Back in the mists of time Harley Davidson produced very large, very heavy motorcycles. They had a cult following and sold an enormous number of bikes, despite the fact that, in truth, with a few notable exceptions they really weren't very good. Since then there have been changes, and with the revolutionary developments incorporated in the 2007 model year, which you can read about here if you want, Harley Davidson's total strategy changed. Because now, though their bikes remained both big and heavy, and though they still had a cult following and sold lots, they really were very good indeed.
One of the massively revised models being carried over into the 2008 model year range is the Heritage Softail Classic, and that's what I had the pleasure of testing for a couple of weeks in February. First impressions are mixed, it's fair to say. It's certainly imposing, with its considerable size somehow exaggerated by the screen and the ancillary lights on the front. It's beautifully put together, too, something which really does leap out at you. And I guess it's really quite a good looking bike, even though those panniers and studded bits on the saddle are, for me at least, just too Village People for comfort. Being as objective as possible, and trying to look at it as a non biker, I'd have to give it a distinct thumbs up, despite the slightly camp appearance, as it looks like a Harley should look in most people's minds. Looking at it as a bike journalist, though, I can't help my eye being drawn to the shiny chrome cover where there really ought to be a second disc brake on the front wheel, the non folding footboards that look way too close to the ground and the way that the sidestand never quite looks down properly, prompting mild palpitations every time you start to walk away from the behemoth.
Yes, I used the word behemoth. Not without reason, I think. I mean, it's nearly eight feet long and it weighs 326kg. Empty. That, I'd say, qualifies it. Sure, it's low and easy to swing a leg over, but oh boy is it a big motorbike. Perspective says that it equates to almost exactly two GSX-R 750s, both in weight and in price. So I suppose it's reasonable value, in terms of pounds per pound anyway. A closer look reveals Harley's slightly unorthodox but easy to use switchgear adorning the bars, the fairly standard large speedo on the tank with warning lights embedded in and around it and the ubiquitous toe and heel change above the left footboard. The screen is neatly engineered but is not adjustable. All the chrome is fabulously deep and lustrous, as is the paint. The panniers and saddle are leather, with quick release buckles on the bags hidden under genuine looking buckle down straps. The studs, as I've mentioned before, are a little on the camp side, but even they are well made and accurately fitted. Quality is certainly something that Harley Davidson are strong on - it's one of the reasons that they are such a strong brand - and it really shines through here.
Anyway, enough idle chatter, let's get on and ride the thing.
Starting a Harley is simplicity itself. Turn the switch behind the speedo to "On" and press the starter. No need to touch the throttle - the huge engine catches immediately and settles down to a discreet but somehow pleasing throb. Though a little quieter than you might expect from the saddle, you'll be pleased to know that this Harley sounds excellent from behind, or indeed from the roadside. It's just a bit Euro friendly from the seat, but I suppose these days it's a price we have to accept. Unlike many of the older bikes, this modern Harley Davidson is perfectly happy to sit on the sidestand and tick over. So take a moment to admire it again, then hop aboard, reach forward to flick the sidestand up and marvel at how the weight has just disappeared. It's a neat trick that Harley Davidson have had many years to perfect, and they are very, very good at it. Anyway, pull in the nice light clutch and slip it into first. Yep, you can slip it in rather than having to boot it. The new gearbox is positively refined, and it's quite possible to engage a gear without the huge clunk and lurch forward that accompanied the same action on its ancestors. Pulling away is simple enough as well, with the huge torque meaning that you're going to really go some to stall it. You may notice that, at low speed, the weight starts to make itself felt again, at least until you get used to things, but the feeling soon passes until you reach traffic. But more of that later.
Every bike, I'm assured, has a sweet spot. A range where it works best. Some of the best bikes around have a sweet spot that extends through virtually their entire performance envelope, while some others don't. The Heritage Softail Classic is a bike that falls in the latter group. On the open road, the Harley works brilliantly between about twenty and seventy miles per hour. It's rock stable, as comfortable as anything and is, in short, an extremely pleasant place to be. With a tank range approaching a hundred and eighty miles, you're looking at the best part of three hours between refuelling stops at this pace, and you'll arrive at the petrol station as fresh as when you left. Which is an achievement. Unfortunately, outside that sweet spot, the picture isn't quite so rosy.
When you hit traffic, the low speed weight comes back with a bang. Though the Harley is stable enough, it's very hard to get subtle direction changes out of it without provoking a wobble which, with all that weight behind it, tends to get a little exciting when you're filtering as it's very hard to damp out. It's also very long, which makes it rather a challenge when it comes to changing lanes to get around an obstruction. And actually, when it comes down to it, it really is rather heavy and cumbersome, and not really a great deal of fun. It also gets incredibly hot, and mini roundabouts metamorphose from mere inconveniences to major exercises of mind over matter - you don't mind the noises and the scrapes on the footboards don't matter.
