A Potted History of Harley-Davidson: Part 3 1979-2003

 Ready for the final push? What started out as an intention to explain the Harley alphabet is coming to its conclusion. The 74-inch shovelhead is on its last legs, the management are debating buying the company back from AMF and the model range is based wholly on four-stroke V-twins again. Sportsters have competition from streetable big twins, and factory customs are the new hope for a bright future. Tourers still have one foot in the late sixties but there's a new-fangled frame mounting technology emerging in as we rejoin the story.

The Sportsters were starting to look a little like a side-show by the time the Low Rider was joined by the Fat Bob in 1979. The FXEF (E for old time's sake - the kicker-only FX being dropped the same year - F for Fat) was little more than a return to the original Super Glide and came in both 74 and 80-inch version, but the big news was the 1980 FXWG Wide Glide: the first factory chopper, even down to its flamed paint job - you don't really want me to explain to WG tag, do you? It had long forks in raked wide-glide yokes, bobber rear mudguard, low seat and sissy bar and broke the mould of factory-produced bikes.

I didn't make a lot of noise about the arrival of the next generation of engines arriving in 1978, so I'll digress for a moment. Emission regs had taken their toll on the big twin, and just as Triumph took their 650cc models to 750cc to counter them, so too did Harley albeit on a different scale - and just at the 750cc Bonnies were more lumpy and less happy, generally, the same criticisms were made against the bigger Harley.

Fans of Harley's alphabet will have realised that Harley big twin model letters don't change with the engine type, just its size, so an E could be a 1000cc/61ci Knuckle or a Pan, and an F could be a 1200cc/74ci Pan or a Shovel, and it had to make sense then that if the EL had been a 61ci/1000cc, and the FL had been a 74ci/1200cc, the new 80ci/1340cc motor must surely be a GL? Errr, no. Whether deliberately or otherwise, Honda had hijacked the GL tag for their Gold Wing - and I'm sure it's purely coincidental that they chose a model tag in a sequence used by a bike in a market they were targeting - so Harley just stuck a 1200 or an 80 after the model name to identify capacity until 1981 when the smaller engine finally ceased production, and the size reference was removed again. Why they chose to use 1200cc to identify the smaller models and 80 to identify the bigger is beyond me: all I can come up with is that people like nice round numbers and 74 is as tatty as 1340, and on that basis 88 is forgiven for being a nice number to look at.

It wasn't only the FXs that were affected, and we've ignored the FLs for too long - not that they were doing much until the Rubber Glide happened along. The FL model, once removed from any pretence of being a street bike, started to take itself very seriously as a purpose-built touring bike, and the 1979 Tour Glide took it into another world. The diminutive 4-speed frame of the FLH was tiny alongside the FLT chassis, which incorporated a rubber-mounted engine and a five-speed gearbox - and it came with the new 1340cc engine only. It also dispensed with the handlebar batwing fairing of the Electra, exchanging it for a frame-mounted, more aerodynamic modern fairing with dual headlamps and integrated indicators. Rather like a Gold Wing but pre-dating it by a few years. The tank-mounted speedo was moved into a fork-top dashboard adding a tacho and idiot lights while it was about it. It was a major departure for the traditionalists but the Electra was offered alongside it at all times so's not to scare them too much. The increased size and weight of the new model lead to some radical thinking in steering geometry which lead to a bizarre set of raked and reversed yokes being used in a steep, 26-degree headstock to ease the low speed steering, while a massive trail aided straight line stability. Bizarre in that the fork legs sat behind the steering head, and the frame had to be goose-necked to give them space to pivot. Very odd, very radical, very successful and still used today on all H-D tourers.

You could be forgiven for thinking that they'd be running at full stretch in the R&D department, but it was just the tip of the iceberg, and this at a time when the company was going through a major management change as the Motor Company changed hands and left the AMF stable and returned to private ownership - a much-lauded event, which is why it gets a mention, unlike the 1969 AMF merger which wasn't and didn't. That's not strictly fair: the AMF deal gave H-D opportunity to move forwards at a time when they were struggling, but people just associate the AMF years with poor production quality, and that can be, and usually is overemphasised.

