Time Traveler: 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer Softail

Everything old is new again. From the June 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

Back in the late 1940s, when motorcycle builders tried to peer into a murky future and guess what sorts 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 toward an uncertain future, there is growing trend to increasingly nostalgic motorcycles.

To confirm this, you need 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 sees its greatest success 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 enjoying surges of interest. You wonder why American car makers aren't rolling out modern renditions of '57 Chevys and '49 pick-ups.

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 it's model line. But no previous model digs deeper into Harley's illustrious past than this new Heritage Springer Softail, which takes many of its styling cues from a 1948 Harley model.

In 1948, the sound barrier had recently been broken. Harry Truman was president. Jackie Robinson had just broken baseball's color barrier. In Japan, a fellow named Honda had started putting surplus engines in bicycles. For American motorcyclists, once they 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 it was on its way out. Harley had a sleek new hydraulically damped telescopic system about to debut. However, the clean lines of the frame had yet to be interrupted by rear suspension. Harley enjoyed its best sales year in its history to that time.

Half a 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 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 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 static friction (or stiction) that plagues telescopic fork legs. As a result, the ride over small ripples and ridges is smoother than what you get with most conventional front suspensions. The hidden-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 seems to lighten up the steering manners a bit compared to Springer models with 21-inch front wheels, but there is also a very 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, considerably better than most cruisers. Handling is stable in corners or simply bucking side winds on the open road. Cornering clearance is less than most other Harley-Davidson cruisers, though presumably someone looking for a retro ride won't feel that cornering is much of an issue.

With no counterbalancer and traditional solid engine mounting, vibration is somewhere in the shaky end of the tolerable spectrum. On our test unit, the vibes came at you primarily through the floorboards, but the bars 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 into it, it's flat and roomy and holds up well on extended rides. The editorial hineys were ready for relief about the time the tank was ready for 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 after a while, but it never bothered anyone.

The riding position is very user friendly, offering a comfy stance for all our riders. Starting from a fairly low top triple clamp, the stainless-steel handlebar bends upwards 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. Part of the reason the riding position worked so well on the highway is the rather high positions of the headlight and spotlights, which divert the air stream around your chest, reducing the pressure on your arms at 70 mph. The floorboards position the rider's legs comfortably too, they are distant enough to let your legs stretch out but far enough rearward to permit you to stand on them across bumps.

Some details of the ergonomics impressed us less favorably, though. The position of the brake pedal made it virtually impossible to apply it with your heel on the floorboard, making control imprecise. 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 have complained about Harley's dual-button turn signals before, and even with the nice handlebar layout of the Heritage Springer, this design is still more awkward than the single-switch systems.

Harley's handlebar levers are definitely built 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 sufficient 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, which means that you have suspension travel available to deal with bumps encountered while you stop.

The clutch lever has a similar bulky feel, but clutch operation is smooth and progressive. Prior to this test, we'd been riding a Road King, powered by a fuel-injected version of Harley's 1340cc engine that the company says makes 9 percent more torque than this one and which feels more responsive throughout its rev range. Though we were immediately aware that this bike has fewer total ponies on tap, other aspects impressed 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.

In other aspects of engine operation it was willing enough. 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 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 a bit unusual. The right muffler is the main muffler, as you can see by looking at the right side of the bike. The front exhaust pipe plugs conventionally into the right muffler. Viewed from the right, the rear cylinder also 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.

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 vintage-replica cover emulates past practice and gives the feeble hooter a better shot at being noticed. The speedometer, warning lights and ignition switch reside atop the fuel tank in a chrome panel. All the upholstery--the skirted saddle, the tank divider and the leather saddlebags--carry a basket-weave pattern and blue or red (depending on whether the bike has blue or red striping painted on its tank and fenders) piping around the edges. The saddle's skirts also have conchos and fringe.

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 five-inch-long fringe hanging from the lid flaps and the bottoms of the bags. To our eyes, it was all about two or three elements too many and gave the bags a kind of wild-west-Wurlitzer appearance. Some of this interferes with function. Three straps are less handy than two, especially when there is fringe in your way when you are 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 because of the shape of the pushed-in backs.

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. The machine certainly starts conversations. Few people walk past it without pausing to look.

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 time travel--will make it worth the price to some folks.


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 out 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 the modern-memory styling or not. But the vibration dominates the machine once you are out of town, overshadowing all the good stuff. For my budget, eighteen grand is too grand for bike that is limited to boulevard trolling, no matter how unique its looks.

--Art Friedman

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 the answer to our prayers. A broad shouldered, six-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 bussed 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 stop light and pointed to the side of the road. When 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 hair cut, 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. You see, 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


Our overall opinion of the FLSTS has improved significantly since it was fitted with the counterbalanced 1450cc Twin Cam 88B engine, which has eliminated vibration as an issue and offers more power than the 1340cc Evolution engine that was fitted in 1997, when this bike was tested. The fuel-injection option has also increased power and response. Of course, there have been a number of additional changes in the years since this test was written, but those are the most significant.

