HARLEY-DAVIDSON ELECTRA GLIDE
The heavyweight Harleys of the 1970s often attract uncomplimentary comments and are damned by faint praise. Ian Woolley ignores internet myths and ill-informed observations to try the reality for size…
What is this you see before you? A 1977 HarleyDavidson FLH 1200 Electra Glide. An iconic name if ever there was one. AMF’s (American Machine and Foundry) range-topping heavyweight cruiser, which is obvious from the letters in the model designation: F, for the big ohv twin engine; L, for Hydra-glide style front forks and wide front tyre, and H, for Highway – which refers to the touring frame. Alternatively, you can find that FL stands for the heavyweight engine, in this case 74cui, and H is for hand shift (erm, I don’t think so), high performance (erm, again), or heavy duty (heavy, certainly). This confusion typifies Harley ownership; there is an established nomenclature and machine specification, but over the years there have been so many variations that the exact meaning / specification has become lost in the mists of time. Indeed, much like some of the British bike industry, the specification was a bit of a movable feast.
In 1977 H-D were not in a good state. They had been owned by AMF since 1969 – and folklore will tell you that the AMF years were a nadir for the quality of the products, that AMF neglected the company and didn’t understand the busine ess of motorcycle manufacture.
Echoes of the British bike industry, perhaps? Like most t folklore there is some truth i n the comments and quite a bit th at is wrong. AMF sank a considera able amount of money into H-D, millions ofo dollars, and by doing so they tripled sales.
However, what they didn’t manage were profitable sales (business firstt rule: turnover is vanity, profit is sanity). While it is fashionable to blame AMF for H-D’s woes in the 70s it probably has much more to do with it being an American company used to gently evolving its product having to cope with a Japanese onslaught of high-spec modern machines. More echoes of the Brit bike industry?
How is this reflected in the bike you see before you? The Electra Glide was a new machine for 1964, although then the new machine still had the Panhead engine which was first offered in 1948. In 1966 it benefitted
from the new Shovelhead engine which raised the power output to 60bhp.60bhp Actually,Actually the ‘new’ engine was an improved top end on the bo ottom end of the venerable Pa anhead engine. The ‘new’ cycle pa arts owed much to the 1949 Hy ydra-glide, which in 1958 be ecame known as the Duogl ide – for having suspension at both ends, although the FL de esignation had been in use sin nce 1941 on a bike with the Kn nucklehead engine.
So if a 1964 Electra Glide was a m mishmash of other models, wh hat was its reason for being? It had an electric hoof. It would st art at the push of a button – he ence the ‘Electra’ moniker. For m any years it was also fitted wi ith a kickstart too, but this was larg largely redundant as the electric start was reasonably reliable. A crankshaft-mounted alternator arrived in 1970, 1970 along with an upgrade to 12V. The ignit ion points moved into the timing cover, and tthe timing gears were simplified. A disc brake e was fitted in 1972. Other than that, it see ems that over the 11 years to 1977 the chan nges were cosmetic.
So o we have another example of a design that was around just after WW2, was then n sparingly updated and was still in prod duction in the mid-1970s. Back then, Hon nda’s Goldwing GL1000 had been about for threet years, the Suzuki GS750 was on the t scene, Triumph were still selling the later developments of the Speed Twi n – one with a pretty paint scheme for the t Queen’s silver jubilee – and BMW had its /7 range. The UJM – Universal
Japanese Motorcycle – was a definite thing, and Europe had what were recognisably modern motorcycles. What did the Electra Glide have to flaunt?
A 1200cc V-twin dry sump engine producing 60bhp and 70 lb/foot of torque. A spacious chassis with a wheelbase of 61.12 inches, and an overall length of 92.88 inches. A heavyweight bulk of 760 lbs, with fluids. A four-speed gearbox. Selfcancelling indicators. A spring mounted dual seat – although other perches were available. Footboards. Man-sized controls: there is nothing dainty about them. A pair of glassfibre top-opening panniers. That’s a whole lot of bike.
The Electra Glide is a recent addition to my shed, so I’m still feeing my way with it. It benefits from a belt drive conversion and a dry clutch from Rivera Primo engineering, Jim’s lifters and lifter blocks – an upgrade to the tappets, and an S&S carburettor. Other than that, it may or may not be standard! The bike shows evidence of lots of love and attention being lavished on it in the past. The frame has been powder coated, although careless use of bike lifts has chavelled the finish on the bottom frame rails. It has been rewired, although some of the idiot lights have been omitted – the high beam telltale bulb holder appears to be absent, and the neutral light needs attention. So far, so normal for a 42 year-old machine. On the plus side the cosmetics are generally good.
