Old Harley’s such as the Pan and Knuckleheads are generally remembered very romantically as the “golden era” of Harley heritage. Hell, everybody wants a Panhead. But even more so do people want the new, high-tech bikes with their big engines and extra gear transmissions. These two classes are highly coveted while the “Sweet Years” of those bikes that were built in between sell for almost nothing and hold absolutely no place in Harley lore.
But they should.
In fact, if your desire is to ride a lot for very little money, then these years represent the absolute best motorcycles that Harley Davidson has produced to date! But to really understand why this is, it’s necessary to take a quick look at a little Harley history.
In the 50’s and 60’s, and with the possible exception of the BMW, all motorcycles were mechanically unsound. In order to get them to the next town and back it was necessary that one carry plenty of tools and know how to use them. Back then, and like it or not, this was simply what it took if one wanted to ride. Then, in what was known as “The Super-Biking 70s,” the Japanese started building little bikes that stayed running and didn’t leak oil. Well, understandably not everyone wants to be a mechanic. And even those who do would like a break sometimes. So these little bikes began to sell like hotcakes. In fact, the Japanese kicked the shit out of everybody. Norton, Triumph, and BSA went out of business. Indian had died years earlier by its own hand, and Harley Davidson was going under too.
The Japs ruled the motorcycle market and it seemed that nothing could stop them.
By the late 70’s Harley Davidson was in serious trouble, and by the early 80s they were desperately trying to make a comeback. The company initiated many innovative strategies.
In design was the “Nova Project”, which would be built in both V4 and V6 cylinder configurations to compete with the Japanese designs. And although initial designing began, this engine was never produced for its great cost in retooling.
Next came the FXRT model which was designed to look Japanese and hopefully attract customers back from HD’s oriental enemy (Today this bike is very coveted among those who know what it is for the unique handling capabilities it offers as Harley Davidson’s only, to date, light weight touring motorcycle).
HD even got the president of the United States to put a tariff on motorcycles being imported into the U.S. by stating very truthfully that these imports would soon put the last remaining American Motorcycle Company out of business.
There were other strategies as well, but in any case one can easily see that the ailing Harley Davidson motorcycle company was desperate to save its own ass.
Obviously they did.
But although these strategies may have helped, the main, if not only, reason for Harley’s rediscovered success was the introduction of the “Evolution Engine” in 1984. This power plant was so named because it was billed to have evolved to compete with the new era of motorcycles.
Early Evo advertisements professed that this engine would not break down, use oil, or overheat—all problems that incessantly plagued the older Harley’s. Although the Evolution engine now offered more power than its predecessors, seldom was this issue boasted about. Instead it was all about reliability. For Harley Davidson was now desperately trying to build high quality and dependability into every aspect of their motorcycles.
This, my friend, is what saved Harley-Davidson’s ass.
I watched these events unfold with great skepticism. For I myself was not impressed with the great amounts of mechanical effort necessary to keep my old Harley’s running. In fact, I was talking about buying a Gold Wing because I wanted to ride more than the old bikes would permit. So I watched very closely these new Evolution bikes that my friends were riding to see if they’d really hold up.
In those days most of the men who rode did so because they were avid riders, not because it was cool—because it wasn’t (the idea of trailering a motorcycle had not yet been invented). And in a very few years I began to see these new bikes with upwards of 200,000 miles on them. On more than one weekend I found myself wrenching in the driveway while my buddies stood around waiting for my bike to run so we could go on a Sunday ride. And when we finally did, my Evo riding pals always came home with clean hands. I, on the other hand, invariably carried tools and my little phone book which listed a single star next to the names of everyone who owned a pickup truck.
Time and again Harley’s new bikes were proving themselves as a product truly superior to anything the company had built before.
I decided to try one.
It was a used 1987 Softail with only 13,000 miles on the clock. This bike started all the time, every time, and went 80,000 miles before its very first problem; which was only a bad charging system—cheap and easy to replace. It was unbelievable and truly miraculous. I could trip for months around the country with no problems except maybe a worn out tire (I started going through a lot of them), oil change, and the occasional new battery (no getting around that).
I fell in love with Harley’s all over again.
Harley sales increased dramatically until, by only the late 1980s, statistics showed that Harley-Davidson was outselling all of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers combined for bikes over 800 cc’s; which is what they built. They’d won the battle. Japan was again beaten. For this celebrated occasion, HD introduced a model called the “Fat Boy” in 1990. This was a Softail model that, for the first two years of its production, came in only one color scheme: gray with seven yellow rings painted at strategic intervals around the bike. The Fat Boy was named after the nukes we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—Fat Man and Little Boy; both were gunmetal gray with seven yellow stripes painted around them. And although Harley Davidson denies this fact today, at that time they didn’t. I know. I was there.
