The Harley-Davidson FXSTD Softail Deuce
As I was riding up the A404(M) yesterday, a sudden recollection sent shivers up my spine. I had stated that I would try & blag a test-ride on a Hardley next time I was passing Thames Valley Harley Davidson. Oh dear....
I pulled up outside & parked the ST in the midst of a row of chrome-bedecked Milwaukee iron, & then steeled myself for the coming challenge. Entering the cavernous emporium, I found myself being stared at by a number of strange people - clientel I realised. None of them looked... normal. There was a distinct preponderance of chaps, & bandannas. Nevertheless, I bravely headed for the counter at the back, attempting to ignore the country & western muzak playing - I felt like I did as a 19 or 20 year old the first time I walked into a gay bar. I had a remarkable if rather non-PC urge to loudly pronounce "I'm straight, actually, honest!" (or "I don't ride a Harley, actually, honest!" in this case). I hung around for a minute or two, wondering if I really ought to be there, before a salesman spotted me & put me out of my misery. I explained why I was there, & rather than throwing me out, the bloke said 'Sure!' & offered me a go. When I rather apologetically said "...err... I ride a Sprint ST normally, so if you've got a demonstrator that handles & stops OK then I'll take that one if you don't mind...", he replied without skipping a beat, or exhibiting a trace of irony. "They all do, Sir" he said brightly. Then he handed me the keys to the Softail Deuce.
For those who don't know, which would have included me until yesterday, there are only 4 basic Harley configurations. There's the Sportster, the Dyna, the Softail & the huge handlebar-fairing-bedecked Tourers. The Sportsters come with two motors - the 883 & the 1200. The rest of the range all have the 88 Twin Cam engine fitted (88 cu. in. is about 1450cc). In the Softail series it is solidly mounted in the frame & fitted with balancer shafts to smooth out the vibes (err... really?) & in the Dyna series it comes sans balancer shafts & relies upon the engine being rubber mounted instead. The Softail's other common feature is a concealed rear shock assembly which makes them look like they have no rear suspension at all. Or perhaps it really didn't, I never actually checked...
The Softail Deuce is very low to the ground at the rear, with what appears to be a solid cast rear wheel, very kicked-out forks at the front & a large petrol tank with the instrument cluster mounted centrally upon it facing upwards. It also sports outrageously forward highway pegs, the right one with what appears to be a chrome car brake-pedal rising upward from it; it's clear which brake does the work on one of these, even without Geoff's helpful warning. The machine features a keyless ignition with a magic immobiliser keyring widget. It starts easily enough & shudders & pops & bangs away to at idle on its huge chrome sidestand like a building site cement mixer waiting to be loaded. This example is fitted with a 'Stage 1' kit which gives it rather more power than the standard (& appraently nobody leaves them standard) but which makes it offensively loud even at idle. A 1450cc V-twin with open pipes is, however you try & mitigate it, extremely loud at any RPM. It's not an unpleasant noise, but I still doubt I'd appreciate my windows rattling if somebody rode it up my street at 2am...
Now, I've got to ride this thing.... I put it into first - it clunks expressively - & think about trying to negotiate the tight pull-away & right turn up the road with feet on pegs, then opt for paddling it forward & round instead, before letting the clutch out experimentally & searching for the pegs with my feet. Eventually I find them as the bike chugs forward, potatoes coming slightly more quickly, until I reach a speed I'm happy with & select second gear with another agricultural clunk. When I look down towards my navel to check the tank-mounted speedo I'm actually only doing 20, in a 30 limit, so I accelerate a bit. This was a recurring theme of my test ride. I always felt like I was travelling much more quickly than I was, & I could never find a point in the rev range where the engine felt happy. There's no tacho so you have to go on the sound alone, & the amount of vibration you are feeling up your spine, but nowhere did it feel happy. Mind you, conversely, nowhere did it feel particularly unhappy. Wherever you were in the low to medium RPM range, in whatever gear, you could open the throttle & there would be... well, urge. Not a lot, but definitely some. I never tried revving it out - perhaps I should have but I don't know if these things have a limiter or not - but at what sounded like higher RPM the thudding would just get faster, while at lower RPM I was treated to the whole range of (quite pleasant at first, I wonder whether they'd start to grate after a while) 'starting a cement-mixer/tugboat taking the
strain/tractor ploughing in heavy clay' sound effects at high volume.
