Church of MO: 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic

John Burns
by John Burns

How many 25-year old motorcycles are still being sold anyway? The Honda XR650L springs to mind, but other than it, it’s too early on Easter Sunday to investigate further. Granted, the Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic has undergone enough changes as to really not be the same machine anymore, yet that indelible American profile, architecture, and riding experience remain the same. Roll away the stone…

The Definitive Study in Nostalgia

It might not be your father’s Oldsmobile, but this is definitely his Harley. From its five-inch running lamps to the fishtail exhaust pipes, Harley’s Heritage Softail Classic is the definitive study in nostalgia. The lines are intimately familiar. Anyone who looks at a Heritage knows this is classic styling. Even if they never saw an original 1950’s motorcycle, they know this is what one looked like. Harley’s Heritage (or FLSTC as the factory likes to call it) is responsible for starting the whole retro-bike thang. With fat forks straight off a 1949 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide, old-fashioned studded-leather saddlebags, chrome-studded seat, full windshield, floorboards, huge chrome headlamp and Fat Bob tank, the Heritage is a rolling blast from the past. Before there were Royal this, and American Classic that, fake air-cooling fins or chopped Gold Wings, there was the Heritage. A motorcycle produced by a company that made the real thing over forty years ago.

There’s something about a bike made to recreate the 50’s that you just can’t get from a more “modern” ride. It’s the feeling of never being in a hurry. Never feeling like you have to push the bike to its limits. It’s a liberating feeling. Sit down in the spacious saddle, reach out for those wide comfortable bars and fire the motor. That’s all the effort this bike will ever demand of you. The Heritage is a simple pleasure. You don’t have to be told how to enjoy it. It comes naturally.Before we get any further into this, let me run over some basics for the uninitiated. Believe it or not, there was a time when motorcycles had no rear suspension. As you can imagine, the ride was pretty… well, hard. It isn’t difficult to figure out the derivation of the term hardtail. Secondly, before the advent of modern rubber compounds, motorcycles had their engines mounted rigidly to the frame. This made for bikes that shook like paint-mixers.

Therefore, if you want to re-create a bike from the 50’s you need to mount its engine directly to the frame and give an appearance of no rear suspension.

To accomplish this visual slight of hand, suspensions were designed with a set of twin shocks hidden under the bike. This arrangement allows for the look of a hardtail with the benefits of quasi-modern suspension. Hence, the term Softail.

“It’s hard to cop an attitude when you’re stuck smiling and waving.”I may be the only person in the world to ever say this, but the Heritage Softail reminds me of the little Piaggio scooters I rode around the Greek Islands on my honeymoon. Not because this Harley is almost as quiet, and certainly not because it is light and nimble, but because it is so easy to jump on and bop around town. People may not usually associate Harley’s with “bobbing around,” but that’s what this one says to me. It doesn’t fill me with the urge to head for a far-off coast or to carve up any mountain sides. This bike has a different purpose.

Perhaps the main reason the Heritage gives one the urge to “take it easy,” is its riding position. There’s only one way to sit on this bike, and it’s the same way your piano teacher made you sit. Back straight, feet directly below your knees and arms slightly bent, reaching comfortably out at mid-torso. This position forces you to smile, ride slowly and wave at everyone. It’s hard to cop an attitude or tear through town when you’re stuck smiling and waving. As delivered from the factory this bike is built for cruising slowly and soaking up scenery, which it does extremely well.

And that brings up a very important point. Reviewing a stock Harley is a difficult thing to do because few Harley’s remain stock for very long. The design’s simplicity allows for almost unlimited customizing. So, if after reading this review you walk up to someone with a Heritage and tell them they have a very nice bike for bopping around town, you may then wonder why you got bopped on the nose. Like the animals you see in the zoo, wild Harley’s rarely resemble those found in the showroom.

You have to love the Heritage Softail Classic for what it is and for what it is not. It’s a beautiful rendition of an old classic. The attention to detail does not go unnoticed. People can’t walk by it without saying, “Oh look, it has those old ____s on it. Just like the old ones.” Fit and finish on this ride is also top notch. And where would a retro 50’s bike be without chrome? No where. You can’t beat genuine Harley-Davidson chrome. The Heritage fairly beckons you with its gleam every time you open your garage door. As if to say: “What the hell are you doing that’s more important than riding?” Good question…

The inelegant on/off switch controlling the running lamps, located on the back of the triple clamp shroud. This is pure retro.

