In the late 1940s, when motorcycle builders peered into a murky future to guess what sort of two-wheeled marvels people would be enjoying in half a century, they probably didn’t include the possibility that some of their counterparts two generations later would be striving to recreate the very bikes that they were building. But, perhaps as an escape from the escalation of technology that hurtles us ever-quicker into an uncertain future, there is a growing trend toward increasingly nostalgic motorcycles.

To confirm this, look no further than the legions of entities who have professed an intention to revive the Indian motorcycles of that era. The return of other old names like Excelsior, the fact that the new Triumph motorcycle company saw its greatest success in America with its most-nostalgic model, and the increasingly classic styling of cruisers from all manufacturers underscores motorcyclists' desire for the machines of a simpler era. And that simply reflects the larger world's fascination with old machines, with everything from old refrigerators to half-century-old bicycles to ancient farm equipment seeing a surge of interest. You wonder why American car makers aren't rolling out modern renditions of '57 Chevys and '49 pickups.

Few companies in any business have woven their present with the past the way Harley-Davidson has. The names Heritage and Classic are sprinkled liberally throughout its model line. But no previous model digs deeper into Harley's illustrious past than the new Heritage Springer Softail, which takes many of its styling cues from a 1948 Harley model.

springer soft saddlebags
Once you have released all three buckles and lifted the outer flap, you still have to pull down two zippers and fold open the inner flap. The bags’ inner volume doesn’t seem to match their outer bulk.(Left); No styling ploy was spared in designing the saddlebags, although a set with just two buckles per bag and no fringe to tangle in the buckles would be much handier to open and close.(Right)Dean Groover

In 1948, Harry Truman was president. Man broke the sound barrier. Jackie Robinson had just broken through baseball’s color barrier. In Japan, a fellow named Honda started putting surplus engines in bicycles. Once American motorcyclists got past being stunned by the “riots” at a Hollister, California, rally, the big news was that Harley’s 74-cubic-inch flagship had a new alloy head with hydraulic lifters operating the overhead valves. The style of the rocker covers, which looked a bit like inverted cooking pans, earned these bikes the panhead nickname. The undamped girder–style fork was still used but on its way out. Harley had a sleek new hydraulically-damped telescopic system about to debut. However, the clean lines of the frame had not yet been interrupted by rear suspension. Harley enjoyed its best sales year in its history to that time.

Another nice classic touch in the front fender light, though the power wire emerging from the left side of the fender looks a bit unfinished. You can get red or blue striping.Kevin Wing

A half century later, the Hollister rally is being resurrected, and the newest Harley model seeks to emulate its 1948 forerunner. The familiar 1340cc (80-cubic-inch), air-cooled V-twin has specifications similar to that 1948 motor, though every part is different. It's set in the clean lines of the Softail chassis, which mimics a hardtail chassis. For the first time, Harley has mated its modern Springer front end (which enjoys the benefits of damping) with a 16-inch front wheel. Previous Springer models have all used 21-inch front wheels, but the 16-incher is actually a more authentic match in terms of classic machines.

As with other Springer-equipped machines, the front end provides a smooth ride free of the sticking friction (or stiction) that plagues telescopic fork legs. As a result, you get a smoother ride over small ripples and ridges than with most conventional front suspensions. The single-shock rear end is not as compliant over large bumps, especially sharp-edged models, as the front end, which diminishes the overall smoothness. The wide 16-inch front wheel lightens up the steering manners a bit, but adds a slight tendency to straighten up under braking, which we didn’t note with the skinny 21-inch wheel. Steering is otherwise neutral, particularly at low speeds, when the bike is extremely responsive and steady. Handling is stable in corners or simply bucking side winds on the open road.