But the real beauty of the older Harley-Davidson’s was their utterly unrivaled (especially by the Japanese) simplicity of design and ease of which a man, or boy such as myself, could change, rebuild, or do almost anything he wanted to the motorcycle using only a few very basic tools and a manual in the privacy of his own garage. Two valves per head instead of four; a pushrod system instead of overhead cams; one simple carburetor hanging straight off the side of the engine, no water cooling, and so on. These things may seem like a great mystery to those who’ve never tried to work on an older Harley, or have had that birthright revoked by the introduction of highly complex technology that, fortunately, works just as well as the old, but really it’s no mystery at all. When I first began taking these systems apart I’d look at them and think ‘That’s it? Hell, a monkey could understand that.’
Repairs and rebuilds were generally reasonably easy and quite often almost unbelievably inexpensive. For all motorcycles break down—every fucking one (if you don’t believe it try putting some real miles on one), and motorcycle breakdowns have been the bane of my existence since I started with dirt bikes at the age of 11. If you ride much, they’ll be your bane too. So the real question that I and many others were seriously nervous about was: would the Evo carry on this most precious of Harley Davidson traditions? Could any kid with a little courage, a manual, and a few tools, do a top-end in his back yard?
Well, the answer was yes! The Evolution engine had been designed to be simple and infinitely rebuild-able (a quality seldom realized in anything built during these modern days of disposable everything). In fact, in some ways the Evolution engine had been designed even more user friendly than its predecessor the Shovelhead.
This was an extremely reliable engine that was completely rebuild-able and one didn’t even have to be a so-called “tech” to fix most things that ultimately failed on it. To date it’s Harley-Davidson’s crowning achievement.
Everybody bought Evos.
Another great quality of this era was the fact that HD was not yet a filthy rich corporation who could afford the luxury of redesigning, then building new parts whenever they felt like it. No. They only had so many components to work with and, for about 14 years, the motor-company built almost all of its models using mostly the same parts.
There was the FXR, (designed in part by Eric Buell) which was commonly known for its amazing handling capabilities that are said to have been surpassed only in very recent years. But this bike was eventually phased out in favor of the FXD or “Dyna Glide” because it was cheaper to build.
Then we had the Electra Glide with its bat-wing fairing.
The Tour Glide, which was later altered slightly, then renamed the Road Glide.
And finally the FLHS, which was the original Road King.
All of these models used the exact same drive train (engine, transmission, primary, clutch, starter, etc.), which could easily be swapped directly from one to the other.
This left only the Softail models; and the only real variation here was a different primary and transmission case—which still housed the exact same clutch and gears.
And last were the Sportsters.
Components were wonderfully interchangeable.
My own bike is a 1988 Electra Glide, but the engine is 1999, while the entire bottom end is out of a 90 model and the top end is from a 96, the transmission is out of an 87 but first gear is from a 2004, while the wiring was taken from a wrecked 92, as was the entire inner fairing including stereo, gauges, speedo, etc. At the time of this writing this motorcycle has 464,000 very inexpensive miles on it. Yes, you read that number right.
Parts were everywhere and so many friends knew, and were happy to tell or assist you in basic, and sometimes even complex, mechanical alterations and repairs. And if not them then the little shop down the street could fix most anything that went wrong with relative ease.
So we now had a bike that worked unbelievably well, virtually unlimited mountains of only slightly used parts that were inexpensively available on the shelves or in back rooms of bike-shops, swap-meets, and of course your buddy’s garage. And the best part was that most of them fit your bike!
These were truly The Golden Years of Harley-Davidson.
Then Harley-Davidson woke up! For this was obviously no way to triple one’s billions while also pleasing stockholders in the process. No. The best thing for HD would be if there was a way to maneuver each of us into paying them three or four hundred bucks a month—for the rest of our fucking lives. Wouldn’t that be great! Hell, every other manufacturer of vehicles was already doing it; why not HD? And so, following the example of Honda, BMW, Toyota, GM, and all the rest, they began to complicate the hell out of the machines. This strategy accomplished three things:
One: when a modern motorcycle breaks down there are very few who have the ability to fix it, therefore putting the owner at the complete mercy of the manufacturer who can then charge $300 to change two sensors in his fuel injection system, when it’s still possible to purchase an entire CV carburetor for $50 and replace (even if you’re just a kid with a wrench) not just a sensor but the engine’s entire fuel/air mixture system!
