling and pushrod valve actuation.
Following the original Harley-Davidson Softail came the Heritage Softail in 1986 which recalled the Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide of the 1950s using styling touches such as aluminum fork covers, chrome headlight nacelle and chrome front wheel hubcap. Single disc brakes gave away the bike’s true age but were necessary for slowing the 650-pound motorcycle in a safe distance.
In 1988 the Harley-Davidson FXSTS Springer Softail, with its obviously old-fashioned front suspension architecture and spoked wheels, took the modern nostalgia theme full-circle. A couple years later in 1990, the Harley-Davidson FLSTF Fat Boy using the Softail design became an instant success. Over the decades Harley-Davidson has used the Softail frame in a number of models including the Harley-Davidson Softail Custom, Harley-Davidson Night Train, Harley-Davidson Deluxe, Harley-Davidson Deuce, Harley-Davidson Dark Custom Crossbones and, in 2011, the Harley-Davidson Dark Custom Blackline.
There are no less than eight Harley-Davidson Softail models in H-D’s 2011 model line-up, and all are powered by Harley’s air-cooled, Twin Cam 96B engine. The Harley-Davidson Softail Rocker C model features the latest Softail design with a rigid looking rear but with hidden horizontally mounted coil-over-shock suspension. Harley-Davidson says the Rocker C mimics the design of a vintage hardtail frame but offers the comfort of modern suspension. When it comes to Harley, some things never change.