I’ll Never Own An Old Harley

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What they say may be true.Harley People

Or at least, it’s why so many went Jap back in the day.

Me among them.

I have been working on an ’80 Harley Sportster for about a month now. Mark that. Working on an ’80 Sportster. Not riding the thing. I understand now why they’re often referred to as Hardley-Ablesons. You get one running, maybe. But not for long. Then you go back to working on the bike.

This, apparently, is part of the mystique.

Also, the random mix of metric and standard fasteners. It doubles your pleasure.

Even more so, brilliant design such as the absence of sufficient clearance for bolt heads such that you cannot get a socket on them without either grinding down your socket so thin it’ll clear the hair-width’s gap between say the side of the starter solenoid bracket – or using an open wrench on the bolt and working it out, torturously, a quarter-turn at a time.

If, that is, you can get the wrench on the bolt.

On the Sporty you usually can’t.

Even if you could get a socket on the starter solenoid bracket, it’s not a clear shot. A wobbler extender bar won’t do the trick. You have to first remove the engine cover on the side of the bike. Onto which the master cylinder for the rear brake is bolted. Did I mention the brake line from the rear master cylinder literally runs a couple of hair-widths away from the big twin’s rear exhaust pipe – and that you cannot check the fluid level in the rear master cylinder without either removing the rear exhaust pipe from the engine or unbolting the rear master cylinder?

Yes, they designed it this way.

It’s stock.Hardley 1

Have you ever tried to set points on a Harley? (And, yes, this 1980 model bike has points. It also has a generator.) On every Japanese bike I’ve worked on – which is a lot of bikes, all makes – the engine is designed such that it can be turned over manually using a breaker bar/socket or even just a wrench. There will be a bolt on the engine – connected to the crankshaft – for just this reason. Because routine maintenance (e.g., setting points, checking and adjusting valve clearances) involves slowly rotating the engine, so as to get a piston at top dead center, etc.

You do not use a breaker bar or a wrench on a 1980 Sportster.

You use a jack – and your hands.

First, raise the rear wheel. Now, use your hands to try to get the transmission into fourth gear. This is so as to make the engine easier to rotate… by turning the rear wheel. Which – with the tranny in gear – will move the engine’s reciprocating assembly.

You will need two people.

It also helps to remove both spark plugs.

Jesus Christ!Mig 25 afterburner

Have you ever heard the story about the West’s first hands-on look at a MiG 25? The Mach 3-capable Soviet interceptor was considered – thought to be – incredibly advanced. (How else did it achieve Mach 3?) The West was desperate to have a look, but this was hard given all MiG 25s were in the Soviet Union. Then one day in 1976, a Soviet pilot – Viktor Belenko – defected to the West by flying his MiG 25 to Japan.

His plane was thoroughly dissected.

Vacuum tubes were found.

The only reason the MiG 25 went as fast as it did was because the Soviets installed a pair of monstrous Tumanksy R-15 afterburning turbojets.

But at least the MiG 25 was fast.Harley 3

A 1980 Harley is not.

It makes a lot of noise – when it runs. But this is the equivalent, in motorcycle terms, of a toothless dog that barks a lot.

The big twin does make a lot of torque, so it pulls like a diesel (again, when it runs) and so only needs four forward gears. But you won’t get very far – and not just because it’s likely to break down. The Harley’s gas tank holds a little more than two gallons of fuel. Most Jap bikes have twice as much capacity – and also go twice as far on each gallon. One of my old Jap bikes – a ’76 Kz900 – gets about 40 MPG. And it has a dual overhead cam engine which is made entirely out of aluminum whereas the pushrod-actuated Harley “Ironhead” has – yes – cast iron heads and cylinders. The Hardly gets maybe 20.

So half the mileage – with about half the fuel supply.

Not having much experience with these bikes, I assumed someone in search of a chopper or bobber had added a tiny tank for aesthetic reasons. People do such things.

You do not expect the factory to do such things.

The Harley factory did such a thing.

It is supposed to be this way. This is how the bike was designed.Harley breakers

So also the absence of fuses. There are breakers instead. And they tend to break. Possibly because the bike vibrates like an old F100 with a broken engine mount and four cupped tires and blown shocks, with the leaf springs poking through the rusted out floorpans. Possibly also because Harley “engineers” located the breakers – with exposed metal contacts – directly facing the battery and within easy arcing distance of the battery cables or your wedding ring, if you stick your hand down there.

