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Motorhead Memo: The Gentleman’s Express

By Kip Woodring

For those too young to recall or too new to Harley-Davidson to realize: Harley-Davidson FXR = Forever Excellent Roadster.

Actually, it really means…

F = Big Twin engine

X = (Sportster-derived) front end

R= Rubber (vibration-isolating) engine mounts

… and the factory should have stuck with that simplicity, in more ways than one. For instance, Harley never bothered to “name” their motorcycles until they discovered telescopic front forks in 1949… hence “Hydra-Glide.” The Motor Company, from this example onwards, should have stuck with previous policy. Because their names tend to suck—big time! (With the possible exception of “Sportster”—which is just short of inspired, ironically!)

I mean, Indian always named their stuff back in the day, and did it far better! Names like “Powerplus,” “Big-Base,” “Chief,” “Scout” and so on, are evocative even now. The Brits had a great beginning, then drifted towards hyperbole. “Thunderbird” (which Ford paid a royalty to use), “Speed Twin,” “Bonneville,” “Trophy,” “Tiger,” “Daytona”… mostly Triumph… were a great start. BSA used names like “Lightning” and Thunderbolt” (later borrowed by Buell). Velocette had the “Viper,” “Venom” and “Thruxton.” Then, Vincent capped off with “Rapide,” “Shadow” and “Black Lightning” (like anyone ever saw such a thing). Meanwhile, H-D is stuck with horrendous “handles” like “Softail,” “Fat Boy,” “Heritage” (and worse) plus too damn many variations on the “Glide” thing!

Lest you think I digress—as you read this check out some of the lame labels that were hung on versions of the FXR over the years. For that reason, among others, I’ve resorted to calling all versions by the model code (Harley’s alphabet soup) or—simply—FiXeR!

My own FXR Police bike (Copsickle?) came into the picture, when my brother bought it at a police auction, then lost his job and in a panic sold it to me. Looked like this when he had it

To (finally) begin at the beginning…

The 5-speed rubber-mounted line of FXR models was originally introduced in the summer of 1981 as 1982 models. There were two versions powered by Shovelhead engines, designated as FXR Super Glide II and FXRS Super Glide II. The bikes were virtually identical except for their paint and wheels. The Super Glide II name was an extension of the Super Glide model designation (PTO reg. #1,315,672) that Harley had been using on several 4-speed FX models since their introduction in the summer of 1970.

What happened is that the FXR really came from a chassis program intended to utilize the existing (since 1980) FLT Touring powertrain in an FX-type “standard” street bike. The need for a modern, more functional FX-type frame turned into a blessing for those engineers involved and, ultimately for lovers of performance Harleys. Since the members of the design team had to create a new chassis anyway, they decided to create it as basically their own idea of a “performance” image. The resulting FXR frame was five times stiffer in torsion, which is where it counts, than the old FX/FL frame had been. It was also considerably lighter, all of which made for superior cornering and ultimately a much better ride than can be offered even within the factory’s Dyna family that is still produced today. They (originally) also went after higher lean angles and (for a Harley) lots of ground clearance. The so-called “Tri-mount” chassis mounting system (adapted from the FLT) utilized three maintenance-free, automotive-type elastomer mounts, a horizontal one in front of the cases at the bottom of the frame downtubes and two vertical units in the rear at the swing-arm junctions… which attach to a transmission pivot point. These go along with two heim-jointed, adjustable, “aligning” stabilizer links used in front of and on top of the engine. This was a major departure from the traditional solid mounting of the engine to the frame, in which the engine bolted into the chassis. The elastomer mounts basically allow the engine to do its thing (shake) without transmitting that vibration through the frame and onto the rider. Thus the term, “isolated” vibration.

The lore is that much of this vibration-isolating engineering was essentially the brainchild of Erik Buell. No matter what the origin, the resulting design … worked!

With the vibration controlled, weight reduced, the handling notably improved, and better choices of ratios in the (then new) 5-speed trans, the FXR would cruise effortlessly… as planned! In fact, the gearing and lack of vibration allow the motorcycle to access engine speeds significantly above those to which riders were accustomed to on the traditional H-D 4-speed, solid-mounted models.

Since then, it’s become a massively-modified “FXRP-SP” (originally a California Highway Patrol version with an “EK” VIN identifier) of which only 237 were built—allegedly by the race shop rather than the regular assembly line. Currently… it looks like this and runs like the wind. It is not for sale!

Mind you—the FXR was never meant to be a “crotch rocket,” rather, it was more about creating (what was then known as) a “Gentleman’s Express” intended to cover lots of ground comfortably, capably, rapidly, easily and with no nasty surprises.

