Before there were Tour-Paks and travel trunks and hard saddlebags with locking lids, there were only soft saddlebags. You know, bags made from dead cows. They helped make the traveling experience less of a misadventure and more of a convenient way to ride our motorcycles over vast distances. In fact, the term bagger originally was a descriptior for bikes that actually sported leather saddlebags. Baggers were easily identified in crowded parking lots or on the open road, too: just look for the saddlebags slung across their rear fenders.
Today’s enthusiasts have their own perceptions of what constitutes a bagger. And while those people contemplate the meaning of bagger, their navels, and life itself, my compadre and co-worker Joe Knezevic (American Iron) and I were curious about the relevancy of soft-bag baggers today. Do they still exist? After surveying the motorcycle landscape, two models emerged from the soft-bag world’s primordial ooze: Harley-Davidson’s tried-and-true Heritage Softail Classic and Indian’s recent entry, the Chief Vintage. And so, like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Joe and I saddled up to determine which leather-bagged bike suited our tastes. And while there is no silver bullet that we can use to declare a winner, Joe and I aren’t bashful about our favorites. You can read Chief Joseph’s account of the Indian Chief Vintage on page 78; for now here’s my report of why I prefer the Heritage Softail Classic.
Recently, more than a few motorcycle manufacturers have attached the name Classic to various models. Their bikes might be classic in terms of their basic styling, but in truth there is nothing classic about them at all. They’re all pretenders relying on a name to establish a presence. Not so with the Heritage Softail Classic, a model introduced in 1986 that paid homage to the original Hydra Glide of 1949. Clearly, the term Heritage befits the FLSTC, a Softail model that’s remained in production since the Reagan years, and its legacy grows with each passing day as the Heritage Softail Classic adds to its long-standing heritage. It’s truly a classic for the ages. Even the leading motorcycle magazine at the time — that would be Cycle, which met its demise a few years later — acknowledged in the March 1986 issue that the new Heritage Softail was a timeless model. The opening lines to the road test stated: “Only Harley-Davidson could get away with this. The Heritage Classic says that nothing’s really ever new, a concept of particular appeal to those companies counting their days since the dawn of motorcycling.”
Then, as now, the Heritage Softail was one heck of a long-distance rider — a bagger, if you will. More recently, and in the course of the past 20 years to be more precise, I’ve taken many a tour on various Heritage Softails, and I’ve never been disappointed. Even though I prefer to travel light, there’s ample storage room in those reinforced soft bags, plus the passenger backrest offers a convenient place to strap additional items like bedrolls and foul-weather gear. Harley’s P&A division also offers proprietary luggage racks that adapt onto the backrest to support most highway bags. If you run out of cargo space on a Heritage Softail, chances are you just aren’t following the biker’s credo of packing light, right, and tight.
Chief Joseph will tell you in his report that he has reservations about sitting behind a windscreen when he rides. However, I find a degree of satisfying solitude when I position myself behind a cone of silence, and the Heritage’s clear bug catcher lets me enjoy the view as the road unfolds before me. And get this, Indian Joe: the Heritage’s windscreen has Harley’s famous detachable mounts so you can flip it off in seconds. And no reservations required, so here’s to the wind in your beard and the bugs in your teeth.
But the real pleasure is simply riding the Heritage from point A to point B. I can stretch my arms to the high-rise handlebar so that I remain relaxed and in control, and the footboards position me as if I’m sitting in my favorite easy chair. And then there’s the Heritage’s chair, or in this case, the seat: someone in Harleyland messed with my favorite seat, reshaping the passenger pad for 2011 so that it gently jabs into my lower back. For years the Heritage Softail’s rider/passenger seat combination was among the most comfortable in the Milwaukee lineup, offering a gentle rise that created a small backrest for me. Not so anymore, and the passenger pad on the ’11 model dug into the small of my back just enough to annoy me. Note to the Softail crew: go back to the original seat.
While I’ve got the post-it note pad out, I’ll pass along another quick memo to the Softail crew: don’t mess with those staggered mufflers, they sound perfect the way they are! I’m not a fan of especially loud exhaust pipes, but it’s also nice to hear more than a pathetic wheeze from stock pipes. In the case of the Heritage, its old-school staggered duals produce a burble as a reminder why V-twin engines sound so pleasant, especially while accelerating from a stop.
Everything else about the latest Heritage Softail Classic lives up to its past billing. The fuel-injected 96″ engine serves its power to the 200-series rear tire in smooth doses thanks to the tried-and-proven balance shafts working inside the cases, and the six-speed Cruise Drive transmission snicks effortlessly into each gear. The disc brakes whoa the 730-pound bike without incident or spectacle, and the 5-gallon gas tank is
easily good for 200 miles between stops.
No doubt the Heritage Softail Classic’s old-school styling and amenities aren’t for everybody, but that’s further reason why we have vanilla and chocolate ice cream. If you don’t like one flavor, there’s always the other to satisfy you. Me? I’ll stick with the true Classic. MB
Story as published in the September / October issue of American Iron Motorcycle Bagger.