Every Jap bike I have ever dealt with has its electrical panel located away from the battery. Usually, under a side cover. So you can access the relays, fuses and so on without having to pull the battery. Which, of course, you must do on the Harley, in order to access the breakers. Which also requires unbolting the seat. Which requires tools – which you may not have out on the road.

Taking off the micro-sized gas tank also requires tools – and fairly extensive disassembly. There is a long bolt up front that runs through a bracket that also holds the ignition coil. There are spacers and washers galore. Then there is another bolt – mounted under the rear of the tank and not easy to see or reach. Both of these bolts must be removed before the tank can be removed. With Jap bikes, it is – typically – one bolt, at the rear of the tank. Under the seat – which often pops off using the key. Then just slide the tank back a little and take it off. My teeth are beginning to ache.

It is not my intent to mock Harleys.

Merely to warn you.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

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  1. Eric – a thing about the MiG-25 “Foxbat”. Yes, Belenko’s defection confirmed what was already suspected…that the thing was a manned missile, with limited range and no dogfighting capability whatsoever. It’s an INTERCEPTOR, and that’s all it was ever MEANT to be. Oh, and due to it’s high speed, where range is not a huge problem (like for Arab client states wanting to overfly Israel and take pictures), it’s great for recon from on high. But it’s NOT a fighter, and wouldn’t stand a chance against the aircraft purported to “combat” it the F-15 and F-16. The plane designed to deal with those, the MiG-29 “Fulcrum”, is kinda a hybrid of the Eagle and the Falcon, and somewhat inferior to either, but a lot cheaper and the Soviets made a LOT of them. However, judging by the F-15’s combat record, 104 kills and ZERO losses, being STILL, after some 40 years, the CHAMP, all the Russians ever produced were flying death traps. THe Foxbat was designed to shoot down high-altitude SAC bombers like the B-52, B-58, B-1, and the B-70 Valkyrie. It was when Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 was downed while flying over the Soviet Union at over 75,000 feet by an SA-2 “Goa” missile that it was shown that the days of the high-altitude “Schnellbomber” were OVER, and that the Soviet VVS really didn’t NEED an interceptor. But like in our military, their generals agitated for an interceptor, and they got one, and considering what resources they had, the Mikoyan-Gurevich Bureau put together a plane, which, though a “lead sled”, was PERFECT for that ONE job it was meant for. While at the same time, and even today with the ill-fated F-35 “Lightning II”, the US tries to make combat aircraft that are touted to “do everything”, but in reality do NOTHING very well, save to sop up billions of hard-earned American taxpayer dollars.

  2. That’s funny, are you actually a mechanic or just a rice shade tree one? I have a 1980 Sportster that has had routine maintenance, yearly service, tires etc. it has never left me stranded, never broke down, its been the most reliable bike I have owned.

  3. I worked at a shop years ago and we had a “dyno day”,everyone brought their bikes down to find out who had the horsepower.Well,after listening to harley guys all day about “screaming eagle ” carbs and cams ,etc . the highest horsepower of the bunch was 56……..50 fuckin 6 and thats on a modified one.The lowest horsepower japanese bike was a complete turd of a 1987 honda hurricane 600,with a zillion miles,made 75 horsepower.Thats just unbelievable, a motor a third the size of that legendary V-twin made 20 more horsepower.Talk about embarrassing……

  4. Eric, thanks for the service of letting me know I can drop this one from my bucket list. After 50 years of riding and never owning or even getting on a Harley, I kept wondering what the fuss was about enough to think of trying one. I had observed that telling breakdown stories seemed to be an important cultural part of every gathering of two or more Harley owners, but I had never been interested in one because they just didn’t have a model that fit my needs. Compared to Japanese manufacturers, Harley has a remarkably narrow line of motorcycles, all tailored for a certain kind of person. Lovers of turbine-smooth power, long distance cruising, or off-pavement adventure need not apply.

    After having to learn to say “it’s not my bike” to every two-wheeled thing of beauty that stirred my soul, I have settled on a Suzuki DL650. It’s a V-twin like a Harley, but so technologically advanced they’re not even from the same century. I have been grumbling about it being time to adjust the valve clearance which involves more disassembly than I’ve been accustomed to, but at least when it’s done it will stay good for another 25,000 miles.

