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Harley-Davidson, The Sweet Years

At Last the Final Report: Evos Rule

By Scooter Tramp Scotty

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The author with his Evo home on wheels.
The author with his Evo home on wheels.

Old Harleys such as Pan and Knuckleheads are generally remembered very romantically as the “golden era” of Harley heritage. Hell, everybody wants a Panhead. But even more-so, people want the new, high-tech bikes with their big engines and extra-gear transmissions. These two classes are highly coveted while the “Sweet Years” of those bikes that were built in between sell for almost nothing and hold absolutely no place in Harley lore.

But they should.

In fact, if your desire is to ride a lot for very little money, then these years represent the absolute best motorcycles that Harley Davidson has produced to date! But to really understand why this is, it’s necessary to take a quick look at a little Harley history:

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, and with the possible exception of the BMW, all motorcycles were mechanically unsound. In order to get them to the next town and back it was necessary that one carry plenty of tools and know how to use them. Back then, and like it or not, this was simply what it took if one wanted to ride. Then, in what was known as “The Super-Biking ‘70s,” the Japanese started building little bikes that stayed running and didn’t leak oil. Well, understandably, not everyone wants to be a mechanic, and even those who do would like a break sometimes; so these little bikes began to sell like hotcakes. In fact, the Japanese kicked the shit out of everybody. Norton, Triumph, and BSA went out of business, Indian died years earlier by its own hand, and Harley-Davidson was going under too.

The Japs ruled the motorcycle market and it seemed that nothing could stop them.

By the late ‘70s Harley Davidson was in serious trouble, and by the early ‘80s they were desperately trying to make a comeback. The company initiated many innovative strategies:

In design was the “Nova Project” which would be built in both V4 and V6 cylinder configurations to compete with the Japanese designs. And although initial designing began, this engine was never produced due to significant retooling costs.

Next came the FXRT model which was designed to look Japanese and hopefully attract customers back from H-D’s oriental enemy (Today this bike is very coveted among those who know what it is for the unique handling capabilities it offers as Harley-Davidson’s only, to date, light weight touring motorcycle).

Then came the “Ride a Sportster for a year then trade it in for the full original purchase price to put against your new big Harley.” That was helpful.

H-D even got the president of the United States to put a tariff on motorcycles being imported into the U.S. by stating very truthfully that these imports would soon put the last remaining American Motorcycle Company out of business.

There were other strategies as well, but in any case one can easily see that the ailing Harley-Davidson motorcycle company was desperate to save its own ass.

Obviously they did survive.

But although these strategies may have helped, the main, if not only, reason for Harley’s rediscovered success was the introduction of the “Evolution Engine” in 1984. This power plant was so named because it was billed to have evolved to compete with the new era of motorcycles.

Early Evo advertisements professed that this engine would not break down, use oil, or overheat—all problems that incessantly plagued the older Harleys. Although the Evolution engine offered more power than its predecessors, seldom was this issue boasted about. Instead it was all about reliability. For Harley-Davidson was now desperately trying to build high quality and dependability into every aspect of their motorcycles.

This, my friend, is what saved Harley-Davidson’s ass.

I watched these events unfold with great skepticism. For I myself was not impressed with the great amounts of mechanical effort necessary to keep my old Harleys running. In fact, I was talking about buying a Gold Wing, because I wanted to ride more than the old bikes would permit. So, I watched very closely these new Evolution bikes my friends rode to see if they’d really hold up.

In those days most of the men who rode did so because they were avid riders, not because it was cool— and in a very few years I began to see these new bikes with upwards of 200,000 miles on them. On more than one weekend I found myself wrenching in the driveway while my buddies stood around waiting for my bike to run, so we could go on a Sunday ride. And when we finally did, my Evo riding pals always came home with clean hands. I on the other hand, invariably carried tools next to my little phone book, posting single stars next to the names of everyone who owned a pickup truck.

Time and again Harley’s new bikes proved themselves as a product truly superior to anything the company built before.

I decided to try one.

It was a used 1987 Softail with only 13,000 miles on the clock. This bike started all the time, every time, and I rode it comfortably and securely for 80,000 miles before its very first problem; which was only a bad charging system—cheap and easy to replace. It was unbelievable and truly miraculous. I could trip for months around the country with no problems except maybe a worn out tire (I started going through a lot of them), oil change, and the occasional new battery (no getting around that).

