Going The Distance

Baggers Are Back … or Did They Ever Leave?

“I can see it as a single issue publication every year, but a monthly magazine? I’m not so sure.” That was my reaction when someone told me Primedia’s (now Source Interlink’s) plan to make Hot Bike Baggers a monthly publication back in late 2006. At the time I thought custom baggers were a bit of a fad. I was wrong, dead wrong, and it’s the happiest I’ve ever been about being wrong in my life. I underestimated the bagger faithful and now that I know just how deep touring goes into the history of motorcycling, I can see why.

“You May Ask Yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”

We tend to think the first dedicated touring scoots were born in the ’50s or ’60s. Technically, that’s true. The modern two-wheeled luxury liner didn’t come to fruition until after World War II. It also wasn’t delivered by a stork. Much like its biological counterpart, the touring bike’s conception was far from clean, let alone immaculate. While it’s clear when these first ships-of-the-line hit the road, riders took long-distance trips on motorcycles with saddlebags decades before Harley-Davidson’s first Hydra Glide rolled off the assembly line. In fact, William Harley took out a patent for a motorcycle saddlebag as far back as 1921. Motorcycles had shown their value on the battlefield during World War I, as scouts, couriers, and even ambulances. Like my ex-girlfriend from college, motorcycles have carried baggage practically since they were born. They just didn’t do it in luxury until the ’50s.

Between World Wars these proto-baggers served domestically, too; mostly as police bikes. Some brave souls rode them long distances, though. Motors puked oil and weren’t nearly as bulletproof as they are now, hard roads and primitive suspensions had arguments that often ended with a rider on the roadside looking for a lift to the garage. You could voyage on a ’20s or early 30s scoot, but it was just as much a test of your willpower as your motorcycle’s.

Motorcycling had gotten better by the time Harley launched its first FL in 1941. Five years earlier, H-D’s Knucklehead V-twin debuted, setting a style and engineering standard for Harley-Davidson that’s continued and evolved to this day. While the FL carried a larger (74ci) OHV Knuck than the smaller 61-incher in the EL, both bikes (as well as the U-series models) shared the same frame. The FL eventually replaced the flathead-powered UH and ULH bikes as Harley’s heavy hitter.

It was also a really clear break-away point from the old bicycle-with-a-motor look that marked early motorcycles in ancient history. With its Big Twin motor, comfy large seat, leather bags, and crash bars, the FL not only gave Harley the basis for its vintage legacy, it also laid the groundwork for the Hydra Glide — the mother of Harley’s touring line.

And then World War II happened.

The world of luxury riding had to wait a few years while the Allied Powers first got a grip on the Axis war machine, then systematically dismantled it piece by brutal piece. It took Harley three years to start changing the FL after the war’s end. That’s when it and the EL were given the improved Panhead motors, with their lighter aluminum cylinder heads for better cooling and self-adjusting hydraulic lifters.

The Panhead made for greater reliability, which allowed for longer trips in the saddle. It was the first of three big changes Harley-Davidson aimed toward smoother sailing on the road. A year later, in 1949, Harley upgraded the FL again with a new front suspension and a model name to go along with it — the Hydra Glide. It was the first production H-D to run a hydraulically damped telescopic fork set. In 1952, the FL’s third player in the trio took the stage. That’s when Hydra Glides received foot shifting as an alternative to the standard hand shifter. All of these upgrades made for smoother running but it took a Brit company to fill in the final blanks for the realized bagger as we know it.

The Tale of the Black Prince

An ocean away from Milwaukee, Vincent Motorcycles was hard at work raising a Black Prince in merry olde England. Made in ’54 and ’55, it may be the world’s first luxury production bike. How could it not be? When your company’s founder describes a motorcycle as, “A two-wheeled Bentley,” it’s a pretty safe bet he’s not aiming for a no-frills basic day-tripper.

The Black Prince’s biggest innovation was its fully enclosed body style — hard bags, a handlebar fairing, side panels, and leg lowers. These were the last pieces of the luxury bagger puzzle Har-Dav’s FL lacked. Dated styling caused Vincent sales to plummet in the early ’50s; the Black Prince was the luxury machine made to appeal to affluent customers who may not want to run around in motorcycle gear. By shielding the rider from wind and debris, the idea was that you could ride the bike around in a suit and still look good when you got where you were going.

