A Potted History of Harley-Davidson: Part 2 1955-1978

from: The A-Z of Harley-Davidson
Words: Andy Hornsby - American-V Magazine

The first thing I spotted when restarting this was that I'd screwed up 1954 at the end of part one and while I did make mention of the increase in size of the Ks to 55 cubic inches, I then listed the 54-K as a 45ci K rather than the 55ci KH. I also omitted completely the rise of the KR from 1952, and the introduction of the TT version of that model from 1953, and the scrambling KHRM from 1954. Don't go getting all excited thinking that the TT has anything whatsoever to do with the Isle of Man, American TT racing is a motorised steeplechase with jumps, and with both left and right-hand turns to distinguish them from the more prestigious oval tracks, on dirt. In keeping with its different role, the TT bikes benefited from rear suspension and brakes compared to the oval track anchor-less, rigid frames.

It's not the most auspicious start to part two, but it is worth mentioning on the basis that it forms the background to the 1952-up sporting twins that lead to the arrival of the Sportster in 1957. We already know that the 750cc model K wasn't setting the world on fire so it's worth explaining why, when they upped the capacity to 55ci/883cc in 1954 for the road going version, that the racing versions persisted as 45ci/750cc models: AMA Class C racing rules. Under those regulations, a 750cc side valve could compete against 500cc OHV machines but an 883 couldn't, so while the Motor Company produced 883cc road versions of the racing Ks until 1958, they reverted to the 750cc for the competition models and carried on racing them successfully - and continued to do so when the OHV Sportster superseded the side-valve road bikes in 1957, right through until 1969 - and yes, that is nineteen sixty-nine - when the XR took over for an even longer, and even more spectacularly successful lifespan. That's not quite the end of the story though, because in 1958 they started producing a 51ci OHV XLR and XLRTT - for off-road competition that wasn't subject to the same groupings - and they carved a niche for themselves. These were basically tweaked Sportsters, and generated as much as a quoted 82bhp. But, back to the plot.

The KHK introduced in 1955 was a street-bike with a mission. Speed. With polished heads and racing cams it was the last attempt to make the venerable side valve motor perform, but while it was an improvement, it was nothing when compared to the result of marrying the OHV technology that had been present on the big twins since the 1936 Knucklehead, to the relatively lightweight, fully sprung chassis of the K to produce the Sportster.

What about the big twin around that time? Frankly, what about it? It had been given a new engine, the Panhead, in 1948, hydraulic suspension (Hydra-Glide) in '49 and a foot-gearshift option in 1951: you can only take so much excitement. The next major change was an acknowledgement that the swing-arm rear suspension pioneered on the XL might be a good thing for the big twin, which heralded, in 1958, the Duo Glide.

Duo? Two. Hydraulic suspension at both ends. With a sprung seat and hydraulic suspension front and rear, the big twin was really starting to take shape as a grand-tourer of considerable note, and even more considerable comfort.

Just as the big twin was getting lardier, the Sportster was getting more sporty with high compression engines, and competition versions beyond the racing "R" models influence. The low compression XLC option was dropped in 1959, and the XL followed in 1960, leaving the XLCH and XLH as the base models. The XLH was distinctly a roadster in shape and role, but the XLCH was starting to evolve into the shape that we recognise as a Sportster today with minimal mudguards, short dual exhausts and a peanut tank in place of the XLH's valances, nacelles, two-into-one exhausts and fuel tank capable of making it to the next petrol station. On/off road tyres and the occasional hi-level pipe showed where the bike was intended to be used, but it was ultimately destined for the road. The fitting of a lightning rig, together with its eyelid headlamp bracket seemed to compromise the competition role carved out for it, a proper dual seat came long in '66, and by 1967 the transformation was complete with the addition of road tyres. This coincided with an electric leg being fitted to the XLH, and the XLCH became little more than a kickstart-only, magneto-equipped version of the mainstream road bike. Very much a potted history of early Sportsters, but we'll tell their full story in-depth on another occasion.

Big twins were evolving too. The dawn of the sixties saw the introduction of the aluminium headlamp nacelle that is synonymous with the Electra Glide but which actually predates it by five years, and is most often seen these days in revised form on Road Kings. I don't believe it was called a Hiawatha in those days, but I've been wrong before. Experimental two-tone paint schemes aside, there weren't too many changes until the arrival of the Electra, which was, coincidentally, the last Panhead. The Electra Glide is invariably associated with saddlebags but they were not standard equipment until the seventies, and the Electra's tag denotes nothing more than an electric start. As a model they can be easily spotted, even if the plain timing cover has been replaced by the more attractive, earlier ribbed item, by the sheer size of the battery hanging off the timing side of the bike where there once lived an oil filter, and the bigger battery is offered, by many, as the reason for the "B" suffix applied to models so equipped - and means that the foot-shift Electra Glide now had a five figure model code: FLHFB. There is an easy way to spot an electric start motor from the primary side too, because there is a cast aluminium primary chain-case in place of the pressed tins items of a year before. Oh yes, there's also a bloody great big starter motor on top of the gearbox as well.

