It's almost been a cliche, the dilemma that has long faced
Harley-Davidson: Damned if it did, damned if it didn't. Let the company build
conventional Harleys, with the conventional V-Twin and conventional styling, and
what it gets is, "Why does Harley keep making 50-year-old motorcycles?"
But let it try something different, something daring, a la the
XLCR Café racer of a few years ago, and the response is a general ho-hum and,
"It just doesn't look like a Harley's supposed to look."
Somewhere in between, the predicament permitted room for a
compromise, a fine blending of tradition and innovation. That's what Harley has
achieved in the FXRT, its new, sporty, touring bike: an impressive collection of
improvements and refinements that still says Harley-Davidson when you look at it
and ride it.
The FXRT is a close cousin to, you guessed it, the year-old FXR
and FXRS Super Glides, which have come to be known as the Rubber Glides. Like
the two other R-bikes, the tourer gets the rubber-mounted version of Harley's
big V-Twin, the five-speed transmission and the new-generation frame. Add
Harley's new, adjustable air suspension with an effective anti-dive system, an
enclosed rear chain, a mid-sized fairing, a pair of hard saddlebags, and, well,
there you have the FXRT.
The heart and soul of the new touring model is the traditional
Harley engine. Another way of spelling that is: 45° V-Twin, ohv, in this case
with a bore of 3.498 in. and a stroke of 4.25 in. for 81.6-cu. in. of
displacement, or 1338.6cc for those who are metrically inclined. Car-buretion is
by 38mm Keihin. This version of the Vee has been around since 1978, but it
hasn't remained unchanged. Recent refinements have included addition of an
electronic ignition, adjustments to carb mixture settings, improvements to
primary drive lubrication, several redesigns of the oil pump, new piston rings,
and an oil consumption control package (extra oil drains for the heads, longer
valve guides and Kayline valve stem seals).
Performance is surprisingly strong, considering the 33 lb. added
by the touring accessories (with a half-tank of gas, the FXRT weighs 668 lb.).
The 14.43-sec. quarter-mile time at 89.02 mph is about equal to that of a 450
Twin, and close to a second slower than that of a 754-lb., full-dress Gold Wing.
But in top-gear roll-on performance, a standard more closely related to the
requirements of street riding, the Harley excels. A 40 to 60 mph time of 5.8
sec. and 60 to 80 mph time of 8.4 sec. are both a couple of seconds quicker than
those of a Gold Wing, even though the Harley is geared higher. And, up to 60
mph, the Harley can keep up with a host of high-revving sport bikes that aren't
as easy to ride off the line.
By other, non-number standards, the engine also measures up
well. It starts easily, even when cold, with just a nudge of the choke, warms up
quickly, and pulls stubbornly from idle to the 5500-rpm redline. No flat spots,
no balking, no sudden power peaks, no throttle lag, no alti-tude-idiosyncracies—just
lots and lots of strong, useable power. With its mild tuning and heavy flywheel,
the big Vee is good for 65 bhp at 5400 rpm and 67 lb.-ft. of torque at 3600 rpm.
Shift early, and the bike chugs away without skipping a beat. Predictable is the
word that best suits this engine, and whoever said there was anything wrong with
predictability? Especially on a touring bike.
The transmission shifts through its five speeds smoothly and
decisively. While the throw is longer than on most import bikes, the shift lever
operates with a gentle nudge of the toes. As on other Harleys, a resounding,
assuring clunk lets you know when you've shifted. One thing you notice quickly
is the small amount of effort required by the clutch lever. Not only is the
clutch pull lighter than that of a Sportster, for instance, it's lighter than
the Japanese touring bikes. This has always been a benefit of the dry clutch
fitted to Harley's big V-Twin, and on the FXRT it is at its best.