The minor controls were an inexcusable ergonomic nightmare. Firstly, the mirrors were bar-mounted & could be moved at will. The stalks were apparently fixed but the heads simply friction-locked in position - except that the vibration as soon as you opened the throttle unlocked them & before you could see behind you, you had to stand them up again, usually every few seconds. The fuel guage couldn't easily be seen while you were riding - it sat in a 'false second filler cap' to the front left of the tank, & could be best read standing alongside the machine. Had I been shorter, I doubt I'd have been able to read it on the move at all, whatever contortions I attempted. The indicators were very clever & obviously recently designed solid-state devices with a significantly worse UI than even BMW manage (yes, it is possible) - one clickless feedback-free button on each bar, push once to indicate, again to cancel. However, the relavant eejit lights were two tiny green LEDs stuck below the huge tank-mounted speedo - meaning you had to look down at your nuts while approaching a junction, lining up an overtake (Ha! I did one! I did one!) or negotiating a roundabout to find out whether an indicator was on or off. This in itself would ba a PITA, since you'd need to check if you were ever in doubt as to how many times you'd pushed one of the buttons, but it was made much worse by the addition of 'intelligent' self-cancelling, which cancelled the indicator at its own whim, based only on an algorithmic combination of time & instantaneous turn angle. So, you'd start to indicate, look at your knackers to check that yes, in fact, you were indicating, & then it would spontaneously stop. When you pushed the button again to cancel it you'd actually start it up again...
In one 30 minute test-ride I was caught out several times & nearly flattened once because of this 'feature' - I wanted to go right round a mini-roundabout & head back towards the Harley-shop, I indicated right on approach, & while thu'penny bitting round this mini-roundabout (a mixture of my total unfamiliarity with the riding experience & the limitations of the the Deuce's kicked-out forks I'd guess - though where the line between those causes lives is a matter of conjecture), the indicator self-cancelled & a van decided that I was turning right as indicated, & overtook me mid-roundabout on the inside. Good job I was paying attention, especially since the mirror on that side was showing me the rear wheel at the time, otherwise I'd have been wiped out by him... Hmm... not good. Bloody stupid & bloody dangerous in fact. & an entirely uneccessary but fundamental design flaw.
Moving back to the basic dynamics & the primary controls, I found that the Stage 1 Deuce could certainly keep up with straightline A-road traffic speeds in the 60-70mph indicated class - I didn't fancy going much quicker on it though, to be honest. A brief run up the A404 dual carriageway & back led me to the conclusion that it was less well suited to joining & comfortably keeping up with traffic on such thoroughfares. For a start, the kicked out forks & high bars, plus my legs being stuck out in front of me, felt very alien indeed. The vibes up my spine weren't particularly pleasant either, although they weren't actively unpleasant at this stage;
I wonder how I'd have felt after a couple of hours though. Cornering was a different matter; even on the A-roads, it never felt happy - or perhaps I never felt happy - trying to corner at any speed. I never leant the bike over far enough to worry about the obviously extremely limited ground clearance, & there was nothing smooth about my cornering - the bike felt at once both nervous & unresponsive at the same time (which doesn't actually make sense, but there you go). I forced myself to circumnavigate a couple of large empty roundabouts that I know & used to enjoy regularly on my own bike, & found that I was actually travelling round them nearly upright and, upon checking, at 20mph with traffic queueing up behind me. I don't know what part of that was my unfamiliarity with the basic layout, & what part was a dynamic limitation of the motorcycle, but cornering was no fun whatsoever at any speed. Finally, braking. As I said, even without Geoff's wise words, the brake that would do most to stop the motorcycle was obvious from the start - the huge car-esque foot pedal over the right peg was a clue. I tried, I really did - but it was like stepping on a block of wood. The bike slowed, but I really never got to grips with how hard I could step on this before something very bad happened, & the pedal gave absolutely no feedback whatsoever to help me. It sort of seemed to me like in a crisis you'd keep braking harder & harder at the back until it locked & then you'd need to know how to sort it out. Or not - the standard US advice in these cases on their MSF training course is apparently to leave the back wheel locked & ride it to a halt, since letting off the back brake with the wheel out of line on a cruiser is apparently very bad magic indeed. Assuming what you needed to stop for has moved out the way for you to slide well past it, of course. Against this, even using the front very gently in concert with the back demonstrated the reason why the bike only has a small front disk. The long, relatively spindly forks dived almost to the bottom of their travel with seemingly no provocation whatsoever. I imagine that it would be very bad news indeed to lock the front wheel, & I imagine that it would be frightningly easy to do; I wasn't going to even try. I concluded that I would be absolutely terrified of attempting an emergency stop from high speed on this machine, & that I wouldn't stop very abruptly at all, for fear of hitting whatever I was stopping for while sitting on my arse. I certainly wouldn't want to do anything involving brakes & corners at the same time. Again, unfamiliarity may be relevant here, but this time I'm pretty sure it was just that the brakes were simply shit.
