Harley-Davidson is arguably the world’s most iconic motorcycle brand. However, the Harley-Davidson brand story didn’t start with fame and fortune. The company was founded in a small shed by brothers Walter and Arthur Davidson, and William Harley during 1903.
The actual Harley-Davidson story began in 1901, with a design for a small engine that could attach to a standard bicycle frame. William Harley refined this design over the years with his friends Arthur and William Davidson, to develop the first Harley-Davidson bike in 1903.
H-D encountered a few roadblocks on their path to success. Saying the company had taken a bleak turn by 1981 would be a serious understatement. Japan-made bike manufacturers were outselling them with lower pricing and better quality. Speaking of quality, while there had always been some quality issues - that was fairly common in the bike industry back in the day - throughout the '70s, Harley had been under AMF ownership, and quality had taken a nosedive.
The executives were faced with a simple choice: drastically improve their motorcycle quality and satisfy their customers, or go out of business. Harley-Davidson started copying Japan-made quality control and production techniques, which eventually led to the release of the Evolution engine - a game changer when it came to reliability.
Below we'll take a look at some of the bikes Harley-Davidson produced that were notorious for breaking down, and some that were actually good.
24 Always Broke Down: 1994 VR 1000
In 1994, Harley built its first true racing machine, powered by a liquid-cooled DOHC V-twin engine set at a 60-degree angle, instead of the traditional 45. Horsepower was rated at 135 at 10,000 rpm. It weighed a mere 375 pounds, thanks in part to its lightweight carbon fiber fairing.
The VR1000 never truly lived up to its promise. Engine troubles hobbled the bike early on, but by 1996, Harley actually won a race at Mid-Ohio with Tom Wilson on board, then a red flag at the finish put the race back a lap, and the win went to Pascal Picotte. By 2001, Harley had enough and disbanded the program.
23 Always Broke Down: 1999 Dyna
There was a potential major issue with the Harley-Davidson Twin-Cam engines. Which means the Dynas made prior to '06 are at risk. There is a positive side to it though - it can be fixed, and once it's dealt with, the Dyna can be a great bike to own.
The problem is the design of the cam chain system. Harley has made some changes in later model bikes, but even with the new hydraulic tensioning system, it is not a true fix. If not caught soon enough, this can be so bad that the entire engine can be destroyed; cams, pistons, crankshaft and even engine cases broken.
22 Always Broke Down: Ironhead Sportster
Reliability and Ironhead are not used in the same sentence very often. Hard starting, poor electrics and weak transmissions are the things that usually come to mind when asking someone who's into old Sportsters. Let's just say there's a reason you can pick up a vintage one for pennies.
Now, it might seem weird that we've included other Sportster-based bikes in this list as good ones, but there's a perfectly good explanation for this. The first models from the late '50s were great when compared to other bikes from that era, and the special edition bikes were great at what they were designed to do. But we still love the Sporty ride, with all its shortcomings.
21 Always Broke Down: 1969 Electra Glide
As of 1966, the Electra Glide received a modest power increase, with the introduction of the Shovelhead engine. But 1969 was the year the Electra Glide firmly cemented itself in the minds of Harley enthusiasts all over the world. It was the year the Electra Glide received the batwing fairing that's so well-recognized that even people who couldn't care less about Harleys know what it is.
Throughout the Shovelhead’s run, the engine had many different changes made to it to improve power, cooling and oil consumption. Numerous Harley technicians even stated that without necessary top-end modifications, the engines would often last only between 500 and 5,000 miles.
20 Always Broke Down: 1958 Topper
Harley released the Topper, a rebadged DKW, in 1958 and kept selling it until production ended in 1965. It was powered by a 165cc, air-cooled, two-stroke single that ran on premixed oil/gasoline and was started with a ripcord like a lawnmower. Some experienced problems with the Topper overheating, but that wasn't the only issue.
The first generation had a belt-driven "Scootaway Drive" CVT that was good in theory but had belt-slippage issues caused by road grime. In 1961 there was an upgraded "H" version released with an updated, sealed transmission that solved that problem. The Topper sold respectably until its end in 1965.
19 Always Broke Down: 1972 MC 65 Shortster
Shortster! It's like a Sportster, but smaller. Get it? This little wonder was only offered for one year, 1972, and was an attempt by Harley to cash in on the minibike craze and at the same time get kids into Harleys. They were powered by an Aermacchi 65cc two-stroke single mated to a three-speed transmission. It had a rudimentary suspension and internal expanding brakes and was apparently surprisingly fun.
Unfortunately for Harley, the plan didn't quite work. Those in Japan had the minibike market all sewn up. Neither "Italian-made" nor "Harley-Davidson" were watchwords for quality at the time, and no one was willing to buy this minibike when they could buy a cheaper, better, Honda Monkey.
