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Cruisers have always been about the essence of motorcycling, stripping motorcycles down to their core: an engine, a seat, a pair of wheels and little else. Naturally, when thinking about the essential elements of motorcycling, thoughts of the open road come to mind. The dream of packing just what you need on your bike and pointing the front wheel towards destinations unknown looms large in many cruiser riders’ hearts.

The leather baggers segment of cruisers gives the purest physical form to that dream, presumably offering only what you need to live out that simple dream shared by all motorcyclists. When Triumph introduced the Thunderbird LT, we knew it was time to take a close look at these motorcycles since there were now a pair of new members to the category.

If you were wondering what it takes to be part of the leather baggers set, well, the requirements are few. First, we decided that the shootout should be Big Twins only – although there are some nice options available at lower displacements. Not surprisingly, the bikes also need be purpose-built baggers with leather saddlebags that can tote road-trip necessities. How those saddlebags are constructed isn’t universal, however. Two of our entries have plastic-lined luggage with leather on the exterior while two depend on the thickness of the leather to maintain the bags’ shape.

The other requirement of the category is a fork-mounted windshield. Being cruisers, the windshields are all variations on the classic, flat cop-style. No batwing fairings here, that’s too close to actual tourers with their frame-mounted fairings. However, bonus points are given for easy windshield removability since they block an awful lot of air when riding around town.

The Cross Roads Classic and the Thunderbird LT were the two bikes graced with overhead cams, and their love of being revved out showed it.

Astute readers will notice that our collection of leather baggers is incomplete. Unfortunately, Yamaha was unable to provide us with a Star Stratoliner S, which is regrettable since the big Star would have been a worthy competitor.

The pushrod set was represented by the Chief Vintage and the Heritage Softail Classic. The Indian with its largest-of-the-test displacement – and associated torque – easily rolled away from the Harley.

So, after we gathered together the Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic, the Indian Chief Vintage, the Triumph Thunderbird LT, and the Victory Cross Roads Classic, we came up with a destination, mounted up our quartet of leather baggers, and set out in search of the open road.

Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic

In this gathering of leather bagged cruisers, we need to begin by stating the obvious: We wouldn’t be here testing this group of motorcycles if it weren’t for this motorcycle. Despite what we say about the comparative functionality of this quartet of Big Twins, the Heritage Softail Classic will most likely outsell them all. The brand recognition of and loyalty to Harley-Davidson is, frankly, what the other manufacturers aspire to – which is why you will see them sponsoring events at the major rallies. Additionally, cruiser manufacturers have to find a way to differentiate themselves while following a trail blazed by Harley.

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Being the patriarch of the group, I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Softail feels a bit dated. Returning to the MO fold, John “Bridge Burner” Burns sums the feeling up succinctly, saying that the Harley “just feels old-fashioned and slightly rickety among the others, but that’s part of the appeal for people who love them.”

Travelers who regularly carry passengers will appreciate the included backrest.

Part of this sentiment could come from the fact that the Twin Cam 103B feels down on power compared to the other three engines here. A contributing factor could be that, since we’ve sampled the Project Rushmore improved engines, the old Twin Cam feels like it is a generation behind in power delivery. “Power output of the TC103B is perfectly adequate for most uses, but it’s the weakling of this group and feels relatively anemic at altitude,” says analog-note-taking editor, Kevin Duke. Still, despite that disadvantage, Burns noted, “Surprisingly, the Harley has no trouble hanging with the Polaris Bros on backroads.”

HP Torque
Chief 74.2 hp @ 4500 rpm 102.8 ft-lb. @ 3100 rpm
Cross Roads 77.5 hp @ 4500 rpm 88.9 ft-lb. @ 4250 rpm
Softail 66.6 hp @ 5100 rpm 88.3 ft-lb. @ 2800 rpm
Thunderbird 69.4 hp @ 4800 rpm 91.1 ft-lb. @ 2100 rpm

This seemingly contradictory set of facts makes sense, when considering maneuverability. Simply put, on winding roads, the Softail struts its stuff, being the lightest, most responsive-steering bike here. While you may not associate the word nimble with this class of motorcycle, the word was tossed around quite frequently when describing the Heritage Softail. Without a hint of irony, Duke states, “The Softail’s agility is a revelation in this group. Credit its relatively skinny tires. It’s the easiest to maneuver at low speeds, and it banks quickly into corners at any speed.”

Revelation is an appropriate word. Where the other leather baggers required a firm hand to get the most out of them on a twisty road, the Harley felt positively eager to turn. Unfortunately, its floorboards touch down quite early and end the party prematurely. Yes, the floorboards do fold up a fair amount, but the hard parts still drag earlier than the other baggers.

The all-leather saddlebags were nice to look at, but their lack of storage was a disappointment.

While most of the editors felt that the Softail’s limited ground clearance shortchanged its backroads capability, I noted that the chassis wobbled in higher speed sweepers and felt that more ground clearance would have only highlighted the limitations of the chassis and suspension. As MO readers are probably familiar, we take issue with the minimal suspension travel with which Harley often saddles their bikes. The Softail is no exception.

