story and photography by Clement Salvadori
[This 2011 Harley-Davidson FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic Road Test was originally published as a Tour Test in the April 2011 issue of Rider magazine]
Softie is doing well, its 96 cubic inches knocking out more than enough power to take me over 4,050-foot Laguna Summit at a leisurely 75 mph. This bike has bags of torque; when Harley-Davidson elected to turn the 88 into a 96, it wasn’t interested in horsepower, but real grunt. Which is what riding Harley Big Twins is all about. A Softail don’t need no stinkin’ tachometer.
The highway dips, then goes up to the Crestwood Summit at 4,181-feet, followed by a 30-mile descent to Ocotillo, almost 4,000 feet down the mountain. But I’m turning off after 15 miles, where a big green exit sign reads In-Ko-Pah Park Road and a small brown sign, indicating an historical site, says Desert View Tower.
I shift Softie down from sixth to second gear, exiting on to a small road that is badly in need of maintenance. Understandable, since this is the old highway that was bypassed in 1967. At the end of the road is the tower, which will give me a preview of what I am going to see during the next couple of days.
The old stone tower, built in the 1920s, sits some 3,000 feet above the Colorado Desert, and I’ve just whacked my head on a low bit of ceiling while climbing up the five flights of curved stairs to the top. Only a little blood. From the top the view to the east is stunning, endless. A touch of haze being in the air, I can’t quite make out the city of Yuma, Arizona, almost a hundred miles away, but the yellow strip of the Algodones Dunes is clearly visible. As are the Chocolate Mountains and the Salton Sea.
I should point out that the Colorado Desert is not in Colorado, but in southeastern California, its name coming from the Colorado River. I’m getting to this low desert the easy way, via Interstate 8 from San Diego, over the Laguna Mountains. The entrepreneur who built the tower presumed every traveler would like to stop and either see where they had just come from, or where they were going to…the desert covering more than 10,000 square miles. The western third is home to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the middle has the Salton Sea and fertile land in the Coachella and Imperial valleys, while the east includes the Chocolate Mountains, the Algodones Dunes and the west bank of the Colorado River. About 1,000 square miles of the Chocolate Mountains constitute a U.S. Navy bombing and shoot ’em up range, and are definitely off-limits; lots of unexploded ordinance in there.
I’m riding a 2011 Heritage Softail. The traveling crowd may ask, is this a genuine touring motorcycle? You bet it is. What does it need to qualify for touring? Some weather protection and carrying capacity, to begin with, and this bike has a windscreen and saddlebags. And comfort. That big fork, sporting Harley’s infamous “beer can” covers, gives 5 inches of travel, and the twin shock absorbers beneath the engine allow 4.3 inches of travel for the rear wheel. Plus a well-padded saddle, with a passenger backrest as standard.
Sumptuous? No. For that you’ll want an Electra Glide Ultra. Anyone wanting to look cool while heading up to Sturgis or down to Daytona will probably choose this model. This is the 25th anniversary of the Heritage Softail, first appearing in 1986. A quarter of a century! Long time. The Heritage was designed as a retro, which has become a buzz-word in recent years, with many manufacturers offering retro bikes.
Heck, Harley Big Twins have looked retro for half a century; that’s their main selling point. The Softail relates back to the original Hydra-Glide that appeared in 1949, when the Panheads dropped the girders and put on the telescoping forks. Rear suspension was limited to a spring-loaded post on the seat; the Softail’s shocks work much better. These have threaded adjustments, and I leave them as the press shop sent them, right in the middle.
Not many of the boys and girls who actually rode those Hydra-Glides when they were new are still around, but the model was a myth-maker. A lot of people think the girder-forked Knucklehead is the real classic—and it certainly is at auctions—but the Hydra was the forward-looking machine, with the beginnings of a proper suspension, and a better motor with hydraulic valve lifters.
The editor called up to say he had this Heritage to test, and would I be interested? Heck, yes. In 1984 I rode the original Softail out to the Aspencade Rally in New Mexico (which metamorphosed into New York’s Americade Rally) and liked it, my only real complaint being the solid-mounted, unbalanced engine—which kept me from getting any speeding tickets, so maybe it wasn’t all bad. Since then I’ve ridden a bunch of Softies, and was very happy when Milwaukee introduced the 88B version back in 2000, with a pair of chain-driven balancer weights smoothing the engine out marvelously. The 96B is just as smooth. The two weights are equidistant from the crank, effectively cutting out any primary vibration. Look at a rubber-mounted Big Twin at idle, and it shakes like a paint mixer, though the rider is isolated. In a Softail, the engine happily sits quite still. Extreme-nostalgia types may grouse about the lack of vibration, but most of us are quite happy having our backbone discs stay in place.
Throw a leg over the saddle, turn the ignition switch on and there’s immediate fire in the holes. The bike does have the Smart Security System installed, but it has not been activated, since moto-journalists have been known to lose the fob that must be close by for the engine to start. Push the button, cold or hot, the black box and fuel injection set the engine to a good idle. Clutch pull is very light, something that Harley has been working on for some time, and done well. Shifting into first is always a noisy affair, but so goes the Big Twin.
The heel-and-toe shifter moves the six-speed gearbox along nicely, with a little green light on the speedo showing when sixth is engaged. Should I want to know what speed the engine is turning and in what gear, up on the left handlebar a new rocker switch does all that. It rocks down for horn, up for a selection of choices: total mileage, two tripmeters, a clock, range to empty and gear/rpm. These appear on a small LCD display at the bottom of the tank-mounted speedometer, and are not easily readable, but do the job. At 60 mph in sixth gear the bike is turning 2,220 rpm. And the rev limiter cuts the power to one of the cylinders at 5,500 rpm.
