By the end of the AMF dark age, Harley-Davidson looked like Western Europe at the end of World War II. The Shovelhead didn’t have the best reputation in the world, consumer confidence was at an all-time low, and foreign sportbikes, with their fun handling and rather cheap price tags, were gobbling up market share faster than Pac-Man on crack. H-D needed a phoenix to pull it out of the ashes and they needed it yesterday. Today, we know the sexy beast born of those ashes as the FXR.
The FXR’s mission was to show the world that Harley could produce a rider’s bike engineered for fun handling and not just for cruising around in a straight line. It was meant to be the happy marriage of the (then) high-displacement 80-inch American V-twin to sportbike-esque handling.
“Around the company, the FXR was considered an engineer’s bike,” said Bob LeRoy, who joined the company in 1979 and worked as a designer on the FXR team. “It had a higher seat height and footpegs to give it more lean angle, and it produced much less vibration to the rider, so it felt more sophisticated. You could go out and have some fun on an FXR carving canyons, not just cruise around.”
There’s a tendency to think the FXR magically sprouted out of the ground in 1981. Don’t you believe it. Its pappy was the 1971 Super Glide, which mated a four-speed FL frame to a Sportster FX frontend. Billed as Harley’s first factory custom, the Super Glide sold less than 5,000 models; it wasn’t exactly a sales superstar. The idea had been to compete with growing aftermarket supply makers by taking parts from the XL and Big Twin lines and merging them in one mutant machine to draw in customers. In fact, when Harley launched the FXR in 1981 and 1982, its name was, indeed, the Super Glide II.
By this time H-D had shed AMF’s yolk and lots of new projects were in the works to bring the brand back from the dead. Obviously, the FXR was one of them. In the 10 years since the Super Glide’s less-than-stellar release, Harley’s engineers determined that their existing frames were totally unsuited to the job of competing with Japan’s sporty super bikes. That, and input from a pro racer who’d later have a sportbike company of his own, led to the FXR we know and love.
A Buell’s Errand
Most conversations about the FXR tend to treat it like Harley’s Holy Grail, and when it was launched, that was true. Like the old King Arthur legend though, the path to this sacred object was fraught with peril. As Bob LeRoy once said, “Instead of heavy castings, the FXR frame had a lot of welded stamped-steel parts. This was before the era of robotic welding, so it all had to be assembled by hand. It was expensive and difficult to manufacture.” Erik Buell, whose input was instrumental in the FXR’s development, let us pick his brain about the development process.
What was the overall goal in designing the FXR going in?
EB: The FXR was planned to be the FX derivative of the FLT, just as the FX was of the FL. However the FLT was so odd because of its frame geometry that a new frame was designed with a similar mount system to the FLT.
How did you get involved with the FXR?
EB: I was initially involved in testing the chassis and making it work. When I got there it had very bad handling. At that time, H-D engineering and product planning were trying to improve H-D quality, to modernize the product line because it fell so short of the competition in every way and sales were dropping. So they were listening to the engineering group.
What would you have done differently about the design?
EB: Me? I just worked there and did my best to make what they wanted work as well as I could. Y’all ought to know by now that big cruisers are not what I like. I think we made it a lot better than any H-D before. How would I do a performance cruiser? Well the world likely will never know! Well maybe Ed Burke from Yamaha and a few others do, but that’s a different story…
What was the greatest difficulty designing it?
EB: Again, I did not design it; I was involved in the re-design. Initially it handled much worse than even the FX. It wobbled almost continuously around the old Bendix proving grounds. You would have to have been there to realize how bad. Within the constraints we had on size, style, appearance, it was really hard to make it work. There were a lot of cool things done to make it as good as it became, but they were not evident to the eye. To figure out how to fix it, first we had to understand what was wrong. We had some theories, but the biggest thing I did was to design a bunch of data collection equipment that allowed us to understand which of the simultaneous equations that were in play were the dominant ones and to quickly evaluate the value of fixes.
What do you like most about the FXR?