    My old CB750K SOHC engines were easy to work on, what little they needed. In about 70,000 miles over 16 years on two K’s, I had one failure to start, from a piece of dirt in the fuel — not the bike’s fault.

    • Hi Tom,

      You and me both!

      I have a garage full of old Japanese bikes, including an ’83 Honda and a ’76 Kawasaki I’d ride anywhere with confidence (and without a truck following me).

  5. I haven’t been on your site for awhile, but I sold Harleys in 1978 – 80. I used to hide behind the parts counter when I saw a customer who just bought a bike coming back. I knew he had a problem, but I needed to find out what broke so that I could come up with some kind of an answer for a solution. it was embarrassing since I sold Kawasakis for 2 months to close them out for winter in SLC Utah. I had nothing but satisified customers selling the Kawis. People used to ask me how to buy a good Harley. I told them they needed to find a good H-D mechanic that knew how to put them together properly. I met one of those individuals who has been a friend ever since. He usually builds them from the ground up and eliminates the typical H-D problems because he has learned how to overcome those issues. Working on those old bikes is best left to a mechanic like him. I have a custom 93 ci Harley Panhead that he finished building in 1997. It starts and runs every time. H-D quit building Panheads in 1965 with the first H-D electric starter. $27,000 was invested in it. It has all of the best aftermarket parts available. It can be yours for a mere $10,000.

    • Hi DrJ!

      It’s been a learning curve. I’m used to Japanese bikes. This is my first AMF-era Harley. It runs now – just not especially well. I think it’s the nature of these things. You get everything set up, per the book. It runs ok… for a while. Then something craps out. Your fix that, another thing fails or leaks or shorts out.

      It’s 1940s motorcycling. What it must have been like, anyhow. The Japanese bike of the ’60s and early ’70s (especially) were truly revolutionary in that you could literally ride one cross-country, usually, without having to stop regularly to fix it!

  6. I have owned several Hardley Daves, Enfields, Nortons, Triumphs, Hondas, and Kawis in my 62 years on earth. I still ride my 2000 Vulcan Nomad….5 speed, shaft drive, fuel injected1500ccs., crash bars, hard bags, removable windshield,floorboards, rider and passenger backrests, disc brakes, and air shocks. She is bone stock, holds 4 gallons of regular,weighs in at 740 pounds, and can be stripped down to a single seat bar hopper in about five minutes. Maintenance includes changing the oil. Simple “Japanese junk” that works beautifully. She doesn’t mark her territory though.

  7. You do realize that the entire reason Harley has such a flourishing aftermarket is because the factory fucked everything up, right? The engine is a toothless dog, all bark and no bite, why did you think S&S exists? Nobody makes aftermarket engines for Jap bikes because they do it right at the factory. For DECADES that was not the case at Harley, hence Harley’s near destruction in the 80’s. My 2003 Sportster 1200 S still had serious problems, but nothing like you’re dealing with. It was fast, had an all aluminum engine, got over 40mpg, etc.

    Oh, and FYI, if you’re ever in the area of Livermore, Ca. and your Harley breaks down, have it trucked to Eagle’s Nest in LATHROP, because the Livermore shop hires minimum-wage wrench monkies that fucked up as much as they fixed.

    • Thanks, Lowell!

      And, yeah: The new S&S engines seem tight – and the new factory Harleys seem ok. But I am cured of ever wanting to buy an XLCR “cafe racer.”

  8. ALL H-Ds are JUNK before the EVO motor made it’s appearance. And I remember clearly when that MIG-25 defected and the holy cow moment when the vacuum tube were discovered!
    Jap bike were eating H-Ds lunch that’s why they,H-D, had to get something like 50% tariff on Jap bikes. I rode a mid 70s H-D Sporty it was simply a POS! I bought a Yamaha and never looked back.

    • Hi Edward,


      This bike is really frustrating. Fix one thing, something else stops working. And this business about the bolt heads having not enough clearance to get a socket on them is enraging.

  9. I’ve often said that if I ever won a Harley in a raffle, I’d sell it and buy something else.
    Yes, the VROD is a different beast (what do you expect with a Porsche engine), but for the most part now all they are is a name. If I want a US made bike that looks similar, I’ll buy a Victory.
    Else, I’ll continue to maintain my “big block” VTX until it decides to give up the ghost or I can’t find parts for it. But with this being a Honda, chances are it has a long way to go.