Two: Since the components are constantly being retooled and changed, when you do need a part it’s necessary to go back to the components that were manufactured for your specific year, and therefore, like Honda, Kawasaki, GM, etc. they can charge a ridicules amount of money and there’s little you can do about it.
And three: when, and if (especially in this age of five year old bikes with 5,000 miles on them), the motorcycle ever does wear to the point of needing a rebuild; between the cost of parts and labor it’s cheaper to simply buy a new ride and go back to handing over three or four hundred bucks a month—for the rest of your life!
Maybe we’ve been hoodwinked, huh?
Think about it. And let’s try not to forget that even though it’s the “Great Harley-Davidson”, we’re still dealing with that most ugly and immoral of diseases yet to plague the 21st century—Corporate Greed. In other words, these guys are not your friend! Did you get that, or do I need to repeat it? Anybody who have been around a while already knows this. But it seems that these days there are so many customers who enjoy getting screwed. Take a gander around any dealership on any given day and see if you don’t agree. Unfortunately for HD however, my own asshole doesn’t stretch that wide.
Some will argue, “But all these technical advances have made the bikes so much better.”
To some of this I would agree. When electronic ignitions came out I was skeptical. But guess what? They are better than points. These systems seldom fail, and on the rare occasions that one has, I simply pull a spare from the saddlebags and plug it in. For you see, stock electronic ignition modules (which work fine) were all mostly the same and use to lie around the back rooms of shops and garages by the box-load. To date I’ve never paid a dime for one.
Hydraulic lifters are better too. They eliminate the need for valve adjustments and almost never fail.
As for fuel injection systems however, it’s a good idea to weigh the pros and cons. First let’s look at the advantages: With this system one never has to choke his engine. That’s right, the onboard computer does that for you! Another advantage is that with an injector system the engine will idle even when it’s cold. Carburetored engines usually want to warm up a little before they’ll idle right. And although the CV carburetors that HD used in those last years automatically lean themselves out when one climbs into the higher altitudes (they work unbelievably better than anything I’ve had before) fuel injectors do a more efficient job of this.
That’s it. The whole advantage in a nutshell. What? Thought you were gonna get better gas mileage? Sorry. Won’t happen. Can you tell the difference when you ride it? Nope. No gain there. Anything else? Forget it. This is what you get.
Now let’s look at the cons:
First off, both of these systems simply mix gas and air into preset proportions then feed this mixture into the engine. For EPA regulations, both come from the factory mixed very lean (more air and less gas). This condition causes poor running and a lot of heat, especially in Twin Cam Engines which run hotter than Evos to begin with. This is why one sees so many heat shields installed just below the Twin Cam seats to save the rider’s legs from scorching. Now, if you change pipes or air cleaner, you’ve added even more air and compounded the problem. Whereas a carburetor can be richened up (more gas, less air) with an inexpensive kit or by simply changing a couple of $3.50 jets, computer operated fuel injection systems are far more complex and require more money to get them richened up. One choice is have HD download a new map, which is a canned program that’s nonadjustable and, in the event that it does not work quite right for the configuration of cams, pipes, air filter, etc. that you’ve chosen for your motorcycle you’re pretty much just fucked since this system does not allow for fine tuning. Next there is variety of secondary computers, such as a Power Commander or Race Tuner, that install inline with the original to allow complete gas/air mixture tuning. This means that you can now set your low RPMs to run richer (if, say, the new cam you’ve just installed needs this adjustment to operate properly) while leaving the high RPM mixture unchanged. It’s the equivalent of changing a carburetor’s mid jet ($3.50) while leaving the main jet alone; except that it costs hundreds instead of chump change.
Secondly: A fuel injector needs a fuel pump. It’s a long plastic thing that goes inside the gas tank. They fail. It’s not uncommon. Carbs don’t use these.
Third: A modern injection system now uses seven sensors that plug into various parts of your engine. If any one of these fail you need a tow truck. Also, it takes a very expensive in-shop computer to determine which sensor went south. Wonder what that’ll cost? Carbs are simple mechanisms that seldom fail and, when they do, can generally be fixed in a parking lot with a screwdriver.
Fourth: An injection system uses a lot of electricity and requires a strong and steady voltage to keep it operational. For this, the new bikes use a very large and expensive battery coupled with a high output charging system. These systems consist of two main components, each of which costs around $220. For a carbureted model each component is about $60. Also, an engine itself uses very little electricity and a carburetor requires none. If a charging system fails (and they do) a carbureted engine will run off only battery power for three days if you only turn off the lights (mine went in Colorado once and I fixed it in Arizona). A fuel injected model will be dead in a very short time.
