Three decades of Softail

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You know you’re getting old when you find yourself writing a history story about something that occurred during your lifetime. Thirty years back, when I was a high school freshman cultivating a mullet and a sparse “mustache,” Harley-Davidson launched one of its most iconic post-buyback motorcycles: the Softail. Here’s a highlight reel from the Softail’s life.

In the Beginning, There Was Biker…

Harley’s Softail might have been born in a factory in ’84, but, like some strippers I’ve known, it was conceived in a biker’s garage in the early ’70s. A mechanical engineer and avid rider named Bill Davis invented the prequel to the Softail in his garage in Missouri. He loved the look of a hardtail rigid but hated the constant pounding on his body that rigids are known for on long-distance trips. He wasn’t alone. Several people offered hardtail-style frames with plunger suspensions, but that wasn’t good enough for Bill. Only the rear axle had a spring, he found them to be inefficient, and they lacked the look of a true rigid. Davis thought he could do better and set about to prove it. Experiments started on his ’72 Super Glide in 1974.

Working in his garage, he came up with the triangular swingarm-pivot arrangement that marks all Harley Softails from that time to the present. Conceptually, Davis’ design drew from the old Vincent Black Shadows of the ’40s. The biggest difference being the twin springs and snowmobile shock hidden under the seat (the chassis hid the pivot). You could even make the argument that this idea inspired all the other hidden tech ideas customizers embraced later on down the line (yes, internal throttle, I’m looking at you). Davis instituted two other big changes that carried over to the first official H-D Softies: an oil tank …read more

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