THAT FORK: The Story Behind the Springer

One of the Heritage Springer Softail's most prominent features its "new" Springer front end, but the concept behind this chromed bit of eye candy is a half-century old. Looking much like the front suspension on the 1948 Panhead that inspired it, this modern Springer iteration has been around since 1988. Evolutionary refinements since then have kept this antiquated-but viable system competitive with the telescopic front forks in Harley-Davidson's line.

The Springer front end's function is immediately clear once you've gotten a chance to bounce on one and watch it work. The rear-most legs of the Springer are rigid and transmit cornering and braking loads into the motorcycle's chassis through a conventional steering head. The bottom ends of these rigid rear legs (one on each side) have pivots that carry short swinging arms with the axle mounted at their front ends. To handle suspension loads, a second fork (positioned forward of the rigid one) mounts to the swing arms via more pivots, and transfers suspension loads up to an array of springs and a single damper mounted in front of the steering head.

The Springer design requires unique mounting for the front brake caliper and fender. The caliper carrier pivots on the wheel axle, and feeds its braking torque into the rear, rigid part of the fork with a short reaction link. According to Harley-Davidson, a small amount of anti-dive geometry is designed into the system to reduce the amount of suspension used up by weight transfer under braking. The fender is carried on links too, and the FLSTS has reworked geometry to allow for closer, more consistent fender clearance than on bikes with 21-inch wheels. The new bike also has revised rebound damping, aimed at refining ride quality.

Other changes were made to the Springer design to adapt it to the FLSTS's 16-inch front wheel, instead of the 21-inch front wheel it has been paired with in modern times on other H-Ds. The angle of the legs has been made more vertical to net an increase in trail of just over and inch; the brake reaction link mount was beefed up to deal with the greater traction of the new 16-inch wheel. And the moving fork legs were widened to make room for the fat new tire too.

The Springer front end is well suited to duty on the front end of a cruiser. On the positive side, its freely moving pivots don't suffer from sticking friction (stiction, in suspension vernacular), it can have a competitively low amount of unsprung weight, and in this version, it offers a distinctively high chrome quotient. On the downside, it's a bit heavier overall than the comparable fork in Harley-Davidson's line, and at 4.2 inches, offers almost an inch less travel. Neither negative is much of a factor in the low-energy riding most Springers are likely to be subjected to. Its combination of supple ride and retro look is an ideal fit for the FLSTS.--Jeff Karr

SPECIFICATIONS: 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer Softail

Designation: FLSTS

Suggested base price: $16,995 ($17,285 California)

Standard colors: White/red, white/blue

Standard warranty: 12 mos., unlimited miles

Recommended service interval: 5000 miles

Engine 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, 88.8mm x 108mm

Compression ratio: 8.5:1

Carburetion: 1, 40mm Keihin CV

Lubrication: Ddry 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 both

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: Harley Softail, dual dampers, 4.1 in. travel, adjustable for preload

Fuel capacity: 4.2 gal.(0.4. gal reserve)

Handlebar width: 31.0 in.

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 to 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

Can the ultra-retro Heritage Springer ride you back to a less complicated time? Photography by Kevin Wing (www.kevingwingphotography.com)
With a nice riding position and even some wind protection provided by the lighting up front, the Heritage Springer's biggest drawback in 1997, was vibration. The switch to the smooth counterbalanced Twin Cam 88B engine has improved it tremendously.
Designed to evoke the style of half a century earlier, the placement of headlight, spotlights and horn improves their effectiveness and adds some wind protection.
Though it seems to firm at first blush, the wide seat still feels good after a couple of hours.
the relationship of the brake pedal and floorboard makes covering the pedal awkward.
Weaving a tangled web, thje pipes nonetheless maintain the nostalgic image with a pleasant sound.
If you can see them through the saddlebag fringe, the mufflers' fishtails are a pleasing detail.
The tombstone-style taillight is much more retro than the usual Harley item.
The saddlebags have almost everything--basket-weave-embossed finish, fringe, conchos, lots of buckles, and reflectors. All they lack is space.
With the cover flaps lifted, you can see that the opening to the bag is limited. Interior volume is reduced because the backs must clear the swingarm.
The 2003 Heritage Softail Springer. We are particularly fond of the green.
In addition to its retro style and abundance of chrome, the springer fork also has less friction than a tele-fork.
Seat height--25.8 in. Wheelbase--63.1 in. Wet weight--715 lb. GVWR--1135 lb. Overall length--94.0 in. Rake-- 31.25 degrees. Trail--6.3 in.