Top 10 ‘game-changing’ Harley-Davidson motorcycles

Come and take a walk with us, as we look at the most important Harley-Davidson motorcycles of all time


THE arrival of the all-new Harley-Davidson Pan America is big news – not just because it’s a brand new entry in the most popular class (adventure bikes) of all, but also because it’s the very first adventure bike from Harley, the firm more associated with retro-style cruisers.

But before you dismiss the ‘PanAm’ as an over-ambitious folly – ‘how can Harley, with zero experience of high tech off-roaders hope to compete with, say, BMW’s GS which has been refined repeatedly over 40 years’, etc – just remember that Harley has been here before. Sort of.

Harley-Davidson Pan America |  EICMA 2019

Harley-Davidson Pan America | Harley-Davidson Streetfighter | EICMA 2019 | Visordown

Yes, Harley’s V-twin cruisers may be very traditional, but ‘America’s No. 1’ also has a long history of breaking the mould or ‘going against the grain’. Its 1971 Super Glide, for example, has long been considered a game-changer for being the first ‘factory custom’. Its V-Rod of 2001 truly broke the cruiser mould while its more recent LiveWire continues to lead the way with electric bikes. There are plenty of others, too.

So what have been the greatest Harley ‘game-changers’. What were they like and how successful were they? Here’s our 10 biggest, in chronological order…

1965 FLH Electra Glide – the first ‘full-dresser’

By 1965, Harley’s main output was its ‘Panhead’-engined big twin tourers and its smaller Sportsters. In 1965 it updated its DuoGlide, so named in 1958 for its new, rear swinging arm suspension, into the first ‘ElectraGlide’ to reflect it being the first with an electric starter. It also got uprated 12v electrics and a larger fuel tank. More significant, though, was a new accessories package including hard panniers and touring screen offered in response to the growing popularity of customers fitting out their bikes with aftermarket touring accessories. This proved popular and in 1969 the screen was updated to the now iconic ‘Batwing’ fairing. Then, in 1971, these became standard fitments. The ‘full-dress’ tourer was born and the ElectraGlide, with virtually identical silhouette (although thoroughly updated) remains one of the most iconic of all motorcycles to this day.

1970 XR750 – the most successful factory racer – ever!

Harley, unsurprisingly, has a long and successful history in American flat track racing, originally with its side-valve KR750 in the 1950s and ‘60s, although in later years this was only due to rules, which limited overhead valve rivals to 500cc. In 1969 this rule was reversed forcing Harley to come up with a new, purpose built racer, the XR750. This was based on a shorter stroke version of the then iron-head 883 Sportster but, encountering overheating problems, a revised aluminium head version was introduced in 1972. The resulting machine absolutely dominated American flat track for the next four decades, winning 29 of the 37 championships up to 2008. Just as impressively, the road race version, the XR-TT, dominated the 1972 Transatlantic Trophy in the hands of Cal Rayborn and the XR also became the bike of choice for bike jump legend Evel Knievel.

1971 FX Super Glide – the first ‘factory custom’

Although controversial and not a sales success, the 1971 Super Glide remains a milestone in motorcycling history for being accredited as the first ‘factory custom’. Inspired by the huge success of the 1969 movie Easy Rider and the then popularity of custom bikes which often took chopped parts of one bike and joined them to another, primarily for styling reasons, Harley’s head of design Willie G. Davidson decided to build a brash new Harley using the same principles. Accordingly he took the big engine and fat rear tyre of a Harley FL Glide and married it to the spindly forks and narrow front tyre of Harley’s XL Sportster – hence ‘FX’. Unfortunately, Davidson also added a bizarre, ‘boat tail’ rear fender/mudguard which was so unpopular Harley changed it to a more conventional item for its second year. Although not a success, the Super Glide marked a sea-change moment for motorcycles, by incorporating the chopper/custom look into the production mainstream, without which subsequent, more successful Harley factory cruisers such as the Low Rider may never have been built.

1977 FXS Low Rider & XLCR – first cruiser… and café racer!

After the near miss of the Super Glide, Harley refined Willie G’s factory custom concept resulting in the 1977 Low Rider which was H-D’s first cruiser big hit, setting The Company on a new direction of cruisers and tourers it maintains to this day. So named for its low, 27in seat height (which also made it popular with women), the Low Rider set the factory cruiser template with its kicked out front end, skinny front wheel, forward foot controls, stepped seat and two-into-one slash cut exhaust – all powered by Harley’s then ‘Shovehead’ big twin. That year it outsold all other Harley models. But 1977 was also notable for one of Harley greatest follies and biggest failures – the XLCR café racer. Essentially a styling exercise with a bikini fairing, single seat and racing tank grafted onto a stock Sportster, the XLCR was never going to be a sporty performer and didn’t appeal either to traditional Harley buyers or sport bike riders, as a result selling just 3,200 in three years. But it looked great, was different and exclusive and that’s enough for it today being hugely collectable

1984 FXST Softail – first ‘Evo’ engine and Softail

The early 1980s were a turbulent time for Harley-Davidson. The 1970s, under   controversial AMF ownership, had been an era of under investment and decline and its US market share, in the face of ever-increasing competition from Japan, had fallen from 75 to just 25%. In 1981, however, CEO Vaughn Beals persuaded 12 other directors to join him in a management buyout of the company and promptly set about re-invigorating the company. One of the first developments was the founding of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) in 1983, today the world’s largest factory-sponsored motorcycle group. But even more important was its first all-new bike – the 1984 FXST Softail which not only introduced the all-new, alloy ‘Evolution’ engine which was vastly more reliable and potent than the old iron Shovelhead but also showcased Harley’s new ‘hidden shock’ Softail chassis, which gave its cruisers an even more authentic, hardtail-style look. It was a huge success, too, instantly becoming a Harley best-seller, also leading to the crucial 1950s retro-styled Heritage Softail in 1986 and completely reversing Harley’s decline.