A year later, in 1966, the Panhead gave way to the Shovelhead, often referred to as the Pan-Shovel, or generator Shovel because it still had the kidney-shaped timing cover linking the crank to the forward-mounted dynamo, inherited from the earlier model. The ubiquitous timing-side nosecone's arrival coincided with that of an alternator È housed within the primary chain-case, in 1970, and was an ever present styling cue for thirty years through the Shovel years and into the reign of the Evo, finally evolving into the squashed pug-dog twin-cam timing cover.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves again - although not without good reason: does anyone want to know about the Topper Motor Scooter? Utilitarian beyond belief, it wasn't pretty but served a purpose. It must have done, they made the thing for five years and someone somewhere must love it, but it didn't have a V-twin engine so we don't care.

Other strangenesses included a major shake-up in lightweight world. The withdrawn 125cc model S returned in 1955 as the Hummer for a few years to live alongside the 165 model in two guises: one full power and another restricted to 5hp, which were the ST and STU consecutively. The 125cc Hummer had run its course by 1960 but the 165 model begat the Super 10 that year, which split into the road-going and still Bantamesque Pacer and off-road Scat which both increased to 175cc, and the madly minimal, green-lane 165cc Ranger in '62 - did you want to know that there was a 165cc restricted Pacer? Thought not. The Scat and Pacer got a pressed steel swing-arm and underslung shock absorbers for '64, not unlike the Softail's more than twenty years later, and standardised on a 175cc motor: they looked an accident between a D1 Bantam and a C90 Honda and continued in this guise until 1966 when it made its curtain-call as the 175cc Bobcat, with a tank-seat unit that resembled nothing more than an MZ design inspired by an early Rickman Honda item. That's that dealt with: back to the more familiar ones ...

Ah, no. Not just yet, because there's still the Italian-built models from the years between 1961 and 1971. They were at least four strokes. I'll leave the detail for a future feature - subject to demand - but will just mention that they were called Sprints and were ostensibly Aermacchis with Harley-Davidson badges on the side. They started off as 250cc air-cooled OHV pushrod motors that evolved into 350s, and a range of weird little moped things, which were 2-strokes and looked like NSU Quicklys.

And that would be it except that they then replaced the 4-strokes with 2-stroke SS street and SX dual-purpose models, which were Italian, but looked Japanese and came in 125cc, 175cc and 250cc guises. I know people who bought them because they were Harleys, and some who enjoyed them, but it had too few strokes for my money and I already know more about them than I want to or am prepared to admit.

Which brings us to the modern-day 4-stroke V-twins again. Well, post-1970.


If only that meant it would be easy again.

If only.

Concentrating only on the V-twins, the previously mentioned XR that dominated its class was given a date range starting in 1969 but that's not strictly accurate because while the 1969-71 XR was an OHV model, it was a de-stroked XLR with cast iron barrels and it wasn't quick, or successful. I could be cruel and suggest it was perhaps this model that the 883R alludes to, because it is probably closer to the reality, but I'll shut up because the new bike does provide the base for a massive range of performance options. I could be mischievous and suggest one such option should be a de-stroked crank and barrels to make a revvier 750cc, but it ain't gonna happen. The XR that we remember with affection is the post '72 alloy XR with twin exhausts exiting from the fronts of both heads on the primary drive side, and a pair of carbs with massive air-filters hanging off the timing side. When did it stop racing? It didn't, although there are fewer now than there used to be.

Big twins were coming on in the evolutionary process, and we know already that some of them were even fitted with foot shift and hand clutches, but it wasn't until 1973 that the hand change was dropped, and even then it made a comeback for another couple of years, presumably by popular demand. It doesn't make sense in the modern world, but you've got to remember that controls were not standardised for a long time. Go back to Indians and you'll find a left-hand twistgrip that allegedly allows a police officer to shoot with their right hand while in pursuit - and that's not too far fetched when you consider that American was still very much an evolving nation in

the early twentieth century. Of all things that make that stick in my mind, it was "The Fonz" in Happy Days doing jury duty, trying an Indian-riding felon who had snatched a handbag and held it up in their left hand while accelerating away. Little things.

