• Princess Diana, Allen Ginsberg, John Denver, Jacques Cousteau… and Mother Teresa all left us in 1997… Denver apparently to West Virginia (almost heaven after all)… the rest… well your guess is as good as mine.
• Apple Computer names Steve Jobs temporary CEO… what were they thinking?
• England’s 100-year tenure in Hong Kong ends… the Chinese economy immediately revs up… but leaks oil.
• The first Harry Potter book is published… we get it a year later… with a different “American” title. Guess we don’t understand English… just magic.
• The Lion King debuts on Broadway… the cat’s meow!
• Mike Tyson bites off Evander Holyfield’s ear… say what?
• Woolworth closes after more than 100 years… of great snack bar hot dogs!
• THUNDER PRESS hits a new high in circulation… over 100,000 a month (more than most glossy monthlies) and Reg Kittrelle starts thinking seriously about a European edition. Buell buyers get a free annual subscription to BATTLE2WIN magazine (figure 1)… not sure the magazine ever makes money… but how cool was that?
Willie G. gets a building dedicated to him… the new Product Development Center (figure 2). Meanwhile, the Capitol Drive engine plant boosts efficiency by building only Sportster engines and transmissions. Big Twin motors and gearboxes are built at a new plant in… of all places… Menomonee Falls! The first Sportster is built in the Kansas City plant. Motorcycle production amounts to 132,000 machines. The new model for the year turns out to be a future cult classic… the Heritage Softail Springer (figure 3).
On the surface
Things have never been better for the Motor Company. Production is finally beginning to catch up with demand, stock is soaring on Wall Street… splitting even. The Evo engine, in both F and X versions, is refined to the point of being bomb proof… and even better… people proof. The cherry on the sundae… membership in the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) hits a new all-time high. The highly successful “Buy Back” program is inaugurated… within two years of being purchased brand new… the XL883 is a “full value” trade-in on any FL or FX!
The inside story
The springer front fork (figure 4), a Harley hallmark if ever there was one, had been reintroduced in 1988 after a mere 40-year hiatus. Willy G. was pleased as punch and said so often. He liked it for a few reasons. One, as mentioned above, that front end just screamed H-D to one and all… no one else had anything like it… and the designer in him appreciated the aesthetics of those massive articulated blades gleaming out front of the machine… sheer beauty. Then there was the functionality. As designed for the late ’80s-on, it got adjustable spherical bearings in the working parts and most of all… (wait for it)… the Harley-Davidson Springer fork offered low-tech anti-dive properties. Yup… no high-tech telescopic fork of the era did any better. What threw most folks who rode one for the first time was the absolute lack of static friction (“stiction”), which felt soft and loose to those unaccustomed to zero flex and total smoothness throughout the fork’s 4.2” travel. But nobody bought for that reason. You bought a Springer because it was unique… and up until 1997 always bolted to a 21-inch front wheel.
When the decision was made to use it in conjunction with a 16-inch front wheel on the new Heritage model, the re-work of the basic design was more extensive than you might think… yet subtle, elegant and straightforward. The angle of the legs (“blades” to fans) is more vertical to net an increase in trail of just over an inch; the brake reaction link mount is beefed up to deal with the greater traction of the 16-inch wheel and the fork’s front (moving) blades were widened to make room for the fat new tire. Then there’s the bit about the single-piston brakes… on the right on FX Springers (figure 5) and on the left on FL Springers (figure 6). Damping in the FL shock has more rebound too.
Speaking of rebound… in a nutshell, although nobody knew how far it would go… the Motor Company itself was soaring towards the peak of its own economic rebound in 1997. Hog heaven for sure!