It is almost impossible to rationalise thoughts on the
two-wheeled anachronisms called Har-ley-Davidson. Whenever I have ridden one
of these great vibrating masses of two-wheeled antiquity they have always left
me experiencing the vividly opposing emotions of both love and hate. And there
is nothing about the FLT80, the world's heaviest production roadster, which
can untangle my opinions on what must be one of the motor-cycle world's
greatest provocateurs of emotions.
Even though Harleys, and the image they project, offer a great
deal to a small and vociferously partisan body of two-wheeled enthusiasts it
is almost too easy to criticise them. If you subscribe to the purists' opinion
that motor cycles should be cheap, efficient and fast, light and nimble with
excellent handling, then most Harleys and the FLT in particular, have got to
be the world's all-time greatest two-wheeled disasters.
But if you are thinking along those lines then you have
completely missed the point. It is just not possible to use normal road
testing parameters to assess a Harley. They simply defy conventional thought
processes to the extent that when riding a Harley it is best to banish all
other motor cycling experiences from the mind.
This way, views on the Harley-Davidson's particular individual
style of travel will not be at all clouded by other feelings not related to
the big American vee-twin. And that gets you some way to understanding a
What is certain is that the FLT80 is about as subtle as an
atomic explosion. To say it is large is an understatement. It is brash,
vulgar, monstrous and shocking. It demands, and gets, the attention of all
road users and pedestrians; it makes its rider the centre of attraction
wherever he and the Harley travel.
At a quick glance, the FLT could probably be dismissed as just
another Harley. But a closer look reveals that Harley-Davidson have made
several important modifications and improvements over the cheaper FLH Classic
and much less expensive FLH 1200.
Vibration has always been one of the worst features of the big
American vees. With H-D sales continuing to suffer under the relentless
Japanese onslaught in America it is not so surprising that they should now
deal with the problem. H-D engineers have not so much solved the problem as
circumnavigated it. They have fitted a series of rose-jointed rods both in
front of the motor and between the vee and have allowed the gearbox to pivot
on the same axis as the swinging arm; this allows the motor a certain degree
of latitude in which to vibrate in isolation without loosening the fillings of
its rider. The movement is no more than fractions of an inch,
which does not appear to adversely affect the machine's
handling. Interestingly, the front forks on the FLT are actually behind
the steering head axis. This reduces the amount of trail, therefore
improving low speed handling at the expense of higher speed stability.
Harley have forsaken their tank-top instrument panel syndrome
on the FLT by installing a speedo and rev-counter in a conventionally mounted
console. The fuel tank has been redesigned, they have added a twin headlamp
fairing with luggage space and the gearbox has sprouted, somewhat
unnecessarily, a fifth ratio.
But such modifications are only comparatively minor
concessions to latest motor cycling technology and do not alter the flavour of
transport offered by the FLT.
The sheer size of the machine is awe-inspiring. It weighs 789
lb with a gallon of fuel and the handbook permits an all-up operating limit in
excess of half a ton, 1,180 lb in fact. Which means that even experienced
Harleyists are going to have their share of embarrassing moments when moving
the machine within the confined space of a parking lot or attempting a
But once it is moving at more than a few mph the sheer lazy,
easy-going effortlessness of the whole device becomes apparent. While it is
not a machine a despatch rider would choose for his London work, it is
surprisingly agile considering its bulk. Perhaps the worst evidence of the
FLT's weight appears when coming to rest, for example at traffic lights. Over
those few feet before coming to a halt the steering feels really heavy and the
impression is that the machine just wants to turn in its front wheel and
collapse in a heap.
Obviously a machine of such gross proportions needs an equally
muscular motor. In the FLT's case, 80 cubic inches, or the combined forces of
a pair of 669 cc singles provide a fairly modest 60 bhp, but with the kind of
stump-pulling torque you expect in a tractor.
This 1,338 cc twin was first used in 1979 and was a direct
response to Kawasaki's Zl 300 threat
to knock H-D from top of the capacity tree. They just had to
be biggest, and this massive unit with 50 and 45 mm inlet and exhaust valves
was the result.
Those huge exhaust pipes emit a dull flat duflf-duff-duff note
indicating a far lower compression ratio than the FLT's 8 to 1 and later
models did in fact have a lower ratio of 7-4 to 1. At the legal British 70 mph
limit in top gear the motor turns only 3,300 times a minute, and it does not
take long to realise that the machine's ultimate performance is only on a par
with a quick Japanese 250.
Fifth gear, which proved a useful overdrive for motorway
cruising was too high for the MIRA test track. The FLT only revved to 4,400
rpm, 1,100 revs below the redline in top gear during our speed tests. Harleys
take a notoriously long time to bed in and the speeds could be improved once
that FLT had been ridden over 1,600 miles.
But nobody buys a Harley for sheer speed. The impression is
that the Harley is capable of loafing along at a lunging 70-80 mph almost
non-stop for weeks.
Both rider and pillion do not so much sit on the bike as
inside it; they're surrounded by luggage space - 55 lb of carrying capacity at
the rear with room for smaller items in a pair of small compartments in the
The wide, flat screen, which is a speed reducer, is also a
boon once out on the open highway where the Harley really belongs. It isolates
both rider and pillion from the battering elements of wind and rain. Once
you've settled into the somewhat alien feet-forward riding position with your
backside moulding with the touring orientated contours of the caressing seat
and grabbing those huge pull back cowhorn style handlebars you begin to get
'into' the Harley. There is one aspect of the human make-up to which the FLT
cannot fail to appeal; the ego.
There may be many niggling faults like a heavy clutch, a
crunchy and clumsy gearchange and individual indicator buttons which are
difficult to operate. The whole contraption may creak, groan and squeak over
bad road surfaces, and predictably enough it still vibrates (although much
less than expected). But all this pales into insignificance once you notice
the heads begin to turn in your direction. People gaze at the Harley with
wide-eyed expressions of disbelief, astonishment, awe. Most cannot even
comprehend that a device which is so large runs on only two wheels.
When it comes to halting this behemoth you discover the FLT's
major fault. Harley brakes are historically bad but on the third of a ton FLT
even the triple discs are a couple of notches the wrong side of poor.
Obviously, it is easy to drive accordingly - for example, to leave a bigger
gap to the vehicle ahead, but the brakes are not really up to dealing with
those occasional emergency stops with the rapidity taken for granted on
countless lighter machines.
One of the FLT's most surprising aspects is its willingness to
be thrown around on twistier terrain. Limitations in ground clearance due to
its width prevent really hard riding, but the machine requires surprisingly
little physical effort to sweep through the turns.
On those long motorway curves, however, the FLT develops a
slight weave around 75-80 mph. This particular brand of jiving never threw the
machine into anything approaching a terminal tank slapper but it was
consistently present. So much so that like the machine's many other
idiosyncracies you simply learn to ignore just another quirk.
A thoroughly practical means of transport the FLT is not.
There are several directly comparable machines which can perform the same
tasks more efficiently. But none can approach the unique appeal afforded by
the legendary name Harley-Davidson.
The FLT80 as a model was short-lived, being launched in a
barrage of publicity and becoming a machine of the past inside a year, for
British bikers at least. Harley-Davidson may continue with their bewildering
annual change in model designation but the FLT has left a large unmis-takeable
stamp on the face of contemporary motor cycling.