Originally, the word “softail” referred to a bicycle or motorcycle with a mobile rear suspension system. Spring-loaded shock absorbers would absorb bumps. Since the 1970s, however, the term has been associated with Harley-Davidson, who rolled the first Softail off the production line in 1982.
The Harley Softail design originated in the 1970s. Unhappy with the styling of his 1972 FX Super Glide, Bill Davis of Saint Louis, Missouri started on a custom version. It earned so much praise that he hired an attorney and filed US Patent 4087109 in March 1976.
In August 1976, Davis met with Willie G. and Louie Netz of Harley-Davidson. While they liked the new machine, they did not buy. Davis continued to tweak his design and sold around twenty frames. He also worked on a version for the Sportster.
Davis entered into a business partnership with a person whom, according to Greg Field in the book “Harley-Davidson Softail,” he still refuses to name. Six months later Willie G. wrote to express his interest, followed by a call from Jeff Bleustein. While Davis did meet with Harley-Davidson again, he did not like their offer.
Davis continued to refine his work, realizing that he could put the shocks under the transmission. The old design had several problems such as the excessively high saddle, and this new “Sub Shock” design fixed them.
In August 1980, Davis and his partner rode to Sturgis, one each on the original ’72 FX and the modified Sub Shock. The ride revealed a serious design flaw on the Sub Shock (the build-up of heat was breaking down the urethane cylinders and destroying the shocks).
The partner took home the Sub Shock and when Davis reached Deadwood, South Dakota he was robbed. He returned home without ever reaching Sturgis and experimented on his new design until it worked.
Davis started a new company, Road Worx. The new frames were labor-intensive and required hand-building, so he hired another mechanic. While the frames were selling, they weren’t covering the loans fast enough and the company’s attorney advised a quick sale. The business partner left, and Davis was unable to find any takers among the established customizers or motorcycle manufacturers. RoadWorx failed.
Davis called Bleustein again and received a better offer–but his royalties would be subject to a lifetime cap. Davis reluctantly sealed the deal on January 6, 1982 and the first Harley Softail, the FXST, was introduced in the summer of 1983.
The Softail was immediately popular and considerably boosted sales. The Heritage Softail came out in 1986, followed two years later by the Springer Softail.
In 2000, Harley introduced the Softail Deuce, and a year later the bike was equipped with fuel injection. Models since 2005 have tended to evoke designs from classic, older Harley-Davidson lines.
Ever popular, the Softail will continue to evolve and be a staple part of the Harley-Davidson lineup.