1990 FLSTF Fat Boy – the model that made Harley ‘cool’ again

Following the successful introduction of the Evolution engine and Softail chassis with the 1984 FXST and huge popularity of the 1950s styling of the 1986 Heritage Softail, Harley design chief Willie G. Davidson decided to explore minimalist, industrial, retro ‘50s style even further. Working with co-designer Louie Netz and starting with a Heritage Softail as base, the duo replaced that bike’s fancy conchos, studs, chrome, wire wheels and whitewalls, with a design that was ultra-clean and simple with bold, plain styling. Honed over two trips to Daytona to gauge public reaction, when Willie G rode a prototype down from Milwaukee, the bike was eventually named the Fat Boy, launched in 1990 and was a huge success – it’s popularity fuelled further by its star turn in the 1991 blockbuster movie ‘Terminator 2’ – and has lived on ever since as one of Harley’s most popular – and coolest – models.

1994 VR1000 – Milwaukee’s superbike

Who said Harley can’t make high tech performance machines? With the arrival of the modern, high performance Pan America, there’s no better time to remember that H-D has produced high performance, liquid-cooled V-twins before. And, although ultimately not the success hoped for, Harley’s 1994 VR1000 superbike, complete with 135bhp and a top-notch chassis, should help dispel some of the PanAm sceptics. Conceived as an homologation special superbike to race in American AMA Superbikes, the VR had a fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, short-stroke DOHC 60-degree 1000cc V-twin engine, aluminium twin spar perimeter frame and top of the range cycle parts. Just 50 were built (all that homologation required) priced $49,950 and, scheduled to debut in 1990, on paper it should have had enough to succeed. Unfortunately, due to internal poiitics, it didn’t debut until 1994 by which time the VR’s 135bhp was already behind the curve. It also suffered from teething problems. The end result was that, even though often in the top five and podiuming once, despite employing g riders of the calibre of Miguel DuHamel and Scott Russell, the VR was never the success hoped for and the project was canned in 2001 – even then, however, it wasn’t the end for the performance, liquid-cooled Harley…

2001 VRSCA V-Rod – the 115bhp Harley hot rod

A bit like the Pan America, the all-new, liquid-cooled V-Rod was intended to be the start of an all-new, modern era for Harley – but it never quite succeeded. Concerned time was running out for Harley’s traditional, air-cooled, push-rod V-twins, the V-Rod was inspired by the VR1000 superbike in having a similar, all-new, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, DOHC, 60-degree V-twin – a big departure from its familiar big twins. This was mounted in any equally novel, tubular steel chassis formed by pressurized water with hot rod style body panels in brushed aluminium. And, with a decent 115bhp on tap and Brembo brakes to stop it, the V-Rod had the potential to be the Ducati Diavel of its day. Except… it never quite worked out like that. Too heavy and long to deliver truly sporty handling while at the same time failing to capture the hearts of traditional Harley buyers, the V-Rod was never the success hoped for, despite repeated updates and model variants including the Street Rod, Night Rod and V-Rod Muscle over its 16-year lifespan. Instead, when it failed to meet Euro4, it was instead quietly dropped, unloved and unnoticed. Which is a shame as the V-Rod was a breath of fresh air for Harley and ‘nearly’ succeeded. Maybe they’ll have better luck with the Pan America…

2006 FLHX Street Glide – the first ‘bagger’

It may be hard to remember it now, but when the Street Glide first appeared in 2006 it was dismissed by many (particularly on the UK side of the pond) as a pointlessly chopped down and less practical ElectraGlide. Little did we know then that it was the start of something truly massive and would go on to be Harley’s best-selling model.  Indeed, when the second generation version was introduced in 2012, distinguished by its larger, custom-style front wheel, it was not only Harley’s best selling bike in the US, legend has it that it out-sold all imports into the US COMBINED.

With hindsight it’s relatively easy to understand why. The traditional two main drivers behind the popularity of US-style V-twins in America has long been touring comfort over the USA’s vast distances (hence the appeal of tourers like the ElectraGlide) and look-at-me custom style for when you get wherever you’re going (hence the demand for customs and cruisers). This in turn had led, by the early 2000s, of a growing custom ‘bagger’ scene, for customized or chopped down tourers which satisfied both desires. The 2006 Street Glide, in being a chopped down ElectraGlide with low screen and no top box, was simply the first production version of the type. Since then. of course, the Street Glide has evolved with even stronger custom style and improved tech and performance. The result remains one of Harleys best-selling models.

2019 LiveWire – the first EV

There’s not much that can be written about Harley’s bold, brave and pioneering electric bike, the LiveWire, that hasn’t already been said: it’s a high tech, effective and generally impressive foray into electric bikes which, while yet to prove a commercial success, deserves more than its fair share of credit simply for daring to go where all of the other major manufacturers have so far feared to tread. Yes, it’s nigh-on £30K; yes, its effectiveness and practicality have yet to totally convince and yes, too, it so far only truly appeals to early adopters and tech freaks. But the very fact the LiveWire exists in production form and is being steadfastly pursued by H-D themselves, proves one thing: Harley may overall be a very traditional motorcycle company with an aging customer base and an old-fashioned image – but it’s also proved, time and time again, it’s capable of a big surprise. Maybe the new Pan America will be a big surprise, too…