Real Classic - - Contents -

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

Light­ness, Har­ley-style

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

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