Gearing is ideal for touring, allowing the FXRT to fairly loaf
on the freeway (2700 rpm in 5th is worth 60 mph). There's rarely any need to
downshift for power, say, when passing, because of the V-Twin's reserve of
torque. The tall gearing is a boon to gas mileage. On the Cycle World
test loop, a combination of city-highway-interstate riding, the FXRT turned in
47 mpg. For comparison, a fully dressed 1983 Honda Aspencade received 40 mpg. At
steady highway speeds on a cross-country trip, the Harley ran regularly at 55
mpg. Pushed up to 90 mph or so, mileage dropped, of course, but it still was an
energy-conserving low 40s. For comparison again, the one-liter-plus bikes
normally dive into the low 30s when ridden at similar speeds. Under most riding
conditions, the Harley has a 180-mi. range before the 4.2-gal. tank needs to be
switched to the 0.4-gal. reserve. The design of the five-speed gearbox wouldn't
permit use of the highly reliable rubber belt final drive from the Sturgis so
Harley opted for the next best thing: an enclosed chain. The chain is enclosed
in a flexible housing, and lubricated by a one-pint oil bath. The housing not
only seals out dust and dirt and sand and water, but it seals in noise. Chain
clatter is next to non-existent.
The FXRT's steel-tube frame has a mammoth, welded-up backbone,
with deep, double downtubes and a square-steel swing arm. It's a fairly common
design, very strong and very roomy—exactly why Harley adopted it last year for
the R-family. The frame leaves plenty of room under the seat for the easily
serviced battery, oil tank and rear suspension air coupling. The 64.7-in.
wheel-base and 32° steering rake contribute to excellent straight-ahead
stability. Still, the FXRT is reasonably nimble on the corners. The weight of
the narrow, short V-Twin is concentrated low and in the middle of the bike;
consequently, only moderate effort is required to lean the FXRT through most
turns. Ridden on sun-baked pavement or rain-slick tarmac, pointed straight ahead
or flicked back and forth through backroad turns, the Harley always feels
stable. The narrowness of the engine, the high-mounted pegs and the 6-in. of
ground clearance lets the rider really exercise the edges of the Dunlop K291
Touring Elites (19-in. front, 16-in. rear, mounted on nine-spoke cast aluminum
wheels). At angles that would have many touring bikes scraping and sparking, the
FXRT just floats around corners.
Engine vibration is effectively isolated from the rider by a
system of soft rubber engine mounts. Because engine location is critical in a
motorcycle, particularly a motorcycle with chain drive, the Harley's
engine-transmission-final drive unit is located by a system of adjustable links.
These allow the engine to dance around up and down and back and forth, but the
all-important lateral location is positive. So at idle the engine moves around
and the front wheel still does the old V-Twin cha-cha, but on the road little of
the vibration gets through the rubber-mounted handlebars to the rider, or
through the soft seat, or through the pegs. "This is a smooth-running
motorcycle," we were moved to sum up in our test of the 1982 FXRS (Cycle
World, Dec. 1981). Uh-huh, and that goes for its touring cousin, too.
Last year, it was the rubber mounting that impressed us with the
R-bikes. This year, the big news is the FXRT's air suspension and anti-dive
Now, anti-dive is a term that has been much ballyhooed lately by
a number of manufacturers. Only problem is that none of their devices provide
true anti-dive; instead, they function as damping-delay systems, increasing
damping and slowing the rate at which the front forks compress during braking.
Grabbing the front brake closes a valve in the damping circuit, restricting the
flow of fork oil. That delays the dive, but doesn't eliminate it—the forks still
compress as much as they normally would. These systems can have a couple of
drawbacks. The increased damping during braking can decrease the front wheel's
ability to conform to changes on some kinds of road surfaces, such as rough,
wrinkly stretches of pavement, causing the front end to jitter or hop. And, some
of the damping delay systems rely upon the front brake's hydraulics to operate
the fork valve. That gives the master brake cylinder two hydraulic systems to
pressurize instead of just one, and the result can be less brake feel at the
Harley's new air suspension/anti-dive system is something else
entirely. It doesn't alter fork damping; instead, it increases the fork spring
rate during braking.
