Saturday, February 11, 2017

Harley Davidson number three: 1981 FLHS, kind of a disappointment.

I had wanted a Big Twin for a very long time. Even though I had bought a new Sportster Cafe Racer at one time, and could have afforded a Big Twin at the time. I still thought that a Sportster was a better fit for my type of riding.

The thing was that Sportsters just didn't get the respect that Big Twins did. "Half a Harley" was a common derisive comment.

There are some some real differences between the two disregarding the higher price of the FLH. Physically the FLH is larger, with a longer wheel base. The rider seating position is lower with the legs extended forward.  Their is more space for a passenger, and there is the option of footboards instead of pegs for the rider. Since the FLH was designed as a touring bike it is better suited to long range riding. It already comes with a larger fuel tank, bigger and wider seat, better fenders, and an option of using the factory windshield, bags, tour pack and other equipment. All of this equipment was designed specifically for the bike and fits well, looks good and is nice and sturdy.

A completely outfitted Big Twin is refereed to as a "full dresser" as in all accessories included. During the 60's and the 70's, the hey day of the homebuilt chopper, these bikes were derided as "garbage wagons", ridden by "AMA" types (American Motorcycle Association members, otherwise known as straights). These were relegated the rear of the column on a chopper run. Riding an old dresser meant that you just bought the bike and hadn't gotten around to stripping it down yet. There were always a few guys that actually liked riding on a dresser, even then.

This bike was over twenty years old by the early 1950s as this design preceded the knucklehead. I believe that this is a twin cam with grafted knuckle top end. These twin cams were considered to be superior performers. These old tuners were very ingenious.

Back after the War, guys were stripping down their bikes, mostly to make them lighter and faster. These were known as "Bob Jobs." The bike pictured above is actually a two wheeled hot rod. These old pre war bikes were cheap and they could be tuned to out run a brand new bike. Styling wasn't the main idea behind the modifications, performance was.

Initially, the front end might be exchanged for an XA model springer, this was a two inch longer front fork which had been used on a War era shaft driven opposed twin HD that had been designed for desert combat use. This would raise the boards up a bit, allowing the rider to lean the bike over a little more to take the corners faster. The 21'' front wheel was lighter and it also added a bit of lift also. This was all done before the era of the extended front end began in the 60's. 

When the British twins arrived in the Fifties, Harley realized that they needed a competitive bike and the Sportster was born. Still, new bikes are expensive and there were still plenty of older bikes around to modify. As the chopper craze developed styles were mixed and the classic fat bob chopper combined performance with styling.

A very nice Panhead Fatbob. Style is a major component.

Of course Harley Davidson was not blind to what was happening and realized that there was a market for ready made bobbers. This was the result.

1970 FX Kick start only. Sportster drum brake up front

The original Superglide FX led to a long series of "precustomized" bikes which was a gold mine for Harley Davidson. The key feature was the smaller 3.5 gallon "fat tank" with the speedo mounted in between the tank halves. This was used for a few years then HD decided to go with a modified Sprint tank with the speedo moved up to the bars. Later HD decided to cover all bases with two versions of the FX.

By this time these bikes had electric starters and dual disc brakes up front.

Harley Davidson had a way of making a few small changes to a model then declaring it was "all new." 

The introduction of the HD Lowrider, copyrighted name, showed HD the direction that their riding market was going. Instead of customizing and personalizing a bike yourself, you could buy a trick bike direct from the dealer, with a full factory warranty. This was HD's first bike to feature an extended front end, three inches. Just like an XA springer! This trend eventually led to shops that offered full custom choppers. A trend immortalized by the sit com, "American Chopper."

Now old HD knew that hey had to draw the line somewhere and it was well before they offered bikes like these. Though I would take Billy's Panhead in a second, now that, was a classic chopper.

photo from the movie, if you have to ask which movie, you are an incredible lightweight!

Harley did decide to roll out a pretty convincing Fatbob of their own, the Wide Glide. The name coming from the wide FLH style forks that cradled the classic narrow 21 inch. wheel. The bike also featured the five gallon "fat" FLH tank. It was a well designed machine, except for one little problem. Old Timey 'Bobs hung some folding footpegs from the footboard mounts just ahead of the brake and shifter pedals. Look at the peg set up on the two Easyrider bikes above. The rider had to raise his foot off the peg and move it quite a distance to activate the controls. I guess this wouldn't fly with the DOT for a production bike so Harley came up with a forward footpeg control set up used with the Wide Glide, and later adapted to the Electra Glide Sport. They were about six inches higher and a couple of inches closer  than the classic set up. It always felt awkward and uncomfortable to me. I also thought that it made the rider's posture look kind of goofy. I would have been happy to switch to the FLH footboard set up. However this was before there was a lot of repop parts available. I priced it out using OEM stuff  and it was over 600 bucks, too much for me at the time.

The early bikes were 80 inch Shovelheads
The 80 inch (1,340cc.) motor was a torquer, and it did have great roll on acceleration in fourth gear. Unfortunately it was also a shaker. The factory had set the balance to work with the 55 mph. speed limit. From 50 to 60 mph. it was smoother than my 1,000cc. Sportster. At sustained speeds from 65-75 mph. it had incredible vibration that blurred the speedo and mirrors and worse, caused my butt to itch like crazy! Riding it for a long period at 70 mph, was worse than uncomfortable, it was painful. My Sporty was much smoother at an indicated 70 mph. I only took a couple of longer trips on the FLHS, which was a poor comparison to the years of touring on my old Sporty.

So I finally got the Big Twin I wanted for so long. It really wasn't that well suited to my riding style. Cornering clearance was lacking and it was easy to ground the primary case on hard bumpy turns. The first time I did that it was quite a surprise and I almost lost it. I resented having to restrain my enthusiasm while riding my FLHS. A couple of years later I ended up selling the bike to scrape together enough money to make a down payment on a house. But I kept my Sportster.

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