The Heritage was the only one of our baggers that used a single disc on the front brake, and it showed. In fact, Roderick commented, “I don’t know if there’s enough power in the single front brake set-up to warrant its ABS technology.” In the dry, he’s probably right, but riders will be glad to have the ABS on tap in wet weather.

Yeah, but the Harley’s speedometer goes to twelve. The LCD displays: odometer, trip A, trip B, miles to empty, clock, gear/tach, and gas gauge.

One area where the Softail excelled was the ergonomics for the the passenger. With the lowest passenger footpegs of the bunch, the co-rider’s knees were bent less than on the other bikes. Also, having a standard passenger backrest is a nice touch shared only with the Triumph.

An interesting feature of the Harley’s style that Duke noticed was how the handlebar’s mounting arrangement makes it look like it is an ape hanger. However, when compared to the Victory, the grips are at about the same height. The Softail’s triple clamp is lower, allowing for the ape hanger look without the performance penalty of having the grips higher than they need to be.

The leather bagger class has bumped up its level of competition in recent years, and the Heritage Softail Classic is now a bit behind the curve. Still, as noted at the beginning of this section, Harley will probably sell more of these bikes than the other three manufacturers combined. If the key requirement of your mount for the open road is a Harley badge on the tank, just shell out $18,349 ($19,079 Two-tone Color) and it’s yours.

– Evans Brasfield

Indian Chief Vintage

When it comes to leather baggers, Indian’s Chief Vintage is probably the leatheriest. The stock Chief Vintage comes attractively equipped with distressed tan leather seat (with removable fringe) and saddlebags (with non-removable fringe). And Indian’s accessory catalog offers lots more fringe to pile on, including leather fringe grips, floorboards, saddlebags and mud flaps.

Bag Capacity
Chief 12.0 gallons
Cross Roads 17.4 gallons
Softail 9.5 gallons
Thunderbird 15.0 gallons

In terms of saddlebag capacity, though, the Chief’s bags, at six gallons per bag, are next to last – Harley being the least capacious at 4.75 gallons per bag. A boast the Chief’s bags can make that the others here cannot, is an incredibly easy quick-release system that, when put to use and the bags removed, reveals an attractive bag-less profile. The Victory has quarter-turn fasteners for its soft luggage, but you wouldn’t want to ride around without the bags – fuuuuugly!

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The Chief Vintage is easily the largest bike in this group: 835-pound curb weight, 68.1-inch wheelbase, 1819cc engine. Riding the bike makes us wonder if Polaris employed a relative of Andre the Giant to be their development rider. The bars are wide, but you’ll want the leverage they provide when slow maneuvering this land barge at anything under 15 mph.

When it comes to attention to detail, the Chief is exemplary – eye candy is apparent everywhere you look. Switchgear wires are routed Internally, logos are copiously but tastefully applied, genuine leather is used for the seats and bags.

“As a smaller person,” says Burns, “it’s just more cumbersome in low-speed maneuvers and feels like bringing my twin-inboard 31-foot Uniflite into the dock used to feel when there were a lot of people watching. Slightly intimidating.”

At speed, though, the Chief Vintage swooshes through sweepers like a motorcycle weighing substantially less. Even with its prodigious floorboards the Chief enjoys the second-best cornering clearance next to its mother company stablemate, Victory’s Cross Roads Classic.

The Chief’s engine is one of the prettiest powerplants ever bolted to a motorcycle. Its slow revving nature and prodigious amounts of bottom- and mid-range torque are perfectly matched to its heavy-weight cruiser persona.

It’s worth pointing out that Polaris, to better cope with the added weight of its fork-mounted fairing, tightened the Chieftain’s wheelbase, rake/trail compared to the Chief Vintage and standard Chief.

Wheelbase Rake/Trail
Chieftain 65.7 in. 25°/5.9 in.
Chief Vintage/Chief 68.1 in. 29°/6.1 in.

“It’s funny how much a bike’s character can change with a little thing like rake, but the difference in handling between the Chief and the Chieftain is amazing,” says Brasfield. “The lighter bike feels heavier and the heavier bike feels more agile. I know this doesn’t directly reflect the comparison here, but the difference is profound enough to note.”

Getting back to its size…

The Indian features a nicely integrated cruise control system that flawlessly works in conjunction with the bike’s R-b-W system. The problem lies with the reach to the buttons being such a stretch for a rider’s hands. You almost need a thumb with a third phalange to manipulate the cruise-control feature.

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Like all aspects of the Indian, the windscreen is ginormous. While it does provide excellent protection from the elements, it’s not without its drawbacks. Brasfield notes, “I’ve gotta say that I hate windshields that I can’t see over. I want an unobstructed view of the road – particularly in drizzle where it will build up on the screen. The same can be said of riding into early morning or late afternoon light. Unless the shield is spotless, it lights up, making it hard to see.”

For a motorcycle that has been lavished with such attention to detail, the poorly chromed back of the windshield strap stands out like a wart on the Mona Lisa’s nose. Oh yeah, it also traps dirt.