The suspension/anti-dive system is designed around a two-stage
air reservoir (accumulator, says the owners manual) and a pressure valve that
links one of the chambers to the forks. For normal riding, Harley recommends
pressurizing the forks to 4-6 psi (for a 150-lb. rider) and the reservoir
(located between the forks, beneath the fairing) to about 25 psi. When the forks
compress and air pressure rises above 25 psi, the valve opens in the reservoir's
second stage, which expands against the first chamber, increasing the air volume
of the fork. Further wheel travel, then, doesn't require as much force as a
closed system would need. By varying the pressure in the second chamber, it's
possible to adjust the point at which the valve opens and wheel travel
increases, allowing a rider to adjust the front suspension for ride height,
softness and travel.
During braking, a solenoid connected to the brake light switch
prevents the reservoir valve from opening. Without the additional volume, fork
air pressure builds more rapidly, and travel is decreased. The result is true
anti-dive. And, since it is the spring rate that is increased, not damping, the
front wheel is free to rise and fall with the road surface during braking. It is
much less likely to hop than a front end equipped with a damping delay circuit.
Ah, if only the FXRT's brakes worked as well as its anti-dive.
The brakes are unchanged from last year's R-models: An 11.5-in. disc in the
rear, dual 10-in. discs in front. What has changed, though, and not for the
better, is braking performance. Our 1982 FXRS stopped from 60 mph in 123 ft.,
and from 30 mph in 32 ft. Our 1983 FXRT needed 150 ft. from 60 mph, and 45 ft.
from 30 mph. We changed brake pads, carefully broke them in, checked the discs
and calipers, bled the lines, made adjustments. No difference nothing worked.
Braking remained decidedly, well, mediocre.
Some riders complained about the amount of finger-straining
effort required to work the front brake lever. Riders with small hands had
difficulty getting the leverage they needed on the dogleg lever so they could
clamp on the brake. But that's been a perennial criticism of Harleys, and hardly
explains the dramatic loss of stopping power. In the end, we never were able to
pin down the problem, even after repeated consultations with the folks at
One thing that did improve this year, was lighting. For years,
Harley headlights had the intensity of 69-cent pen-lights. Last year, the
factory corrected the problem with high-intensity halogen headlights in all
models. This year the touring RT gets an improvement over the last improvement,
with a 7-in. 55/60 watt Bosch lamp. Both beams are bright and steady, more than
adequate. Night riding is no longer an exercise of faith; on the FXRT, it's a
The design of the fairing and luggage also represents something
of an evolutionary step for Harley. Word from the factory is that the body
pieces represent some of the efforts of the styling teams working on the
Harleys. It's obvious even from a quick glance that this is
distinctly non-traditional styling for America's only motorcycle company; the
saddlebags are streamlined, the fairing is rounded, vented, almost graceful. The
styling, by the way, was the feature that elicited the strongest reactions from
the man-on-the-street types. There was "Just doesn't look like a Harley,"
from some. But others complimented, "Harley's acknowledged the 20th century."
Whether or not the body pieces look right is a matter of
personal opinion. What's important, is that they work, and work well. The
fairing is constructed of sturdy ABS plastic (scratch-resistant polycarbonate
for the windscreen), and securely mounted to the frame. There's nary a wiggle or
a wobble, even on the bumpiest of roads. Turn signals are incorporated into the
sides, a headlight cover into the front. The vents are adjustable and provide a
welcome cooling breeze during warm-weather riding. Protection is excellent.
Buffeting is not a problem for rider or passenger; behind the fairing, the air
is calm, still. It's possible to ride all day in a constant, cold downpour, and
remain warm and relatively dry from the waist up. The fairing does more than
provide shelter from the elements, by the way. Harley says the slipperiness of
the wind-tunnel-tested design increases both gas economy and top speed. About
the only fault we could find with the fairing was the height of the windscreen.
It's designed so even the tallest riders have to look through it. This
eliminates virtually all buffeting of a rider's head, but when it's covered with
rain or fog it's not so good. About a half-foot would have to be sawed off for
most riders to peek over it, but plexiglass is easy to cut. A set of
quick-detach lowers would be another accessory we'd like to see. Nothing
permanent, maybe a folding piece that would tuck out of the way in hot weather,
and drop in place when it gets cold.