So why did I buy it in the first place? It would be nice to come up with a really sensible reason for the purchase, but I can’t.
would be nice to come up with a really sensible reason for the purchase, but I can’t. I bought it because it looked pretty. Don’t judge me. I could waffle on about poor investment rates and the chance that the bike will go up in value. I could spin romantic tales about the model of an Electra Glide my dear, departed grandmother bought me while I was still at school. I could give you guff about it being an iconic bike that I’d yet to own but… at the end of the day I bought it because it was shiny. As I say, don’t judge me.
When it arrived, the Glide looked very pretty – until I cleaned it. Then I found that there was a lot of road dirt mixed with oily waste hidden where the eye would not normally see. Not a big problem, but something I had to spend a while cleaning. Since the first clean I’ve also found that there are one or two places where I needed to apply spanners; oil lines and one or two bolts that just need a tweak – all perfectly normal for a bike that has been restored and has then not done lots of miles. The amount of oil appearing from the rocker box feed was reassuring … but it was a pain to clean off! All sorted now.
What’s it like to ride, then? My initial ride round the block wasn’t encouraging. It felt wobbly, like a new-born lamb. I have piloted large boats that answer the helm better that this bike steered. You know those bikes that weigh a lot and as soon as the wheels are rolling you forget about the bulk? The Electra Glide isn’t one of them.
It takes a determined heave to lift it off the ‘jiffy stand’ – I don’t know why Harley called it that, there isn’t an alternative, so the bike lounges on its sidestand whether for a jiffy or not – and once upright you need to make sure that you don’t lean too far from perpendicular or the plot will get away from you. To steal another motorcycling cliché, the weight is all low down … but there is a LOT of weight.
The engine has more grunt than a bacon factory and will whisk you quickly to a sort of fast lope. About 55mph the plot is reasonably happy. Big A-road and motorway speeds are tolerated, but don’t be surprised when your foot is vibrated off the footboard. Alleged top speed is in the mid-80s, but that isn’t what the bike is about.
The gearbox is the venerable four-speed unit that Harley had used for eons. You’re never in doubt when you are in a gear – the heel and toe gear lever doesn’t hide the impression that you’re using it to move large lumps of metal. That isn’t to say that the gearbox isn’t smooth or effective, just butch.
There have been entire essays from erudite writers about the dire nature of Harley brakes. The bike benefits from disc brakes, gripped by huge single-pot callipers. The current Ford Ranger has more pistons in each calliper
than the Glide but I think the bike brakes are bigger. The front has a conventional lever. The rear has a large rubber-covered pedal, as you might see in a Peterbilt truck. This is raised up from the footboard so that to use it you have to lift your whole foot. Even if you don’t push hard on it, you will have the weight of your foot and leg providing retardation. This is good.
Does the bike stop? Yes, in its own sweet time. Stepping off a BSA C15 I would be amazed at the stopping power. Getting off a modern KTM, I’d be leaving a BIG gap between me and the vehicles in front. The brakes aren’t bad, just not modern, and for
that reason you need to plan your riding. Thankfully, the engine braking provided by the big V-twin does help.
The controls: a while ago Buell used to run the strapline ‘different in every sense’ in adverts. That just about sums up the controls. I’ve mentioned the heel and toe gearshift and the rear brake pedal; the clutch, front brake and throttle are what you would expect, just supersized. The ignition switch: if you don’t know where to look you can spend ages wondering where to stick the key. The ignition/ light switch is on the panel between the petrol tank halves. It has a hinged cover, under that cover is where the key goes. You put the key in there, turn the lock, and remove the key. Put it in your pocket for safe keeping, as it does not stay in the lock when you’re moving.
Having turned the key, you can rotate the switch to choose from accessories, ignition, lights and ignition. Originally there would have been a cable-mounted choke just above the switch, but the S&S carb has done away with that and the associated warning light. You might have noticed the highway lights. They are controlled from a switch mounted on the rear of the headlight cowl. You can’t miss it. It’s the only switch in an acre of alloy.
On the right hand handlebar is a cluster of switches: an engine run/stop switch, a push button to activate the starter, and an indicator switch. On the left is a similar arrangement, but this time you have a dip/main beam switch, the horn, and an indicator switch. The indicators deserve a special mention. Earlier I commented that they were self-cancelling. Reading this you might feel that this was an exceptional level of sophistication for a bike of that period. Two buttons: push right for the right hand indication, push left for the left. And self-cancelling. Wow!
The truth is a little more prosaic: when you push an indicator button it makes the relevant bulbs flash, when you let go, they stop. Sound OK? Now let’s try a right hand turn on a busy A-road. You approach the junction at speed, you have compromised your right hand by placing your thumb on the indicator button. You have to lift your right foot off the footboard to operate the rear brake, which doesn’t help your balance.
At some point necessity requires you to either pull the front brake lever, or use the throttle, at which point you have to let go of the indicator button. Or become double jointed. Or accept that the passing traffic has no idea what you are trying to achieve in the middle of the road. The system is probably best regarded as an electric version of the traditional arm signals. It’s lucky that the Japanese didn’t have a simple system which meant that you could indicate and perform left and right turns safely.
