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Freshening a 1999 Softail

Harley Half-Day Hop-Up

By J. Joshua Placa with lackluster photos by same

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The Mesa boss.
The Mesa boss.

It’s more than 17 years since I first came into possession of this 1999 Softail Standard, which I bought used from Harley’s press fleet. Bone stock, it had about 8,000 miles on the clock, and had reportedly been flogged by Dan Ackroyd on some cross-country mischief tour before I got my grubby hands on it.

The bike was grimy and a little worn beyond its time, but no matter, I was going to replace or modify most everything anyway. Over time, the Softail got 80-spoke wheels, Screaming Eagle heads, Vance & Hines pipes, Crane cam, Mikuni carb, paint, PM hand controls, Hurst forward controls, PM sliders and brakes, LePera seat, Ghost Bracket bags, H-D chrome rocker boxes, front and rear lights, turn-signals, composite tail-dragger style rear fender, teardrop composite air cleaner, Crane single-fire ignition, Harley old-fashioned style metal tool box, and various other chrome bits and bolts. The project took a couple of years and countless parts. Roads were ridden, stories filed, and years past.

Like any machine, however, no matter how good the parts or how carefully maintained, there comes a day when more than rubber, brake pads and fluid changes are needed. The Harley was getting a little cranky and needed more attention.

I didn’t anticipate anything major. Some fresh oil, new tires, fix a weepy leak or two and I’d be ready for the next 17 years. Even after all this time, the 80 cubic-inch Evo (Evos Rule) ran great and had plenty of giddy-up, although it did have some issues, most notably a nagging and befuddling battery drain that no one could figure.

If the bike sat for about two weeks, the battery would go dead, any battery. There were no clocks or alarms or other bells or whistles that parasitically ate electricity. Mechanics tested and could find no shorts, nor pesky drain sources. Theories that it was a weakness in the stator or a bad ignition switch were tested and ruled out.

Of course, the obvious solution was to not let it sit for two weeks, just ride the thing, but that didn’t always work out. The other non-solution was to keep the bike on the trickle charger and forget about it. I couldn’t forget, but accepted this was my ride’s new normal.

I didn't think much of the rear fender. If the bike was lowered it might help.
I didn't think much of the rear fender. If the bike was lowered it might help.

When I witness my aging bike, I thought to include charging evaluation in planned work, which I figured would take no more than half a day. Why does that always seem funny later? But wait, there is some invisible force, like a biker law of the universe, waiting around to slap you right in the face. While on rare occasions, like once a chromed comet passing in the night, things go right and as expected, wrenches spin, bolts go un-stripped, parts fit (and work), all goes well in the mechanical universe, dare I say it—to plan. Sometimes not.

When we took the wheels off to change the tires, we were surprised to see the rear wheel contained several broken spokes. That’s not supposed to happen, but like the supernatural or a mother-in-law who takes your side, it did happen. That particular wheel used a mercury strip as a balancer, which worked great until a few spokes failed and no wheel repair shop would touch the toxic stuff. So a once $1,200 wheel was now not only worthless but had to be properly recycled, which everyone should do anyway, but you get the drift.

The wheels were a matching pair, of course, but a new rear was unavailable. In fact, nothing was available. The manufacturer had closed its doors so the search for a proper pair of new wheels was on. Meanwhile, I ordered Harley-Davidson gaskets and new plugs, a Yuasa, battery, K&N oil and air filters, Metzeler tires and Bel-Ray premium oil.

Fortunately, Sam Wakim of Ridewright Wheels had 50-Spoke Fat Daddy wheels front and rear, which were powder-coated candy apple red. This was old-school hotrod stuff, and an uncanny match to the Harley’s custom candy apple red paint job, done by Nashville-based legend, Andy Anderson, some 17 years ago and still looking sensational.

We asked the shop princess if she would go for a ride on Josh's Softail. She caught the next flight out of LA for Cuba.
We asked the shop princess if she would go for a ride on Josh's Softail. She caught the next flight out of LA for Cuba.

I handed the bike off to Costa Mesa, CA-based master wrench, Ralph Aguirre. If you haven’t heard about Ralph and his shop, Mesa Cycle, it’s because he’s such a low-key, humble guy. He does custom builds, modification, fabrication, motor and transmission work and otherwise welds, constructs, and creates masterworks out of his well-equipped, one-man shop.

No fix is too small or large for Ralph, who will joke and chat with you as he performs his magic. He doesn’t brag, doesn’t advertise, doesn’t have a website and doesn’t use email. He just gets things done. His customers usually come by way of a spoken word, which is how I found him.