For those wanting to purchase a Chief but are feeling intimidated by its dimensions, Indian offers a pull-back handlebar ($200) that’s 2 in. closer to the rider as well as a heated seat ($600) that’s 1 in. lower and places the rider 1 in. forward.

–Tom Roderick

Leather Baggers Specs
Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic Indian Chief Vintage Triumph Thunderbird LT Victory Cross Roads Classic
MSRP $18,349 ($19,079 Two-tone Color) $20,999 $16,699 $17,999
Engine Type 103.1 cu. in. (1690 cc) Air-cooled, Twin Cam 103B, 45 degree V-Twin Thunder Stroke 111,air-cooled 49-degree V-Twin 1699 cc liquid-cooled, DOHC, Parallel-Twin, 270º firing interval 106 cu. in. (1731 cc) air/oil-cooled 50° V-Twin
Bore and Stroke 98.5 mm x 111.3 mm 101 mm x 113 mm 107.1 mm x 94.3 mm 101 mm x 108 mm
Fuel System Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI), Closed loop fuel injection, 54 mm throttle body Multipoint sequential electronic fuel injection, progressive linkage on throttle Electronic Fuel Injection with dual 45 mm throttle bodies
Compression Ratio 9.6:1 9.5 : 1 N/A 9.4:1
Valve Train OHV – Pushrod, 2 valves per cylinder OHV – Pushrod, 2 valves per cylinder DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder SOHC With 4 valves per cylinder, self-adjusting cam chains, hydraulic lifters
Peak HP 65.1 hp @5000 RPM 74.2 hp @4500 RPM 69.4 hp @4800 RPM 77.5 hp @5250 RPM
Peak Torque 81.4 ft-lb. @3250 RPM 102.8 ft-lb. @3100 RPM 91.1 ft-lb. @2100 RPM 88.9 ft-lb. @4250 RPM
Transmission 6 speed 6 speed 6-speed, helical type 2nd – 6th 6-speed overdrive, constant mesh
Final Drive Belt Belt Belt Belt
Front Suspension 41 mm telescopic fork, TK in. travel TK mm telescopic fork, 4.7 in. travel Showa 47mm forks. 4.7 in. travel Inverted cartridge 43 mm telescopic fork, 5.1 in. travel
Rear Suspension hidden horizontally mounted dual shocks Single shock, 3.7 in. travel Showa chromed spring twin shocks with 5 position adjustable preload. 3.7 in. travel Single, mono-tube gas, cast aluminum with constant-rate linkage, 4.7 in. travel, air adjustable
Front Brake 292 mm disc, four-piston caliper Dual floating disc, four-piston caliper, ABS Twin 310 mm floating discs. Nissin four-piston fixed calipers, ABS Dual 300 mm floating disc with four-piston calipers, ABS
Rear Brake 292 mm disc, two-piston caliper Single floating disc, two-piston caliper, ABS Single 310 mm disc. Brembo 2-piston floating caliper, ABS Single 300 mm floating disc with two-piston caliper
Front Tire Dunlop MT90B16 72H Dunlop American Elite 130/90B16 67H 150/80 R16 130/70B18 Dunlop 491 Elite Ii
Rear Tire Dunlop 150/80 R16 71H Dunlop American Elite 180/65B16 81H 180/70 R16 180/60R16 Dunlop Elite 3
Rake/Trail 31 degrees/5.8 in. 29°/6.1 inches 32°/5.9 in. 29.0°/5.6 in.
Wheelbase 64.5 in. 68.1 inches 63.5 in. 65.7 inches
Seat Height 27.1 inches 26.0 inches 27.5 in. 26.3 inches
Curb Weight 752 lb., fully fueled 835 lbs, fully fueled 836 lb., fully fueled 805 lb., fully fueled
Fuel Capacity 5 Gallons 5.5 gallons 5.8 gallons 5.8 gallons
Storage Capacity 4.75 gal. each, studded leather saddlebags 6 gal. each, Removable leather saddlebags 7.5-gal. each saddlebag, 2.5mm leather with full plastic linings. Waterproof accessory plastic liner included. 8.7 gal. each, removable, plastic-lined leather saddlebags
Available Colors Sand Pearl/Canyon Brown Pearl, Charcoal Pearl/ Brilliant Silver Pearl, Big Blue Pearl/Vivid Black, Midnight Pearl, Morocco Gold Pearl, Mysterious Red Sunglo, Vivid Black, Thunder Black, Indian Motorcycle Red, Springfield Blue Caspian Blue/Crystal White, Lava Red/Phantom Black Two-Tone Bronze Mist/Khaki
Warranty Two years, unlimited miles Five years coverage that includes both a one year limited warranty and an extended service contract. Unlimited miles. Two years, unlimited mileage 12 months’ factory warranty, plus 12 months’ Victory Total Protection ESC
Last Major Revision 2012 2013 2014 2010
Extras N/A Standard cruise control N/A Standard cruise control

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