When the Black Prince was launched at the 1954 Earls Court motorcycle show, it met a mix of love-it-or-hate-it reviews. Its biggest drawback may have been timing, though. While the economy was certainly ready for a high-end luxury motorcycle, small affordable cars were all over the vehicle market, making the Black Prince (and its parent company) a lost cause. When the last Black Prince left the production line on Friday, December 16, 1955, Vincent Motorcycles closed its doors as well.

Meanwhile, Back in the States …

Harley and its competitors didn’t jump right up and start making Black Prince knock-offs right out of the gate, though. The other manufacturers took to deluxe luxury rides in fits and starts. While Vincent was busy with its Bentley-inspired bike, H-D transitioned the FL to the FLH when it switched over to a more highly tuned engine with high-compression heads, higher-lift cams, and polished ports in 1955.

Three seemed to be the magic number for the FLH’s continuous evolution that decade. In ’58, Harley gave it a new frame with a swingarm and coil shocks, resulting in the Duo Glide.

Duh Nuh Nuh Nuh Nuh Nuh Batwing!

It wasn’t until the late ’60s that Harley realized its full-grown bagger with the completed Electra Glide. In particular, 1965 was a huge year for the FL. H-D gave its Big Twins an electric starter, resulting in the Electra Glide. The new bike was also the last production year for the old Panhead motor, making ’65s the only H-Ds with both that motor and an electric starter (and very valuable to later collectors in the process).

Three years after the Shovelhead’s premier (and that of the Batman TV show), the Electra Glide got what is now known as the Batwing fairing in 1969. This fork-mounted windbreaker came as a removable option early on but in later years, not so much. That’s because Harley moved the instrumentation from the top of the gas tank to the inner fairing.

Go, Go, Godzilla

All of this came at a time when chopping was the name of the game. Japan and Britain aimed for lighter, faster iron as the FLH grew bigger and more luxurious. Having said that, Honda saw the potential in long distance touring at this time, leading to the legendary Gold Wing in 1974.

All throughout the late ’50s and ’60s, America had gotten bigger and smaller. It was an economic Goliath whose strength relied on things like better transportation to get products to customers across country and around the world. Domestically, that meant Eisenhower’s highway system. While it was sold to Congress as a job-creating Cold War defense project, it also made cross-country driving (and riding) a lot easier than ever before. As motorcycles had gotten better, so had America’s roads. That’s the culture that met the Gold Wing when it came out in 1974. The world was finally ready for the concept Vincent envisioned the year before it went out of business.

When the Gold Wing entered the public eye at the IFMA - Internationale Fahrrad- und Motorrad-Ausstellung (International Bicycle and Motorcycle Exhibition; today Intermot) in Cologne, it ran on a flat-four 999cc (61ci) engine and had a dry weight of 590 pounds. More than 13,000 were sold in the US the following year.

Even though Honda considered the Gold Wing a touring bike, it had no fairing back then. Luggage and fairing accessories soon followed, though, as Vetter Fairing Company offered up its new Windjammer series. Even when the GL 1000 version had its final run in 1979, the Gold Wing still didn’t come with a fairing.

Honda’s follow-up version was the new GL 1100. In the four decades since the Gold Wing’s birth, Honda worked very hard to keep the Gold Wing as luxurious as possible with huge bags, high displacement, and innovations like a Reverse gear to make this movie monster of a motorcycle as high-tech as possible. The argument could be made that the Gold Wing, more than any other production motorcycle, set the modern standard for what all-day comfort on two wheels could be.

Not everyone liked the Gold Wing’s “bigger is better” attitude, especially since luxury vehicles tend to come with equally luxurious price tags. Honda offered up the Silverwing as the Gold Wing’s cheap little brother. It was a mid-sized touring bike powered by Honda’s CX500 engine. You could get it either naked or in an Interstate version with a large fairing, hard bags, and a trunk. Riding the Silverwing with the trunk out back was a solo affair; if you wanted room on the seat for a passenger, you either took off the trunk or bought an aftermarket extender that placed the trunk further back.

