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Excellent Reference Reading:

Harley – Davidson  Evolution Motorcycles 
Greg Field
MBI Publishing 2001

Illustrated Buyer’s Guide
Harley Davidson Since 1965
Allan Girdler
MBI Publishing  1998

UPDATED: November 24, 2008

The vastness of such a topic must have a beginning point, so where does one proceed when trying to figure out the birth of what many consider to be the very best chassis Harley Davidson has ever created.  Some might go on to say that the FXR could possibly be one of Harley Davidson's most successfully designed light touring cruisers ever.  It's only quite obvious that Harley Davidson's History began in 1903, and charging all the way back to this beginning point would undoubtedly provide anyone with a proper foundation but to go through so many years to arrive where this story begins would be basically pointless given the scope of my interest.  Most assuredly anyone could argue with my beginning point but suffice it to say our story begins with its roots in the middle 70's. 

In 1976, Vaughn Beals joins Harley-Davidson's managment team as Deputy Group Executive of the Motorcycle Group, and is charged with the task of rebuilding the company to improve quality and productivity. Beals would later that year, convene his upper management to a series of meetings which were held in Pinehurst, North Carolina, "dubbed" the "Pinehurst Meetings" with the aim of mapping out a 10-year product plan for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. There it was decided that due to the proliferation at the time of high-tech motorcycles from other countries, and their wide acceptance by American motorcyclists, a redesign of the current 74 (1,200cc) shovelhead engine would be insufficient to guarantee the company's long-term growth. So planners proposed a two-pronged strategy to ensuring Harley's future:

First, because of the established product line's loyal following, they set into motion an advanced V-twin project with the goal of updating the shovelhead Big Twin and Ironhead Sportster. The eventual result was the Evolution engine.

Second, At the same time, an all-new machine with advanced technology would be developed to appeal to riders who wanted more contemporary performance. Harley's engineers laid out a number of concepts on the Pinehurst table, including a series of motorcycles powered by three basic multicylinder, water-cooled engines in six displacements-the Nova family-all incorporating the latest technology. By the close of the Pinehurst meetings, the planners had mapped out Harley's future as a manufacturer of both traditional and cutting-edge motorcycles.

Out of these meetings, the NOVA Project came to read more:


The Nova's demise sparked Harley-Davidson's resurgence. Cutting Nova funds was one of the reasons Beals led the so-called "gang of 13" to propose buying the company back from AMF. AMF agreed, and on February 26th 1981, signed a letter of intent to purchase Harley-Davidson from AMF and by mid-June Harley-Davidson became a privately held company. Highly leveraged with an enormous bank debt, Harley's future options boiled down to just two-either continue development of the Evolution V-twin, or build the Nova. The Nova was the long-range hope, the 10-year promise. But air-cooled twins promised the most immediate cash flow. And so the Nova died.

Moving beyond the "Nova Project", It was during the fall of 1979, that Harley Davidson introduced New for the 1980 model year the FLT Tour Glide. This granddaddy of the full dressers had carved itself a dedicated following among Harley-Davidson touring enthusiasts. Until the launch of the Tour Glide, every Electra Glide since the 1963 inaugural year had worn basically the same clothes; the FLT was considered revolutionary for its side-by-side twin headlights in a redesigned frame-mounted fairing. It was born with a 5-speed transmission, hard bolted to the engine.

Also in 1980 the FLT Tour Glide's drive train sported a new enclosed oil-bath chain keeping the rear end clean while more than doubling the chain life itself helping to make the FLT less maintenance intensive than other Harley's of that time.  Other features included new electronic intruments inside of the fiberglass wind-eliminator all aimed at allowing the long-distance rider to stay in the saddle for hours on end. Primary among these add-ons was a CB radio that allowed riders to keep in contact with long-haul truckers along the way.

The new frame of the FLT was the first to use the “exclusive” Harley-Davidson Tri-mount chassis with the three-point maintenance-free automotive type elastomer engine mounted system – one in the front and two at the frame junctions to the transmission which eliminated most of the big twin’s characteristic vibration, revised steering geometry and a fully enclosed drive train which meant higher reliability and lower maintenance helped in taking a huge step forward in reclaiming some of the touring riders who had been defecting.