Practically a first for H-D, the FXR frame that made this possible was designed using the latest in computer-assisted technology. In the process known as “finite element analysis,” the frame configuration, specifications and dimensions were fed into a computer. A “drawing” of the frame could then be brought up on a display terminal. The computer then assisted the engineering team in changing the frame characteristics until they were able to come up with the optimum design. Among other things, the computer assisted them in locating stress points and indicated where the frame needed stiffening. Like the FLT Touring frame, the new frame’s backbone was comprised of two-inch boxed tubular steel with massive stampings to add strength creating a large box section that linked the steering head to a triangulated rear section, then used round tubing at all points where the frame showed. To make the new frame even stiffer than the FLT version, the engineers added more gusseting between the steering head and both the backbone and down tubes, yet added nothing in weight. The FXR remains the lightest Big Twin Harley and is on par with (if not lighter than) rubber-mount Sportsters. (The FXLR, in particular, came in at something like 575 pounds… complete with 40-some pounds of heavy stock mufflers!)

Both original FXR versions returned to the line-up in the summer of 1982 as 1983 models with very little change. However, in the winter of 1982, they were joined by a third model, which was called the 1983 FXRT Super Glide II. It had the same engine, transmission and frame as the FXR and FXRS, but was equipped with a fiberglass fairing and saddlebags as well as an enclosed chain like the ones fitted to the big FLT and FLHT touring bikes. Shovelhead FXRs are odd ducks indeed! Because the engine couldn’t keep up with the chassis.

or over a quarter century, the aftermarket has filled the niche for FXR-based customs… and done it quite nicely. That said… there’s no substitute for the real McCoy… a factory frame. Last time I checked, some years ago, there was still a “live” part number for an FXR frame from The Motor Company. Sadly… the thing was nearly three times the price of a current bagger frame! Tells ya something… don’t it?

Turning from the “chassis” and looking at the power plant of the FXR, we can see that once the “Evolution” engine came into the picture, a sweeter “marriage” of “motor” and “cycle” (for its intended purpose) would be hard to imagine. The Evo motor, bulletproof from the start, was slowly refined to the point where it was damn near bombproof. More importantly, it could reliably rev higher than the Shovelhead engine. This engine, quite literally, saved the Motor Company and made the FXR… fast!

1984

The 1984 models were introduced in the summer of 1983 and only the FXRT and FXRS made the transition. To go along with their new, state-of-the-art Evolution engines, they were given new (just as crappy) names. The FXRT was called a “Sport Glide” (PTO reg. #1,387,456) and the FXRS was called a “Low Glide” (PTO reg. #1,386,726) because of its new, lower suspension, compared to the previous FXRS, and a single disc front brake. (But… interestingly enough, the two models still came with air cleaner trim rings that had the “Super Glide II” name on them.) A limited-edition model introduced in the winter of 1983 was called a 1984 FXRDG Disc Glide with solid spun aluminum back wheel and spoked front; tank emblazoned with “Genuine Harley-Davidson” in ornate script. (The Disc Glide name (PTO reg. #1,387,457) had been lifted from a previously-manufactured limited-edition 4-speed FX model that was discontinued at the end of the 1983 model year.)

• FXR was dropped from lineup.

• FXRP Police Model debuts… based on FXRT.

• Early models were dry clutch, later versions (’84 1/2) had a wet clutch.

• H-D brand beer is sold… had to throw that in!

1985

In the summer of 1984, the 1985 FXRT Sport Glide and the FXRS Low Glide were introduced and with the exception of a new rear belt drive and some minor cosmetic changes, they were virtually identical to the 1984 models. (Disc Glides did not become a regular production model in 1985 and were discontinued in the summer of 1984. Harley has not produced a Disc Glide model since, in spite of the fact that they subtly claimed they did, by putting that model name right below the Low Glide name—on the side of the shipping crates!) As for the others… The Super Glide II name on the air cleaner trim rings was finally replaced by trim rings that actually said Sport Glide and Low Glide. Because the Low Glide had received poor reviews from the magazines, since the lack of ground clearance adversely affected its handling and braking characteristics, Harley went ahead and created another new model in the winter of 1984. It was simply called an FXRS-SP with “Optional Performance/Suspension Package” and it had the taller suspension and dual-disc brakes of the FXRT Sport Glide but not the fairing and saddlebags. A limited-edition model that year was introduced in the winter and was called a 1985 FXRC Low Glide Custom. It was virtually identical to the FXRS Low Glide except for Candy Orange with Root Beer trim metal-flake paint, a tan-colored seat, wire wheels, a dozen (a first for H-D) chrome covers on the engine and transmission and a skinny XR-1000/XLX style “sport” front fender.

1986

The stripped-down Super Glide resurfaces as the base FXR, with conventional chain drive, and the FXRS Low Glide is renamed FXRS Low Rider, and retains the Sport Package (SP option) with longer-travel suspension and dual front brakes.

The FXRD Sport Glide Grand Touring based on a FXRT with foot boards, rubber-mounted bars, premium stereo, full luggage, 2-into-1 exhaust, special trim package was released as a revival of the original and special rear suspension with one air shock and one coil spring shock… the last Big Twin with enclosed chain drive.

