In 1981, business wasn't looking so great at Harley-Davidson. The company's bikes—legendary as they were—had been struggling to climb from an industry-wide slump created by Japanese makers flooding the market with cheap brands. Harley hit back in 1984 with the introduction of its new V-twin Evolution engine, but it would take the vision of Willie G. Davidson to work the magic that came next. Tapping into the rich heritage of the company his grandfather had co-founded, Davidson designed a new model that brought back the classic look of Harleys from the 1950s.
By 1986, the model was ready. He called it the Heritage Softail Classic.
That was 30 years ago. Hot new bikes come and go, yet the Heritage Softail remains the most distinctive American bike on the road. "The Harley-Davidson Softail is the archetypical motorcycle," said Tosh Hall, executive creative director of London-based design firm Jones Knowles Ritchie. "Its powerful silhouette and recognizable style makes the Softail one of the most identifiable brands."
That's no small feat at a time when Americans buy half a million motorcycles a year and have some 21 different nameplates to choose from. Harley's Softail Classic hasn't kept its prominence by accident. The bike is still king of the road thanks to a shrewd combination of history, design and technology.
Plenty of bikes borrow design elements from cycling's postwar golden age. But Harley's Softail Classic is different because it borrows from itself. Davidson took the bike's chromy contours directly from Harley's famous Hydra-Glide, the cruiser introduced in 1949 and made famous by Elvis Presley.
The result, then, is a nostalgia bike that's also completely authentic. "The lines and design elements of the Heritage Softail Classic are unmistakably Harley-Davidson," observed Andres Nicholls, global executive creative director for brand consultancy Prophet. Straddling this hog and starting the motor, he said, "creates a special feeling few brands can compete with."
Another reason for the Softail Classic's staying power is a bit of engineering alchemy. It's a softail (the term indicates the presence of rear-wheel suspension) that looks like a hardtail—the old, rigid-frame bikes whose only cushion for the rider's butt were the springs beneath the seat. Thanks to an underslung suspension system that's hidden from view, the Softail Classic is able to keep the sexy, triangular body of the old cruisers without shaking the rider's teeth out of his head.
In other words, the bike lets its riders have the best of both worlds, and, according to Caroline Krediet, partner in brand agency Figliulo & Partners, that's a winning proposition. "With this new expression of an old model, [riders] can capture with metal what real life never can—nostalgia and tradition blended with modernity and technology."
This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.