18 Always Broke Down: 1936 Model E
The Knucklehead - the design that ensured Harley-Davidson made it through the Great Depression. While technical specifications and actual engine designation have changed immensely over the years, one can clearly see that modern Harleys are simply continuing this engine design. Without this engine, the company wouldn't have endured making any of the more great bikes in its roster that we know and love.
But the Knucklehead wasn't all good. The first engines built had problems with oil leakage, valve spring breakage, poor rocker lubrication, and leakage of oil from the top end.
17 Always Broke Down: 1949 FL Hydra-Glide
The Hydra-Glide was named as such because in 1949, the hydraulic forks we take for granted on modern bikes, were a brand new thing for Harley - as well as the rest of the motorcycle-buying public. Sure, people upgrade their suspensions all the time when customizing their bikes, but the basic reliability and popularity of hydraulic forks haven't changed over the years.
The FL Hydra-Glide was powered by a Panhead engine, which did come with some problems - the most common issue being valve-train noise as result of partially collapsed lifters. And there were the pushrod ball sockets that were known to break and leak, some bikes had sticky intake valves...
16 Always Broke Down: 1928 JDH
The JD may not have stood for “juvenile delinquency,” but it most certainly COULD have. Harley only manufactured the JDH from 1928 to 1929, but it was a pretty impressive machine and had an equally impressive top speed of 85 to 100mph.
It had a 1200cc, 74-cubic-inch engine, and Harley advertised it as being its “fastest model ever.” It probably was the world's first superbike. People tend to take powerful machines to their limit, and sometimes above it - which is exactly what happened to the JDH. Most examples have blown their engine at some point - good luck trying to find one where the cases haven't been welded.
15 Always Broke Down: 1909 Model 5D
Harley-Davidson is known for its V-twin engines, and this bike was the granddaddy of all the twins. Still, it wasn't perfect right out of the box. Harley historian Allan Girdler notes three problems with the 5D: a lack of belt tensioner, atmospheric intake valves that weren't up to the task of running a V-twin, and extreme difficulty in starting.
While it's true that the 1909 model wasn't a sales success, and that only two known 5Ds still exist, this first production V-twin paved the way for what became Harley's trademark. While 1910 saw no V-twins in Harley's lineup, 1911 saw the introduction of a much-improved version that capitalized on the mistakes made with the 1909 version.
14 Actually Good: 1958 Duo Glide
These days, a decent rear suspension is a must and pretty much taken for granted. But back in the 1950s, such a thing wasn't always a given. The first bike in the Harley lineup to feature a true rear suspension was the 1958 Duo-Glide, offered in FL and FLH form.
The new step-down frame featured a swingarm that attached to coil-over shocks in back. The suspension had three settings: solo, heavy rider, and two-up. Harley didn't remove the sprung seat. Instead, this new-fangled suspension was added in addition to the standard sprung seat, giving the rider the comfort of the old with the added comfort of the new.
13 Actually Good: 1994 Evo Sportster
The mid-90s Sportsters are arguably the best ones. By this point, the Evo engine had been perfected and pretty much bulletproof, yet the bike is still fairly basic and easy to maintain compared to the modern Sportster of today - which boasts fuel injection and rubber-mounted engine.
There’s no questioning the build quality of any Evo-engined Sportster, they are tough and have a reputation for being “agricultural” - just like tractors, it takes a lot to destroy them. No wonder the Sportster has been in continuous production since 1957.
12 Actually Good: 1958 XLCH
1957 marked the birth of a legend - The Harley-Davidson Sportster. To compare it to another US icon, let's say the original Sportster was the two-wheeled version of an underpowered Mustang, that would make the 1958 XLCH a competition-smashing 1960s AC Cobra.
The XLCH was fast, it was powerful, and it really beat all the competition - all of this happened because some Harley dealers in California asked if the factory could help out and do something for those customers who wanted to take their bikes racing. Clearly, someone at the factory had some tricks up their sleeves.
11 Actually Good: 1945 WLDR
In order to create the WLDR race bike, Harley took what it learned from making the WL and improved it. Unfortunately, the WLDR's impending popularity in the racing community was cut short by the outbreak of WWII.
Once it started, Harley discontinued this model in order to focus on building motorcycles for the other effort. But... the evolution of the engine from WL to WLDR and beyond eventually became the 1950s K model, which is one of the most important bikes in the company's history, and that pretty much makes the WLDR the great-granddaddy of the Sportster.
10 Actually Good: 1952-68 KR-750
Harley's next great race bike after the WR was the KR-750, and this was, of course, a side-valve design - in fact, it was the last side-valve design Harley would use in a race bike. It attracted the likes of tuning legends Tom Sifton and Gary Nixon, and it won many, many races in its day.