It’s all about what you give for what you get. You decide.
There have been other, many of them quite tangible, design improvements made to the motorcycles in recent years. But what bothers me is that so many of these have come at the great cost of simplicity. In the summers I often work on motorcycles for a living and it’s now quite obvious that this technology has become almost beyond ridiculous. For Christ’s sake man, I just want to go for a motorcycle ride, not a trip to the fucking moon. Is space shuttle technology really necessary?
The Twin Cam Engines have earned their keep and many of my friends really like them. But even though it’s hard to find a high mileage Harley Davidson in this day and age, I’ve been watching. They’re around. And although these engines are built for more power (the original 88 inch Twin Cam however was not. Power came later) and offer larger displacement, it is obviously apparent that in the arena of longevity—the objective for which the Evo engine was built—the Twin Cam has yet to exceed, or even match, its former counterpart. But then HD is no longer in competition with the Japs, or anyone else, now are they? Hell, they can shit in a cup (provided it’s a genuine chrome Harley Davidson cup with two-tone paint) and customers will stand in line to pay an exorbitant price for some of that shit, now won’t they? Also, in an age when it’s almost impossible to find a bike with more than 30,000 miles on it, Harley no longer really has need to build longevity into their bikes, now do they? Think they don’t know that?
Unfortunately, this “throw away” ideal has found its way into the newer engine’s ability to be rebuilt should it ever wear out or fail. One example is, whereas all previous models used lifter-blocks that were replaceable with the removal of four simple bolts each, Twin Cam lifter-blocks are milled directly into the right side case. If they are damaged or wear out, the entire engine must then come apart and the right case gets replaced or possibly machined.
Another example of this: while all older crank assemblies are bolted together for easy disassembly and flywheel truing during engine rebuilds or repairs, only Twin Cams and 2000-up Sportsters use a crank that’s pushed together with a 400-ton press. If a problem such as flywheels twisting out of true occurs (very common among pressed together crank assemblies), or it’s just time for a rebuild, this process makes crank disassembly possible by only a select few places in the country. Once rebuilt, the crank pin is then usually welded into place. For high performance applications welding is strongly suggested. Of course many simply buy a complete crank assembly from the factory, like HD recommends. Either way, the cost is extravagant.
The advantage offered by the older bolt together cranks is that rather than having to wait for a factory replacement to arrive, or send the old one off to one of the country’s few machine shops equipped to handle such work (which is probably the best choice since it will return trued and welded. It’s not uncommon for factory cranks to arrive already remarkably out of true), most any local shop in any town will be able to refurbish and re-true your “rebuild-able” crank for about half the cost.
Also, in 1954 Harley Davidson realized that it was necessary to put dual Timken bearings into the left side case to keep the crank from slopping side to side. This system seldom fails and has proven to be almost indestructible. In 2003 however, HD’s bean-counters decided that the cost of this bulletproof system was rather extravagant and opted to return to the pre-fifties roller bearing design. Whereas maximum side to side slop for a Timken bearing application is two-thousandths of an inch, HD now allows up to sixty thousandths for the roller bearing system. But because the reintroduction of this old technology has again proven to be problematic, S&S now sells an upgrade that will install Timken’s into your late model lower end. This system has become so commonly used that now even Harley-Davidson offers a similar kit. Again, this system is strongly recommended for high performance applications.
I do not seek to discredit the Twin Cam’s well earned place of nobility amid the modern bike market here; my only wish is point out some of the facts for those who wish to ride a lot for very little money—an objective that’s still unequivocally possible to achieve.
The early Twin Cams were originally built as a platform to more power. To this end the new cases were designed to more easily accept the installation of larger displacement cylinders and pistons than Evo designs. From the gate one could buy an 88 inch motor and then bolt a factory made 95 inch kit directly up with little to no fuss or hassle.
Also to the purpose of more power, the bottom end was now designed with a far more complicated two-cam design. This complex cam train design is the main reason that the Twin Cam’s lower end looks so much larger than its former counterpart. The advantage here is the ability to place both lifter-blocks in a more direct line (one in front of the other) rather than offset as is necessary for single cam designs. This allows for a straighter valve train trajectory—mostly on the front exhaust valve. Problems with the older single cam designs occur when using high lift cams at very high RPMs. It’s for this reason that incredibly high revving drag bikes generally utilize the four cam Sportster design.
