1983-1992 Harley FXRT Sport Glide: Retrospective

1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.
1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.

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.

1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.
1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.

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.

1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.
1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.

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.

1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.
1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.

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.

1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.
1985 Harley-Davidson FXRT Sport Glide. Owner: Gary Watkins, Orient, Ohio.

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.


  1. I really enjoyed the Retrospective on the Harley-Davidson FXRT in the Feb 2017 edition. The FXRT and it’s Police version (the FXRP) were absolutely the best bikes that Harley-Davidson ever built. My husband has a 1986 FXRT that he bought as a new leftover in 1989, and I have a 1990 FXRP that I bought new in 1990 and which now has 120,000 miles on it. I will never sell that motorcycle. There was one small mistake in the article, however. Clement said “within a year (the front brakes) had become a single 11.5″ disc.” Sorry, but the FXRT and FXRP ALWAYS had dual front discs. They were very anemic 10″ brakes in 1982 and 1983, but in 1984 were upgraded the TWO 11.5″ rotors with single-piston calipers that were quite adequate when fitted with some good pads like the EBC HH variety

  2. I’ve owned over twenty H-Ds over the years ranging from a ’42 WLA to an ’07 Sporty 1200, but my favorite was my ’90 FXRT, bought new, where it languished in the dusty “discount corner” of a showroom full of blinged-out “factory custom” Softails and garbage barges selling at a premium over MSRP.
    And I rode off on the sweetest bike in the place. On the cheap. Coincidentally, this is the only motorcycle I’ve ever owned that I’ve lost to theft. And the insurance didn’t even come near to the cost of replacement. But it was the most fun five months and 7000+ miles of riding my wife and I ever had.

  3. I have owned my 86 FXRD Grand Touring Edition for about 25 yrs, It is by far the best touring Harley I have ever ridden and I have had all the Ultras and Electra glides. It has over 100,000 miles and still runs and rides and handles great.

  4. I have to contradict you Stephanie, my 1984 fxrt has only one front disc, ’84 they had one 11.5 inch rotor , ’85 they went two 11.5 inch discs as well as belt drive,

  5. Oh one last thing, Eric Buel was NOT one of the designers, he was a test rider of the frame and did make suggestions but he wasn’t one of the design engineers. The frame itself was HD’s first CAD designed frame as well.

  6. A few years ago I inherited my uncle’s all-time favorite bike, his 1983 FXRT, along with my first bike, my 1988 Sportster that I crashed and he restored. So how rare is this Shovelhead powered FXRT?

  7. Great read. I own two dynas … 2000 FXDC AND 2000 FXDX. I also own a 1990 FXRS AND A 1991 100 % Orininal FXRT . Nothing comes close to the FXRT . It’s the best bike ever.

  8. I own a 1984 FXRDG …
    A one year run with around 843 produced, from my understanding. Mine has the first year Evo moter , chain drive , 5 speed …
    A nightmare at the parts house …
    I lOVE THIS BIKE !!!

  9. I have a 1982FXR that I have owned since April of 1992, over 22 years ago! I bought it from the original owner when it had just 12,000 miles on it! Since then I have bought 7 Ultra Classic Electra Glides, including 1 Limited Ultra Classic Electra Glide, 1 Heritage Softail & 3 Sportster 1200 customs! The 1982 FXR is actually the most fun to ride, because you can pull it down to 25MPH in 5th gear & just give it the throttle and it just pulls out smoothly! I can ride it across the Smokey Mt. without changing gears!

  10. I have a 1986 FXRS,belt drive , rubber mounted motor. 9400 miles.bought it with 1500 miles on it. Single disc break. I made a 2000 mile trip this month.great bike good ride.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here