Buying used - Harley-Davidson 80ci (1340cc) Evolution series

  Harley people (we'll include the factory and owners in that description) are still a bit stroppy about what they see as the general perception of the brand building slow and unreliable motorcycles. Farm machinery disguised as bikes.
There was something to that perception in the early eighties, particularly if you had the misfortune to ride a Shovelhead series bike - one built in the latter years of the ownership of American Machine & Foundry (AMF). Once the Evolution series bedded in, it was a different story.

In this article, we stick to the 80-cube Evos - we'll treat the Sportster variations as a different subject in a future edition.

Things changed dramatically in the mid-eighties when the company released the Evolution (Blockhead) series of 80-cube (1340cc) bikes. It was still an air-cooled, 45-degree, pushrod twin with two valves per cylinder, but quite a different animal to ride. We saw the first of them in 1984, at the same time Suzuki released its trend-setting sport bike - the GSX-R750 - and Kawasaki the definitive sport-tourer - GPZ900R. This was a really tough time to release a new Harley.

Sales skyrocketed in the late eighties with the support of the Harley Owners Group. The latter was a unique factory-supported user club established in 1983. It was to change the face of motorcycle marketing for the rest of the century. H-D was the first company to take advantage of a world-wide trend of recidivist motorcycling. That is, pick up on the people who were part of the bike boom of the seventies and early eighties, who decided to get back on a cycle.

The variations on the frames and powerplants are far too numerous to go through here, and we suspect only H-D has an accurate picture of what happened. Changes happened on the run, very rapidly. Perhaps the result of a lesson learned by watching the ability of the Japanese factories to produce new models at a scary rate while Brit and American enterprises slowly went under in prior decades.

The last of the big-bore Evo powerplants was officially declared deceased with the introduction of the MkII Twin Cam 88 powerplant for the Softail series in 1999, with a balance shaft.

On the road
A modest 60ps (depending on the market) pushing a 250 kilo cruiser may not sound like a recipe for performance. Compared to a sport bike, it isn't. However it was a revelation for Harleys, which basically owned the miniscule local cruiser market at the time.

Steering has always been slow and ultra stable, cornering clearance highly variable depending on the model, straight line urge modest but enough to manage 160-plus, braking mixed but generally awful, and suspension response ordinary.

Dial in the grin factor, which the series has in spades. It's been my belief, since the release of the Evos, that anyone who fails to enjoy the experience is dead from the toes up. Having that motopsycho "thump, whump, thump" happening on a sunny day at a leisurely pace is one of life's joys.

The powerplants, despite what you might hear, have always been good performers in the cruising world. Mild breathing mods have been enough to nail the best V-twin competitors from Japan in a straight line, while the Evo has been unusually efficient with fuel. Mileages of 20km/lt-plus are common at speeds up to 130kmh.

Riding an Evo hard is a peculiar technique - peculiar to big cruisers of all brands. Line the corner up and settle the chassis, fire at will on the exit. The result is surprisingly good point-to-point times.

Generally they have been more consistent in this department than their Japanese competitors. The only equivalent bike which has consistently beaten the series in the handling stakes has been the Moto Guzzi California.

In the workshop
As a day-to-day proposition, the belt-drive versions of the bike (there were a few early chain-drive FXRs) are exceptionally low-maintenance. Hydraulic lifters and solid-state ignition look after the engine tuning.

Regular changes of oil are critical. Ride it as hard as you like, but keep that side of the care up to speed.
Radically modded bikes may/will crack their cases, including those using the full-house Screamin' Eagle kit. Base gasket oil weeps were common up until the mid-nineties - easy to fix, but common.

The belt drive is very low-care, so long as it doesn't cop a rock or too much dust on a dirt road.
In theory, this is one of the easiest home-maintenance packages ever. Change the oil and filter, keep and eye on the belt plus the air-cleaner, and that's about it.

Which model?
That depends on who you ask, and why. Heavy Duty mag Editor Chris Beattie lists his fave Evos as the Fat Boy Softail with the disc wheels ("classic hard-tail look in a factory custom"), Road King ("sensational all-round package") and Dyna Wide Glide ("because they handle so well").

