For every person on a Harley-Davidson, there's another who will ask, "Why do you like that thing? It's old, it leaks oil, it makes no power, the brakes are terrible and it's a grandpa bike."
There’s some truth in all of those criticisms. Plus, like brands such as Apple or Campagnolo, Harley-Davidson has fans who can be loyal to the point of looking like cult members, and I admit that rabid passion can be a little grating. Saying “there’s nothing like a Harley” or, worse yet, “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand,” are not very satisfying answers to questions about why we love our Harleys. Saying “you wouldn’t understand” implies, as Fearless Editor Lance points out, that the speaker is too inarticulate to explain himself and also thinks the interrogator is too stupid to comprehend an explanation. Great! A T-shirt slogan that insults both parties.
You don’t have to think like a cult member to love your Harley-Davidson. There are some concrete reasons we like these old sleds. Reasons that are logical and intellectually honest. Like any machine, a Harley can be a real treat to own, if it’s the right bike for the task you have in mind. Here are some of my reasons for keeping one (or several) of these old dinosaurs in the stable.
The upside of being a heavyweight
Anyone who’s done some high-speed touring knows how badly light bikes can beat you up or get blown around on the road. Harleys tend to be heavy motorcycles. This imposes a performance penalty in terms of how fast they hustle, but what they lack in athleticism is usually forgiven because of what is gained in their high-speed manners. The greater rake angles and longer wheelbases enhance stability. Porky won’t win you a Superbike race, but it ain’t bad for crossing the country.
The real-world advantage of a V-twin
Couple that heavy bike with a V-twin motor, and you have a machine that can make touring a real blue-eyed pleasure. Oh, sure, Harley Big Twins are asthmatic, wheezy old things. My Blockheads only pump out somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 horsies. But they have stump-pulling torque. When I’m out there examining the countryside, the last thing I want is to be stirring the gearbox. The copious torque lets me stay in top gear and simply roll on the throttle without even thinking about gear or speed.
You can make a Harley last as long as you want
Sure, they leak. Until recently, they were designed to, in some form or fashion. But the engines are very hardy, especially considering their lack of liquid cooling. Up through the Blockhead, the engines were almost infinitely rebuildable. Just look at former Wisconsin State Sen. Dave Zien’s 1991 FXRT on display at the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum with 1 million miles on it. While the current Twin Cam is less user-serviceable, it has proven to be a remarkably long-lived motor, if some attention is given to a few key areas.
You can get help making your Harley last
Harley-Davidson dealers are everywhere. It’s pretty damn hard to get to a place where you are unable to get parts or service from a Harley dealer, whether stateside or abroad. If you burn up your Evo or Twin Cam engine, you can send it back to the factory to be rebuilt. I can’t really think of another make (that’s still in business) that does something similar. Plus, I’ve seen some dealers go to great lengths for customers in terms of service and repair, especially for stranded bikers. When I am on the road and have to go to a dealer for parts for my old Shovels, they often have the parts on the shelf. If they don’t, almost always I get someone offering to get them for me — sometimes later the same day from a nearby dealer! Parts are simple to find because Harley has spent a century refining its bikes, not tearing up designs and starting with clean sheets of paper. I’ve interchanged parts between Shovelheads, Blockheads and even Panheads. The wider applications also mean parts are cheaper. Again, one of the criticisms aimed at Harleys — that they’re outdated — is an advantage, seen in another light.
And its not just H-D dealers
The Harley Big Twin is the small-block Chevy of the bike world. No matter what you want to build, someone has done it, and the parts are available. It is possible to build a complete Harley clone without a single part from The Mothership. People do it all the time. Plus, there’s a whole snotload of indie repair shops and custom builders out there who know how to work on them or work exclusively on Harleys. It may not matter, though, because…
Harleys are easy to work on
That means you might not need help from those dealers and indie mechanics. I can clean my carburetor with a beer in my hand faster than it takes to drink that beer. Valve adjustments? LOL. That’s automagic. Chain cleaning? Lubing? #aintnobodygottimefodat We’ve got belts! Newer Harleys typically have very long service intervals, and while older Harleys tend to need lots of attention, it’s usually very easy to give.
Those are a few of my reasons for keeping a Harley in the stable. I’m not trying to convert anyone. This is just Uncle Loomis trying to illuminate some common ground. So maybe the next time you see some people riding Harleys, you’ll understand, even if they can’t explain.