Low Rider. Catchy name. Some readers might remember the chopped and channeled craze in automobile styling back in the ’50s and ’60s. Willie G. took that to heart when he developed the very first Low Rider, the FXS, back in 1977. It was all about the look, as if one of Harley’s own Super Glides had been worked over by a good chopper stylist—which, in effect, it had. And 10 years later the greatly improved second version, the FXLR, came along.
To better understand the second incarnation of this model, we should take a brief look at the original. The intent was to build something that the Japanese had not, a torquey V-twin with American styling. Or, as the Harley ads said, “One mean machine”—in any color you wanted as long as it was gunmetal gray. The FXS Low Rider’s 27-inch seat height put the rider’s nose at about the same level as an 18-wheeler’s license plate. And thank the Lord and President Nixon for that 55 mph national speed limit, otherwise the rigid-mounted 74-inch V-twin would make your chiropractor a wealthy person. The speedometer actually had the gall to go to 150 mph, though the bike was hard-pressed to reach 100, at which point the rider’s fillings would start to fall out. Cornering ability? At 20 degrees of lean it was scraping on both sides.
The Low Rider had little to do with function; it was all about image. Manly men—this being long before Harley thought of catering to women riders—understood that the primary purpose of riding a motorcycle was to roll down Main Street on Saturday evening, preferably with a pack of Camels rolled up in the T-shirt sleeve. The Low Rider soon became the best-selling Big Twin in the Harley line, and the name was used all the way to 2009. And now it’s back again for 2014 (read review).
Move forward a decade to 1987 and the FXS became the FXLR Low Rider Custom. Same styling, with new engineering creating a radically different ride. The old 74-incher had given way to the Evolution engine in 1984. While the Evo’s rear-wheel torque was an impressive 68 lb-ft at 2,500 rpm, horsepower barely broke 50 at the 5,200-rpm redline. But on Main Street, who cared about pony power; what you wanted to do was twist the throttle at low rpm and feel the bike leap forward.
A big change was in the chassis, with the engine now being rubber-mounted in the full-cradle frame, giving it a much more comfortable ride. Good thing, too, as the national speed limit was upped to 65 mph that year, which the Low Rider achieved at a modest 3,000 rpm in top gear. Comfort was a relative word, meaning it depended on the smoothness of the road. The lowness of the Low Rider was helped by short shocks, which promised at least three inches of travel—not much when it comes to rough pavement.
An “aramid-fiber-composition” toothed belt now ran the power from the 5-speed gearbox to the rear axle, and Harley put a lot of advertising into the worthiness of this final drive—not the least being that it could “go up to 8,000 miles before it needs adjustment.” A cast, 16-inch wheel with a disc brake and a 3.00 tire put the ponies to the pavement.
The skinny front end was a different story, with 39mm tubes offering almost seven inches of travel. Rake was a mildly cruiserish 29 degrees, with trail a shade over four inches. At the top was a new aluminum triple clamp that was slightly wider, at the bottom a 21-inch, wire-spoked front wheel with a single disc. You needed a manly grip on those handlebars to get that tall front wheel to turn, which helped show off those T-shirted biceps. Put a leg over the saddle, settle into the 27-inch seat, grab the handlebars and hoist the 600 pounds upright.
Don’t like the angle of the bars? Too bad, as there was no adjustment. For some peculiar reason (styling?) these were actually two separate bars, each one fitting into a rubber-lined mount on the triple tree, but held together by two crosspieces welded on…with a speedometer fitted to the upper one. You couldn’t just spin them around like you could a regular one-piece handlebar, nor could you quickly replace the originals with a new bar.
Turn the key, push the button and the big 19-amp/hour battery rolled the crankshaft around, fired, caught and a pleasant noise came out of the dual exhausts. Pull in the clutch, step on the gearshifter, clutch out, feet up and you’re away—quite aware of your splayed-leg seated position, as the wide motor put the footpegs almost two feet apart. The skinny passenger pad meant you were probably riding solo.
Good sales kept the FXLR on the market through 1994, with few changes—like adding a tach alongside the speedo. Then the Low Rider morphed into the Dyna version, the FXDL, and was on the model list for 15 more years.
Note: This owner mounted an H-D backrest, luggage rack and windshield, and installed a Python exhaust. Saddlebags are of unknown origin.
(This Retrospective article was published in the June 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)