So there we go. Better in some respects than I expected, worse in others. In particular, I never expected the trivial ergonomic stuff to have been needlessly & severely compromised in the battle between form & function, but it has been. It went a little better than I expected, as well. Kudos to the salesman for letting me try it after I explained why. Shame about the way he started making disparaging comments that started with 'The thing about Japanese bikes...' when I bought the thing back. & having to actually go into an emporium selling Harley Aftershave & Authentic leather 'HD' caps was a little disturbing. On the plus side, since I was wearing a full-face lid with a black visor, nobody would have actually recognised me if they'd seen me.
Incidentally, the really, no really funny part about this is when I was asking what I'd just been riding & what it would cost to buy. This particular variation on the Harley theme has list price (and discounts? on a Hardley? No way...) of £13,995. To that you need to add about £550 for the obligatory Stage 1 kit. Now, call me picky, but if you are asking me to pay better part of fifteen large for a motorcycle, you'd expect that the mirrors were rather more functional than those fitted to a 70's Puch Maxi, & that something as trivial as the indicators don't actively conspire to kill you, never mind the fact that the brakes don't seem to work properly.
No, I won't be buying one. I reckon it's a £15,000 anti-social deathtrap. I strongly suspect that chugging up & down Daytona Beach on one at 15mph would be huge fun. Once. Posing on the Kings Road might also have its appeal, if you are into that sort of thing. Actually riding it on heavily trafficked, twisty British A & B roads, though.... frankly, I'd rather have that Puch Maxi I mentioned earlier. When you consider that this new Twin Cam 88 engine is supposedly a huge advance over the older one, & particularly that the new brakes are supposedly a revelation over the ones they replaced, which may of course be nothing more than marketing bollocks, I'm frankly surprised the older models ever got issued a roadworthyiness certificate! I'm certainly prepared to have a crack on the Dyna T-Sport thingy which is supposed to be dynamically much better before I am done with my exploration of Harleydom, but that'll need to wait for another day. In the meantime, I observe the following
The mirrors & the idiot lights would have been obvious problems, the very first time the prototype was taken out for its maiden test ride, the braking limitations obvious the first time it moved under its own power. Would you like to speculate as to the kind of design, QA & refinement process HD might have carried out before putting a bike which will be sold for £14,000 in the UK, into production? What sort of process can sign off on a premium price motorcycle without fixing such fundamental, but trivial to address, ergonomic faults? Or without attempting to - e.g. - re-engineer the rear brake so that you can feel some feedback from it when you step on it? I can just about believe that the stupid riding position & kicked out forks are things that somebody might enjoy. I really can't see mirrors that won't stay put & indicators that try to kill you add any value if you actually intend riding the thing very far. I'm really not sure how a feel-free rear brake is an essential part of the Harley riding experience either...
Commenting specifically on the Softail Deuce, I strongly believe that if you wanted a motorcycle, and had ridden enough to know the difference, you wouldn't buy a Softail Deuce under any circumstances I can imagine. £15,000 will go a long way in a normal bike shop.