In FX terms the big early news was the introduction of a belt drive on the FXB (B for Belt) Sturgis in 1981, actually two but the belt primary was eventually dropped a few years later because it the environment of the enclosed chaincase was not conducive to longevity. The final drive was another matter entirely, as a quick look round the business end of your late eighties or later big twin will testify. Sportsters weren't so lucky so quickly, and it wasn't until 1991 that the 1200 and Deluxe 883 were given one, and a couple of years later before the Hugger and the base 883 joined them. Another new development was the Disk Glide, which featured a solid back wheel that, even though it was spun and not cast, no one reading this will fail to recognise the significance of.

All that was as nothing, however, when compared to the introduction of a rubber-mounted frame for the FXs, and the FXR (R for Rubber) Super Glide II arrived in 1982 - by which time everything was running the 80ci Shovel motor, so treat that 1200 FXR with suspicion. The new frame brought with it a five-speed box - hence the more usual moniker of the "5-speed" - and it was a taut chassis that found friends quickly on this side of the Atlantic, where handling prowess is always well received. It didn't really look like a Harley though, and we were later informed in the Dyna's press releases that work on its replacement was started almost immediately. The FXR's lines are derived from the FLT frame, but without the bags to disguise both the rear mounted shocks and triangulated pipework beneath the rider's seat - although it obviously lacked the gooseneck frame and steep rake of that model. So close are they, that there has been more than a couple of FXRs made from FLT frames with a bit of judicious hacking about the headstock with a gas axe, and it takes a moment to realise that the tubes are that little bit thicker all round, and that the steering head used is obviously grafted on.

In FL terms, a new Electra Glide got the FLT frame and became known as the FLHT and formed a third model alongside the 4-speed FLH and the more modern FLT, and both FLHT and FLTs were available with a C suffix to denote Classic, which meant a tourpak. No I don't understand the rationale behind the fifteen year old 4-speed FLH being the only one that wasn't a "Classic" in that range either, but I wasn't there to question it at the time.

Sportsters? They bumbled along happily with only the addition of a budget, no-frills, black-on-black XLX-61 to bolster the range.

But then came 1984.

Forget George Orwell, this was real life. The Evolution V2 engine was born, and alongside it in a wholly unrelated development, so was the Softail chassis. If that wasn't enough, there was an FXR-based touring bike too, the FXRT Sport Glide, and an XR-derived Sportster sporting massive air-filters in the way of your right leg and colossal exhausts on the "wrong" side of the bike.

That the XR1000 didn't really deliver until the heads were properly sorted out didn't stop talk of 150mph top speeds, and that motor provided the base for a former Harley employee who had gone off to make his name in racing before changes in the rules meant his own two-stroke motor was no longer eligible to race in its class any more because it was that engine that provided the power for a radical new style of American motorcycle: the engineer? Erik Buell.

The touring FXRT continued Harley-Davidson's modernisation program and was anything but traditional and not a million miles away from being an FXR with a Tour Glide frame-mounted screen bolted to the front.

It was a minor distraction though: the Evo had landed and things would never be the same again, and those traditionalists who weren't quite so struck on the Evo were so besotted with the hardtail lines of the Softail that they could forgive it anything - and did forgive it its vibrations. As a street-oriented big twin, the Softail took the FX designation and added an ST to denote its new frame.

From a simple couple of frames, a pair of engines and handful of bikes in the mid seventies, the Harley-Davidson model range in 1984 numbered fourteen, and comprised four engines and five frames. There were 4-speed shovelhead FXs and Electras, Evo engined FXRs, Electras and Softails and a half-decent range of Sportsters.

It had the potential to get more complicated in '85, but the withdrawal of the Shovelhead motor simplified at least one option, and the remaining 4-speed models had a modified chassis to accommodate the Evo motor. The writing was on the wall though for the frame that first saw light of day with the Duo Glide, and the FXRs were starting to usurp their predecessors: it didn't take much imagination to see that the FXRS Low Glide was just waiting for the demise of the FXS Low Rider to nick that name.

The following year saw the Low Rider succumb, but the big news was that the Iron-head Sportster had followed the Shovelhead into the history books, and the Evo Sportster was here! The 1000cc original was replaced by a pair of bikes: an 883cc and an 1100. In some strange way, the 883 was seen as a solo bike - with a dual seat available as an upgrade, while the 1100 came with a dual seat. It also saw the end of the Roadster.

In big twin terms, 1986 also saw the arrival of the heavyweight Heritage Softail, together with a new designation: FLST. The letter "L" that had perversely denoted a high compression engine in 1929, and which had become tied to the F-series ID in 1951 had come to represent the heavyweight touring model's front end by default with the splitting off of the FXs in 1970. It hadn't been an issue before: big forks went into tourers and that was it. Up until that point it was rational but not rationalised, after the Heritage Softail, any FL would always be a big twin with big forks, and any FX would be a big twin with Sportster forks.