  10. I remember well when going cross country entailed a van or pickup of “bitches” following behind. Oh, you could make it from one town to the other most of the time. But it’s 50 miles or more between Texas towns so going to Aspencade was a real adventure, not just because of the heat(it may have supposedly been cool in Ruidoso but Tx. is still cooking at that time)and hence engine failure but having that backup fuel was a necessity. You either “took the bitches” or talked one guy who couldn’t ride for crap into taking his bike the in the van or pickup.

    So we of the Guzzi and Zuk were highly ridiculed as we flew by the unmentionables and stopped for gas only when we desired. Do you burn rice in that thing? Come back here and we’ll whip your ass. Yep, WE does talk a lot…..hence the safety in numbers with Harley riders.

  11. Well, if you looked at Harley’s VROD or VRSC then you’ll love it to death. It is pretty fast and pretty much bullet-proof engine. Unfortunately it isn’t an emp-proof engine. 😉 If Harley switches from air-cooled engines to REVO engine and that will push Harley’s stock to a new level for sure.

    • Hi Eric,

      I’ve actually checked out some of the latest Harleys – the Fat Boy appeals to me – and I don’t doubt the current stuff is very well-engineered.

      But the AMF-era stuff is just a nightmare….

      • Hi Eric,

        Yeah AMF was the Harley’s biggest mistake. Why don’t you test ride a VROD and it might change your mind? I believe VROD is the future for Harley, if Harley wants to survive.

        http://www.1130cc.com is a good VROD forum, and you could find me there Glock30Eric.

        • Yes, Harley was owned by the bowling company AMF from 1969-1981. AMF just about killed Harley. They even produced a Harley GOLF cart, yes, a golf cart.

          • But to be fair, Harley was selling the golf carts before being bought by AMF. My guess, maybe they wanted the golf cart division, not the motorcycles so much.

  12. Thank you for the warning- I see all sorts of cheap 70’s/80’s vintage Sportsters going for cheap all the time.

    Now I know why.

    I like the lines of some of them, but I like riding more than wrenching as I get older.

    • This bike is a new high water mark for exasperation. Some bikes will work with you. This one fights you. It’s like it doesn’t want to run. In its defense, it was made during the AMF era – and it has led a very hard life.

      But now I’m looking at pulling the primary drive case cover to get at the other side of the starter mechanism to fix whatever’s broken.

      If it had a secondary kick starter, I’d be in heaven…

      • If it had a kickstart it would just break your leg. My 76 ironhead liked to kick back and attempt to launch my 220lb bulk over the bars while beating the crap out of my right insole. Repeat after me: I’m sorry I bought it, I’m glad I sold it, and I never want another one…
        Back in the day I looked down on the Jap stuff (from my BMW). Now I’ve owned several and realize how really great stuff like a CB750k is.

  13. That’s why they got chopped and bobbed. Pull all that extraneous crap off and reduce it to nothing but an engine, oil tank and Morris Magneto. I recently got back to riding after a 30 year break, by picking up a 2005 Kawasaki Vulcan, for 2 large. As much as I would have liked to build a new hardtail bobber, the costs of finding old (or replica) vintage American or British iron is too prohibitive. We’ll see how this Vulcan lasts.

  14. Reminds me of the snowmobiles of my youth. (not that I ever had 1 myself, too cheap) The word was that you needed to have 3: 1 you were tearing down, 1 waiting for parts and 1 to ride.

  15. Eric: I empathize. Although I’ve never owned one, those old Ironheads do look to be hard to work on. Their unreliability is legendary too, and just like you describe. I’ve had two Harleys: a 93 Sportster and (currently) an 00 Dyna Glide. The Sportster was okay with the exception that one trip up to redline destroyed the motor! Also, the oil tank design was poor in that it was support for the battery, so all the shaking lead to broken battery-mounting tabs on the oil tank. I rebuilt the top end of my Sportster since my redline excursion “sucked a valve”. It was easy to work on, nothing at all like you describe in your essay. My 00 Dyna has 52k miles and climbing, and all I do to it is put on tires and replace spark plugs & batteries. It has been absolutely a pleasure to own. (Same said of my 97 Bandit 1200 on the tires and spark plugs…)


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