Harley-Davidson The Evolution During The 1980's | Baggers

Harley-Davidson The Evolution During The 1980's

To say that the 1980s were a tumultuous time for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company is an understatement on par with describing Arlen Ness as "mildly talented." This was, after all, the decade when the firm underwent massive corporate restructuring when, in 1984, a team of Harley-Davidson executives purchased the company back from American Machine Foundry, a bowling equipment manufacturer located in Milwaukee. Motorcycles produced during the AMF years included some of Harley-Davidson's most beloved designs, including the sleek FXE Low Rider and the sporty FXRS. However, reliability problems plagued the Motor Company during this business partnership, and as a result, sales dwindled for a time. But even though many Harley-Davidson motorcycles produced during the early 1980s have seen their share of time on a mechanic's bench, many of the shovelhead models are still on the road today, bearing testament to the old adage, "There's no limit to how many times you can rebuild a good Harley motor."

When looking for a quality 1980s Harley-Davidson shovelhead, record of a full engine rebuild is absolutely essential, says Kim Krummel, chief instructor for the Harley-Davidson technician's training program at the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Florida. Krummel's students are taught the intricacies of every Harley-Davidson powerplant from the knucklehead of the 1930s to today's Twin Cam models; the shovelhead presents special challenges all its own due to the rapid pace of change happening when the engines were last produced.

"We have a lot of shovelheads in our classrooms, and while the early V2 Evolution engines that were produced starting in 1985 model-year were very good motorcycles, the shovelheads from the early 1980s had a lot of problems with their top ends," Krummel said. One of the main problems had to do with the valves being manufactured with what proved to be the wrong material. As a result, the valve guides often failed due to a nationwide switch from leaded gasoline to unleaded fuels with chemical additives. Krummel worked as a service manager during the late 1980s and said the unleaded fuel caused many shovelhead valvetrains to suffer from severe overheating, with some valves sticking causing top end failure.

"Just about any 1980s shovelhead Harley-Davidson we uncrated back then ended receiving a complete valve job that included bronze valve guides, Manley stainless steel valves, and we had to open up the top end clearances a bit because the factory clearances were excessive. The factory techs claimed the bike should lose about one quart of oil every 500 miles, which was pretty excessive. It was going through so much oil because oil getting past the valve stems into the cylinders and that caused stems and guides to seize," Krummel said. A stock shovelhead without the necessary top end upgrades would only last somewhere between 500 and 5,000 miles, which means just about every shovel still on the road will have been rebuilt by now. Nevertheless, it pays to ask a seller for a complete service history with receipts and possibly a phone number for their mechanic.

Krummel said smoky exhausts are a sure sign that the top end work has either not been done or the motor is in need of a new set of piston rings and a cylinder re-bore, which can be costly as well. And though Harley-Davidson began outfitting its Big Twins with electronic ignition units as early as 1979, many of these early factory ignitions failed, and their owners replaced them with ancient points and condenser units. Krummel suggests asking sellers what sort of ignition their bike uses and replacing any existing points set-ups with a more powerful computer-controlled ignition module.That said, many shovelhead owners adore their machines, favoring the tight power-band, plentiful torque, and the simple four-speed transmission.

The shovelhead's 19-year reign came to a halt when Harley-Davidson rocked the world by introducing the V2 Evolution engine in its 1985 Big Twin models. The new machine gained instant critical acclaim for being lighter than its predecessor, its oil tight cases, a smooth-shifting five-speed transmission, and a top end that, if cared for with frequent oil changes, could easily last 80,000 miles or more between rebuilds. "It really wasn't until the Evolution bikes came along that Harley-Davidson was considered to be a company that had gotten their act together. These bikes sold really well from the start," Krummel recalls. Due to the Evolution engine's all-aluminum construction, there were a few problems early on with finding the right bottom end gaskets. The rapid expansion and contraction of an aluminum engine caused many cylinder base gaskets to squish, and leaks are not unheard of, he says. As testament to the early Evolution's strength, Krummel's 1986 FXRS is still ridden daily, with 100,000 miles showing on the clock. "These bikes are a lot of fun to ride, and if you buy one, it will work better the more you ride it," he said.

FXR Series
Labeled the Super Glide II when introduced in 1982, the FXRS was intended to be a stopgap machine for Harley enthusiasts who wanted a machine capable of gobbling up serious touring miles without the added weight and wide profile of an Electra Glide. Instantly popular for its stability and excellent handling, the FXRS was a massive step forward for Harley-Davidson due to its beefy, triangular frame construction that was five times stiffer in torsion than the previous FX chassis. Armed with an 80 cubic inch motor in either shovelhead or Evo form, the FXRS was quick, turning a quarter mile in 14.2 seconds. It was also a giant leap in rider comfort, with a rubber engine-mounting system that cancelled much of the V-Twin's inherent vibration. Best of all was that the FXRS returned a commuter-friendly 50 miles to the gallon. A more streamlined design meant the oil tank was located beneath the flip-up seat in the style of a Japanese bike, while twin disc brakes stopped the machine better than any Harley before it. Like the current V-Rod line, Harley-Davidson traditionalists didn't instantly warm to the FXR series, figuring it too futuristic for their tastes. However, the machines have become cherished classics today, with many favoring them to their modern cousins, the Dyna Super Glide models. FXRD models with mini-fairings and color-matched saddlebags are also popular used models, but the touring FXR models have typically higher mileage.