The last 4-speed FX was dropped for the 1987 season: the Wide Glide being the last to go, and of all the models, was the least likely to reappear as an FXR because the frame wasn't suited to that role. At the other end of the scale, a Low Rider Sport was perfectly suited to the chassis and arrived that year with modified suspension and better brakes.

In the touring class, the fact that the self-contained dashboard from the FLT was mounted on the top yoke was spotted by someone at Harley. They removed the fairing, worked out a way to incorporate a headlamp and the Electra Glide Sport that we all recognise was born.

There had actually been one previously, which had been an FLH Electra with some bits missing, but it didn't make the same impact as the FLHS, which was a reaction against the bulk of the FLHTs with which it shared its frame. It must have been a year for making the bikes more accessible for it was the same year that the 883 Hugger arrived,

In 1988, the 1100cc Sportster was replaced by the 1200cc model that we still have today but with the notable exception of a 5-speed box, which followed in 1991 across the range. The following year an 883 Deluxe was offered with a dual seat as standard, and this model and the XLH1200 both got a belt final drive in 1991 leaving the stock XLH883 and Hugger to struggle on with chains until 1994.

But we're getting a head of ourselves again.

Never a company shy of its heritage, Harley-Davidson reinvented the Springer fork in 1988 as a natural addition to a Softail frame for a revival model. Excluding pre-'58 Servicars, Springers had last been seen on a sidevalve-engined model for the few years after they'd been replaced by telescopic hydraulically-damped forks on the OHV Panheads. They'd always looked great but while they did absorb road bumps, they weren't damped and the resulting recoil action of the spring could have them pogoing for miles. Not so for 1988 as a damper was added in prime position between the springs beneath the headlamp: that sorted out one of the reasons for their original demise. They were also heavy, but that's the price you pay for all that metalwork.

Well, that and polishing.

1989 saw the arrival of the Convertible concept on FXs. What? A bike without a roof? No a tourer that can be converted into a streetbike with a couple of flicks of the wrist. Off comes the screen and panniers. Pillion seat? No. You'd need a Low Rider for that, or a Road King but you'd have to wait a couple of years for the latter, until we got fed up with the dashboard and plastic headlamp surround of the FLHS. In case the Convertible was too lightweight, the Ultra tag was added to Electra and Tour Glides and denoted fully-loaded tourers out of the box. Want something between the two, with a bit of classic styling to boot? Try the FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic - a Heritage with leather bags: it arrived the same year and remains with us, while the base model FLST Heritage Softail was withdrawn in 1991.

Just to test whether you've been paying attention, the Fat Boy arrived in 1990 and needed a model designation: it's a big twin, it's got big forks, and it's in a Softail frame - and it's fat: it can only be one thing. It's an FLSTF. All of which is a way of dragging out that nothing else happened. You're absolutely right: I can't just gloss over the Fat Boy like that. It was a landmark model. Disk wheels front and back beneath stylised, deep valanced mudguards and named after a bomb ... not! They'll be saying the 88 was named after a German Anti Aircraft gun next. My guess is that Harley employed someone called Bob who was getting fed up with being the brunt of the workshop jibes, so they subtly modified the '79 Fat Bob tag ... well, they might've. This issue is already bursting with Fat Boys, each with their own attempt to finally lay that myth to rest so I'll avoid repeating myself. That first Fat Boy was grey in colour with orange highlights, and got rave reviews, but it was still the only breaking news for 1990.

Not so 1991: the work started on the FXR's replacement was first seen with the FXDB: the limited edition Sturgis: it shared its black-on-black colour scheme with the 4-speed Shovelhead of ten years previous, and that model's orange pinstripes on the wheel rims. It wasn't the only thing it shared. At first sight, the Dyna frame bore more than a passing resemblance to the 4-speed FX, and not without good reason. In this first incarnation, the Dyna came with a leisurely 32-degree headstock and the Sturgis itself was a ringer for a seventies Low Rider in profile. The new frame was denoted by a D for Dyna, to replace the R for Rubber. Strictly speaking, the B was used to denote a Belt drive on the original Sturgis, but all big twins had been belted for some time now and the next best thought is that B now means black ...