I fell in love with Harleys all over again.

Harley sales increased dramatically until, by the late 1980s, statistics showed that Harley-Davidson outsold all of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers combined for bikes over 800ccs; which is what they built. They won the battle. Japan was again beaten. For this celebrated occasion, H-D introduced a model called the “Fat Boy” in 1990. This was a Softail model that, for the first two years of its production, came in only one color scheme: gray with seven yellow rings painted at strategic intervals around the bike. The Fat Boy was named after the nukes we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—Fat Man and Little Boy; both were gunmetal gray with seven yellow stripes painted around them. And although Harley-Davidson denies this fact today, at that time they didn’t. I know. I was there.

The Fatboy.
The Fatboy.

But the real beauty of the older Harley-Davidsons, from 1936 to 1998, was their utterly unrivaled (especially by the Japanese) simplicity of design and ease of which a man, or boy such as myself, could change, rebuild, or do almost anything he wanted to the motorcycle using only a few very basic tools and a manual in the privacy of his own garage. Two valves per head instead of four; a pushrod system instead of overhead cams; one simple carburetor hanging straight off the side of the engine, no water cooling, and so on. These things may seem like a great mystery to those who’ve never tried to work on an older Harley, or have had that birthright revoked by the introduction of highly complex technology that, fortunately, works just as well as the old, but really it’s no mystery at all. When I first began taking these systems apart I’d look at them and think ‘That’s it? Hell, a monkey could understand that.’

Repairs and rebuilds were generally reasonably easy and quite often almost unbelievably inexpensive. For all motorcycles break down—every fucking one (if you don’t believe it try putting some real miles on one), and motorcycle breakdowns have been the bane of my existence since I started with dirt bikes at the age of 11. If you ride much, they’ll be your bane too. So the real question emerged: Would the Evo carry on this most precious workable Harley-Davidson tradition? Could any kid with a little courage, a manual, and a few tools, do a top-end in his back yard?

The answer was yes!

The Evolution engine had been designed to be simple and infinitely rebuild-able (a quality seldom realized in anything built during these modern days of disposable everything). In fact, in some ways the Evolution engine was even more user friendly than its predecessor the Shovelhead.

This was an extremely reliable engine that was completely rebuild-able and one didn’t even have to be a so-called “tech” to fix most things that ultimately failed. To date it’s Harley Davidson’s crowning achievement.

Everybody bought Evos.

Another great quality of this era was the fact that H-D was not yet a filthy rich corporation who could afford the luxury of redesigning then building new parts whenever they felt like it. No. They only had so many components to work with and, for about 14 years, the motor-company built almost all of its models using mostly the same parts.

There was the FXR, (designed in part by Eric Buell) which was commonly known for its amazing handling capabilities that are said to have been surpassed only in very recent years. But this bike was eventually phased out in favor of the FXD or “Dyna Glide” because was cheaper to build.

Then we had the Electra Glide with its bat-wing fairing.

The Tour Glide, which was later altered slightly, then renamed the Road Glide.

And finally the FLHS, which was the original Road King.

All of these models used the exact same drive train (engine, transmission, primary, clutch, starter, etc.), which could easily be swapped directly from one to the other.

This left only the Softail models; and the only real variation here was a different primary and transmission case—which still housed the exact same clutch and gears.

And last were the Sportsters.

Components were wonderfully interchangeable.

My own bike is a 1988 Electra Glide, but the engine is 1999, while the entire bottom end is out of a ‘90 model and the top end is from a ‘96, the transmission is out of an ‘87 but first gear is from a 2004, while the wiring was taken from a wrecked ‘92, as was the entire inner fairing including stereo, gages, speedo, etc. At the time of this writing this motorcycle had 464,000 very inexpensive miles on it. Yes, you read that number right.

Parts were everywhere and so many friends knew, and were happy to tell or assist you in basic, and sometimes even complex, mechanical alterations and repairs. And if not the owner, then the little shop down the street could fix most anything that went wrong with relative ease.