Though most riders liked the position of the floorboards, they pick up a lot of vibration. The rear brake pedal is extremely awkward to use and almost impossible to apply with your heel on the board.Kevin Wing

With no counterbalancer and traditional solid engine mounting, vibration falls somewhere in the shaky end of the tolerable spectrum. On our test unit, the vibes came at you primarily through the floorboards, but the bar and seat also gave a bit of vibro-massage. For us, the vibration made the jump to excessive at about 75 mph. Though the saddle feels pretty solid when you first settle in, it’s flat and roomy and holds up well on extended rides. The editorial hineys were ready for relief about the time the tank needed a refill. We wondered if the chrome rail running around the back of the rider’s section (one of the classic touches on the bike) would be annoying. It was for longer-legged riders, but most of us had no complaints.

Gas Cap
The most efficient method of filling the fuel tank is to fill the downhill side under the reverse-threaded left fuel cap first. The instrument lights are dim and away from your line of sight.Dean Groover

The user-friendly riding position offered a comfy stance for all of our riders. Starting from a fairly low top triple clamp, the stainless-steel handlebar bends upward about five inches from three-inch risers. The grips greet you with a moderate turn-in at an angle and width that was comfortable both maneuvering in tight spots and running down the road at 75 mph. The high position of the headlight and spotlights made the riding position work well on the highway by diverting the air stream around your chest, reducing the pressure on your arms at 70 mph. The floorboards position the rider’s legs comfortably too, with enough distance to let you stretch out your legs, although they are located far enough rearward for you to stand on them, if necessary.

The fishtail muffler tips give the exhaust system a classic look. Too bad it’s hidden behind all of that long fringe.Kevin Wing

Some details of the ergonomics impressed us less favorably, though. The brake pedal’s position made applying it with your heel on the floorboard virtually impossible. For most riders, the normal, comfortable riding position placed the right foot under the pedal, making it slow to get into action. The heel-and-toe shifter can be rowed with part of your foot on the board, but it was least awkward if the rider lifted his foot to shift positively. We’ve complained about Harley’s dual-button turn signals before, and even with the Heritage Springer’s nice handlebar layout, this design is still more awkward than the single-switch systems.

Harley definitely builds its handlebar levers for large hands. Some testers call them bulky. The brake lever has no provision to adjust its distance from the bar and requires a strong squeeze to make it work, though the single-disc front brake will deliver more than enough whoas to lock the front tire if you apply too much pressure. We needed to practice hard stops for a while before we felt ready to handle a genuine panic stop on the street. In its favor, the Springer front suspension resists diving during braking, giving you available suspension travel to deal with bumpy stops.

The paint comes in white with either red or blue striping. Harley did its usual inimitable job on tank badges.Dean Groover

The clutch lever has a similar bulky feel, but clutch operation is smooth and progressive. Prior to this test, we'd been riding the Road King, powered by a fuel-injected version of Harley's 1340cc engine that the company says makes 9-percent more torque and feels more responsive throughout its rev range than the Heritage Springer. Though we were immediately aware that this bike has fewer total ponies on tap, other aspects impressed us even more. This engine seems less willing to rev freely up top, which may be partially a result of the rising magnitude of vibration as revs increase which discourages you from revving it hard. This engine also feels a bit flatter off idle than the injected model. Assuming you buy a Heritage Springer for its nostalgic potency, neither of these complaints will matter much. You hardly expect to see a vintage motorcycle making power shifts as it accelerates down the road.

Seat back
The seat back is one of the bike’s traditional styling accents. Most testers had no complaints, but one longer-legged rider complained of unpleasant pressure from the bar.Kevin Wing

The engine was willing enough in other aspects. Given a little choke or a full twist of the throttle on what passes for a winter morning in Southern California, the bike would light off promptly and idle without assistance after a couple of minutes of warming. Fuel mileage with the 92-octane gas that Harley recommends was sufficient to travel over 150 miles before the twin-cap, 4.2-gallon fuel reservoir required refilling.

