1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic


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

It may not be your dad’s Oldsmobile, but this is definitely his Harley. From the 5-inch running lights to the fishtail exhaust pipes, Harley’s heritage Softail is classic that definitive study in nostalgia. The lines are familiar. Anyone who looks at a Heritage knows that this is classic styling. Even if you’ve never seen an original 1950’s motorcycle, you know one looked like this. 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, vintage studded leather saddlebags, a chrome seat, a full windshield, running boards, a huge chrome headlight and a Fat Bob tank, the Heritage is a rolling blast from the past. Before there was Royal this and American Classic that, fake air cooling fins or chopped Gold Wings, there was the Heritage. A motorcycle made by a company that built the original over forty years ago.

There’s something about a bike that emulates the ’50s that you just can’t get from a more “modern” bike. It’s the feeling of never being in a hurry. Never feel like you have to push the bike to its limits. It’s a liberating feeling. Settle into the roomy saddle, reach for the wide, comfortable bars, and start the engine. That’s all the effort this bike will ever ask of you. The Heritage is a simple delight. You don’t have to be told how to enjoy it. It comes on its own. Before we get into that further, let me go through some basics for the uninitiated. Believe it or not, there was a time when motorcycles didn’t have rear suspension. As you can imagine, the ride was pretty… well, tough. Figuring out the derivation of the term is not difficult hardtail. Second, before the advent of modern rubber compounds, motorcycles had their engines rigidly mounted to the frame. This made bikes shaking like paint mixers.

So if you want to recreate a bike from the 50’s you have to mount the motor directly to the frame and give the impression that there is no rear suspension.

To achieve this visual handshake, suspensions were designed with a set of twin shocks hidden under the bike. This arrangement enables the look of a hardtail with the advantages of a quasi-modern suspension. Hence the term Softail.

“It’s hard to take an attitude when you’re stuck smiling and waving.”I might be the only person in the world to ever say that, 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 nearly as quiet, and certainly not because it’s light and manoeuvrable, but because it’s so easy to hop on and bounce around town. People don’t usually associate Harleys with “rocking around,” but this one tells me that. It doesn’t fill me with the urge to head for a distant shore or carve any mountainsides. This bike has a different purpose.

Perhaps the main reason the Heritage gives you 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 under knees and arms slightly bent, comfortably reaching mid-torso. This position forces you to smile, drive slowly, and wave to everyone. It’s hard to take an attitude or speed through town when you have to smile and wave. As supplied from the factory, this bike is built for slow cruising and soaking up the scenery, which it does very well.

And that brings up a very important point. Verifying a production Harley is a difficult task as very few Harleys stay in stock for very long. The simplicity of the design allows for almost unlimited customization. So, after reading this review, if you walk up to someone with an inheritance and tell them they have a very nice bike to rip around town, you might be wondering why you got snubbed. Like the animals you see at the zoo, wild Harleys rarely resemble those you find in the showroom.

You have to love the Heritage Softail Classic for what it is and for what it isn’t. It’s a beautiful rendition of an old classic. Attention to detail does not go unnoticed. People can’t walk past it without saying, “Oh look, there are these old ____s on it. Just like the old ones.” The fit and finish of this ride is also top-notch. And what would a retro 50s bike be without chrome? No, where. You can’t beat real Harley-Davidson chrome. The Heritage beckons you with its shine every time you open your garage door. Like to say, “What the hell do you do more important than drive?” Good question…

The inelegant on/off switch that controls the position lights is located on the back of the triple tree cover. This is pure retro.

Whatever the inheritance is, it is real. One of the really great things about a Harley is the almost complete absence of plastic. This thing is made of metal – and what a great feeling that gives. As we’ve come to expect from modern H-Ds, all components are sturdy and feel solid and reliable. In a world full of lip-synching country bands and women with silicone breasts, a Harley is one of the last havens of “the real thing”.

Reliability. Sit down, press the start button and get started. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t that long ago that things weren’t going so well.

What the Heritage is not is a fully modern motorcycle with all the modern conveniences expected of a modern motorcycle. The Motor Company intentionally kept this bike simple. They only updated what absolutely needs updating and pretty much left everything else alone. With the notable exception of the electronic speedometer, nothing about this bike is high-tech for high-tech’s sake. Why add water cooling and multiple valves if your customers don’t want it?

There seems to be an unwritten law that when you’re talking about rigid-mount Harleys, you need to be talking about vibration. Here’s my recommendation: hit the next person who comes up to you and whines about Softail vibration. This thing is a dream to drive. And if you drive it like it’s meant to be driven, you’ll never notice that the engine is rigidly mounted to the frame. That generally means staying under 70 mph. Here the vibration is extremely pleasant, reminding you that you are on a motorcycle and not a golf cart. However, the rigid mounts have a disadvantage. Vibration will damage anything you put in the saddlebags. Three screw heads protruding into the pockets make a whole host of hard or soft sided items stored there. To alleviate this headache, either wrap everything you carry in some kind of cloth 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? Bulletproof, ice cold reliable and great looking. Sure, it doesn’t have the sex appeal of the old panheads, but for those eyes, the blockhead offers a more powerful, modern look. A bit like the difference between a modern day gridiron athlete and his leather helmeted counterpart from the past. The 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic has all the beauty and appeal of a 1950’s Hydra-Glide while eliminating most of the 1950’s technological flaws. As supplied by the Motor Company, it offers a relaxed, friendly mount for cruising around town and just enjoying the scenery.

DISCOMFORT– Beautiful chrome accents on the tips of the front and rear fenders are plastic. For $15,000, you’d think the Motor Company could jump for real metal. It’s not like they’re trying to lose weight. – The idiot lights are tiny, dimly lit things. Not what I would have expected from such a great machine. Passenger footpegs are the same as found on a Sportster. How about installing those beautiful passenger footboards found on Electra Glides? – As with most Harleys, if you remove the passenger pad you will be greeted with several nasty scars on your beautiful fender. A simple terry cloth patch, or even better some kind of wide rubber pad, could solve this problem. I realize this is an area over which the Motor Company has almost no control, but the exhaust noise is almost non-existent. On my first few rides it was more than a little spooky.

Model: 1997 FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic
Price: $15,175
Engine: V-Twin OHV Evolution Bore u
Hub: 3,498 x 4,250 inches.
Displacement: 1340cc
Carburetion: 40mm constant velocity with enrichment and accelerator pump
Transmission: 5-speed constant mesh
Wheelbase: 63.9 inches.
Seat height: 26.5 inches. Fuel Capacity: 4.2 gallons. including .4 reserve
Claimed dry weight: 704 lbs.


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