Hail the King, Baby

For Harley, you might say the Gold Wing created a conundrum. Its high-tech approach pulled consumers in the opposite direction of Harley-Davidson’s nostalgic, American classic mindset. Fierce foreign competition forced Harley to take a good, hard look at its business model in the ’80s and while people loved the look and style, it has walked a fine line between keeping up with changing technology to draw new customers without alienating the faithful in the process. In 1980 Harley countered its competition with the FLT and its rubber-isolated drivetrain, new frame, five-speed transmission, and trailing front fork, all of which served up better handling without radically altering the look of its touring line. Thirteen years later, Harley-Davidson launched the FLHR Road King as a throwback to the old FLs that originally set the tone for touring twins back in 1941. Thankfully, H-D had the good sense not to use the ugly raised solo butt cradle that the FL called a seat. In 1995, 30 years after the birth of the Electra Glide, the 30th Anniversary Ultra Classic Electra Glide came out as the first production Harley-Davidson motorcycle to include sequential port electronic fuel injection.

Up until this point, though, baggers were relegated to the shadows of bike building. Customizing a bagger still meant either stripping it down (if you were young or trying to be) or new paint and making it more comfortable (if you were part of the Winnebago crowd or didn’t mind if everyone thought so anyway).

The ’90s and early 2000s were all about choppers. At least, until younger builders like Brian Klock, John Shope, and Paul Yaffe realized you could take all of this cool computer-aided design or old-school craftsmanship and make some extremely badass custom jobs out of the “old man’s Harleys.” Cycle Visions took a really radical step in 2003 with its Road Rod conversion kit, which let Vrod owners add Road Glide bags, trunk, and shark-nose fairing to H-D’s Porsche-designed, water-cooled hot rod. Even as production chopper shops were closing their doors in 2006 and 2007, more savvy builders were expanding the custom bagger market and consumers were hungry to buy.

Harley and the other big manufacturers have all expanded their touring lines to match, too. Foreign makers now have baggers in a full gamut of displacements while Harley-Davidson redesigned its touring frame in 2009 to eliminate perceived bagger wobble, as well as giving us the stripped-down Street Glide.

William Harley took out a patent for a motorcycle saddlebag

1921 |

1941 |

Harley launched its first FL

1949 |

Harley upgraded the FL again with a new front suspension and a model name to go along with it — the Hydra Glide. It was the first production H-D to run a hydraulically damped telescopic fork set. In 1952, the FL’s third player in the trio took the stage. That’s when Hydra Glides received foot shifting as an alternative to the standard hand shifter.

1960|

Harley realized its full-grown bagger with the completed Electra Glide.

I am Iron Butt

In 1984, a group of riders held the first Iron Butt rally at the Montgomery Cycle Center near Philly. It’s dedicated to endurance riding, not for the weak of backside, and perfect for touring lovers. If your idea of a good time is knocking down a thousand miles in less than 24 hours, you have a home here, in what is now the Iron Butt Association. In fact, that’s the only ticket into the association.

Getting in makes you eligible for a drawing for the yearly Iron Butt rally. If you’re name comes up, you’re allowed to compete in a grueling moto-marathon that often lasts more than 11 days and covers more than 11,000 miles. Events have at least one checkpoint and a series of bonus locations, adding a cool strategic element as you plan which bonuses to hit and the best routes to get them done.

Enthusiast Girl

If you want a good idea of how rough “touring” was in the ’20s and early ’30s, consider the story of Vivian Bales, aka “Enthusiast Girl.” At 5 feet 2 inches tall, and all of 95 pounds, she couldn’t even kick-start the bike that she taught herself to ride in the ’20s. After she made the 300-mile run from Albany, Georgia, to St Petersburg, Florida, on her Model B Single, she upgraded to a 1929 45 Twin D, wrote to Hap Jameson, editor of Harley’s magazine, The Enthusiast, and told him she planned on making the solo trip up north on her new ride. Bales’ famous ride took place in the summer of 1929 and was featured in many national publications, as well as The Enthusiast. Local dignitaries and Harley dealers came out to meet her as she passed through their towns. By the time she was done, she covered 5,000 miles but it took 78 days to do it.

Harley countered its competition with the FLT and its rubber-isolated drivetrain, new frame, five-speed transmission, and trailing front fork, all of which served up better handling without radically altering the look of its touring line.

1980 |

1995|

30 years after the birth of the Electra Glide, the 30th Anniversary Ultra Classic Electra Glide came out as the first production Harley-Davidson motorcycle to include sequential port electronic fuel injection.