A nicely muffled, somewhat unique note emerges from the dual-fishtail mufflers. The exhaust system design is unusual. The front exhaust pipe plugs conventionally into the right muffler, the main muffler. Viewed from the right, the rear cylinder appears to dump entirely into the right muffler, with a pipe that runs from the cylinder head down to join the front cylinder’s header before it reaches the muffler. So what does the left muffler do? It’s fed by a pipe that emerges at right angles from the rear cylinder’s header pipe a short distance from the cylinder head. It makes three bends around the rear of the primary case to join the left muffler. You can feel the difference in pressure from the two mufflers when you hold your hands behind them while the engine is running—the right muffler’s output is noticeably stronger.

The aftermarket has been knocking off the tombstone style taillight of the 1940s for years, and now Harley has done so. It also lights the license plate.Dean Groover

To punctuate the vintage styling of the Heritage Springer, Harley’s designers included plenty of retro touches and features in addition to the spotlights, headlight position, seat rail and fishtail mufflers. Full fenders swoop around fat tires with wide whitewalls. A front-tip light glows from the floating front fender, and a classic “tombstone” taillight/license-plate light adorns the rear. Mounting the horn up front with a vintage-replica cover emulates past practice and gives the feeble honker a better chance of being heard. The speedometer, warning lights and ignition switch reside atop the fuel tank in a chrome panel. All of the upholstery—the skirted saddle, the tank divider and the leather saddlebags—carries a basket-weave pattern, and blue or red piping around the edges to match the tank and fender striping. The saddle’s skirts also have conchos and fringe.

Mounting the headlight and spotlight up high not only fits the vintage style of the bike but also offers significant wind protection for the rider. Spotlights only illuminate on low beam.Dean Groover

In addition to the embossed basket-weave treatment and color piping, the bags each feature three 1.5-inch-wide closure straps with big chrome buckles, three conchos, four reflectors and 5-inch fringe hanging from the lid flaps and the bottoms of the bags. To our eyes, the two or three elements too many gave the bags a kind of wild-west-Wurlitzer appearance. Some of the frills interfere with function. Three straps are less handy than two, especially with fringe in the way while you’re trying to buckle them. The bags have limited interior volume because the backs are scooped out to clear the swingarm and other pieces. Items that look like they should fit right in the bag won’t slip all the way to the bottom.

The retro effect of the styling is so effective that a few modern pieces—notably the teardrop rear turn signals and the big round airbox—appear out of place on the Heritage Springer, though a venture into the aftermarket could probably find more fitting items in short order.

For the first time, the Springer front suspension has been mated with a fat 16-inch wheel. The mechanism for the floating front fender has been revised, too.Dean Groover

The machine certainly starts conversations. Few people walk past it without pausing to look, and many wonder whether it really is an antique—or perhaps a custom.

Whether this most-expensive of all Harley cruisers is worth the $17,000 suggested price depends primarily on your reaction to that thrilling-days-of-yesteryear styling. The bike’s other attractions—primarily comfort points—are diluted by strong vibration. That single shortcoming would make us think long and hard about traveling long distances on the machine. But it is unique. It can’t be mistaken for any other machine, not even another Harley. That, or perhaps a desire to travel in time, will make it worth the price to plenty of folks.

Riding Positions:
Nostalgia is fine when it's just skin-deep. I have no complaints about retro styling, but when the bike begins behaving like a 50-year-old machine, the appeal quickly fades. In this case, we have a machine with authentic WWII-era vibration. I figured I had been born late enough to avoid that kind of thing. I have enjoyed motorcycling's march of progress, and dispelling hammering vibration was one of our greatest advances. My other complaint: The no-doubt-expensive saddlebags are a glaring example of form overwhelming function.

