In 1981, a dozen Harley execs bought the company back from American Machine and Foundry (AMF), an oddly variegated company that built both bowling alleys and nuclear power plants, and life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and York, Pennsylvania (the location of its big factory), changed drastically. The company needed new product, and good product. The Shovelhead years of the late ’60s and ’70s, with aging product and discontented workers, had done considerable damage to the reputation of the marque. That was about to be repaired.
The Big Twin was always the star, and for a long time it was seen only in the lumbering FL models. Then along came Willie G. Davidson’s cruiser, the Super Glide, and it got the initials FX, followed by the Low Rider, Fat Bob, Wide Glide, etc. These were somewhat sportier-looking machines than the Electra Glide, and attracted new riders, though the vibration from that rigid-mounted engine remained.
Then, in the waning days of AMF, a more up-to-date frame appeared, the Tri-Mount, and the Shovelhead motor got rubber-mounted into a new double-cradle frame design, with the bad vibes disappearing. It should be noted that an engineer named Erik Buell had a major hand in this. This was dubbed the FXR, and the first Super Glide II version was advertised as separating the men from the boys.
This led to the FXRT, a sport-touring bike with frame-mounted two-thirds fairing and hard bags. It needed reasonably sophisticated suspension, capable of a pretty good lean through the corners. The steering geometry gave the fork 31 degrees of rake, and almost 5 inches of trail. And since sporting riders liked to tune their own suspension, it had air adjustability. The fork tubes (Showa—Harley was going global) were a hefty 35mm in diameter, and provided 6.5 inches of travel. Plus it had a newfangled anti-dive system added in, which was only mildly complicated. When the air filled the fork, it also filled a small reservoir that was activated when the front brake was used, adding more air to the fork to prevent bottoming. Like so many anti-dive systems that were developed in the ’80s, it was never very popular.
Rear shocks also had air-adjustability, using a single fitting that was located under the flip-up seat. The Sport Glide had Australian-made cast wheels, 19-inch front, 16 rear, and cornering clearance was respectable. A rider could be mildly aggressive on a winding road, startling a few lazy boys and girls on their go-fasters.
At first the front brakes comprised a pair of 10-inch dual discs, but within a year had become a single 11.5-inch disc with a single-piston caliper. Rear was also a disc. A firm pull on the lever was required, a standard Harley feature. As the old joke went, the company did not want overly sensitive brakes potentially locking up the front wheel and tossing the rider over the handlebar.
The Shovelhead had been around for many years, along with the 5-speed transmission, and on this model final drive was by a fully enclosed chain that worked quite well. Back in the spring of ’83, Harley offered this writer an early FXRT to ride from California to York and give an evaluation. It got high points, except for the oversized air cleaner—which was changed. The fairing did send a lot of air to my legs, which was fine because I was wearing chaps, but I asked a fellow at York about its design. He laughed, saying that the original fairing was intended for the abandoned V-4 Nova project, which had a liquid-cooled engine and the fairing ducting was intended to keep the radiator happy.
While all this was going on, Harley was preparing the new Evolution motor—looking very much like the Shovelhead, but suitably upgraded, with cylinders and heads made of aluminum. This metal is a much more efficient thermal conductor—i.e. it’s good at getting rid of heat. Also a weight-saver, as it is lighter than cast iron. The Evo was a single-cam engine like its predecessors, going back to the original Knucklehead, with valves actuated by a four-lobe camshaft. The new flat-topped pistons were made in Germany. A 38mm Keihin butterfly carb fed the gas into the combustion chambers, running a serious 8.5:1 compression ratio.
Evo power, about 55 horses, was only a little better than the Shovel’s. However, the maximum torque, nigh on 70 lb-ft of grunt, came on at a lovely, low 3,500 rpm, great for the touring rider. And useful down to about 1,800 rpm. Not to forget, this new engine was better machined and more oil tight. Also, this was the age of the 55 mph federal speed limit, a secret blessing to the Harley factory as 55 mph in fifth was a comfy 2,500 rpm.
Nobody seems to know how many Shovel-powered Sport Glides were sold, but in 1984 the Evo was used, again with fully enclosed rear chain. And a few months later the final drive was changed to belt—which was lighter and more attractive than the full chain-guard. Belted Harleys, modern ones that is, had been around since the 1980 Sturgis model, with both primary and final belts. The primary notion was quickly dropped due to heat-induced failure. But the belt for final drive was becoming more and more acceptable.
The Sport Glide, while rather un-Harley, did sell reasonably well and was kept in the lineup for 10 years. However, when the demand for Harleys exploded in the early ’90s, and sales of the FXRT were lagging, it was dropped in favor of using the assembly line for more popular models.