A woman with an early FXR and a guy with a ’58 Pan sitting in a ’64 frame couldn’t say enough good about their friendly neighborhood wrench. Turns out, he also happened to have a five-star Yelp rating. Yelp reviews have been known to be contaminated by paid critics and malicious competitors, so I look for persistent threads, good and bad. If something continues to pop, I pay attention. Mesa Cycle consistently earned high marks for work and service, so I gave Ralph a call.

Especially for a guy who has forgotten more about bikes than most of us will ever learn, Ralph is very unassuming and personable. He did not patronize or use gibbering “mechanic-speak,” as some shops do, which can sound condescending or intentionally confusing. Rather, Ralph speaks plainly with care and concern and keeps explaining things until you understand what he was doing and why. As a true gentleman wrench, he doesn’t do work you don’t need.

Ralph needed to make spacers to reattach the PM brakes to the new Ridewright wheels. He noticed the gas line had some dry rot and replaced it. The bike looked like it was leaking oil from the oil pump, but it was just a loose line, which he secured. The Yuasa battery was installed, and the K&N oil and filters were changed. I’m sure the old girl was feeling fresh and made over. I was.

The issue of the battery drain was next, but Ralph checked the charging system and possible electrical eating sources and could find nothing. Tests revealed no voltage loss, so he battened everything down and I rode off happy, thinking the bike healed itself or something that vibrated ajar had vibrated back. Sadly, this wasn’t to be the case.

The bike ran great and fired up every time, except if it sat for about two weeks or so. My ear-to-ear grin gradually shrank to a pout. Once again, the battery was dead. Then an old friend had a new idea. David Vis, or whatever his real name is, is a mysterious man; an itinerant wanderer who stops by for a week or two with the peculiar but much appreciated habit of looking for things to fix. It’s what he does.

Not sure if David is an international web designer, as he so claims, or works for the CIA, but he does turn up at opportune times. When he doesn’t design websites for airline booking systems or some such high-tech thing, he builds bikes or barns or boats or whatever his favorite fiddle is at the time. He suggested to circumvent the problem by installing a battery disconnect switch, more commonly found in boats and off-road vehicles, the kind that use separate batteries for things like winches or mermaid reeling or whatever. The switch disconnects the battery between the positive post and the starter.

There's that fender again. The Paint job ain't bad.
There's that fender again. The Paint job ain't bad.

“It’s like taking the battery out and putting it in your living room,” he said, which happens to be the place I keep most of my spare parts.

It worked. The switch costs about 10 bucks from Amazon, plus some waterproof stretchy tape, a few zip ties and an extra 12-volt battery cable. The install took about an hour, not counting tidying-up some other connectors that live under the seat. Nothing like spy-craft to get the job done.

We wondered where Josh planned to ride with those blood red spoked wheels.
We wondered where Josh planned to ride with those blood red spoked wheels.

The Softail runs as good as it looks now. Nothing like fresh oil and new rubber on brand-new, super-cool wheels that makes a biker feel young again. Hit the button and blam, the Harley comes alive and is ready to bust out of the gate like a racehorse. I think what most riders want, besides a bike that is fast and fun, is peace of mind.

Your ride needs to be reliable and its performance predictable; if it turns heads, so much the better. Ralph’s expert work, a moment of genius and a stupid little 10-dollar switch provided that keep-calm-and-ride-on feeling. It’s not ideal, but I’ll take it. Of course, the Softail is not perfect, what bike in our world ever is? This bar hopper is nearly 18-years-old, so insignificant amounts of “cosmetic” oil weeping around rocker boxes or the primary is not worth pulling engine bits apart. Old schoolers would just say that’s being too fussy, and I’ve seen much worse on much younger bikes. As long as oil isn’t puddling, I just don’t worry about it. Can’t get too anal about stuff you can tend to with a rag, say, about every two weeks or so.

Up next for this ’99 Evo? Probably something it doesn’t need but I want. Cushier seat? Apes? Turbo charger? New battery for the handlebar clamp-mounted clock? Leave it be? Suggestions are welcome. Meanwhile, I will ride the hell out of the thing and report back from the roadhouse—maybe.


Bel-Ray Performance Lubricants


Crane Cams

Screamin’ Eagle

Mikuni Carbs

“David Vis”
Identity Unconfirmed, Whereabouts Unknown

Click for the straight scoop.
Click for the straight scoop.

K&N Performance Filters



Mesa Cycle
1308 Logan Ave., Unit F
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Ridewright Wheels
3080 East La Jolla Street
Anaheim, CA 92806-1312



Vance and Hines

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Reader Comments

With the exception of the "rear" of this bike it is a beautiful build. The fender and struts destroy the "hardtail" flow that this scooter deserves.
The bags look like an afterthought. The bars don't really compliment the bike, but that's just me.

Ever the critic, I admire how she's stood the test of time. btw...fix the leaks.

Thursday, November 10, 2016
Editor Response I'll pass this on...

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