Like the WR, you could go to a dealer and buy one yourself. Sure, it wouldn't be tuned like some of the models in competition, but that meant you could tune it however you liked, then take your unique machine racing. And those who did actually stood a realistic chance of winning - assuming they knew what they were doing.
9 Actually Good: 1956 KHK
The K series had an advanced suspension for its time, featuring telescopic front forks and a dual shock and swingarm setup in the rear - an attempt to capitalize on the shortfalls of the competition.
The KHK was actually a factory kit owners could apply to the K to make it significantly sportier. It offered the promise of a sporty future at a time when Harley was at a crucial crossroads. The K model was the predecessor of what would become Harley's longest running production bike - The Sportster.
8 Actually Good: 1977 XLCR Cafe Racer
In 1977, Harley decided to get in on the action with a factory offering to the enthusiastic custom bike builder scene: the XLCR.
The bike was a very radical styling departure from anything Harley had ever done before - at most, the bike had a slim resemblance to some of its race bikes. So what was the XLCR Cafe Racer all about? Well, at 515 lbs, with fluids, it was a relatively lightweight Harley that could actually go around corners with ease.
7 Actually Good: 2001 VRSC
The VRSC was introduced in 2001, and most people know it as the V-Rod.
It marked a radical design departure for Harley, which until now had specialized in keeping a cool retro look on their bikes. With the V-Rod, Harley seemingly threw its own playbook out the window and started fresh.
Sensing competition from the big Japan cruisers, and the resurgent US cruiser manufacturers, Harley stepped away from its own past, toward a different market than it had previously recruited. The engine was now a water-cooled 60-degree V-twin, known as the Revolution engine, which was developed jointly with Porsche.
6 Actually Good: 1990 FLSTF Fat Boy
In 1990 the H-D Fat Boy borrowed some parts from the Heritage Softail Classic and then stole some more parts from the Softail Custom. All these parts were then recombined in order to create something that was dramatically different, stylistically speaking, than anything Harley had previously offered.
There was solid disc wheels and flared fenders. A 1950s bomber look, straight from the factory. It was a bit like the Jetsons version of a Harley, only way cooler than that sounds. More importantly, people bought it. Like most bikes, the Fat Boy received updates and upgrades over the years but it isn't known to be particularly prone to breaking down.
5 Actually Good: 1982 FXR
The first FXRs arrived in the showrooms in 1982. Designed in part by Erik Buell, it had a reputation as a true rider machine. It handled well, was very fast, and had less mechanical problems than previous Harleys. In 1985, there was a Sports version with improved brakes and suspension.
After the initial discontinuation of the FXR, Harley decided this bike was so special that it brought back limited-edition versions called the FXR2, FXR3, and FXR4 from 1998 to 2000. Some considered them to be the first Harley CVO bikes, though they didn't bear CVO designation.
4 Actually Good: 1970 XR750
The XR750 is nothing short of a legend. It has been in production since 1970 and has completely dominated the flat-track racing series. It's almost getting to the point where other manufacturers are just giving up hope to ever beat it.
Many have tried and failed to topple its dominance. The XR750 just keeps on winning. And winning. And winning. As a matter of fact, as of this writing, it's still considered the winningest bike in AMA history. That's more than enough street cred for us, and clearly, a sign that this bike is not prone to breaking down.
3 Actually Good: 1921 8-Valve Racer
Harley never sold this bike to the public - Not because they had no desire to do so, but because it wasn't priced to sell. The asking price of $1,500 was a huge amount in 1921, and well out of reach of most guys who might have considered taking it racing.
In 1921 it set a record in as the first motorcycle on which a race was won at more than 100mph. This was the start of the famous Harley-Davidson "Wrecking Crew" - the factory racing team that consistently dominated the floor with the competition.
2 Actually Good: 1919 Model J
In 1915 the Model J was introduced. The company offered a total of 17 different models that year. Initially rated at 6.5 horsepower, its output rose to 8.68 in 1929. Racing models pulled 55 horsepower from a 61 cubic inch engine in 1915. Its withdrawal from the market because of high production costs nearly caused a dealer revolt.
Racing models were crazy fast, including one that set a class speed record of 103 mph at Daytona in 1920. It may not look like much now, but it was state-of-the-art back in its day, and Harley wouldn't be where they are today without it. That makes it an instant classic, as far as we're concerned.
1 Actually Good: 1993 MT350E - MT500
The MT350E and MT500 came out of an inherited design - when the Armstrong-CCM company collapsed.
The 500 was made available for sale to the general public through Harley dealers in the U.S., but the 350E was strictly for other use. These tough, dual-sport bikes were built to take abuse, and to be dropped at a moment's notice. Allegedly, they were even dropped out of helicopters, though nobody proved it as far as we know. This bike was really durable, to say the least.
Sources -Lowbrowcustoms, Legend45, Antiquemotorcycle, Motorcycleclassics & Motorcyclecruiser