EB: The handling. We really did get it quite good for such a big bike. In my opinion, it also had clean styling lines that I liked on a cruiser. If it had weighed 150 pounds less and been 10 inches shorter, I woulda liked it more.
What was your part in its genesis?
EB: More than anything I became the voice and push of the other guys working on it who wanted to make it work. I brought the intensity and skills of a sportbike/AMA expert rider and a passion to make things right. I pushed really hard to fix it, both vocally and then by following up proving the fixes worked by building test equipment and procedures, measuring competitors to set goals, and then doing 80 percent of the performance development testriding. I believed it was important to make the bike into a really good one, rather than what we initially had, which was a motorcycle with reduced engine vibration that wallowed all over the road. You would have to have ridden one of the prototypes to know how bad it was. I wish we had video.
Why was it discontinued?
EB: In my opinion, fundamentally it was a combination of nostalgia, the aging customer base, and the growth of non-rider owners which made vintage looks more desirable than handling. It was also more expensive and time-consuming to build than other models, and when other models became more popular, then the business decision was simple. Its job was done.
Who else had the greatest influence over the FXR’s design, inside or outside of the company?
EB: The look came first, and I know it came out of styling … probably Louie and another young (at that time!) guy there. But the function, which is the real core of the FXR, came from riders. There was a young group of engineers and test guys who actually rode a lot, so we made it a rider’s bike. I remember being approached way back when by some Hells Angels, who thanked me for being part of building the FXR that finally had made a Harley a rider’s bike again. It was definitely a different type of duty cycle than racing, but those guys rode hard and knew that the FXR was built for speed.
What could Harley have done better on the project?
EB: I think we did well with it. It got by far the best reviews in the magazines that any H-D had done for a while. At that time the magazines were technically driven, and not lifestyle. So the improvements in technology really got those journalists’ attention. The original shovelhead engine was awful, but the Evo motor came soon. The FXR got H-D through the dark times until the market changed. Could we have done more? H-D was very small and the engineering group more so. We did everything we possibly could.
What did Harley do really well with it?
EB: Two things. One, they (Harley-Davidson) delayed the launch and allowed us to fix it. This was hard because they were hurting for sales. But if the FXR had launched in its original state, it would have been a disaster. Two, understanding the market situation. I truly believe it was one man there more than anyone else: Vaughn Beals. He understood so much about people, and he got that H-D needed to make a statement that there was technical capability and change inside the organization. I think if this bike and some others that never made big sales numbers had not been produced, H-D would have gone under. There was a lot of hate from some inside against any change, but we really needed these new products. The sales were not huge, but they turned around, and the sales started going to different group of people. Remember, H-D sales had dropped to about a third of their peak of near 80,000 in 1977, and at under 30,000 units per year, H-D was less than twice the size Buell was in 2009 when it was shut down. And this is in an era where Japanese motorcycle sales were huge in comparison. H-D was really on the verge of being irrelevant.
Harley Gets a Stiffy
When the polished FXR hit the street, it had the lightest weight and stiffest frame of any Big Twin of its time. The computer-designed, all-welded frame had a huge box-section backbone, thicker diameter tubing, and massive gusseting around the steering head. That’s what made the FXR chassis the stiffest frame Harley ever produced. The frame teamed with a new five-speed gearbox with a shorter shift linkage for more aggressive shifting.
If you’re wondering why Harley-Davidson didn’t do even more with the bike when it launched, consider this: In the wake of the AMF buyout, the company was so short on resources and time, it had to commit those resources in one area and really make it count. That’s a big part of why the FXR will always be remembered for its chassis above all else — it was the focal point of the engineers’ love and attention. It was designed to use the FLT powertrain in an FX frame with the swingarm bolted to the rear of the transmission to adapt the guts to the new bones.