Those shortcomings are particularly unfortunate because the rest of the bike works so well, whether you like modern-memory styling or not. But once out of town, the vibration dominates the machine, overshadowing all the good stuff. For my budget, 18 grand is too much to pay for a bike that is limited to boulevard trolling, no matter how unique its looks. ✰✰✰ —Art Friedman

The user-friendly riding position offered a comfy stance for all the riders.Kevin Wing

As I’ve been riding the Heritage, I’ve been thinking about Ben, a guy who attended my high school. Ben walked into my football-crazy school an answer to our dreams. A broad shouldered, 6-foot-tall freshman was hard to miss amongst the skinny squeaky-voiced kids in our all-male school. The coaches salivated. Ben had a similar effect on members of the opposite sex bused in for our Saturday-night mixers.

The Heritage Springer’s entrance was no less attention-getting. Several female employees—people who see everything on two wheels roll through our garages—took it upon themselves to comment on the Springer’s good looks. A motorcycle cop astride an in-line four pulled up beside me at a stoplight and pointed to the side of the road. After we pulled over, he showed me pictures of a Heritage police bike he’d been assigned when he worked for a police department that wasn’t as “cheap” as the LAPD.

Except for the fact that it needs a haircut, the FLSTS is a nice-looking motorcycle. The Springer front end combined with the fat front tire makes quite a statement. The stylish fishtail mufflers deliver a bit too muted, but still pleasing, sound. What’s not to like about the bike?

This morning, on the last day I have to ride the Springer, I realized why I'd been thinking of Ben. His entrance wasn't what reminded me of the Springer; it was his fall. The first time we saw Ben perform during a game, we witnessed what would be repeated every football game for four years. Although he looked like a bruiser, Ben was, simply put, an oaf, and no amount of coaching was ever able to turn him into the linebacker we'd all wanted. When I'm choosing my team for weekend activities, I'll still pick the Vulcan Classic to fill the V-twin position. ✰✰✰ —Evans Brasfield

This article was originally published in the June 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

H-D Heritage Springer Softail
H-D Heritage Springer SoftailKevin Wing
High Points: Low Points: First Changes:
Unique, nostalgic styling Vibration A more retro air-cleaner cover would be nice
Front suspension is both nostalgically and functionally effective Awkward brake pedal arrangement Less-obtrusive rear turn signals
Comfortable saddle Saddlebags are overstyled and inconvenient to access
Riding position and wind protection good for several hours
Exceptionally manageable low-speed handling
H-D Heritage Springer Softail Specifications
Designation: FLSTS
Suggested base price: $16,995 ($17,285 California)
Standard colors: White/red, white/blue
Extra cost colors: NA
Standard warranty: 12 mo., unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 5000 miles
Engine & Drivetrain
Type: Air-cooled, 45-degree, tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: OHV, 1 intake, 1 exhaust valve, operated by hydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1340cc, 88.8 x 108mm
Compression ratio: 8.5:1
Carburetion: 1, 40mm Keihin CV
Lubrication: Dry sump, 3.0 qt.
Minimum fuel grade: 92 octane
Transmission: Wet, multiplate clutch; 5 speeds
Final drive: Belt, 70/32
Wheels: Wire-spoke, 16 x 3.00-in. front and rear
Front tire: MT90B16 Dunlop Elite II tube-type
Rear tire: MT90B16 Dunlop Elite II tube-type
Front brake: Single-action, single-piston caliper, 11.5-in. disc
Rear brake: Single-action caliper, 11.5-in. disc
Front suspension: Springer, 4.2 in. travel
Rear suspension: Single damper, 4.1 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gal (0.4 gal reserve)
Handlebar width: 31.0 in. wide, 1.0 in. diameter
Inseam equivalent: 33.0 in.
Electrical & Instrumentation
Charging output: 360 watts
Battery: 12v, 20AH
Forward lighting: 55/60-watt 5.75-in. headlight, dual spotlights, position lights, fender light
Taillight: Two bulbs
Instruments: Speedometer, LCD odometer/ tripmeter; warning lights for high beam, turn signals, neutral, low oil pressure
Fuel mileage: 36–50 mpg, 43.1 mpg average
Average range: 181 miles
RPM at 60 mph, top gear: 2300
200 yard, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 73.1 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.51 sec., 90.9 mph