This article was originally published in the February 2000 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

It’s somewhat disconcerting at first. It looks like a Harley FLSTC, and it sounds just like one when you start it. But when you climb on and ride away, something is missing: vibration. And then there’s all that power when you goose the throttle. Can this really be a Harley Softail?

Welcome to the 21st century, where even Harley Softails won't vibrate.

We photographed ours on a warm day, so the windshield was removed.Fran Kuhn

Times have changed. Harley has new competitors, and more sophisticated and demanding customers. Many Harley buyers are tired of expensive bikes that shake pieces off on the road, and are weary of vibration that dulls the fun of riding. Harley-Davidson has previously addressed these problems with model lines—the Dyna and Touring families—that incorporate rubber-mounted engines. But that still wasn't enough. Buyers prefer the looks of the Softail series, in part because the engines are packed more tightly in the frame on rubber mounts.

Upon hearing that Harley’s ’00 model line would include a new frame, we anticipated there would be some provision to adapt the more modern, more powerful and more sophisticated Twin Cam 88 engine introduced for the other big twin models a year ago. We just couldn’t quite figure out how it would be accomplished. It turned out we were barking up the wrong tree. Although there was a new Softail chassis, it wasn’t where the vibration would be snubbed. Harley would do that in the engine itself.

Not only does the FLSTC have steadier handling, but the brakes perform better too.Fran Kuhn

Our problem was in assuming Harley-Davidson’s devotion to tradition would keep it from using tech­nological trickery like counter­balancers. We should have known better. By adopting devices such as fuel injection, H-D has shown it uses innovations that suit its purposes. And counterbalancers are hardly a radical idea, having been utilized in motorcycles for more than a quarter-century.

The counterbalancers come in a new version of the Twin Cam engine, which is stronger, more powerful, easier to service and better in virtually every way than the Evolution engines that powered previous Softails. A revised bottom-end layout provides chain drive from the right end of the crankshaft for a pair of counterbalancers, one ahead of and one behind the crankshaft. Although they divert a small amount of the power that would otherwise drive the bike, they eliminate the shakes, so the engine can be packaged as tightly as Softail engines always have. The big difference is that vibration is virtually nonexistent.

With the vibration all smoothed out the one thing we would suggest is to get a better seat.Fran Kuhn

Bottom-end differences aside, the new Softail engine, dubbed the Twin Cam 88B, packs the attractions of the original Twin Cam engine, introduced a year ago. Although it’s an air-cooled, single-crankpin design laid out with the same 45-degree V-angle, knife-and-fork connecting-rod arrange­ment, two valves per cylinder, push­rod valve operation, and a single carb, the new Twin Cam series has many advantages over the old Evo design. The new en­gines are bigger at 1450cc than the old 1340cc engines, with a shorter stroke for better breathing and a higher compression ratio. Down in the crankcase, silent-type chains operate the two camshafts. The engines are quieter than the Evos because of their more modern design. They are also burlier, with a bigger straight crankpin, stronger cases, better lubrication, stouter bearings and countless other improvements. The engines are easier to assemble and service, too. Like the original Twin Cam the counterbalanced version is easily distinguished by its oval air cleaner, which appears to offer more volume for better breathing.

The barrel-style ignition key must be removed from the lock while you are riding the bike or you will lose it. The tank-top ignition switch can be turned on and off, but not locked or unlocked, without the key. The instrument cluster is similar in appearance to previous Harley tank-top units.Fran Kuhn

If you’re standing nearby when the Heritage Softail Classic fires up, there aren’t many clues that this is not your father’s Softail. The exhaust cadence sounds the same, but you might hear a different sort of mechanical note. Overall, there is less mechanical noise than the Evo engines but more than the un­balanced Twin Cam engines. But the new engine doesn’t make bits of the bike shudder as engine speed rises and falls.

From the saddle, the difference is readily apparent. No Evo-powered Softail was ever so smooth, nor as responsive to throttle. There is more power everywhere, though not quite as much as the unbalanced machines. And rpm picks up more readily than the Evolution engines. Even on the relatively heavy Classic you can feel the added power when taking off from a complete stop. Carburetion is more predictable and linear. With the added power, slower traffic is less of an obstacle on two-lane roads.