... except that the following year, the limited edition Sturgis was recycled and became the limited edition FXDB Daytona in beige and blue - both of which begin with a B. Bugger! That was just a freak though, because every subsequent time it's been used it's been on a black bike, or close enough. The Daytona was joined by the Dyna Glide Custom - the first Dyna not to be a limited edition - and identified by FXDC.

Proving to be a hit with most - although a few FXR fans were less than impressed - the Dyna's roll-out continued over the next couple of years. The Low Rider and Wide Glide being obvious first calls culminating, in 1995, in the final adoption of the Super Glide tag that had started the whole thing running, on a model with the sharpest steering head angle yet seen on an FX, and generally silencing the FXR lobby. It shared the new frame with a new Convertible, launched the same year, and while the 28-degree headstock wasn't going to win any custom converts, it made for a very creditable streetbike. Perhaps to appeal to a more self-effacing audience, the 28-degree Dynas were, and remain fairly anonymous by comparison with most machines bearing a Harley-Davidson badge on the side.

It would spawn a still livelier Sport version four years later.

While the Dynas were evolving, so too were the Softails. With the passing of the Heritage Softail, the Nostalgia was launched with a Friesian cow saddle and small leather bags, it was a halfway house between the base model and the bigger bagged Classic. It didn't last long, and neither did the blacked-out FXSTSB Bad Boy (see what I mean about B and Black) with black springers and just about everything else except a styling flourish in red or blue on the side of the tank. When the Bad Boy was dropped (and no, the Bad Boy wasn't a bomb either!), its place was taken by the FXSTB Night Train, also in black ... yes, okay, and that very dark green, and now gunmetal as well.

Tourers were continued to evolve and the FLHS chrysalis became the stunning Road King butterfly in 1994: a bike that was so much more than just a touring bike, and one of the Motor Company's greatest successes of recent years. It was little more than a chromed headlamp nacelle and classic big speedo dashboard fitted to an Electra Glide Sport, but it has almost become a model range in its own right. The original Electra Glide Road King retained the solid saddlebags from the tourers and can take almost any of the accessories from that range, and was joined in '98 by the Classic with leather bags, a softer line, which quickly established itself as the soft tourer of choice.

Sportsters diversified in 1996 to produce the 1200 Sport and 1200 Custom. The first Sportster Sports were stock motors in stock frames with sensible dualseats but with the addition of fully adjustable suspension front and rear, and different tyre profiles and compounds. It made the XLH1200 more lively round corners, but it did nothing to counter the performance issues so the second generation, in '98, got a few engine mods to liven that up too. An increase in compression to 10:1, and twin-plug heads increased the torque to a figure that was "to be announced" in 1998, but was announced to be a single Newton Metre at a hundred revs more in the '99 catalogue (88NM@4000) although it was quoted later as ten more at nearly a thousand rpm less by 2001 (96NM@3000).

A word or two about power, because I've been unkind about the Sportster's sporting credentials without qualification for long enough. Harley don't agree with themselves and there is little consistency between different factory sources - in international units of measurement never mind numbers - so don't get bogged down in the numbers. You could stick two different stock bikes on the same Dyno and get different numbers, or the same bike on two different dynos and get two different numbers. All I can do is cite quoted numbers, and as I happen to have the 1998 Owners Manual to hand, the 1200S was attributed with 69hp at 5,500rpm and 76ft/lbs torque at 4,000rpm compared to the stocker's 66hp@5200rpm and 72ft/lbs@4000rpm. A half-respectable increase for the S, but disappointing when you consider it has another 200cc and fifteen years of development over the 61hp, 61ci ironhead XLH of 1973, and seriously lacking when compared to the contemporary pre-Thunderstorm, carburetted Buell Cyclone with its 86hp@6,000 and 79ft/lbs@5400rpm. Did you want to know that the '98 Thunderstorm was chucking out 93hp@5800rpm and 87ft/lb@5400rpm, or indeed that 87ft/lbs is 120NM?

But back to the plot.

The 1200C got a slotted and chromed version of the solid back wheel, by now often referred to as a Fat Boy wheel by most - ourselves included - and it combined that with a bullet headlamp, straight, shrouded risers with a speedo mounted behind the handlebar clamp. A twenty-one-inch front wheel in the shorter forks from the Hugger matched the Hugger's short rear shocks, and a decent two-up seat completed the picture. It got a baby brother in '98, the plainer finished XL53C, which had the normal disk wheel and a Badlander seat - in keeping with the 883cc's perceived solo role.