The new frame also led to higher speeds. Between the FXR’s gearing and rubber mounts to reduce vibration, street riders felt more confident in the bike when opening up the throttle. If you were used to the four-speed FLT, hopping on the new five-speed FXR, with its stiffer suspension, Showa shocks, and higher ground clearance, was not just an invitation to hooliganism, it could restore your faith in humanity. Well, American engineering anyway. Usually when you add a somewhat raked-out fork set to a longer wheelbase like the FXR did, you set the tone for straight stability but turns like pulling teeth. Harley got around that with the seat height and the engine position, both of which kept the center of gravity low to compensate.
In 1982 Harley introduced the FXR platform with the FXR Super Glide II and the FXRS. The Glide sported laced wheels but the FXRS was the same bike only with cast wheels and two-tone paint. Both had a 3.8-gallon Fat Bob fuel tank with a console that incorporated the fuel cap and a fuel gauge. Its thick seat flipped up, giving access to the battery and oil tank. Both bikes ran triple disc brakes and sporty Dunlop tires.
Sales were great. So much so that the FXRs were the top selling Big Twins for the year. Harley immediately began introducing other models on the FXR platform. The first was the notable FXRT Sport Glide in 1983. It was a sport tourer with a frame-mounted fairing and hard bags that were originally designed for the Nova, the liquid-cooled V-Four project that was abandoned for lack of funding after the AMF buyout. The scoop vents along the sides of the FXRT fairing were developed in a wind-tunnel to feed air to the Nova’s underseat radiator.
In 1985, the FXR went through a transitional period as it made the leap to the brand new, bulletproof Evolution motor. Most of the FXRs produced for that year had said mill, a beltdrive, and a five-speed transmission. Early in the model year though, the factory was till phasing over to the new parts. As a result, some still had tapered drive shafts, a dry clutch with a shovel-style clutch-actuating fork, and maybe even a chaindrive.
According to LeRoy, “I think that sales for the original FXR slipped pretty quickly. So we kept the volume going by adding models. But by the late ’80s the company realized that the FXR was not what the market wanted. Maybe it felt too much like the import competition. That’s when we went to work on the Dyna.”
The Dyna line of motorcycles premiered with the ’91 FXDB Dyna Glide Sturgis. When the factory introduced the FXD skeleton, it was dubbed the “internal frame” because H-D’s marketing determined people didn’t like seeing those triangular rear tubes found on the FXR frame. The FXDL began its production in 1993. Between 1991 and 1994, FXRs and Dynas were both produced with 1994 the FXR’s last model year.
Another advantage of the Dyna was its ease of manufacture. FXR frames were more difficult to make, thus costing more money, which when combined with flagging sales, were what really killed the FXR. The Dyna Glide’s job was to look more like the old FX Super Glide while being easier to roll off the line. It was lower to the ground, ran more rake than the FXR, and its battery box was exposed. The Dyna Glide was also the first Harley to be designed completely with Computer Aided Design (CAD). The ’91 FXDB Sturgis launched the Dyna Glide platform, and by 1995, various FXD models replaced the last of the FXR variants.
Much like the Star Trek franchise, the FXR refused to die after cancellation. It came back in 1999 when Harley launched its CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations) program with two models, the FXR2, with a 21-inch laced front wheel, and the FXR3, with a 19-inch cast front wheel. The idea with CVO was to produce exclusive, low-volume custom bikes; only 900 examples of each of the 1999 models were built. For 2000, CVO assembled a 1,000-unit run of the FXR4, which marked the real end of FXR production. There’s an old myth that tells us Harley launched CVO just to use up an old pile of FXR frames left in a factory corner, but the truth is the tooling was on hand and the bikes could be built for a limited run without disrupting regular production. Seeing as how the FXR originated from production custom roots in the ’70s, it’s pretty cool its run ended by coming full circle that way.
“We all loved the bike. You could run it into a corner and tip it over to oblivion and it just all worked.” –FXR Engineer Mark Tuttle.
What’s in a Name?
In this case, everything. The FXR’s name/initials sum the bike up as efficiently as its chassis handles in a deep mountain curve.
F = Big Twin
X = Sportster frontend
R = Rubber engine mounts