2005 Harley-Davidson Softail Springer Classic - Road Test

The 1948 FL Is Back And Better Than EverApparently, nostalgia is still what it used to be. From Mustangs to Minis to Miatas, from Chrysler PT Cruisers to Ford and Triumph T-Birds, it seems everything old is new again when you ride down the street.

Harley-Davidson has been evoking the style and spirit of motorcycles past longer and more successfully than any other motorcycle maker-or vehicle builders in general. (Well, except for Russia's Ural, which has barely changed designs in over half a century.) Harley seemed to be the first to recognize how appealing the elegant lines and unhurried attitude of midcentury motorcycles could be. It also had a completely authentic heritage to carry it off.

Among Harley's latest rides down memory lane, you'll find the Softail Springer Classic, a new-for-2005 model that pays homage to the last of Harley's original line of springer-fork motorcycles. That machine, the 1948 FL, was also the first to use a knucklehead engine with hydraulic valve adjustment.

The '05 version reflects some of the details of the postwar model better than any previous modern Springer. The fork assembly's legs, for example, are black powdercoated to mimic '48's black enamel finish, which had much less chrome than current bikes. This fork bows to modern tastes with its chrome springs and damper assembly. However, the fork straddles a deep fender uninterrupted by chrome or logos, crowned by a running light at its tip. The blackout treatment extends to the oil tank, which also gets a badge recreating a label listing Harley patents. The label was last used on new bikes in the '40s. Although chrome, the exhaust system mimics the '48 bike's 2-into-1 system-at least from the right. The '05 Springer Classic also has an additional muffler on the left, which permits better performance than a single muffler. The aluminum tank graphic with stamped-aluminum trim (taken from Harleys of the early '40s) running around the tank like a belt adds another classic touch.

Wire-spoke wheels (with tube-type tires) are de rigueur on any retro bike, though you wouldn't have seen as much bright metal as these have in a pre-'50s motorcycle. The Profile wheel rims on our bike (a $275 option), with their nicely rounded shoulders, add an elegant touch that seems right at home on a classic machine.

Few potential buyers would actually want to ride a '48 motorcycle regularly, unless kickstarting, manual ignition advance, poor lighting, unimpressive brakes and dozens of other issues that have been overcome in the last five-and-a-half decades seem attractive. However, Harley's stylists and engineers have found clever ways to maintain classic styling elements. The Softail rear suspension, for example, offers the clean look of the hardtail frame used on the original '48 model but conceals two spring-damper assemblies under the engine to absorb some of the shock of modern roads. Vibration, a fact of life on the 1000 and 1200cc engines powering the '48 model, has been thoroughly suppressed by dual counterbalancers in the current 1450cc Twin Cam engine, which also offers electric starting, fuel injection, fiddle-free electronic ignition, about twice the horsepower and dozens upon dozens of changes to the design, systems and materials that have improved reliability and ease of maintenance since '48. It retains the 45-degree V, air-cooling, two valves operated by pushrods, "knife-and-fork" connecting rods and other details of that first bike with hydraulic lifters, but you won't find any significant common parts-or miss them.

Although relatively small in terms of displacement by comparison to other V-twins, the 1450cc Harley engines can more than hold their own in terms of power against most of the 1500 to 1700cc machines. (Victory's more powerful 1500s are the notable exception.) Even though other bikes boast liquid cooling, overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and other features associated with performance, Harley's simple two-valve OHV twins make great total power. The TC 88 engine in the Softail Springer Classic pulls willingly from idle and goes strong until the rev limiter begins to shut things down. Although the bike is heavy, it accelerates hard enough to give you the advantage in traffic and still has something in reserve at 75 mph. The Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI) delivers great throttle response while retaining Harley's traditionally good fuel mileage. With the mild-mannered riding this motorcycle suggests, it's easy to get 40 mph, though you'll need to pay for premium fuel when you do top off the 5.0-gallon tank.