Like Chris, I've ridden most of the offerings since 1984. My choices are the base series such as FXR (early Evo) and FXD (nineties) for their delivery of the full H-D package at minimal cost, the Road King for its exceptional mix of comfort and handling, and the full-house ElectraGlide Ultra as an over-the-top tourer that's more tactile than the equivalent 'Wing. But I can't relate to the Softails, which are universally harsh in Evo form.

Our advice is to look for a bike that has the minimum number of engine and chassis mods to make it perform, with a look that suits you.

Beattie adds that it's critical to ensure the mods have been done by a reputable workshop, and that there's a documented service history. Given H-Ds have been a popular theft target, make sure you check the engine/chassis numbers with the local rego people before buying. You should do that regardless of the brand of bike.

This is a complete and utter can of worms as there is no such thing as a stock 80-cube Evo on the market. Chris Beattie suggests you should look at the mods as part of the package and analyse what you want.

I agree with his belief that thoughtful chassis mods are the first priority, while engine hot-ups usually need to be minimal to work well. A cam and well-sorted breathing is enough to unlock ample urge in the straight-line performance department. Going beyond that point will compromise reliability.

Beattie says that there are many good Australian makers of parts these days, but the overall advice is to look for a brand that's known.

Extras can add value, though it's unlikely to be the equivalent of the cost. Even Glass's guide, the used bike industry price watcher, admits that just about any Harley is a "special interest vehicle" ? which means that judging the value is a can of worms. You need to compare what's available.

Useful contacts
Local HOG groups - see any dealer. These groups are well-supported and have a number of members willing to offer advice. Ronnie Cramer's web search ( is a gem with lots of resources.
Guy Allen

Recent Harley history
This item comes via one of the many sites covered by Ronnie Cramer's web index. It covers some of the significant points in Harley's history leading up to and over the Evo period.

1981: H-D managers, led by AMF executive, Vaughan Beals, purchase Harley-Davidson from AMF for $75 million in a leveraged buy-out and developed new models and a new image. With improved manufacturing and quality process, many of the old flaws of the H-D design were resolved.
1982: FXR Super Glide II gets a rubber mounted engine and 5-speed transmission.
1983: President Reagan imposed additional tariffs on the import of Japanese motorcycles, improving Harley-Davidson's ability to compete against high-quality foreign manufacturers. Harley Owners Group (HOG) inaugurated. The XR1000 Sportster rolls out.
1984: Introduction of 1340cc Evolution engine and the FX Softail.
1986: By offering stock, Harley-Davidson once again becomes publicly owned and traded. Sportster 883cc Evolution debuts along with FL Heritage Softail. The latter sparks industry-wide retro-look styling. Company goes public with two million shares of common stock. H-D acquires Holiday Rambler, a luxury motorhome manufacturer.
1987: 30th Anniversary 1100cc Sportster. Electra Glide Sport, Heritage Softail Classic and Low Rider Custom are unveiled. H-D listed on New York Stock Exchange.
1988: Sportster grows again to 1200cc. H-D's 85th Anniversary celebration raises $600,000 for Muscular Dystrophy Association.
1990: The FLSTF Fat Boy is an instant success story. The new Dyna Glide series is launched with a Sturgis model to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Black Hills Classic in Sturgis, South Dakota. Attendance at this rally exceeds 250,000.
1991: Sportsters get five-speed transmissions. HOG Chapters reach 650 worldwide. Daytona Bike Week turns 50.
1992: Belt drives become universal on all models.
1993: To celebrate their 90th Anniversary, Harley pulls out the stops on Limited Edition models; Sportster, Low Rider, Wide-, Electra-, and Tour-Glides. Milwaukee hosts a birthday bash and 100,000-plus Harley riders converge on the city for a weekend.
1995: Harley introduces a new fuel injection system.
1996: Harley-Davidson sells Holiday Rambler and begins construction of a new distribution facility in Milwaukee for parts and accessories. Ridden by Chris Carr, the VR1000 finishes a respectable 10th place at the Daytona 200.
1998: Harley-Davidson unveils plans for the new twin cam 88ci V-twin

Guy Allen

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