The real disappointment, for me at least, came when I got out of town onto a nice sweeping A road. The non adjustable screen generated so much buffet that I was almost sick from trying to keep my eyes in one place (my skull) and any attempt to read roadsigns was rendered futile. Though the Harley stayed quite stable, no matter how farI ducked down or stretched up, unless I stood on the footboards, at which point stability exited rapidly, stage left, the buffeting was simply unbearable. I'm informed that many riders take the screen off, and while I can understand the reasoning behind it, doesn't the need to do so somewhat defeat the object of having it fitted in the first place?
While we're talking about negative points, let's get them all out of the way in one go. We've talked about the screen and hinted at the ground clearance. Well, it's a Harley Davidson, and a touring one at that. If you go around trying to ride it like a sports bike you can only blame yourself when it all goes wrong, in fairness. The brakes are beautifully crafted, and the chrome hub cover on the right looks wonderful and really complements the period look of the bike. But, if I'm to be brutally honest, I'd trade the looks for some more stopping power. Because at the best part of a third of a ton, a single front disc and single rear just isn't going to cut the mustard when it comes to stopping in anything approaching a hurry. That's it, really, and though the downsides seem huge they're really not when taken in context.
Now let's look at the individual good points. The engine. Stressed it isn't. At 1600cc, or ninety six cubic inches if you prefer, it's a slow revving plodder. Actually, that's not true. While it's hardly a rev monster, the throttle response is surprisingly crisp and the engine works quite well in the upper reaches of the rev range as well as surfing the waves of torque (ooh, another cliche!) at the bottom. The gearbox is excellent as well, replacing the frankly dreadful offerings of just a few years ago with something that feels quite nice to use, as well as having sensible ratios and six of them to boot. Allied to the brilliant belt drive at one end and pretty faultless fuel injection at the other, the Harley Dyna drivetrain is actually very good indeed. As it's common across the entire Dyna range - that's basically everything except the Sportsters and the V-Rod - then it would be somewhat disastrous were that not the case.
Build quality used to be another Harley Davidson bugbear. While the chrome and paint were always OK, the way things were screwed together left lots to be desired. Happily that is also no longer the case. The chrome and paint are deep and lustrous, better than ever before, but the build quality is simply excellent. Everything feels solid and properly attached, switches have good distinct actions and all the ancillary fittings are of a reassuringly good quality as well. Even the sidestand is chromed and seems to be rugged enough to handle doing its job and still stay shiny. Electrics are good, with the main headlight being nicely complemented by the pair of auxilliary lamps. They provide a lovely wide spread of light and also work well at getting people to notice your presence and not pull out in front of you. Harley have their own take on indicator switches with a button on either bar. Press left to indicate left, right for right. Press the button again to cancel and press both together for hazards. Totally logical and it works very well, though I'd prefer the indicator buttons not to be at the bottom as I indicated left instead of sounding the horn and right instead of starting the engine far too many times for it to remain funny. The seat is wonderful and the mirrors work. The panniers, while suffering a little from a style overdose, are neat, have practical plastic catches under the buckles and look as though they'd be waterproof. Ish. But they aren't as big as one might hope, and the bumps and lumps inside rather limit their capacity. But there's room for several days clothes if you're a bloke, as well as toilet stuff and other essentials. If you're travelling alone then bung a tote bag across the pillion seat and triple your capacity.
Now perhaps you can see the problem with reviewing a Harley Davidson. They're actually a bit of an anachronism. I like them, but I spend most of my time on bikes which belong in a different time. Harleys are gentle reminders of a slightly bygone age. That's not to say that they are behind the times. While that used to be true, the 2007 model year update brought them about as up to date as an air cooled vee twin can ever be. So I need to adjust my approach. Consequently, brakes which might be considered diabolical on even a modest sports tourer become part of the charm, and you swiftly learn to adapt your riding to suit. Likewise the lack of ground clearance, which can be accommodated by the simple technique of planning further ahead, making your lines a little smoother and slowing down a bit. But not as much as you'd expect.
So to sum up, I really wanted to like this Harley. Although the styling is a little cliched, it really is a beautiful looking, immaculately builtmotorcycle which has a host of modern features nestling inside it. Initial impressions were good, though the ride across London in the rush hour was a little trying, but I ended up disappointed by the open road buffeting which made my day in the sunshine less enjoyable than it should otherwise have been. Which was a shame. And for a while I couldn't work out whothis bike was aimed at, because it seemed that whoever it was would be disappointed. Then I realised that there is indeed a fairly broad niche of people who would fall over themselves to get hold of this motorcycle. I guess what I'm trying to say is this. If you like the styling (and I don't honestly think there will be any waverers here - it'll either be a yes or a no) and you can live with spending your whole riding life below seventy miles per hour,with or without pillion, then this is probably the best bike in the world. If you can't tick all of those boxes then you may want to look elsewhere in the range. But it really is a very good bike provided you take it in context.