Vibration won't be an issue thanks to the counterbalancers. You don't get buzzed at highway speeds, though extended high-speed rides might call for a windshield. The beach-style handlebar's bend forces you to grip tightly to counter wind pressure because the turned-back grip configuration means you can't just hook your fingers around the bar to hold on. Average and shorter riders liked the seating and ergonomics, but taller and long-legged riders wanted a bit more room rearward on the saddle. Swapping saddles is often a no-brainer in these situations, but you might have trouble parting with the stock seat on the Springer because the standard item, skirted with leather detailing and chrome badges, is a significant component of the bike's style. The narrow passenger pad can be quickly removed if you want a more classic solo-saddle look. (Some passengers opined they would be barely worse off without it.) We doubt many of these bikes will be bought for long-distance use, so the stock saddle should be fine for short hauls.

People wonder if the Springer fork rides as well as a telescopic design, and we always tell them that for cruiser duty it works better because it isn't hindered by the seal friction that slows the response of telefork legs over small bumps. Even though travel is limited-just 2.3 inches-the fork still rode better over large, sharp bumps than the rear suspension, which has an additional two inches of travel. Large, sharp bumps hit you harder than on most cruisers, and mainly through the rear end.

The Springer fork comes up short in one aspect, however. While other Harleys have switched to four-piston brakes for both wheels, the Springer models have the old, less-powerful single-piston caliper up front. Harley says the Springer fork (introduced in its current form in '88) would require a substantial redesign to handle the more powerful four-piston brake (introduced more than a decade later), presumably because of the additional torsional loads the bike generates. As a result, you need to clamp down on the front brake lever pretty enthusiastically to approach the stopping power you get with other Harley brakes, something riders with smaller or arthritic hands may find difficult. Even though the majority of the Springer Classic's static weight is on the rear wheel and its four-piston brake, and 64.5 inches of wheelbase reduces weight transfer forward, in a serious stop you'll wish for less nostalgic braking up front.

You might not expect such a low-tech-looking motorcycle to work well when the road bends, but the Springer Classic actually provides better cornering clearance than many more modern cruisers and comparable stability when leaned over and dragging. The steering is somewhat heavy, but that is to be expected when you are herding half a ton of motorcycle (731 pounds without fluids) and rider. Not that it really seems to be an issue. We doubt many potential buyers look at this motorcycle and think, "Oooh, twisties!"

More likely they will be thinking about the reaction they will receive, and from our experience it will be hugely positive. Women fawned over it. Men tried to determine if it was something new or just a beautiful restoration (and a few had trouble believing us when we said it was a '05 model). Certainly that aura of mid-20th-century elegance comes through clearly.

The elegance also comes through in the pricing. With a suggested base price of $16,995, the Softail Springer Classic is among the company's pricier standard non-dresser models. Adding ESPFI raises that by $400 (unless you buy a California model, in which case the cost of meeting the emissions requirements is $190 less than the carbureted version), and our burgundy paint (Harley calls it Black Cherry Pearl, and you can also select blue or black-pearl solid colors) adds $285 over basic black or red/black, and blue/silver two-tones add an additional $140. With the pretty wheels, the MSRP for our bike would be $18,155-before charges for California emissions, taxes or any of the many accessories with which Harley or the aftermarket might tempt you. At the time of this writing, we counted more than 1200 accessories for this bike alone on Harley's web site, and the company is constantly devising new ones. Expect to spend $20,000, and the dealer may add a surcharge to that.

Worth it? Only the buyer can decide, but the Softail Springer Classic offers an unmatched measure of nostalgia in a pleasant, casual cruiser.

Specifications
H-D Softail Springer Classic
Suggested base price: $16,995
Engine type: Air-cooled 45-degree OHV V-twinDisplacement, bore x stroke:1450cc, 95.2 x 101.5mm
Compression ratio: 8.9:1
Transmission: 5 speeds
Final drive: Belt
Wet weight: 734 lbs.
Wheelbase: 64.5 in.
Seat height: 27.4 in.
Front tire:MT90-B16 Dunlop 402F tube-type
Rear tire:150/80B16 Dunlop 401 tube-type
Front brake:11.5-in. disc, single-piston caliper
Rear brake:1.5-in. disc, four-piston caliper
Front suspension: Harley Springer leading link, 2.3 in. travel
Rear suspension: Harley Softail, 2 dampers, 4.3 in. travel
Quarter-mile acceleration:
14.26 sec., 92.6 mph

High Points
Most nostalgic styling on a modern motorcycle with great curb appeal; good power and fuel mileage

Low Points
Front brake too nostalgic; rear suspension harsh on bigger bumps

First Changes
Better rear dampers