As if to make the point about standardisation - and I should have made it earlier - when the side valve 45 evolved into the K series, the Motor Company switched from their common practice of having a right foot operated brake to the British practice of a left foot brake and a right foot gearshift. It wasn't such an issue with the gearshift, because hand shifts were very much the order of the day. Very strange: one manufacturer, two basic models and two completely different means of controlling the bike, and it survived like that for nearly twenty years. We remember the rationalisation in the UK as something that affected Triumph, BSA and Norton - because no one else was left, and because the newly arriving Japanese bikes were already set up in the way that legislation demanded - but it affected the Sportster too.

Back to the plot. Not all big twins had a hand change option, at least not after 1971 because that was when a new breed of motorcycle started coming up through the ranks: a Big Twin streetbike utilising the frame and motor of the FL and an XL front end, and some of that model's lighter cycle parts on in place of the mammoth Glide sheet metal - a weight saving that was bolstered by the removal of the electric leg. The designer was Willie G Davidson, the model was the FX - an amalgamation of the FL and XL - and the Super Glide was born. It was powerful and relatively light and I think it is fair to say that from that point on, the emphasis of development switched away from the XLs onto the more versatile FXs.

How do I justify that statement? By noting that Sportsters were keeping pace with competitive motorcycles until the arrival of the FXs. A Sportster was precisely that and would give a contemporary British twin a run for its money, but the last major attempt to keep pace was the increase in capacity to 61ci / 1000cc in 1972, which coincidentally was matched - according to marketing material of the time -

by its output of 61hp. That isn't to say they didn't develop it further in styling terms because they did play with it extensively, but it was outside the context of the true Sportster it was originally intended to be.

The first Super Glide came with a boat-tail seat unit that survived a year, and which is a very subjective thing: you could almost tell that they'd bought a fibreglass facility and were seeing how much use they could make of it. The '72 model looked cleaner with its banana seat and Sportster-style rear mudguard combined with the Fat Bob tanks and massive speedo and dash of the FLs, and sleeker still when in 1974 it got its own tank - a single-piece mustang tank. The '74 model also got an electric start derivative called the FXE, which eclipsed the FX immediately and single-handedly overtook the FLH in terms of production, now becoming the most popular big twin in the range. In 1977 that development lead to the launch of the Low Rider: a return to Fat Bob tanks but with a new dashboard containing a speedo and tacho: it also lead to the big twin streetbikes gaining ground on the high-sales Sportsters. At a stroke, it made the Super Glide look like a well-executed home build - this was the finished thing. Biased? Damn right. I love this bike and it is the reason why I ride what I ride today. I don't think I was alone: production figures for the Low Rider in its second year overtook the Super Glide's, and it was established as the mainstay of the big twin range by 1979, when it formed a quarter of the factory's production. The Motor Company had a success on its hands, and were not slow in recognising for what it was.

Harley Davidson XLCR 1000 Cafe Racer

Let's go back to '77 for a while, though, because the FXS wasn't the only new model for that year, and because 1979 is in the next part, next issue. The Sportster also had a wholly new style in the form of the XLCR: a CafŽ Racer from a country that had never seen the black and white, pre Top of the Pops, leather and live music show, the Six-Five Special. Ten years previously this would have looked perfect on the seafront at Brighton, and it seemed to suggest that Harley were taking sports motorcycles seriously but it wasn't the sales success that it could have been because the home market really didn't know what it was for - something that still haunts Buell to this day. Some were collected in the almost certain knowledge that it would be a collectors item one day, and even though it carried on until 1980 it was destined for the history books. Shame. But how about this for one last desperate plea: before someone in Milwaukee recycles the tooling for the Thunderstorm engine, give us one last chance to appreciate the XLCR. Stick a signed Thunderstorm motor into a chassis with Iso-planar mountings, running modern rubber and wrapped in black-painted XLCR bodywork: a quick Harley for those who find Buells too radical-looking. You never know, you might even get a Sportster worthy of the name in time for its fiftieth birthday, because just as the XLCR introduced a new XR-inspired frame to the Sportster, a rubber-mounted Sportster might have a few more years in it. It's a common theme in my scribblings, but the more I voice it, the greater the chance it might be heard. I'll shut up about it again for now though, because it's probably all too late anyway.

And anyway, there was another model: the XLT Roadster, where the T stood for touring. Electra Glide saddlebags, the Super Glide's mustang tank and a deeper cushion on the seat marked it as such. Not a great success, but it lead the way to the XLS Roadster which had a similar shape but no bags and an FX tank which survived for the rest of the ironhead Sportster years, and rejoicing in a far more appropriate name, considering its output.

Which takes us to the end of another Anniversary year: 1978, and the seventy-fifth birthday of the Motor Company. The year of the build of my first Harley, an Anniversary 1200cc FLH model with golds painted wheel centres and a leather buddy seat. Things were riding high, in terms of the AMF years, but there were big changes around the corner ...

Continue to Part 3

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