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Long-time riders (especially ones that ride Harleys) will most certainly know the terms “Soft-tail” and “Hard-tail” like the back of their head.

But as a new rider, you might be a little confused by them.

What is a “soft-tail” motorcycle? And while we’re at it – what is a “hard-tail” motorcycle?

In this blog post, you’ll learn more about:

  • The definition of and differences between a soft-tail and hard-tail motorcycle
  • Where the term “soft-tail” came from
  • The pros and cons of each type

Prefer to get this information in podcast form? Listen to the 30 Minute Motorcycling Podcast episode about the differences between hard-tail and soft-tail motorcycles:

What is a “Softtail” motorcycle?

harley davidson soft-tail

Evb-wiki at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The term “soft-tail” came around in the 1980s when Harley Davidson began to market a new motorcycle to riders who wanted more comfort but that still wanted the look of a hard-tail.

Harley accomplished this by hiding the rear suspension underneath the motorcycle – giving it the look of a classic hard-tail, but which was easier on the rider’s spine.

This new bike became known as a “soft-tail.”

It’s important to note that even though the term is associated with Harleys (who even trademarked the term at one point), any motorcycle with rear suspension is technically considered a “soft-tail.” 

Softtail pros

Since this type of bike has rear suspension, the most significant advantage is comfort.

If you want to take a long-distance trip without murdering your spine in the process, a softtail is the best choice.

And since the rear suspension is hidden away, most people will still think you’re riding a hard-tail.


Softtail cons

As comfortable as it is, the rear suspension comes at a cost – a cost that’s mainly financial.

Fitting rear suspension means you’ll need more parts, including:

  • Shock absorbers
  • At least one swingarm
  • Shocks

More parts to fit also means more money to spend to buy more parts. Building a soft-tail can therefore be expensive.

Not only is it more expensive to build, but it’s also harder to build.

What is a “Hard-tail” motorcycle?

A hard-tail is characterized by no rear suspension – not even hidden away. Instead, the axle is mounted directly onto the frame.

Unlike a softtail, a hard-tail frame consists of only a single piece with no swingarm fitted to it. 

However, like a softtail, any bike without rear suspension can be considered a “hard-tail” – even a mountain bike.

hardtail bike

Hard-tail pros

Do you want to learn how to build motorcycles, just like the crew on the American Chopper TV series?

Then a hard-tail is a great first project – for several reasons.

For one thing, since a hard-tail only consists of one piece, it’s easier to build.

Not only that but fewer parts are required, making it easier on the wallet.

Many motorcycle customizers started out building hard-tails before they moved on to softtails.

Hard-tail cons

The word “hard” in “hard-tail” isn’t just for show – there’s a reason for it.

Since there’s no rear suspension to cushion the rider from any bumps in the road, riding a hard-tail will be hard and stiff.

As such, it’s not ideal for long rides.