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The term softail refers to motorcycles and bicycles that feature a rear suspension system with springs or shock absorbers to absorb bumps. On softail motorcycles, the shock absorbers or springs are often hidden underneath out of view to give the appearance of a hard-tail or rigid frame, however many older motorcycles such as the original BMW R series actually use a rigid (welded) frame design with an exterior suspension connected directly to the rear axle. The word softail is a registered trademark of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, coined with the release of the FXST Softail in 1984. Since then, the word has expanded to include other motorcycles with hidden rear suspensions as well as bicycles incorporating a rear suspension.
In Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the softail frame is designed to look like the hardtail bikes of the past, while still offering the comfort of rear suspension. The shock absorbers are positioned along the axis of the motorcycle, tucked away under the transmission.
There are several Harley-Davidson models with the Softail frame, including the Softail Standard, Custom, Springer Softail, Heritage Softail, Heritage Springer, Night Train, Deluxe, Deuce, Fat Boy, the Dark Custom Cross Bones, and the Dark Custom Blackline. These motorcycles have the same engine, transmission and frame with the exception of the Deuce, which has a 2 inches (51 mm) backbone stretch, but differ in the choice of fork, wheels and accessories.
The Softail model line has included a number of choices in front fork configurations. Just as the Sportster and Dyna models offer wide-set and narrow-set fork tubes to accommodate different wheel sizes, the Softails feature either the narrow X-type or fat FL-type forks. Historically, they have also offered the Springer leading link forks that are reminiscent of the sprung front-ends that were used prior to the introduction of the Hydra-Glide in 1949. The FXST designation is used when the X-type fork is used or when the Springer fork is used with a 21 inch wheel, while the FLST designation is used when the FL-type fork is used or when the Springer fork is used with a 16 inch wheel.
The Softail models do not have rubber-mounted engines. This led to more vibration in Evolution-engined Softails than in rubber-mounted Touring or Dyna models with Evolution engines. To compensate for this, current Softail models use a counterbalanced version of the Twin Cam engine instead of the regular Twin Cam engine used in the Touring and Dyna models.
Bill Davis, an avid Harley rider and engineer from St. Louis, Mo. designed the softail in the mid-1970s. His first design, which he worked on in 1974 and 1975, had a cantilever swingarm pivoted at the bottom and sprung at the top with the springs and shock absorber hidden under the seat. Upon working out his design, Davis built a prototype based on his 1972 Super Glide. Davis patented his design and contacted Willie G. Davidson, arranging a meeting in August 1976. Davidson was impressed, but made no commitments. Davidson replied six months later, stating that the company would not be able to use the design at the time but was still interested in it.
Davis continued to develop the design, switching the pivot and the springing points around so that the springs and shock absorber were under the frame and the pivot point was at the top of the triangular swingarm. This allowed the traditional Harley-Davidson oil tank to be placed under the seat. Davis attempted to produce the new design independently as the Road Worx Sub-Shock, but the partnership he had put together for this purpose collapsed. Harley-Davidson executive Jeffrey Bleustein contacted Davis shortly afterward and began negotiations to buy Davis's design. Davis sold his patents, prototype, and tooling to Harley-Davidson in January 1982. After further testing and development, Davis's design was introduced in June 1983 as the 1984 Harley-Davidson FXST Softail.
Other motorcycles with softail rear suspension include:
- Honda VT600C, also known as the Shadow VLX
- Kawasaki Vulcan 800 and 900
- Yamaha DragStar 650
- Victory Vegas
- Yamaha Royal Star and Royal Star Venture
- Yamaha Road Star, also known as the XV1600A or XV1700
- "Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Softail Trademark".
- Field, Greg (2001). "Chapter 2: The FX and Softail Models, 1984-1999". Harley-Davidson Evolution Motorcycles. Osceola, WI USA: MBI Publishing. pp. 44–52. ISBN 0-7603-0500-5. Retrieved 2013-02-07.
- Field, Greg (2002-09-01). "Father of the Softail". In Darwin Holmstrom. The Harley-Davidson Century. St. Paul, MN USA: MotorBooks International. pp. 242–243. ISBN 0-7603-1155-2. Retrieved 2012-12-26.
- Field, Greg (2003). "Bill Davis and the Design of the First Softail". Harley-Davidson Softail. St. Paul, MN USA: MotorBooks International. p. 18. ISBN 0-7603-1063-7. Retrieved 2013-01-07. "Davis relented and signed the deal on January 6,1982, selling Harley the Sub Shock Wide Glide prototype, the patents for the design, all the tooling, and six complete Sub Shock frames."
- Cruelworld Softail at Von Dutch Kustom Cycles.