I bought my first Harley, a 2003 100th Anniversary FXST in 2003, and collected it on the 4th July. I didn't buy it because it had become fashionable: I bought it because I had wanted one since 1970 and 2003 was the first year I could actually afford to buy one. The lines of the Softail are the lines that I wanted. The horseshoe oil tank, the exposed oil lines, the bobtail rear fender and the 21" front wheel, the Wide-Glide forks. It looked the way I wanted, and was also the least expensive Softail by far. That was 10 years ago, and I still have it. I chose a so-called Stage 1 conversion, which involves throwing away the strangulating stock pipes and air filter, and replacing with Screaming Eagle slash cut end cans, and a K&N filter. We did 50,000 miles or so, before I took it off the road, to do some essential maintenance (replace the cam chain tensioners) and as I was waiting for the parts I ended up buying another one, because I couldn't afford to be off the road. A 2002 registered 2003 model, so it's exactly the same as the first, which means that all my bolt-ons fit, and I have the workshop manuals, special tools and (importantly) like my first one, it is fitted with a carburettor, and not EFI. I like old, and I like simple, and if it had been available with points ignition, I would have had that too. A kickstart would be nice.
What's it like? It's a Harley. That means that it's heavy, very heavy. I spend most of the time 2-up, and fully laden, we weigh over half a ton. People say you must spend all your time cruising the High Street, or on dead straight motorways, because you can't use a Harley for anything else. Bollocks. Yes, we do a lot of our miles ploughing up and down motorways to get to rallies and so on, but we spend most of our riding time in the Scottish Highlands, often on steep and twisty single track roads, and the Harley is more than capable of handling that. We have taken the road from Amulree to Kenmore, 2-up, and if you know that road, it is a car width wide, and includes some vicious hairpins, grass, potholes and loose gravel. Yes, there was a moment of almost panic, when the first double hairpin emerged, and I thought there was no way we would get round it, but dropping down to first gear you have the torque of an old tractor, and it just pushes you round, solidly, and without drama, at less than walking speed. On the longer journeys, the deficiencies of what Harley supply as standard became clear. The stock seat is good enough for the rider, but excruciatingly and bone jarringly ineffective for the pillion. My wife wants to sue them, and rightly so. There is not much travel on the rear suspension, and the pillion sits right on top of the rear wheel. The foam of the seat is neither tough enough nor wide enough to absorb the shock, and so the passenger crunches right down to the rear fender on potholes, sending a shock right up their spine. It's not fit for purpose. By great good fortune, I was looking for a spare front wheel, with the intention of converting it to 16" (Yes, I know, but tastes change, and it's something else I never got around to) and the seller, a fellow member of H-DRCGB also was selling a seat from Saddlemen of America. It changed our lives, and suddenly rides of hundreds of miles were no problem at all. I bought a screen, rack, saddlebags, TomTom Rider and the Softail Standard I'd so carefully chosen wasn't standard at all, and not at all like the stylish almost chopper that I'd set my heart on. But it didn't matter, because it ticked all the important boxes. Comfortable, reliable, the right sound, and quick enough. We don't use it in the winter. The FXST has less chrome than most Harleys, and the stock chrome isn't bad, but it won't survive well in a winter of salt spray. Some people do it, and with application of ACF50 in the autumn, they seem to survive, but it's not for me, and I have far cheaper bikes I can use in the few days of winter when riding can be considered a pleasure. After 10 years, the finish is mostly good. The exception has been the wheel rims, which are Italian, and corrode from the inside. I stuck a Fatboy alloy wheel on the back, after hearing someone's rear rim had actually split due to corrosion. Reliability? A knocking sound from the bottom end turned out to be the alternator rotor, which sits on the crankshaft behind the primary drive. It was not an easy diagnosis, and sounded like a failed big end, so it was a relief when finally discovered, and the repair wasn't difficult. Apart from that, it's had oil changes every 5000 miles, tyres, plugs and brake pads, and was taken off the road to replace the cam chain tensioners, which are a known weak point. I've heard of them failing in 20,000 miles, but mine still have wear left in them at 50,000 miles. Many people fit higher lift cams, and my personal view is that short life may be associated more with modifications and thrashing than with a fundamental defect, but the jury's out on that. Some people change to a later cam plate, as currently fitted, but as mine lasted 50,000, why bother? Brakes: they work. They are not one finger operation, but you can lock the front, and you can lock the back so they are good enough. Performance: it will cruise at 70-90 all day on the motorway, and has plenty of power and acceleration for A-road overtakes. Handling is far better than you might expect, but you need to change the tyres to my personal favourite, Metzeler Marathon. Fuel consumption is about 40 mpg in mixed use and no, it's never leaked oil.
I love my Harley. I love it because I like old things. I like to see the engine, and I like it to be a thing of beauty, and I like it to be air-cooled, with a carburettor, and stuff I can fix. Everything has been serviced and repaired at home, using a normal tool kit, and a few special tools, and the bike's pretty much as good as new.