Few makes of motorcycle arouse such conflicting emotions as Harley-Davidson.
To lovers of fast, nimble sports machines in the European tradition, they’re slow, heavy and primitive. Others define the same characteristics as laid-back, solid and traditional, and are equally committed to motorcycling as conceived in Milwaukee. But considering the continuing popularity of the Hog clearly the American way has something going for it.
Years in Production
air-cooled 1212cc OHV V-twin
tubular steel cradle, single front downtube
drum / drum
1958 – 1964
The Duo-Glide is a case in point. By the time it appeared in 1958, pretty well everything it offered had already been done – and done better – by every other major manufacturer in the world. It didn’t much like corners, and was woefully under-braked. But, with its big, slow-revving engine, it was indisputably a Harley.
And it was beautiful.
Its roots went back at least to 1922 and the arrival of Harley’s first 74 cubic inch (1200cc) Vee twin model, the ‘F-head’ JD. In 1930 this became the VL which regressed from inlet-over-exhaust to full side -valve layout – hardly a go-ahead step. Another 11 years produced the Big Twin, now with overhead valves.
In 1948 another engine redesign saw the iron headed ‘Knucklehead’ replaced by the ‘Panhead’ , so – called because its rocker covers resembled upturned skillets. The alloy headed Panhead unit was some eight pounds lighter than before, ran cooler and used hydraulic valve ‘lifters’ instead of conventional push-rods. Bore and stroke remained the ‘traditional’ 87 by 101mm (or rather, as Americans still prefer it, 3 and 7/16 x 4 inches). 1947 also – whisper it quietly – marked the debut of a range of budget Harley two strokes that refused to go away for almost 20 years.
However the big event came a year later with the arrival of the first of Milwaukee’s ‘ Glide’ models. Although retaining a rigid rear end, the HydraGlide broke with the Harley reliance on leading-link forks. Instead, here was a Hog with a modern telescopic front-end. As if to compensate for this fit of novelty, the Hydra persevered with a uniquely American hand-change gearbox until 1952, and even later as a die-hard option.
The Duo-Glide was the logical next step. As well as real front suspension, the DuoGlide floated on a swinging-arm rear end, hence the name. The hydraulic rear brake was a gimmicky novelty, since both hubs contain tiny six inch single-leading shoe drums which struggle to haul down the ‘Glide’s substantial bulk.
Harley have always encouraged customising and tuning of their machinery, which invariably comes in a very low state of tune as standard. The example pictured is a 1960 FLH model. The ‘ H’ denotes ‘hot’ – the engine has an optional high-lift camshaft and higher compression pistons. Even so, power is modest , with a comfortable cruising speed not much more than 65mph. A ‘King of the Road’ package includes front and rear nudge bars, twin rear lights and a dual exhaust system.
When Duo-Glide production ceased in 1964, its successor was to become another American legend the Electra-Glide. The name, and the spirit , endures today. Indeed, current Harley styling, far from modernising the big Vee-twins, has sought to emulate the look of the fifties.
Along the way there have been major upheavals. Financial difficulties in the late sixties led to an ill starred merger with AMF, intense competition from Japan, and a disastrous decline in production quality. The eighties was to see a management buy-out which initially failed to halt further decline. In the nick of time a new, more reliable range of models, backed by a government tariff on imported models over 700 cc, allowed Harley to turn the tide.
Today the world’s oldest surviving motorcycle manufacturer is in good shape. No other marque is quite like it, and few now command the same passionate loyalty.
But for a while, it was touch and go.