FXWG Wide Glide
Known for being the world's first true factory chopper when introduced back in 1980, the original FXWG hit showroom floors with flame paint and a modestly extended frontend. The bike struck many magazine reviewers as looking like something Peter Fonda might have ridden in one of his chopper flicks. The FXWG did owe a great deal of its creative debt to the chopper culture of the 1960s and '70s, right down to its broad, five-gallon Fat Bob gas tanks and chromed Wide Glide frontend, a unit that customizers actually created by stripping the beefy fork shrouds from Harley-Davidson's FLH forks. Customers loved this machine as it offered all the street cred of riding a chopper without any of the sore backs and unsteady handling of a home-brewed bike. Some shovelhead models of this popular machine can suffer from starter lock-up, where the solenoid welds itself to the contact plate, causing the starter motor to spin incessantly. MMI's Kim Krummel says replacement starters are a no-brainer on early FXWG models, along with the aforementioned electronic ignition upgrades. The kick-start delays can also fail, but this is a less common problem. In 1985, the first Softail Wide Glide appeared, offering a lower seat height and hardtail looks. As all FXWG bikes arrived from the factory with a 21-inch spoke front wheel and forward controls, the FXWG was considered such a handsome motorcycle that many remain in factory trim today. This has kept their used value higher than many other 1980 to 1990 Harleys. A good buy if you can find one. Krummel warns that an accessory CB radio can shut off ignitions and the delay on kick-start delay needed the engine to be cranked several times and if you didn't kick it a second time within 2 seconds, it wouldn't fire.

FXS Low Rider
Introduced back in 1977, the Harley-Davidson Low Rider was a factory custom in the tradition of the boat-tailed 1973 Super Glide. It was the Super Glide that spawned the pavement-scraping FXS Low Rider, which shared a chassis, forks, gas tanks, and engine with the Super Glide. The Low Rider's enduring popularity, however, had to do with several important custom details that Willie G. Davidson and crew had bestowed upon the new bike. The rear suspension and front fork tubes had been shortened a couple of inches to reduce the seat height from 29-inches to just under 27-inches while a pair of flat, drag-style handlebars provided riders with an unusual, stretched-forward riding position. Factory-installed highway pegs were standard equipment even though some safety organizations feared they placed a rider's feet too far from the brake and gear selector should an emergency arise. Nevertheless, the Low Rider became Harley's best-selling Big Twin until the Softail line arrived in the mid-1980s. Despite its low profile, the Low Rider was never intended to be one of Harley's quickest machines, galloping through the quarter mile in 15 seconds and offering a laid-back top speed of 98 MPH. But performance isn't why anyone buys a motorcycle with lowered suspension and drag bars, and the Low Rider remains an attractive, tough-looking bike to this day. Early models can suffer all of the previously discussed problems inherent in shovelhead Harley-Davidsons, while Evolution models are more reliable but lack the raw, visceral appeal of the shovels. Rare and very desirable is the all-black FXSB Sturgis model first introduced in 1980 to commemorate the annual Black Hills Classic rally in South Dakota. In essence the popular Sturgis was a Low Rider with twin drive belts and stealth graphics, but it's one of the rarest Low Riders and demands a far higher price than its chain-driven cousins.

FXST Softail
The Softail suspension system created by Harley-Davidson's engineers in the early 1980s has been credited with introducing a whole new breed of customer to the black and orange fold. With the clean looks of a hardtail but none of the problems associated with riding a motorcycle that used the rider's vertebrae for compression devices, the Softail made looking cool rather easy. As a result, Softails are among the most plentiful used Harleys and can be picked up for less than many other Big Twins. The twin shocks offered nearly as much suspension travel as traditional side-mounted dampers, but by mounting them beneath the engine cases they were virtually invisible to onlookers, which became a major selling point for this particular model. First for sale as a version of the FXWG, the Softail line was gradually expanded during the late 1980s to include several other models including the popular Fat Boy and the Heritage Softail aimed at pulling light touring duty. All Softails roll on the vaunted Evolution engine and offer five-speed transmissions, both of which are known for their long-term reliability. Models running open drag pipes may have suffered some top end damage due to engines that run too lean due to improper tuning, so ask for a service history whenever possible. Many owners have installed aftermarket lowering kits that drop the Softail's already limited suspension travel even further; make sure this is what you want before buying, as dropped suspension can cause transmissions to scrape pavement (very expensive to fix) and they can be murder on highway expansion joints and rough roads. This model is as timelessly cool as a broken-in black leather jacket.

FLT Tour Glide
New for the 1980 model year, this granddaddy of the full dressers has carved itself a dedicated following among Harley-Davidson touring enthusiasts. Until the launch of the Tour Glide, every Electra Glide since the 1963 inaugural year had worn basically the same clothes; the FLT was considered revolutionary for its side-by-side twin headlights in a redesigned frame-mounted fairing. Inside that fiberglass wind-eliminator was a bevy of new electronic instruments all aimed at allowing the long-distance rider to stay in the saddle for hours on end. Primary among these add-ons was a CB radio that allowed riders to keep in contact with long-haul truckers along the way. These units could sometimes cause the ignition system to shut off on early models, causing some sudden and very interesting stalls in the passing lane on the highway. The 80ci motor was geared for the long haul as well, cruising effortlessly at 80 mph at an unstressed 5,000 RPM. The bike was smoother than any Harley-Davidson touring model that had come before it, thanks to a newly designed frame and the final drivechain enclosed in a shroud that kept lubrication on the links and not the rear tire. Many customers were put off by the FLT's odd, square dash that hid a central filler cap beneath. In 1985, the FLT became the FLHT and received the Evolution engine and a five-speed transmission. The extra gear felt like an overdrive had been installed and upped the FLT's top speed from 98 to 105 MPH. Not as outright plush as current touring rigs, but timeless and capable in its own way.


More Stories