• Revised turn signal switch.

• Front signals double as running lights.

1987

• First year with the ball and ramp clutch actuator and the narrow “sport” front fender as standard.

• FXRS-SP Sport Edition Low Rider debuts as a separate model featuring (formerly optional) longer suspension and dual-disc brakes.

• FXLR Low Rider Custom debuts with a solid rear wheel, 21″ front wheel, sport front fender, a small XL-type headlight, two-piece high handlebars with two cross braces, speedo mounted between bars, single filler fuel tank with no center console, black cylinders and crankcases w/chrome rocker, gear case, primary covers, highway pegs, belt final, single rear/front brakes.

1988

• New 39mm front forks.

• 850 numbered 85th Anniversary Edition FXRS bikes are produced in Black and Gold.

• Base FXR gets buckhorn handlebars.

1989

• New 40mm Keihin CV carbs.

• New “compound” starter, one-piece pinion shaft and right flywheel.

• FXRS-Convertible based on the FXRS is launched with quickly-removable windscreen and soft-sided panniers/saddlebags. (Only about 300 made in this first year.)

1990

• One-piece right-hand flywheels, and re-designed, much improved diaphragm clutches on splined transmission shafts.

1991

• Kevlar base gaskets, graphite head gaskets, new gas cap gasket, self-canceling turn signals, extra hole in transmission access door, two dowels on transmission end cover, air/oil separator in “cone” air duct tube, four-sided fuel inlet valve, transmission sprocket lock plate, locating dowel pins for the transmission support blocks, and black and chrome engine treatment.

• The Dyna line of motorcycles debuts with the 1991 FXDB Dyna Glide Sturgis.

1992

• New style grease fittings, new halogen headlight assembly, harder plunger in neutral switch, new style/more powerful horn, continuous vented gas tanks.

• Caged needle bearing for camshaft—(really bad idea! Full-complement Torrington bearings are required retrofit for cam changes.)

1993

• FXRS Low Rider and FXRT Sport Glide dropped.

1994

Depending on who you ask, Harley discontinued the FXR either because the frame was too expensive to make (a hand-assembled frame with many components and many welds), because it was too expensive to assemble the drivetrain, or because it was unpopular. (It was cutting into sales of the cheaper-to-build Dyna… so there!)

• Between ’91 and ’94, FXRs and Dynas were both produced… in roughly equal numbers annually.

1995

• No FXR models—although there was a brochure—so it must’ve been a last-minute decision!

1996–1998

• … Nada!… or Ditto!… or whatever.

1999

It’s baacck! Harley’s new CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations) produced the FXR2 and 3 as their first offerings. The FXR3 was a poseur’s FXR2 with a flame paint job, new chrome H-D wheels, and a load of chrome everywhere. H-D built about 900 of each model. (The well-debated myth, denied by H-D, is that Harley reissued the FXR to use up all the leftover FXR “stuff.” Officially, H-D wanted to prove they could manage low-volume “custom” production as well as the “clone” manufacturers. OK… better!)

2000

FXR4 goes further than the previous CVO versions. The chassis and 1340cc Evolution powertrain, and most of the mods that were made to the FXR2 and FXR3, are carried over, but the FXR4 boasts more goodies. Tear-drop-shape floating brake rotors, laced 19-inch front wheel, chrome drag bars, a solid FLSTF rear chrome wheel, a chrome rear sprocket cover, billet mirrors, a chrome lower guard, wide-band billet footpegs, grips and shifter peg, electronic speedo, a new seat, dual four-piston calipers, P&A rear shocks, sealed wheel bearings and a sealed battery. The production run was set for 970 units, and were available in either Screaming Yellow Pearl or Candy Tangerine paint schemes with new Eclipse graphics. The last Evolution Big Twin Harley.

The Code

The secret to telling exactly what you’ve got is in the VIN. The fifth and sixth position tells you the model:

EA—FXR—Rubber Mount Super Glide

EB—FXRS—Sport

EC—FXRT—Touring

ED—FXRP—Police (windshield)

EE—FXRDG—Disc Glide

EF—FXRP—Police (fairing)

EG—FXRS-SP—Low Rider Sport Edition

EH—FXRD—Deluxe Touring

EJ—FXRC—Custom

EK—FXRP—Police C.H.P. (California Highway Patrol)

EL—FXLR—Low Rider Custom

EM—FXR-C—Convertible (quick detachable saddlebags and windshield)

Now—what remains to be seen is what Harley-Davidson has up its sleeve as an FXR/Dyna replacement cradle for the Milwaukee-Eight engine in 2018. The M8 is superb… let’s fervently hope it’s given a chassis to match… as a fitting successor to the title “Best Handling Harley Big Twin.”

 

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