The Classic Cruiser archetype defined the cruiser explosion of the 1990s, and the formula has continued ever since. But what exactly does the word classic even mean anymore? Twenty years on, classic cruisers as we knew them are becoming scarce—at least in the full-sized category—and far less uniform than they were at the end of the 20th century. Sure, Harley-Davidson still makes an array of full-sized classics, but it's the classically styled imports that shine in lower displacements.
The Classic Cruiser archetype defined the cruiser explosion of the 1990s, and the formula has continued ever since. "
If we're talking straight classic cruisers of more than 1500cc, and without bags, the three bikes assembled here are your main options. The good news is that unlike a decade ago, when it was six-plus choices from Clonesville, you've got some variety in the remaining models (Harley and Star make other variations as well). The interpretation of what is "classic" has evolved.
The ‘12 Class of Classics
Star's latest vision of the style, the Roadliner, is rooted partly in tradition, and partly as a reinterpreted Art Deco design (which never really existed on motorcycles before). It got a recent re-do which toned down the deco-ness, however. Harley-Davidson's contestant this time around is the Softail Deluxe, the most classic of its current offerings. Our test unit had the added bonus of H-D's new Hard Candy paint, which hits a 1970s vibe, as opposed to the post-war angle of the rest of the machine. Victory's new Boardwalk is another rethinking of the concept, and keeps retro cues like whitewall tires, but adds contemporary touches like tire-hugging fenders and beach-cruiser-style handlebars.
Victory's Freedom 106 is a...
Victory's Freedom 106 is a free-revving, torquey, smooth beast.
Victory's Boardwalk rolls on the familiar tube-frame platform shared by the Judge and High Ball cruisers. Replacing the now-discontinued Kingpin as the floorboard-sportin' cruiser of the lineup, it retains Victory's Freedom SOHC V-twin (the other two bikes here have pushrod-actuated valves) and parts-bin (looking) floorboards. Wide, 50s-style whitewalls with 60-spoke rims scream old-school, while everything else looks fairly 21st century, like Victory's signature angular headlight. Victory also seems to have an allergy to traditional tank-mounted consoles, as this machine gets just a minimalist gauge on the bars, like its other cruiser stablemates.
Harley's 103-inch version...
Harley's 103-inch version of the Twin Cam is just as responsive and torquey as it is in the other H-D models.
At the other end of the spectrum, Harley's Softail Deluxe looks like a 1940s bike redone in the 1970s. The FLSTN started life in the 90s as the Softail Nostalgia, and has only gotten more nostalgic since then. Details like the downward-turned bars and cutout riser clamp up front, the brief luggage rack, and the grab rail encircling the rider saddle are pulled straight from the archives—as if designers went on a fishing expedition to the Harley museum for cues they could easily work into a modern motorcycle.
…the Roadliner is still rockin'...
…the Roadliner is still rockin' one of those mega motors that was so popular last decade, making it the most zippy of the group…
The actual oldest design here is Star's Roadliner. Its large shield-shaped headlight and communicative dash are the coolest, most classic elements of the model, and directionally-swoopy turn signals are a nice touch as well, but the exaggerated fenders and wagon wheels are looking a bit dated. Speaking of dated, the Roadliner is still rockin' one of those mega motors that was so popular last decade, making it the most zippy of the group, despite being on par for weight (thanks to an aluminum frame). All that power, however, is less capable of being precisely controlled when needed, like in the rain or with a passenger. It also slurps the most gas and sports the smallest tank, which is a shame, since it has the best seat. Gas consumption might have been better if it came with a six-speed like the other two, but its five-cog tranny did shift smoothly and more positively than the two American machines did, with a lighter clutch engagement to boot.
Harley's 103-inch version of the Twin Cam is just as responsive and torquey as it is in the other H-D models. It's not as all-out powerful as the other two larger-displacement engines, but it's got plenty of torque and winds out at freeway velocities as well (the 6-speed Cruise Drive tranny helps in this regard). There was a time not so long ago when H-D was the only company rockin' an air-cooled power plant, but now, none of these bikes sports a radiator. The "B" (counterbalanced) version of the 103 doesn't find neutral quite as readily as the unbalanced version in H-D's Dyna and Touring models, but it still shifts positively, with a big ‘ol clunk. Clutch effort is heavy, but not annoyingly so.
Victory's Freedom 106 is a free-revving, torquey, smooth beast. Somehow it combines steady power and highway performance with a more connected throttle response, for more excitement than the sedate Victory touring models. It pulls hard from the bottom and just keeps doing so up into higher rpm. Unfortunately, this doesn't carry over into the transmission, and although the Victory six-speed is steadily getting better, it's still not as good as the last-decade trannys of the other two—but at least this time we didn't miss any shifts. Sound is decent on the Boardwalk; not as melodious as the subdued H-D, and not as raspy as the rowdy Star.
All three of the bikes distinguish themselves in the ergonomics department. H-D aimed the low-riding Deluxe at a smaller physique-ed demographic, with the old-school tractor seat pushing the pilot up to the vintage tiller bars, and over the boards. Larger riders felt pretty cramped, but there was plenty of seat padding to take the pressure off, while small riders were decidedly comfy, especially for a bike in this class. Star went the other direction with the Roadliner, as even six-foot riders said they felt like the bike was built for someone bigger (even though they felt comfortable on it). Victory split the difference on the Boardwalk, with wide bars that required a reach from about everyone, but feeling fairly neutral elsewhere. The deep bucket of the seat was nice, but larger riders could feel the pan through the thin foam; it's better than the squishy Victory seats of yore, but only a little.
On the open road, the three bikes are a mixed kettle of fish, but relatively similar and capable. The biggest ergonomic drawback for all are the wide bars coupled with the lack of a windshield. How the rider is shaped seems to have the most bearing on how much wind bothers them, but for the most part the Boardwalk was the worst offender, followed by the Deluxe, then the Star. On a smooth road, differences are minimal, but rough it up a little and the Boardwalk begins to shine. On the washboard tracks that pass for freeways in L.A., the Roadliner is cushy, but it lacks rebound damping, getting bouncy when pushed. The Softail is more controlled, but in the same fast, choppy conditions that flummox the Star, it tends towards harshness, while the Victory balances control and comfort, with or without a passenger (the other bikes just get worse with added weight).
On back roads the Boardwalk continues to be a winner, with easy handling, smooth power delivery and steady suspension. On very tight roads (and parking lots) the wide, forward bar can be a distraction. The Softail impresses with superior throttle response, good suspension and decent ground clearance for such a low bike. However, if the H-D starts dragging parts, it's usually the frame or other "hard parts." The Roadliner is okay in the back country, with some of our more aggressive riders preferring the power that comes on hard, right from the bottom. But the Star's slow steering, drivetrain lash and underdamped suspension makes for a bike that, although enjoyable, requires work to hustle around corners.