The steering lock: another unusual feature for a bike of this period. If you looked at Japanese bikes, they would have an ignition key that would also operate a steering lock. Some bikes would have a plunger type lock fitted to the headstock which would be operated
by a separate key. The Harley has a lug on the headstock, and a corresponding lug on the bottom yoke. Supply your own padlock, please.
After the first wobble round the block I took a serious look at the tyres. Lots of tread, pretty whitewall design, made by Shinko. Who? This is what I found on the internet: ‘ Established in 1946, the Shinko Group began as a manufacturer of bicycle tires and tubes in Osaka, Japan that today has become a burgeoning manufacture of rubber products. In 1998 the Shinko Group purchased the motorcycle tire technology and molds from Yokohama Rubber Co, and began production of these products under the Shinko Tire brand.’
The wheels on the older Harleys are 16” and have been for a very long time. You might imagine that there is a big choice of rubber. There isn’t. And some of it might not be what you expect. Some brands have produced a nice modern tyre, with lots of modern tech. However, modern tyres are lighter weight than the traditional tyres. The weight is usually saved by making thinner sidewalls, which in turn makes for a squirmy ride. So you can have a Harley-Davidson badged tyre, which I believe is made by Dunlop and has similar construction to tyres from the 1970s, or Bridgestone have just introduced a tyre for heavy cruising motorcycles with lots of modern tech … and stiff sidewalls. Me, I chose the Bridgestones.
How does the Harley ride with its new boots? It’s long, heavy, sedate, comfortable, crude, and thoroughly engaging. When you set off it woffles away from a standstill. The engine pulls like ten men. You can quickly shift into third gear and stay there until you find a big open road when you can select fourth, which functions as an overdrive.
The seat is comfortable and unlike the modern Harley fashion, you sit quite high up. This suits me as the tradition cruiser habit of placing the seat as low as possible tends to make my back ache. The seat, combined with the wide bars, gives an unusual riding position; I can best explain it by getting you to sit on a dining chair, back straight. Now, splay your legs, as you would on a bike, your hands will be about three inches up, and three inches out from your knees. Unusual, but not uncomfortable.
Even with the wide bars, or maybe because of the wide bars, the steering is ponderous, but the bike handles quite well. Throwing it from tyre edge to tyre edge is not what this bike is about, but it does go where you point it and, as you might expect, it is very stable. The footboards take very little time to get used to. Some people say they’re more comfortable than footrests, personally I’m not bothered either way. The gear shift remains slow and stately but easy to use. The rear brake is an acquired taste, but effective.
On the open road the Glide really is a feelgood motorcycle; you don’t feel challenged by other traffic, you just sit back and smile as you enjoy the vibe. Speaking of which; vibrations are, for the most part, acceptable – part of the charm even. The gearing encourages you to be in a relatively high gear quite quickly and the engine supports this
by having lots of torque just off tickover. Revving the engine produces lots of noise and fuss but isn’t nice. At the top end of the rev range the vibrations are unpleasant and intrusive. Kick back and chill – it really is the way to ride this beast.
In towns and on tight and twisty roads the Glide can cope. You might be expecting a ‘but’ here, and there is one. It can cope but it is damned hard work. Although the dry clutch and belt drive conversion are supposed to lighten the clutch action, it is still heavy. The engine isn’t hugely flexible, which means you need a lot of gear changes. The bike is heavy to ride, and you never forget about the bulk, so manhandling it around tight bends isn’t enormous fun. In town the indicators are unhelpful.
Much comment has been made about the ground clearance. It is certainly true that scraping a footboard is relatively easy, but it isn’t a requirement. You can easily, comfortably and swiftly ride the Electra Glide without gouging lumps out of the road surface. Should you forget yourself, there is plenty of warning before anything solid decks out. I suppose that if the Harley were my only bike I would ride it in towns, along the twisties and everywhere, but as it isn’t, almost every other bike I’ve ridden reminds me how much harder it is to ride the Harley in town than other bikes.
The Harley is big, crude and grin inducing. It is very much a feel good bike. Thrumming along with the beat of the big V-twin punctuating your thoughts on a sunny day is a very nice place to be. Yup, it can stay. I like it.
Heel’n’toe shifts work perfectly with footboards. Tap down with your toe to change down (and to engage first); press down with your heel to change up. It’s a slow shift, no need to rush
The front end is as subtly sophisticated as the rest of the motorcycle, but it works in its own way. As does the oddly huge brake caliper
Left: There are two fuel tanks, so there are two fillers. Of course there are
Familiar items appear in unfamiliar places. The ignition and accessories switch lies behind the tank-top speedo. As do the idiot lights. And the switch is independently lockable, a tradition which survives onto today’s touring machines