Things were moving on quite nicely, all told, but the next stage of evolution was about to dawn, and in 1999 the Evo begat the Twin Cam 88. A 1450cc air-cooled v-twin that took its name from its size in cubic inches, and had few external differences to the Evo, insofar as being a 45-degree air-cooled V-twin, but inside things were different. Most notably the twin cams allowed a better control of the angles for the valves in the heads, allowing a better shaped combustion chamber. It's an age-old problem with pushrod engines because the pushrod's vertical movement is dictated by the relative position of the camshaft to the head. By using two cams, and positioning them closer to the centre of each barrel, rather than the intersection of the "V" itself, the engineers had greater freedom and exercised it. The new engine was rolled out into the Dyna and Touring ranges, but not the Softails immediately and there was a very good reason for this. When the engine took this next evolutionary step it increased power, but it did so at higher revs. Rubber-mounted engines have the attendant vibrations absorbed before they make it to the chassis and rider, but the solid mount Softails couldn't and the vibes were less pleasant than before, so needed to be dealt with. The 88B, in 2000, was not an 88 mk II but a balanced 88 and that resolved the problem at the expense of feedback. The 88B had countershafts in chambers in front of, and behind the crank, driven by chains and held taut by slipper tensioners. They smoothed out the vibes from the engines with naught but a mechanical rustling to alert the rider to its presence - well, that and a lack of vibration obviously.

The first 88's arrival brought with it the FXDX Dyna Sport, with adjustable suspension to keep its road manners sweet, and the new motor to give it some kick, and this was followed in 2001 by the successor to the Convertible: the T-Sport. Lacking a means to remove its angle-adjustable screen, it did have removable panniers in Nylon, rather than the leather of the Convertible, and a proper pillion seat in place of the Sport's Badlander: it was a very European Harley and looked set to expand the appeal of the marque to a broader audience.

With the arrival of the 88B came the Softail Deuce: a new style of Softail, and the most sophisticated custom bike to date. It brought with it a seventeen-inch rear wheel and low profile tyre that transformed the handling of a seriously heavy frame, and served to demonstrate that we've underestimated the Softail frame for years.

Things were looking good: a new-look Softail, and a pair of sporty Dynas: Harley were dragging themselves into the modern world, but we really hadn't accounted for the big shock of mid-2001. Some pundits were expecting something, but I really don't believe that anyone expected what would arrive when the covers were pulled off the V-Rod.

There had been rumours about new Harleys for generations: there were across the frame in-line fours, and there were V4s and everything else in between, but no-one had really considered what they might do with the DOHC, water-cooled VR race bike's engine once they realised it wasn't setting the racing world on fire.

What they did, with the assistance of Porsche, it to produce a road-bike engine - called the Revolution - with lots of power. And then they wrapped it in a frame that could only have come from Harley-Davidson: no one else would have dared go so far in one hit. It was radical, it was revolutionary and it was a reality. It seems strange now, now that we're all used to its lines, but the impact the bike made was astonishing. It was seen by the world beyond motorcycling as an icon. It made the motorcycle press take Harley-Davidson seriously, and it made the Japanese sit up and take notice.

I doubt it will never replace the air-cooled V-twin in the affections of the majority of current Harley-Davidson riders but I don't believe that was ever the intention. I reckon it was an attempt to broaden the market of potential Harley riders by giving disenchanted sports bike riders a route through to another style of bike, and even attracting a new generation of motorcyclists from the car world.

How do you follow that? With only another year or so until the 100th Anniversary year caught the public imagination again, they didn't need to.

What they did do was to launch a road going tribute to the most successful race bike of all time, the XR750, using their least suitable model to make the XL883R. They achieved it by painting its tank orange and its engine matt black, by putting a 2-1 pipe on it and by giving it a second disk, and its owner a Screamin' Eagle catalogue.

Which brings us up to date, because while that is the 2002 range, the 2003 range is exactly the same with the addition of an anniversary paint scheme, and logos and badges ... although by the time the middle of the year comes round, and the frenzy of the celebrations are reaching a crescendo, if they don't announce a new model based around the VR motor or the mysterious, oft-alluded-to but never photographed or acknowledged second engine that was developed alongside it, I would be surprised.

The one thing that is for certain, is that a bullish Harley-Davidson is moving into its second century of production in optimistic mood - even if it is arguably a year early.

Words by Andy Hornsby, Editor of the UK-based magazine American-V

No comments:

Last Month's Most Popular Posts