So we now had a bike that worked unbelievably well, virtually unlimited mountains of only slightly used parts that were inexpensively available on the shelves or in back rooms of bike-shops, swap-meets, and of course your buddy’s garage; and the best part was that most of them fit your bike!

These were truly The Golden Years of Harley-Davidson.

Then Harley-Davidson woke up! For this was obviously no way to triple one’s billions while also pleasing stockholders in the process. No. The best thing for H-D would be if there was a way to maneuver each of us into paying them three or four hundred bucks a month—for the rest of our fucking lives. Wouldn’t that be great! Hell, every other manufacturer of vehicles was already doing it, why not H-D? And so, following the example of Honda, BMW, Toyota, GM, and all the rest, they began to complicate the hell out of the machines. This strategy accomplished three things:

One: when a modern motorcycle breaks down there are very few who have the ability to fix it, therefore putting the owner at the complete mercy of the manufacturer who can then charge $300 to change two sensors in his fuel injection system, when it’s still possible to purchase an entire CV carburetor for $50 and replace it (even if you’re just a kid with a wrench)-- not just a sensor but the engine’s entire fuel/air mixture system!

Two: Since the components are constantly being retooled and changed, when you do need a part it’s necessary to go back to the components that were manufactured for your specific year, and therefore, like Honda, Kawasaki, GM, etc. they can charge a ridicules amount of money and there’s little you can do about it.

And three: when, and if (especially in this age of five-year-old bikes with 5,000 miles on them), the motorcycle ever does wear to the point of needing a rebuild; between the cost of parts and labor it’s cheaper to simply buy a new ride and go back to handing over three or four hundred bucks a month—for the rest of your life!

Maybe we’ve been hoodwinked huh?

Think about it. And let’s try not to forget that even though it’s the “Great Harley-Davidson,” we’re still dealing with that most ugly and immoral of diseases yet to plague the 21st century—Corporate Greed. In other words: these guys are not your friend! Did you get that, or do I need to repeat it? Any who’ve been around a while already know this. But it seems that these days there are so many customers who enjoy getting screwed. Take a gander around any dealership on any given day and see if you don’t agree. This is not unique to Harley. The entire cooperate mentality in this country requires Vice Presidents to show profits on a quarterly basis. Long term strategies are neglected for profits today.

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Reader Comments

Thank you for this. I've owned two Harleys and got rid of both of them for Kawasakis.

Well I'll be building an old school chopper ala early '70s, and thanks to this article, I'll be using a Sportster with an EVO in it for the build, instead of an old Kawasaki 750.

rob L
hanover, PA
Saturday, October 3, 2015
Editor Response Thanks. You're right, a terrific article.
Great article! I have a '98 Road King that I love. Rapidly approaching 70K. Not bad as far as I'm concerned with all the deployments over the last 13 years.

I am also very well versed in the aft cylinder base gasket leaking issues.
One of the reasons I had/have interest in the BMW motor with both cylinders getting equal amounts of air for cooling. So it's a long term test with my 14 GSA.

But my Evo fits like an old glove, and I will also enjoy putting my knees to the breeze with it.

Yelm, WA
Friday, February 13, 2015
You got me dead to rights on my crankcase comment. Scotty does mention the Evo crankcase issue. My error in reading the article. I have owned both styles of engine and since I do not build race engines or do burn outs, I could easily live with either style.

My preference is an early carbureted TC88 upgraded to 95-inch displacement with the 2007 cam kit. The early TC88 bikes are readily available and inexpensive. The chassis and brake upgrades also add value. Of course when the day comes I head up to biker heaven I look forward to riding a Panhead in the clouds.

Keep those Scooter Scotty articles coming............

Houma, LA
Thursday, February 12, 2015
THIS article is right on.

Very well written,EVOs are still the best engine Harley has put out. I own a 2003 FLHTC with 55000 miles on it. Changed the cam
support bearings to Torrington needle bearing. Got rid of the INA
needle bearings, before they blew up. Original tappets, cams,mechanical chain tensioners. Pinion shaft run out .004.

My 1993 FLHTC Pinion shaft run out .001.
good quality, clean oil is key. I use mineral oil no noise never over heats.

Matheson, ON, Canada
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
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