Those 96 cubes put out a lot of energy, and working with the gears the Softie will really take off. The factory says the crankshaft puts out 92 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm, but has chosen not to release horsepower figures; rear-wheel dynos put the herd in the high 60s. If you want to try for quarter-mile times, get Harley’s V-Rod, but if you are looking for a pleasant ride on the byway or the boulevard, this is the bike for you.
Biggest news for the 2011 Softails is the anti-lock braking system, available on this model family for the first time. Big Twin riders generally do not like sensitive brakes, and are happy to give the lever or pedal a good strong pull or push. The ABS makes sure that a size 13 coming down hard on the pedal, or a ferocious yank on the brake lever, won’t lock up a wheel and cause a lowside. The front and rear systems are not linked, and while most riders will probably never have to make use of the ABS, it is really cheap insurance against falling down. It’s an option every rider should consider, and comes combined with the Smart Security System for $1,195.
Leaving the tower we roll downhill to the Ocotillo intersection, then climb a little north and east along county roads S2 and S22 to get to the Montezuma Grade—a great motorcycle road twisting down more than 2,000 feet into the town of Borrego Springs. When I want to admire the views I stop. From Borrego Springs it is 30 miles east to the Salton Sea, where the surface is 220 feet below regular sea level. There was no Salton Sea here until 1905, when a canal being constructed to bring water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley failed, and for two years the river flowed into the trough. Unfortunately, since this sea has no outlet, no possibility of draining, it has gotten a bit rancid over the last century.
Turning south on CA 86 I head for the border city of Calexico—but having left my passport at home, have no interest in going into Mexico. Just a quiet night in town.
In the morning we cruise east along the border on CA 98 until the road merges with I-8, exiting 10 miles later at the Buttercup OHV area, in the Algodones Dunes. Here the shifting dunes are six miles wide, and were impassable by early automobiles; in 1914 a Model T needed the help of at least four horses to get through. The next year tens of thousands of thick planks were used to provide a firm, movable surface, and for 12 years the Plank Road was how cars made it over the dunes, until engineers devised a mixture of concrete and asphalt that could be used for a roadway that was laid in 1926.
Doing a turnaround at the Colorado River, I head back west on I-8, to take the CA 115 exit up to Calipatria and the little town of Niland, where Main Street takes me out to Slab City, an example of workable anarchy. The Slab, once a Marine Corps base, was vacated after World War II, leaving nothing but hundreds of concrete slabs. A few folk migrated there to live in trailers and made-over buses, some because they liked the solitude, others because they didn’t have much money. In the winter hundreds of snow-birders set up housekeeping as well.
At the entrance to The Slab is Salvation Mountain, a gaudily painted hillside dedicated to Love and God. Artist Leonard Knight arrived here one day in 1983, and when his car wouldn’t start, he stayed. And has been working on his project ever since. He estimates he’s gone through more than 100,000 gallons of paint. Not many Harleys out at Slab City, but a lot of lightweight motorbikes and scooters that the snow-birders carry with them.
The Softie is already getting a bit dusty. So be it when out traveling. When you want to cruise Main Street on Saturday evening, she does shine up real good. I have the two-tone pearl blue and vivid black version, which requires an extra $695 bucks over the base black $16,999 model. There is much chrome to keep polished, from the wheels to the old-look wraparound oil tank and the dual exhaust system. Wheels are spoked, as nostalgia requires, and thus also require tubes—not much fun with a flat on a bike with no centerstand. The windscreen goes on and off in seconds, since it provides great protection for the highway, not so cool when cruising the drive-ins looking at the short-skirted waitresses on roller skates. The saddle and the bags have lots of studs in the leather, and even half a dozen conchos with decorative leather ties. One complaint about the bags: they are attached to the frame with nuts and bolts, and sticking into the bags are the ends of the bolts which will scuff up anything that comes in contact over a day’s ride…they should be reversed.
Leaving Niland I ride along the east side of the Salton Sea, a very desolate shoreline—nothing is there, no houses, no trees. The chemical run-off from agriculture has effectively poisoned the water, and few people want to live in Bombay Beach, a long-ago attempt at a resort. At the north end of the sea, at Mecca, is a booming date-palm business—though now the major business is in selling trees for landscaping rather than in dates. To leave the Colorado Desert a final curvy stretch of pavement goes from Mecca, at 180 feet below sea level, through Box Canyon Road and up 1,500 feet to meet with Interstate 10. Low desert is done, high desert, the Mojave, begins. But that’s for another trip.
Palm Springs will provide a clean bed, and Softie and I can head home in the morning.
2011 Harley-Davidson FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic
Base Price: $16,999
Price as Tested: $19,399 (two-tone paint, ABS/SSS package, spoked wheels)
Engine Type: Air-cooled, transverse, 45-degree V-twin, OHV w/ hydraulic lifters
Bore x Stroke: 95.3 x 111.3mm
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: Belt
Wheelbase: 64.5 in.
Rake/Trail: 31 degrees/5.8 inches
Seat Height: 27.1 inches
Wet Weight: 760 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 5.0 gallons, warning light on last 1.0 gal.
MPG: 91 PON min. (high/avg/low) 41.2/36.9/34.0