In its long history, Harley-Davidson has had an interesting array of names, both official and unofficial. The engine descriptors – Pan head, Knuckle head and Flat head – may be the most famous, but the Softail name, too, has an interesting story. In the early years of the 20th century, the first Harleys were little more than a frame and an engine; apart from the tyres, there was no suspension. Even when they eventually gave it a front suspension, the rear remained rigid, hence the name Hardtail and a description still used today for mountain bikes without rear suspension.
When owners demanded more comfort, the Milwaukee-based company decided to retain the appearance of the old bikes by fitting a mono-shock hidden inside the frame. This retained the rigid downwards slope from the triple clamp at the handlebars to the rear wheel axle. It’s a design that has aged particularly well and, stylishly retro, is still in use today.
What has changed in the H-D stable is that the Dyna range has been integrated into the Softail range, with only the mono-shock designs remaining. While this won’t please everyone, it cuts down the number of models in times that are increasingly difficult for motorcycle manufacturers to keep sales running strong.
The new Softails use the latest Milwaukee Eight engines. With their four valves per cylinder and dual plugs per cylinder, they’re impressive powerplants, but they’ve also reached that part of their development cycle where it’s difficult to foresee what else can be done to improve the design without sanitising the character too much. The Milwaukee Eight is now smooth enough to cover large distances without affecting rider comfort too much, yet it retains the thumpy shakes of two oversized pistons firing unevenly to let you feel very much part of the riding experience. What does need to be worked on next, though, is the gearbox; it’s way too clunky and almost impossible to shift smoothly.
The first of the three bikes that accompany Nicol Louw, Wilhelm Lutjeharms and I on our trip is a Heritage Classic in Silver Fortune paintwork. The fenders are huge in old-fashioned mud-protecting style and so are the tyres. Steel spokes retain the classic appearance and we all agree this is the best by far for longer-distance cruising. The suspension settings, the big tyres, wind-parting screen, dual seat and foot boards all allow us to swallow up miles in comfort.
The classic look is enhanced by the traditional large speedometer and twin chrome fuel caps (one being a dummy). The tank holds nearly 19 litres – good for a range of 300 km – and the bike is fitted with cruise control and twin fog lamps. It makes a more compact and lighter alternative to the Road King tourer.
Our acceleration tests showed the drag effect of a large windscreen. Although fitted with the 114 cu. in. engine and so getting the better of the smaller engined Street Bob to 100 km/h, it was slower to 140 km/h owing to that massive wind-breaker windscreen. So remember that your fuel consumption will also be slightly higher at cruising speeds.
The Street Bob I’m riding next has an Industrial Grey Denim/Black Denim colour scheme. With spoked wheels covered by chopped fenders, this model also sports the new minimalistic instrumentation squeezed into a tiny two-inch screen. Surprisingly, all the information is there: road speed, engine speed, clock, range to empty, odo and two trip counters. And the best part is that the LCD display is visible in bright sunlight.
The Street Bob is the most nimble of the three in traffic and quite chuckable, but riding enjoyment is somewhat affected by the foot pegs being too close for the low seat height, elevating your knees into an uncomfortable position.
The mini ape-hangers have an unusual, flat angle for the grips, but can be customised to your needs so need not be a negative. The solo saddle is not the most comfortable but, again, there is a wide variety of seating options available. Note that the price of the Street Bob is much keener than the other two.
The Breakout is finished in Vivid Black with fine pin striping. The wide, flat bars have a flat-tracker feel that is enhanced by the lack of any dials to spoil your vision. Just the small but powerful black headlamp sits up front, while the digital read-outs are incorporated into the middle of the bars. The headlamp uses LEDs inside a traditional round housing.
We agreed the Breakout is the best looking and most enjoyable for everyday fun and popping into the coffee shops along your favourite boulevard. The forward foot controls and the flat, matte-black handlebars are instantly comfortable and combine brilliantly with the new, minimalist instrumentation almost hidden inside a small two-inch screen between the handlebar clamps. The steering rake angle is bigger, lengthening the wheelbase. Cornering is less nimble, but straight-line stability is better.
The road trip (You can watch a video here...)
We chose the route to suit the bikes, hugging the coast all the way from Camps Bay and Llandudno to Chapman’s Peak and Cape Point.
At our destination, we have time before the evening photoshoot to simply sit at the sea and ponder the complexities of life. Overnighting at the Smutswinkel tented camp gives us an early start the next day as we ease our way past the penguin colony at Boulders Beach to catch the first rays of sun on our shoulders before delighting in Red Hill and Muizenberg.
We all agree our favourite all-round Softail is the Breakout, but all three bikes feel perfectly suited to cruising along Cape Town’s brilliant coastal roads.
They’re not the fastest machinery, but steeds with soul, character and a long and colourful history. It calms the nerves to slow down for a couple of days and take in the beauty, and there’s no better vantage point than from the saddle of a Harley
Our thanks to SANParks for providing accommodation at Smitswinkel Tented Camp just outside the picturesque Cape Point National Park. These luxury units include all amenities and the communal boma is perfect for sharing stories of the day. For more information, visit sanparks.org