Studded like the saddle, the leather bags offer modest capacity with conventional leather-strap-and-buckle closures.Fran Kuhn

However, smoothness is where the engine most distinguishes itself from its predecessors. Vibration hasn’t been completely banished, but what’s left simply doesn’t intrude except as a slight fuzziness of images in the mirrors at highway speeds. It doesn’t wear you out or make your butt start to itch. The lack of shaking also has to make life easier for most components, which no longer have to withstand the ancient Milwaukee Buzz Torture.

The new engine is also coupled to a new transmission package, which brings smoother, lighter, quieter shifting. The difference is not huge, but those who have spent time with the old bikes will notice the difference when they prod the heel-toe shifter. One thing that hasn’t changed is Harley’s traditionally excellent fuel mileage. At the 43 miles per gallon we averaged, the “Smoothtail” is right in line with the old Evolution-powered big twins, and will get you 200 miles per five-gallon tank­ful if you keep the speeds legal. How­ever, this bike does require premium-grade fuel.

You can easily tell the new twin-cam engine from the Evolution design by the elliptical chrome air-cleaner case and the fact that the exhaust pipes no longer connect via that intrusive crossover pipe. The chromed external oil lines are also easy to spot. Once you get on the saddle, the differences are even more obvious.Fran Kuhn

Engine performance and personality are only half the story of the new Softails, however. Although it looks the same as the ’99 Heritage Softail Classic, virtually the entire chassis is new this year. Harley says the new frame is one-third stiffer and riding the bike certainly confirms that claim. It is steadier in corners and over bumps, which lends greater precision to cornering and steering. That’s not to say the Classic is a cornering fool. The rider’s footboards drag relatively easily, which limits the speed at which you can negotiate turns.

The other major change is to the brakes. As with the Electra Glide and the Dyna Super Glide Sport, the FLSTC has benefited tremendously from the switch to four-piston calipers clamping uniform-expansion floating rotors. The Softails also have a new master cylinder operating the rear brake. There is more power with reduced lever effort, more precise control and better feedback. The only remaining flaw is that you need a large paw to fully wrap your fingers around the front lever. Some sort of lever adjustment would improve the front brake for riders with small hands.

Riding Positions
The Softail is both as fun and functional as any of the competition.Fran Kuhn

The studded Heritage Classic two-piece saddle was wide and firm enough to keep us happy for a couple of hours at a stretch, though some taller riders wished for a bit more room rearward. The riding position is comfortable with or without the detachable windshield in place. The handlebar neither makes you stretch nor crowds you in full-lock turns.

The studded leather saddlebags lead the list of features that distinguish the Heritage Softail Classic. They offer enough capacity for short two-up trips or longer solo rides. The passenger also gets a small backrest. Other goodies include full fenders over 16-inch wire-spoke wheels, spotlights bracketing the big headlight, a chrome hubcap up front, tank-top instrumentation, fishtail mufflers, and ribbed covers on the transmission and triple clamp.

Although the nostalgic style suggests casual touring use, the counterbalanced engine makes it a much better long-distance mount than previous versions.Fran Kuhn

Some of the detail Y2K changes include a new one-piece fuel tank with a fuel gauge built into the dummy left fuel cap, a larger oil tank with external chromed oil lines, the more powerful maintenance-free battery used on the other big twins, sealed wheel bearings and a more accessible sidestand. The new frame incorporates a steering-head lock operated by the same key used in the tank-top ignition lock.

Although the nostalgic style of the Heritage Softail Classic suggests casual touring use, the counterbalanced engine makes it a much better long-distance mount than previous versions. It’s likely it would have joined the Road King Classic among our favorites in last issue’s leather-baggers comparison. Even though it looks similar to the old bike, the 21st-century FLSTC is so different—and better—that you too may feel as if you have slipped into a time warp. Take it from us, this brave new world is going to be great.