New Bike Evaluation 2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

The introduction of the 2012 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim and Sportster Seventy-Two came in August of last year, a few months after the bulk of the 2012 new model announcements. Harley opted to present the Slim in a small, casual setting on the West Coast. I was unable to attend, so a freelancer went in my place. Upon seeing the images and reading the press materials, I was left yawning. It appeared to be just another stripped-down, low-slung, blacked-out cruiser. But the Softail Slim turned out to be a classic case of can’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover.

Seeing the bike in person for the first time during Daytona Bike Week, where I received the pleasure of a loaner for most of the week, the Slim drew me closer, like a magnet to vintage iron. Now bear in mind, we’re no strangers to real antique bikes around here at RoadBike. Editor-In-Chief Buzz Kanter wheels and deals in rare classic bikes and keeps a cherry 1929 JDH in his office for decoration. (By the way, we’re on the third floor of an office building, so you can guess for yourself how it got there.) And he rode his 1915 Harley in the Cannonball Run. Most folks have never even seen a real running 1915, but Buzz’s is often parked in his assigned spot downstairs.

The stance of the Slim reminded me of Harley’s WL flatheads and Knuckleheads of the 1940s. Something akin to what you would have seen at the infamous Hollister rally, complete with drunken Boozefighters lounging on board. (No need to correct me on the famous Time mag photo; just let me dream, won’t you?) Climbing aboard and riding off took me away to another place: the back roads of Louisiana, much of it the setting for the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was channeling Brad Pitt’s character — the virile, middle-aged Benjamin, not the wrinkled “young” version. Yes, I know he was riding a 1930 Indian Scout 101. Still, I did my best to emulate his left-hand throttle technique whenever I could, but I could only coast so far.

I’ve never been a Softail fan, until now. You might recall me panning the Blackline last year. And while the Rocker was quite comfortable to ride, it had an unusual, love-it-or-hate-it profile. But when it comes to the Slim here, it’s all love from this tester. I guess you could call it a curious case of Softail envy. I can tell when I like a bike because I immediately start planning what I would do to it, if I could just afford one for myself. While I commend Harley for going as far as it did in the design and execution of the Slim, I admonish it as well, for not going further, which would have been as easy as parts bin shopping for H-D. But there’s a method to Harley’s madness. A quick glimpse at the Motor Company’s Genuine Parts catalog reveals many of the old-school add-ons I would install on my Slim.

The Slim is touted as having a super-low seat height (23.8″ laden), broad half-moon floorboards, and an accessory handlebar riser that moves the cool cross-braced Hollywood bar back 2″, making it a good fit for riders of all sizes and genders. Yet, but when I see the Slim I picture Brad, er, Benjamin, on that Indian. Harley says the Slim has a narrow rear end, but I don’t see that. And I hope that wasn’t the intention for the naming of this product. I prefer to think of the name Slim as coming from a cigar-smoking pool shark, hustling suckers at the billiard hall. And this is the bike he’d have sitting outside waiting for him.

I pulled up a patio chair and stared at the Slim for awhile every day it was in my possession. I would pick out features that looked too modern and think how I could make them look more ’50s retro cool. The tank-mounted instrument face would have to go. Even though Harley advertises that the speedometer‘s black cat’s eye console features a retro face, I think it looks too modern; the number font reminds me of the tachometer numbers on a V-Rod. And once that water-cooled bike is conjured, I dismiss this gauge entirely. The grips are the same ones you’d find on any modern Harley cruiser, so I’d opt for the old Coke-bottle design.

While the tuck’n’roll solo seat fits the Slim well and provides plenty of comfort, I’d be swapping in a sprung bobber solo seat, post-haste. (I like the real-leather, half-tank bib trailing down to cover the rear tank-mounting bolt near the seat, though.) The Slim’s mirrors would be removed, and I’d bolt on some plain, round mirrors on skinny stalks and maybe only one at that. That narrow rear Harley speaks so fondly of carries an altogether too modern set of combination bullet signal light/taillights mounted to the sides of the fender. But that’s not for me, folks. I’d bolt a cool Sparto-style taillight smack in the center of the chopped rear fender. Heck, Harley even offers one stock on its (Canadian spec) Wide Glide. And, finally, it’s too bad the over/under shotgun exhaust isn’t comprised, even partially, of some sort of convoluted steel tubing. That would look so right.

Even with those nitpicks, I feel Harley did right by the Slim for many reasons. For example, that round gloss black air cleaner feeding the rigid-mounted 103″ V-Twin is period correct. And the electronic sequential port fuel injection is also period correct — correct, that is, for modern times. The powertrain is finished in black powdercoat, cylinders unhighlighted, with polished covers, as there’s a minimal amount of chrome on the Slim. The six-speed cruise drive transmission is manipulated with a fine heel-toe shifter, and the vintage pedal pads fit, too. I would paint the brake rotors black, which would not only disguise them but would also hide the rust that unfortunately started to form on my 600-mile-old demo bike. With the powertrain being thoroughly modern, it was fitting that my demo bike had optional ABS. If the Security Package option is ordered, you’ll get the Harley-Davidson Smart Security system with a proximity-based, hands-free security fob as well as ABS.

Again, I don’t know why Harley calls this a narrow bike. Just check out the meaty Dunlop D402-16″ front and rear tires. The sidewall striations on the tire are good for vintage appeal and the gloss black, wire-laced wheels are the perfect choice for the Slim. A bobbed fender covers the front tread just enough. Working up from there, the louvered headlight nacelle is coated gloss black, and the matching handlebar is internally wired, which adds to the vintage theme as old bikes didn’t have many handlebar accessory wires anyway. While I love the handlebar look and reach, I find the ends (grips) are canted at a slightly odd angle; not sure if the Slim would be my choice for long-distance tours. The plain, round gas caps atop the classic, 5-gallon Fat Bob tank are period correct. The right one is functional for adding fuel, and the left displays an analog fuel level gauge. Embossed on the handlebar clamp is an older Harley-Davidson logo, perfect for taking me back every time I look over it.

Out back, the shockless Softail chassis replicates a vintage hardtail frame while standing still, but the hidden coil-over shock absorbers, mounted within the frame rails underneath the bike, provide plenty of comfort. Gloss black forged fender struts look great, but those Torx fasteners have to go. I know the reason for using Torx fasteners (they’re more adept for mass-production, assembly-line tooling), but swapping in hex head fasteners would be on my to-do list. The gloss black horseshoe oil tank is right for this bike, but there’s something missing. Ah, yes! A vintage Harley oil bag decal would be on my Slim for sure. The swing-away license plate is now spring-loaded, so riders can’t hide their plates from following coppers. In true vintage fashion, paint color choices are limited to not one, but two shades of black: Vivid (gloss) and Black Denim (satin), plus an Ember Red Sunglo option.

The Softail Slim is pared down to emulate the style of home-built custom bobbers of the 1940s and ’50s. And even with all its retro details, I think I’d replace the modern bar and shield tank emblem in lieu of an older Harley insignia, and that all-too-modern 103″ logo on the engine derby cover would disappear, too. Please don’t get me wrong! All these changes I suggest are purely personal preference and to some extent, I’m glad Harley did not go the trendy, full-boat, old-school look. The Slim is plenty powerful, comfortable, and cool right out of the crate, and there’s just enough room left for owners to detail the Slim to their liking. Just the fact that I’m sharing my ideas tells you how much I love this bike. The Slim is the Softail I’d like to own. RB

Story By Steve Lita, Photos By Alfonse Palaima