Harley-Davidson was looking to strip down the time-honored look of the Softail and inject it with new blood. The model, featuring a rigid look with hidden rear suspension, has been a best-seller for The Motor Company since its introduction in 1984. As the styling team looked at a profile of all Softails since then, they realized it hadn’t evolved much over the years. So they approached it with the aplomb of servicemen returning from the second World War, bobbing fenders, cleaning up wiring and removing bits that weren’t essential. To get the look they wanted, Willie G. enlisted the services of a group of in-house up-and-comers with an affinity for hot rods and garage builds. The result is the 2011 Harley Blackline.
Lead designer on the Blackline project, Casey Ketterhagen, broke down the new features of the Dark Custom Softail to us at the official launch party in New York City. He started by pointing out that Harley tidied up the rear section by chopping down the back fender as much as legally possible, tucking it in tight to the spoked-down 16-inch rear wheel and hiding the wiring for the directionals. The new Dunlop on the rear
Harley toned down the graphics and badging on the Blackline Softail and slapped on a new round air cleaner.
reportedly expands width-wise instead of up, a key component to them being able to snug up the rear fender. The bobbed rear fender has stop/tail/turn signals in black housings to go along with a new composite license plate holder and a light module mount on the lower edge of the fender.
Engineers also pulled the seat of the Blackline back tight and slimmed it down, then dropped its height to 24 inches – an unheard of low for a factory Harley. H-D then cleaned up the tank by eliminating the faux gas cap, trimming down the real one and adding a new, narrow black console. The Blackline gets its name from the asymmetric five-gallon fuel tank that’s clean on the left side, has a gas cap on the right with a die-cast piece of “Blackline” trim bisecting the two covering up the fuel pump hardware. The revamped tank allowed H-D to run new Split Drag Bars that are set narrow, are internally wired and mount straight to the top triple instead of a riser. They topped it off by going tall and thin up front with its 21-inch spoked-down front tire measuring a svelte 90mm in width.
At six-feet tall, I was worried the low seat height would equate to cramped ergos. On the contrary, it’s a true arms punched out, feet stretched forward riding position. Throw in the bars that are set in tight and you’ve got a very aggressive riding position. Add the saddle’s narrowness to the ultra-low seat height and you’ve got a motorcycle that makes it easy to get both feet on the ground at a stop while the forward-mounted foot controls allow riders to stretch out in motion. The bike’s so low that a passenger is able to set their feet flush on the ground at a stoplight from the pillion. Now that’s low.
With the close-set bars, tall front hoop and 30-degrees of rake, I wondered how the action on the front end would be. Though the bars are ultra-narrow, the revisions to the tank allow for plenty of clearance and no side-to-side restrictions to the bars. In fact, the feeling is light and it’s easy to wheel the big 21-inch front tire around. There’s not a lot of unsprung weight but the 41mm fork keeps the Dunlop firmly planted. Teamed with the low center of gravity, the bike tosses side-to-side easily for a cruiser. Turn-in doesn’t require much effort and the major constraint is the limited lean angle because you’ll be grinding down the feelers on the foot pegs despite the bike’s capacity to take on more lean.
(L) The Blackline has a new black console and a trimmed-down gas cap. (M) Less weight than the standard Softail and the same 1584cc Twin Cam 96B engine means the Blackline hooks up and goes for a Softy. (R) The newest Dark Custom Softail.
The Blackline feels much lighter than other Softails, and at a claimed 638.5 pounds weighs 56 pounds less than the Softail Deluxe. Because it weighs less but is still powered by the same 1584cc Twin Cam 96B engine, the Blackline hooks up and goes for a Softy. It’s tuned to dish out the meat of its claimed 89 lb-ft of torque just above 2000 rpm. Rev it up, drop the clutch and it has no problems getting the back tire to bark. The pushrod V-Twin utilizes lightweight pistons churning away in a long 4.38-inch stroke. Peak power comes on in the mid-3000 rpm range, but it is geared low so that riders get the gratification of instant torque as soon as the throttle is twisted. Drag bars were a good choice for the Blackline because once you’re in the saddle, be ready to ride it like a hot rod.
It’s all Harley, with a rigid-mounted, internally counter-balanced engine, so there are a few vibrations in the bars and seat, but at 70 mph in sixth gear the mirrors were clear. My wife did mention that she felt a lot of vibes from the small patch of leather they call a pillion. The engine has no problem compensating for the additional weight of a passenger, but one look at the seat is all it takes to realize the Blackline is more suited toward the solo rider. Riding two-up taxes the rear suspension, units which we were already blowing through the damping on occasionally when riding solo. The FX fork on the front, however, did an admirable job of both keeping the front tire planted and soaking up the road imperfections so riders don’t have to absorb it in their shoulders and arms.
The one and only Willie G. talked about how proud he was of the group of designers who worked on the newest Dark Custom, the 2011 Blackline.
The round chrome air cleaner on the Blackline is part of its tight new look.
Stopping on the Blackline has its good and bad points. The front brakes don’t provide much bite and faded a bit in hard braking situations, but the Blackline we tested had the optional ABS on the rear which helped compensate for their shortcomings. The four-piston caliper on the rear has more outright feel to it and better stopping power. It takes a pretty good push on the foot pedal to engage the ABS. Riders will experience a hard pulse in the ball of their foot from the ABS pumping the brakes which is more noticeable at slower speeds.
Harley chose the less-is-more method for styling cues on the Blackline. Its tank graphic is smaller and more subtle and badging is kept to a minimal. Its Twin Cam 96B has stylish machined heads and a gloss black powdercoat on its rocker box covers, crankcase, outer primary cover and transmission side cover. This blacked-out background helps the new, round air cleaner stand out even more and chrome oil lines add class to the overall fit and finish. There is a noticeable gap between the nose of seat and the fuel tank that exposes the top of the frame, but we never rode so close to the tank for it to be a comfort issue. Instrumentation on the Blackline is also minimal with a small, round analog speedo with a digital odometer mounted between the bars. A green “low fuel” light comes on with about a gallon left in the tank and a countdown to empty starts. The odometer readout will switch to “R 30” or however many miles are left till empty. We logged 453 miles on the Blackline, a combination of daily commutes, two-up runs and rides through curvy mountain roads and finished our testing with an average of 36.82 mpg.
Overall we came away impressed with the way you can toss the Blackline around and how it hooks up off the line. With the arms punched out riding position, you can experience a little arm fatigue on long rides, though. The stripped down look, subtle new graphics and round air cleaner give it a distinct Softail signature. Stronger front brakes and more lean angle would make the bike even better, but nonetheless the Blackline provides a spirited ride.