What the Heritage also is, is real. One of the truly great things about a Harley is the nearly complete lack of plastic. This thing is made of metal — and what a great feeling that imparts. As we’ve come to expect of modern H-D’s, all components are heavy duty with a solid, dependable feel. In a world full of lip-synching country bands and silicon-breasted women, a Harley is one of the last refuges of “the real thing.”

Reliability. Sit down, poke the start button, and go. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t that long ago when things didn’t work so well.

What the Heritage is not, is a fully modern motorcycle complete with all the modern amenities expected of a modern ride. The Motor Company has purposely kept this bike simple. They’ve only updated what absolutely needs to be updated and left everything else pretty much alone. With the notable exception of the electronic speedometer, nothing on this bike is high-tech for high-tech’s sake. Why add water cooling and multiple valves if that’s not what your customers want?

There seems to be an unwritten law that if you talk about rigid mounted Harley’s you must talk about vibration. Here’s my recommendation: Smack the next person that comes up to you and whines about Softail vibration. This thing is a dream to ride. And if you ride it like it was intended to be ridden, you won’t ever notice the fact the engine is rigidly mounted to the frame. That means generally staying below 70 mph. It is here that vibration is extremely pleasant, reminding you that you’re on a motorcycle and not a golf cart. However, there is one downside to the rigid mounts. Vibration will mar up anything you put in the saddle bags. Three screw heads protruding inside the bags do quite a number on any hard or soft sided items stored there. To alleviate this headache, either wrap everything you carry in some kind of fabric or cover the screw heads.

What can be said about the tried and true, 80-cubic-inch Evo V-twin that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Bullet proof, stone cold reliable and great looking. Sure it doesn’t have the sex appeal of the old Panheads, but to these eyes the blockhead offers a more powerful, modern look. Kinda like the difference between a modern gridiron athlete and his leather-helmeted counterpart from the past. Harley-Davidson’s 1997 Heritage Softail Classic has all the beauty and appeal of a 50’s Hydra-Glide with most of the 50’s technological shortcomings eliminated. As delivered from the Motor Company, it offers a relaxed, friendly mount for cruising around town and just enjoying the scenery.

COMPLAINTS-Beautiful chrome accents on the tips of both front and rear fenders are plastic. For 15 thousand dollars you’d think the Motor Company could spring for real metal. It’s not like they are trying to cut weight.-The idiot lights are tiny, dimly lit affairs. Not what I expected to see on such a grand machine.-Passenger foot pegs are the same ones you’ll find on a Sportster. How about mounting those nice passenger floorboards found on Electra Glides?-Like most Harleys, if you remove the pillion pad you are greeted with several nasty scars on your beautiful fender. A simple patch of terrycloth, or better still, some kind of wide rubber pads, could eleviate this problem.-I realize this is an area that the Motor Company has almost no control over, but the exhaust note is almost non-existent. On my first few rides it was more than a little eerie.Specifications

Model: 1997 FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic
Price: $15,175
Engine: V-twin OHV Evolution Bore and
Stroke: 3.498 x 4.250 in.
Displacement: 1340cc
Carburetion: 40mm Constant velocity with enricher and accelerator pump
Transmission: 5-speed constant mesh
Wheelbase: 63.9 in.
Seat Height: 26.5 in. Fuel Capacity: 4.2 gal. including .4 reserve
Claimed Dry Weight: 704 lbs.

John Burns
John Burns

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6 of 7 comments
  • Meaty Midrange Meaty Midrange on Apr 18, 2022

    I knew a network hardware salesman in the 90's who bought a brand-new Heritage and took a sabbatical from work to ride it across the country. He made it to Cali, but destroyed his back in the process. Apparently "rear suspension" is "a thing."

    He shipped the bike home, sold it, and never rode again.

  • Craig Hoffman Craig Hoffman on Apr 21, 2022

    "For 15 thousand dollars you’d think the Motor Company could spring for real metal...."

    $15,000 for a new Harley. How quaint.

    • Imtoomuch Imtoomuch on Apr 21, 2022

      There are plenty of new Harleys being sold under $15,000...if you like Sportsters.