But, although the twin cam system mellowed this problem it also created new ones. For the chain driven twin cam design was far weaker than the former gear driven systems and has been a source of incessant and ongoing problems from the time of its inception in 1999 until HD’s reengineering (hydraulic chain tensioners, etc.) of the cam compartment in 2007 that they claim has rectified this problem. For earlier models however, and especially for high mileage and high performance setups, it is necessary to spend a grand or so on aftermarket parts (such as an gear-drive cam system and a heavier cam-support plate that utilizes roller bearings, etc.) or install HD’s kit that converts your old cam system to the new one, to correct this problem.
And all this was engineered to perform better at very high revs, even though few of us exceed 5,000 RPMs during normal street use. So, although this twin-cam design is by no means worse—especially once the original cam-chest problems have been ironed out—under normal to even moderately high performance applications it grants little to no advantage over single-cam configurations.
Also: although high tension (performance) valve springs are a necessity to high revving engines and will allow even a single cam (Evo/Shovelhead) design to be wound way up, these are much harder on the cam system itself and, for Twin Cam applications that are pre 2007, it’s certainly best to beef up the cam compartment before installing them.
The pressed together crank, Timken bearing thing, and cam chest deal, are all major engine component weaknesses. And although there are great fixes for all three, it’s up to you to install them.
Obviously it’s only fair to also talk about the inherent teething problems that plagued the new Evolution engines of their day. First off: for the new motor HD had copied the Jap intake manifold design and used compliance fittings. These had leakage problems right off and in very short order were replaced with the design that is still in use today. Second: the rear cylinder base gasket had a tendency to seep or “sweat” oil. This problem was generally minor and little effort was made to resolve it. For “Monday” engines that offered more trouble in this area than most, aftermarket metal base gaskets could be installed to significantly mellow this annoyance. And thirdly: between the years of 1989 to 1994 the engine cases were sometimes weak and on occasion cracked or leaked right through the poorly crafted metal. Although most didn’t, I saw this happen quite a few times. HD’s answer was to initiate what they called a “silent recall”, which meant that only if your cases cracked would they send a new set with your original numbers stamped into them to the local dealership who would then install them for free. But that was then. If those old cases go south now you’re on your own. But if they made it this long, chances are they’re not gonna break anyway.
That’s all of it. For at that time bean counters were not allowed into HD’s engineering department lest those cheapened parts fail and therefore grant the Japanese even more dirt to throw onto HD’s impending casket. Nope; maximum quality had to be the order of that day!
Although the Twin Cam engine is indeed a serious contender; by comparison the single cam, cone motor (Evo/Shovelhead) is undeniably not an inferior design. A great testament to this statement is the fact that not many of the aftermarket engine manufactures even build a Twin Cam. Almost all simply stick with the proven single cam design. And even though S&S does make a Twin Cam, you never see it and I think it’s great testimony that even after all these years almost every custom or chopper out there still uses a single cam engine; weather it be an 80 inch Evo (you can still buy a brand new Evolution crate motor), 100 inch Rev Tec, a 117 inch S&S, 140 inch Ultima, 152 inch Ilmor, or some other.
Obviously this most simple and basic design is still a great force to be reckoned with.
What it all boils down to is this: although the Evolution engine was never produced in any displacement larger than 80 inches (uncommonly large for its time), in the arena of reliability and inexpensive simplicity it remains undeniably unequaled even to this day. So if it’s the ability to ride a lot for very little money that you seek, or if you’re the kind of guy who enjoys the deep bonding process that is only achieved by pouring one’s own blood into his beloved steed while personally seeing to her needs amid the privacy of you’re your own garage (if this is you then you know what I’m talking about), then the carbureted Evo is undeniably the superior choice. However, and although even fully loaded with all my worldly possessions, my stock Evo powered full dress Electra Glide will still climb Hwy 70 across the Rocky Mountains without ever leaving fifth gear thus proving itself not underpowered, neither is it by any means overpowered—especially by today’s standards. So if it’s big power you seek, and if money’s not a real issue, you’d probably fair better to gaze in the direction of a Twin Cam or aftermarket big-inch engine.
I am in no way a purist. I’m simply interested in what offers the best value for my buck. I want to ride a lot and not pay too much. A reasonable objective I think. I mean, how often is it that you ask a man why his five year old bike only has 10,000 miles on it and he replies that he’s to busy working to ride (HD loves that). Well I personally am too busy riding to work all the time. For in the end the only real question is: Did you enjoy your life more often than you didn’t? If the answer is yes then you died a very rich man.
Scooter Tramp Scotty