2012 Harley-Davidson Softail Blackline Review
Harley-Davidson headquarters on Milwaukee’s Juneau Avenue is to America’s motorcycle culture what the Capitoline Hill was to Ancient Rome. The edicts handed down from the red brick building tucked into the Martin Drive neighborhood affect thousands of people across the country, from the company’s millions of customers, to its thousands of dealers and thousands of third-party motorcycle parts and riding gear makers. Sturgis, S.D., is a close second, with its annual rally attracting upwards of half-a-million some years, but all of that is predicated on people buying motorcycles manufactured in Milwaukee.
This summer I was asked to take Harley’s new Softail Blackline (MSRP of $15,499) for a spin, so I thought I would go on a tour in the Brew City, hitting a few of the major moto-enthusiast destinations throughout town. After picking the motorcycle up at Harley headquarters, I decided my first destination would be Fuel Cafe, just east in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. The first thing I notice is the Softail Blackline’s low seating position—it’s actually the lowest of any current H-D model. Obviously, this should appeal to any vertically challenged rider. I start up the motorcycle, shift it into gear and pull out of the parking lot. The next thing I note about the Softail Blackline is the split-drag handlebars. This being the first drag-bar-equipped motorcycle I’ve ever ridden, it takes me a few minutes to grow accustomed to the slightly touchier handling. Combined with the forward foot controls and slim 144-mm front tire, it’s obvious H-D was vying for a low-to-the-ground, mean-looking motorcycle.
Riding through the heart of Milwaukee, I realize I should probably not test out that engine fully, but … thanks to an errant city bus, I was given an opportunity to test out the antilock brakes after about five minutes on the motorcycle. There are four pistons working up front and two in the back, and they work fine. Inside Fuel Cafe I order a Super Burrito and coffee as The Who’s “Live at Leeds” album plays in the background. Other menu items include sandwiches—Spicy Salami & Baked Ham also stuck out, but I passed—and a selection of paninis. Besides offering great food and great music, Fuel Cafe is defacto headquarters for the inner city motorcycle scene; its Frozen Snot Ride (coming up on TK) and mid-summer RockerBox music and motorcycle festival (scheduled for Aug. 4) are annual events for thousands in Milwaukee and across southern Wisconsin.
Sipping coffee outside Fuel Cafe is Miles Fox, a 32-year-old originally from Indiana. He told me he moved to southern Wisconsin—Fox spent time in Madison before heading east to settle in Milwaukee—because there was “a lot more opportunity” here. From what I gather, the “opportunity” he was referring to centered on this region’s deep motorcycle culture, which has resulted in a saturated used motorcycle market. He told me—and it’s something I completely agree with—that, for about $1,200-$1,500, you can get a fine road-ready motorcycle. We chatted for a few minutes about RockerBox—he’s a regular and has won a few awards for “Crappiest Motorcycle”—and then he goes on his way delivering food for Jimmy John’s on his ’80 Suzuki GS1000E.
Back out on the road, I’m heading south on I-43 on my way to The Harley-Davidson Museum. With the increased speed limit, I take the opportunity to try out the Twin Cam 103 engine that H-D upgraded the Softail Blackline with for 2012. This engine was actually upgraded in a number of 2012 H-Ds so that it is standard equipment on Softail and Touring models and most Dyna models. It’s more than adequate on the Interstate, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like riding a Softail that wasn’t air cooled, rigid-mounted, nor pushrod-actuated. But, I digress. Opened in July 2008, the Harley-Davidson Museum attracts about 300,000 visitors each year. Obviously, the museum covers the full history of the company, all the way back to its founding in 1903. Fittingly, one of the first motorcycles I encounter is named “Serial Number One,” which is the oldest known Harley-Davidson motorcycle in existence. Seeing it is kind of like seeing the first wheel ever made … though on a much more trivial level, I remind myself. Upstairs you’ll also find The Motorcycle Gallery, a long hallway with motorcycles three-wide stationed on a platform between two pathways; it shows various models from company’s early days up to the 40s. Take one walk through that exhibit, and you’ll see the H-D motorcycle evolve from a dinky bicycle that happened to have been equipped with a motor to a beefcake of a motorcycle adept at chewing up highways like Kobayashi.
The downstairs level comprises exhibits dedicated to Harley culture and customization. Clips from “The Wild One” and “Easy Rider” play on a loop, and, of course, replicas from the latter are on display. The Motorcycle Gallery brings attendees to the present day, and at the end you can experience … The Experience Gallery, which consists of a large video screen in front of a rotating roster of 10 Harleys to sit on and … “experience” … by watching video clips while gripping a set of handlebars. Museum admission costs $16 for adults, and I highly recommend the audio tour. The narrated stories provide a lot more detail than one would ever get with just looking and reading about the exhibits; however, at $4, it’s possible to feel like you’re being nickel-and-dimed.Out in the museum parking lot, the sun is high and bright. As I approach the Softail Blackline, I notice how much the chrome engine and exhaust juxtapose with the rest of the motorcycle, which—besides reflectors, lights and silver forks—is all black. My favorite details are the chrome hoses that appear like vines running out of the engine and up to the top of the oil reservoir. Overall, the motorcycle bears a pleasing, minimalistic appearance—there’s nothing distracting.
After I’m done gawking at the motorcycle, I hop on and head a quarter-mile down the road to the Iron Horse Hotel. I’m not staying the night, but, living in Wisconsin, I’m always hearing about it, so I want to see what all the hubbub is about. The hotel’s owners say it’s the country’s only boutique hotel geared toward motorcycle enthusiasts. Judging by the dedicated self-serve bike wash station, covered motorcycle parking spots, and on-call motorcycle maintenance, I’d say they’re right. Some of their hotel packages even include packed lunches that can be stowed inside saddlebags. It’s cute and even entirely appropriate. But my favorite feature at The Iron Horse? The library, which was stocked with a fantastic array of literature, including an excellent collection of National Geographic and hundreds of books about motorcycles—a combination that’s tough to beat. I had a great day in Milwaukee, to say the least. I was able to sample a great cross-section of motorcycle destinations all the while testing another fine bike from the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. The Softail Blackline is a good continuation of the Softail series, a heavy cruiser more than capable on city streets, highways and Interstates.
I’m always a little apprehensive to recommend a big Harley-Davidson to any beginner rider. The Softail Blackline is heavy and it is not cheap. These are two qualities that don’t combine well in a beginner bike.
Intermediate riders should be just fine on the Softail Blackline. This motorcycle is plenty capable on the open road, and you’ll be able to maintain speeds upward of 80 mph with ease, meaning you’ll be able to go just about anywhere with pavement.
The Softail Blackline has plenty of power, however, it’s not the quickest or most agile of motorcycles. Advanced riders looking for a motorcycle to push their riding abilities to the next level should look elsewhere, but advanced riders seeking a capable, stripped-down cruiser will be right at home.