Back to basics with Harley's Slim Jim


“This is not cool”, I thought. “This is not what this bike was built for.”

Bare-bones low-riders such as the Harley-Davidson Softail Slim are made for cruising the boulevards under a late-afternoon sun, not for riding to work in pitch dark and pouring rain.

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The R209 500 Slim is your standard FL-series Softail Harley, pared down to the absolute basics.Seat is deeply dished so that you can only sit in one position, and then the edge of the base catches you right on the tailbone.Ridiculously understressed 1688cc '103B' V-twin engine engine pushes out 49.4kW at 4850rpm and 132Nm at 3250. Rocker gear lever is a hazard as well as a nuisance.

But the big surprise was how well the Slim handled a solid week of commuting in diabolical weather. It never missed a beat, remained reassuringly stable on streaming wet roads and its standard ABS prevented any nasty surprises under braking.

Not that there would have been any; the test bike nobly upheld the Milwaukee tradition of understated braking performance - any attempt at stopping in a real hurry required a healthy application of lever at both ends.

Nevertheless, the gentle, even power delivery at small throttle openings, slow, predictable steering and superb balance almost down to walking pace made the 318kg Softail Slim far less intimidating to ride in heavy rain, heavy traffic - or both! - than I had expected.


Then came the weekend and - hooray! - the sun, so we were able to do some serious cruising, take the pictures you see here and find out whether Milwaukee's matte-black bomber would retain its composure when we twisted its tail in earnest.

And by and large, it did.

But first, some background. The R209 500 Slim is your standard FL-series Softail Harley, pared down to the absolute basics - one deeply-dished seat bolted straight on to the frame, 16” spoked wheels with black-painted rims, cut-down 'bobber' mudguards front and rear, no pillion seat or footpegs and no tail light (there are red tail-light globes in the rear indicators as well as orange LEDs).

Which is why it is one of the few Harleys (one of the few motorcycles, in fact) on which matte black paint looks appropriate.

The engine is also finished in matte black, with its covers softly polished to look like antique pewter.


Some of the weekend warriors may turn up their noses at its total lack of bling, but the look is true to the cut-down bikes of the late 1940s and early 50s to which this model pays homage - hence the chunky 16” front tyre, which has more than a little to do with the Slim's user-friendly handling.

Peter Fonda to the contrary notwithstanding, the basic Harley chassis was not intended to be run with a skinny 21” front tyre that looks like it came off a bicycle.

A low, wide 'Hollywood' handlebar with a curved brace - finished in black, of course - and a pair of half-moon footboards, set well forward, complete the look. It also has a very 1960s, two-piece rocker shift lever, which is set rather too low at the factory. I couldn't get the toe of my size 10 under it to change gear and had to resort to using the side of my foot.

The rear half of the lever also caught on my leg of my jeans several times during the rest period when coming to a stop, very nearly causing me to drop the bike. If the bike were mine I would reset the front lever a couple of centimetres higher and discard the rear lever altogether.

Which is why I was both impressed and amused to note, when I took the Slim back to the dealer, that the Motor Company offers a natty little chromed cap to cover the exposed end of the shift-shaft after the aforementioned rear lever has been removed.


That dinky little seat looks and feels very well padded to the casual prod, but is deeply dished so that you can only sit in one position, and then the edge of the seat base catches you right on the tailbone, which becomes very uncomfortable on a long ride.

It's easily fixed, however by replacing the seat with any one of a dozen aftermarket seats on offer at your Harley dealer.

The suspension - conventional 41mm Showas in front and the traditional concealed Softail setup at the rear - is firm and well-damped, keeping this very heavy bike well under control even on poor roads. In fact, the limiting factor as far as handling is concerned is the footboards; we grounded both sides with ease on our ‘ride and handling’ test section.

As with all current Softails, the Slim comes with the 1688cc '103B' V-twin engine, pushing out a ridiculously understressed 49.4kW at 4850rpm and 132Nm at 3250, driving via the 'touring' six-speed gearbox and a belt final drive.

This one topped out after a long run at a true 171km/h with 174km/h and 3950rpm showing on the big dial, which is a little underwhelming even by Milwaukee standards.

Nevertheless, the bike returned a remarkable 5.8 litres per 100km over the test period and was rock steady at terminal velocity - even though the rider was hanging on like grim death just to stay aboard!


But that's not what this bike is all about; the Softail Slim is about cruising, using its huge mid-range torque to get you there without ever getting into a hurry. After a week on the Slim I was getting into a Harley state of mind, arriving home significantly later than usual - but so unstressed that Herself didn't mind.

And that is cool.


Engine: 1688cc air-cooled V-twin.

Bore x stroke: 98.4x 111.1mm.

Compression ratio: 9.6:1.

Valvegear: Pushrod with hydraulic lifters and two overhead valves per cylinder.

Power: 49.4kW at 4850rpm.

Torque: 132Nm at 3250rpm.

Induction: Electronic sequential-port fuel-injection with 50mm throttle body.

Ignition: Electronic.

Starting: Electric.

Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.

Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by toothed belt.

Front Suspension: 41mm Showa conventional cartridge forks, non-adjustable.

Rear Suspension: Dual Showa hydraulic dampers, non-adjustable.

Front brake: 292mm disc with four-pot opposed-piston calliper and ABS.

Rear brake: 292mm disc with twin-pot opposed-piston calliper and ABS.

Front tyre: 130/90 - H16 MT90B16 tubeless.

Rear tyre: 140/90 - H16 MU85B16 tubeless.

Wheelbase: 1635mm.

Seat height: 650mm.

Kerb weight: 318kg.

Fuel tank: 18.9 litres.

Top speed (measured): 171km/h.

Fuel consumption (measured): 5.8 litres per 100km.

Price: R209 500.

Bike from: Harley-Davidson Africa.

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