The bags, also ABS plastic, are permanently mounted to the
frame. They hinge at the bottom and open outward, and hold a little less gear
than the Elec-tra Glide bags. Inside the bags are removable liners for carrying
luggage off the Harley. Latches on the saddlebags can be left unlocked, if
desired, and additional catches prevent the saddlebags from opening if the
latches aren't latched. The tongue-in-groove edge with a rubber gasket is not as
waterproof as it should be. At the end of a day in the rain, the contents of
saddlebags, particularly at the bottom of the bags near the hinged joint, were
The seating position of the FXRT is typically Harley-ish, the
rider sinking onto the low seat as if settling down into a deep armchair, knees
up slightly, legs angled to the front, arms raised and close to the sides. The
low-rise touring bars sweep up and back, the grips bending to meet the hands at
a natural angle. Those fond of the sofa-style'of riding will find the Super
Glide tourer very comfortable. A couple of our riders,'unaccustomed to the
laid-back school of riding, found that leaning back against a friendly passenger
or a well-stuffed, bungee-corded pack made things much more pleasant. For the
FXRT, the R-bike seat has grown wider and thicker; there's softer foam, and more
of it. Passenger pegs are adjustable, and the backrest and grab-rails have been
redesigned. The twos in our two-ups had nothing but praise for the change.
The engine's rubber-mounting, the tuneable suspension, the extra
seat padding—all make the FXRT a comfortable bike to ride for long periods of
time over long stretches of road. Two riders took lengthy trips, 1200 miles and
4000 miles, and never felt unreasonably tired, sore or cramped. About the only
place vibration is noticed, is in the standard, meet-the-right-leg,
bigger-than-a-breadbox air cleaner.
Controls appear to be sturdy, but could be easier to use. The
electrical switches on the grips require either long thumbs or impromptu bits of
on-the-road hand jive to operate. Turn signal switches are the usual
push-they're-on, let-up-and-they're-off units; different, but the maneuver soon
becomes second-nature. As does reaching for the ignition switch and choke, both
of which reside on the left side of the engine. The switch doesn't incorporate a
steering lock. To lock the forks, a padlock must be placed through a plate under
the steering head, no problem on other Harleys but rather inconvenient on the
fairing-equipped FXRT. Locking the forks at night on a dark street requires a
lot of feeling and fumbling. The glass-lensed instruments (mechanically driven
speedometer and odometer, electronically driven tach, gas gauge) are attractive
and easy to read, day or night. Rear-view mirrors are flat, and give a good view
a long way back.
There's some vibration, but not enough to make them unuseable.
The locking sidestand is sturdy, and anchors the bike firmly in place, even on
Accessories for the FXRT are numerous, and include a luggage
rack/sissy bar, touring box, touring gauge kit (oil pressure, cylinder head
temperature, voltmeter, clock), oil cooler case guards and two radio packages
(AM-FM stereo and AM-FM-cassette).
We lived with our FXRT for 6500 mi., on cross-country trips from
Pennsylvania to Florida and then from sea to shining sea. The chain was adjusted
once, at 1500 mi. Oil consumption was minimal, better than 4000 mi. to the
quart. There were, pay attention now, no puddles under the bike. On the road, we
experienced only two problems, both of them minor. At about 2000 mi., we found
that the rear brake wasn't releasing because the foot lever return spring was
binding. A couple of washers behind the master cylinder took care of that. And
at 5000 mi., the Harley sputtered to a stop and refused to start. A loose coil
wire, easily remedied, was the culprit there. Other than that, the FXRT ran and
ran and kept on running.
One could say that's the first half of the happy ending. There
are people who don't want to hear this but the FXRT, in common with the XR1000,
the FXRS and the FLH, all the Harleys we've had during the past two years,
neither leaked nor gave trouble nor required extra attention.
The second half is that while the FXRT has benefitted from
innovation (the anti-dive) and refinement (the enclosed chain and the rubber
engine mounts) it hasn't gained in bulk. The FXRT is lighter than the Honda
Aspencade or Yamaha Venture.
The revolution is a couple of years away.
But evolution is alive and doing well at Harley-Davidson. E