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.

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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.

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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.

35 COMMENTS

  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.

    • It’s a lousy shame insurance didn’t give you replacement value.
      Always ask the agent up front what you have you listed at. Some companies will give you full cost replacement for only about 5% greater cost.

  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.

    • Erik Buell was an engineer brought on to improve FXR platform that was not handling very well. He did not design but made revisions that made the FXR handle as well as it does. FXR was computer aided design and not CAD design. Dyna was first CAD.

  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.

  11. I just got my 1988 FXR Special 85 anniversary model number 424 of 850 and it was in storage since 2001 inside in climate controlled storage, I drained the oil, put in synthetic 20/50 and a wix oil filter replaced the plugs with XS65DP and it started on the first try, runs perfect, going for a ride now, most beautiful hike on earth, (at least to me) I will never sell this GEM.

  12. Bill Root June 19, 2019
    Bought my ’83 FXRT shovel in ’95 from a guy who retired from HD and moved to FL. Every time I thought about trading up to an EVO, realized that my Shovel had never, ever gave me the slightest problem, sounded beautiful, comfortable on long trips along the Blue Ridge, climbed serious hills with all the power one need. This bike still starts on the first bump. l too would like to know how many FXRT shovels were made. Now at 77, my wife is pushing me to sell it.

    • Hey Bill. I am a 73 yr old geezer in Florida. If you decide to sell the shovel fxrt, I would be interested. I would cherish her and treat her like you would want. thanks. Wade Steffen 904-994-4331 or 904-260-4587 in jacksonville. My last bike was a 1982 honda cb900 custom. Always wanted an fxrt, but could never afford one.

  13. I had an ’83 FXRT with the shovel-head AND the rubber enclosed oil bath for the chain. The bike rode and handled great, but that rubber enclosed chain leaked oil something awful. Over the years, I have had 9 Harleys (before and after the FXRT), but that was the only one that leaked. The next model year, the FXRT came with the EVO engine… I rode one, it was even better than the original.

  14. A friend at work had an FXRT. I was intrigued by the fairing since I had never heard of a frame mounted version. I saw it as a good idea and evidently so did someone in the company because it came back on the Road Glide.

  15. Having owned both a 1983 Shovel and 1984 Evo FXRT, I can shed a little light on the front brakes: the 1983 Shovel model had dual discs which were not particularly good. My ’83 Sportster XLX had the same dual disc setup, and it was also pretty bad. The 1984 bikes (both FXRT and Sportster) got a bigger single disc with a lot more stopping power than the earlier dual-disc setup. How much more? The guy who bought the bike from me installed a sidecar and took the bike cross country, three-up, and reported no problems with the brakes.

    Both of my FXRTs went about 50K miles for me, and many many more afterward. I heard just a few months ago about the Shovel; it’s still on the road. Last I heard about the ’84 was several years back, but it was well over 100K by then.

    Mike Bender: the FXRT is not the ancestor of the Road Glide; the RG is the descendant of the FLT Tour Glide which made its debut in 1980. The “Road Glide” name appeared sometime in the mid-90s, when the fairing was restyled to be a bit more cruiserish looking. I had a Tour Glide; great bike if you didn’t mind the feeling of sitting behind a desk. The FXRT felt more like sitting in the cockpit of a high-performance jet fighter… and it cut through crosswinds much, much better than either the Tour Glide or the Road Glide.

  16. My 84 rubber mounted evo fxrs had a dual disc set up and I thought it worked just fine also had the enclosed chain never a problem the whole bike was a g
    reat ride it was my 3rd harley I am on my 12th one now just got off a twin cam and went back to a shovel that is were I will stay

  17. BTW … best bike I ever rode.
    Wiseco 10:1’s and and an Andrews towing cam … she pulled like nobody’s business, and 2nd gear was the BOMB !!!

    On an Ultra Limited now, getting ready to change the suspension and rake a little closer the the FXRT so I can regain (some) of that phenomenal handling (realistic, but better) to get more sport, to go with the touring.

    I’m hauling around 500+ lbs. these days two up, so the M8 engine is definitely nice over the old 80 cubes. But, the FXRT is definitely legendary for Sport Touring.

  18. I had a 1984 FXRT … Belt Drive and Dual Brake Rotors up front. Some of the late year models had already been setup like the 1985 models. I don’t know the build date when they started doing that, but mine was a late year build. So, to that point … some 1984 models had chain and single rotor, others had belt and dual rotor.

    BTW … best bike I ever rode.
    Wiseco 10:1’s and and an Andrews towing cam … she pulled like nobody’s business, and 2nd gear was the BOMB !!!

    On an Ultra Limited now, getting ready to change the suspension and trail a little closer the the FXRT so I can regain (some) of that phenomenal handling (realistically won’t compare, but in the direction of better) to get more sport, to go with the touring.

    I’m hauling around 500+ lbs. these days two up, so the M8 engine is definitely nice over the old 80 cubes. But, the FXRT is definitely legendary for Sport Touring.

    • I have a 1986 FXRS since 1992 ridden all over the country and did some upgrades such as Hotshot ported heads, 42mm Mukuni carburetor, crane single fire ignition, crane cam, Thunderhead 2into1 exhaust. Runs great very responsive, fun to ride. I look at the new bikes but feel comfortable with what I have. I will ride this bike until I can no longer ride.

  19. What an amazing read this article and chain! I rode my 1989 FXRT (miss that Candybrandywine and Crimson mix) until selling it in 1992 when moving to LA. The 92 LA riots in May caused me (regretably) to sell my baby. A swede making his annual trip to buy Harley’s for cash, fill the container and sell them in Sweden, found me and paid me more than I’d put into the bike. I’m back in the market for HD and am trying to get as near to that amazing machine. That frame mounted faring is everything to me so Road Glide here I come.

  20. I love my ’86 Heritage Softail, still have it and it has 690,000 miles on it ( 2nd frame and 2nd motor).
    The frame change was due to some idiot making a left turn from the right lane, and I’m pulling a 2-man pop up camper, so naturally I couldn’t stop, but almost did slow down enough that I would slow down enough to allow him to pass, but my rear brake locked up and started to skid and squeal, and that caused the old gieser to stop right in front of me, and you guessed it, I planted the front wheel into his quarter panel, which caused the front forks to bend and the tire /wheel in the frame and engine.
    The trailer just kept on driving the bike forward and caused the rear part of the frame to bend downward bringing the rear fender onto the rear tire.
    When I got off the bike didn’t go over it just stayed there right side up.
    After the F.D. showed up and a cop handed me the ticket, I flipped out and cursed him out for giving me a ticket for being on the wrong side of the road. I pointed out the skid marks that show otherwise. He didn’t care. Never paid that ticket.
    Now I asked for and the fire department assisted using the Jaws of Life to straighten out the frame and front forks just enough that I was able to continue the ride on the Ramapo 500.
    I received the clubs mystery trophy too..
    But had to get a new frame anyway.
    The motor or about 400, 000 miles (with ( 4 rebuilds to it). And the remaining 290,000 on the 2nd motor with no rebuilds-a factory reman program H-D had back in 2000,) so I took advantage of that.

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