Difference Between Softail & Hardtail Motorcycles

by Rob Wagner
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Hardtail motorcycles feature old-school rigid frames that have no rear suspension. Most motorcycles through the first half of the 20th century were hardtail motorcycles. The lack of suspension made hardtails impractical for long-distance riding. Softail bikes have an active suspension system in the form of an A-frame rear swingarm. The term “softail” originated with Harley-Davidson motorcycles in 1984 in an effort to attract a broader customer base.

Hardtail Basics

A hardtail motorcycle can be a rough ride. It has no rear suspension system incorporated in the rigid frame, although it does incorporate a telescopic or similar suspended front fork. The suspension comes only from the front fork, tires and a single seat with springs. Two-up seats had no springs, but only padding to cushion the ride. The hardtail is akin to early postwar sports cars in which the desired object of driving was to feel the road. Hardtails provided the rider with the same direct feeling of the road.

Softail Basics

Softail motorcycles were Harley-Davidson’s answer to a new generation of riders who demanded more comfort in riding. It also solved the problem of long-distance riding, which could literally be a pain in the backside for hardtail motorcycle riders. The softail features a suspension system with shock absorbers mounted horizontally and underneath the frame to hide the shocks from view. This gives the softail the appearance of a hardtail with its rigid frame. The bike has the look of the classic hardtail but with a softer ride. Harley-Davidson developed several softails, including the Fatboy, Cross Bones Bobber and Rocker models. The Cross Bones, perhaps, most closely resembles the old-style hardtails.

Hardtail Pros and Cons

Hardtail bikes feature frames made of simple construction and no movable parts. These lightweight frames are easy to build, which attract novice bike customizers, and cost as much as 30 percent less to build than softails. Hardtails appeal to chopper enthusiasts and older riders who grew up with the original Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles that were constructed as hardtails. The frame requires minimal maintenance. Although the hardtail weighs less and is faster than softail, its overall handling is awkward. They are also less comfortable and virtually impossible to ride longer than an hour without a rest.

Softail Pros and Cons

Compared to the hardtail, the softail provides a luxurious highway ride, with the rider happy to sit in a softail’s seat for lengthy periods of time. The softail’s suspension minimizes highway bounce and vibration. However, it is more expensive and requires more parts to build. It also requires more maintenance. For many years, the softail suffered a poor reputation because the early suspension systems were cumbersome and slowed down the bike. The first Harley-Davidson softails used small telescopic forks that were inadequate and affected handling. Today’s technology has eliminated those issues. Only recently have riders embraced the softail as an equal to the hardtail. Still, the softail is slightly heavier and slower with less ability than the hardtail to transfer power from the engine to the wheels. Given that the softail has more movable parts than the hardtail, it’s susceptible to structural integrity issues as the bike ages.

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