The Tour Guide’s unique front end arrangement, combined with its remarkable 35 degree lean-angle and computer designed frame, made it the easiest maneuvering, best handling fully dressed tourer currently available at that time.

It was later in 1985, that the FLT became the FLHT and received the Evolution engine and a five-speed transmission. The extra gear felt like an overdrive had been installed and upped the FLT's top speed from 98 to 105 MPH. Not as outright plush as current touring rigs, but timeless and capable in its own way.

In part, I am spending these few moments drawing one's attention to the these frames only to highlight as time progresses how the chassis of the FLHT's give rise to our contemporary FLHT models as well as our FLHR models and it's this "parallel" that offers support as to why the FXR chassis is as comfortable to ride as our touring bikes of today. Thus when you hear someone speak about the comfort of their FXR bike, perhaps you will have a better understanding of how Harley Davidson engineered these frames to be congruent to one another.

Once the FLT's production was under way the Motor Company decided they needed to turn their attention to another "segment" of the market could they get even more people riding what was considered a very good touring model....thus a group of HD employees came together, they were:

Mark Tuttle  chief engineer of motorcycles
Steve Pertsch
Bill Brown design engineer
Rit Booth, engineer
Vaughn Beals

What they all wanted was a “no apologies” Harley, one that would work as well as it “looked”, one that would “handle” like no Harley ever had.  One that didn’t try to shake itself and its rider apart.  One that would offer the rider as much comfort regardless of size.  One that would be lighter and yet nimble enough in maneuvering such distances as from Milwaukee to Los Angeles as it would be from stoplight to stoplight. One that feared no curve.

F =  Big Twin
X = XL (Sportster Front End) Front End
R=  Rubber Engine Mounts.

Thus the emergence of the FXR “Superglide” in 1981.  

Vaughn Beals states that the attention of the motor company was on the newly designed FLT model, but then he is quoted as saying that the motor company realized “we needed a “vibration-isolated” “Sport’s Bike”, as well to “draw new riders into the Harley camp”.  What Beals meant in his reference of a “Sport’s Bike” was to be taken in context of the Harley Big Twin, which essentially goes back to the FX model of bikes at the time.  What he was attempting to more directly relate to was Harley Davidson's need for a lighter cruiser.   So what they began to go after was a bike that was not necessarily a “peg-scratcher” but a “lighter” rubber mounted touring bike which could “cruise”.   Beals, continues, “We were looking for something with better handling than an FLH and something that wasn’t as large and intimidating as the FLT and something aerodynamically desirable.  So the new team was turned loose to create a new machine.  The “FX” was to be the “sport model” of the “FL”.  So essentially the FXR became the “sport model” of the FLT.

What happened according to Mark Tuttle, is that HD did not have the time nor the resources to design anything better as a result the FXR, “really became a chassis program to utilize the FLT powertrain in an FX-type motorcycle” which means they would decide upon using the FLT’s rigid engine-transmission unit with the swingarm bolted to the back of the tranny and design for it’s new frame.

The need for a “prettier” frame turned into a blessing for those engineers and, ultimately for lovers of performance Harley’s.  Since the members of the design team had to create a new chassis anyway, they decided to create it in basically their own idea of a “performance” image.  Obviously stiffer than before.  What they ended up discovering was that the FXR frame was FIVE TIMES stiffer in torsion, which is where it counts, than the old FX/FL frame had been. Which made for better cornering and ultimately a much better ride than can be offered even within the Dyna family that is produced today.....hmmmm very interesting..... They also went after higher “lean angles” ie: lots of “ground clearance”.

Rit Booth is quoted as saying that they were a group of riders who were really “performance oriented” he at the time was riding a Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans and even had the “guts” to ride it to work.  So as he stated, “we wanted the new bike to be even “stiffer” and to have even more of that “on-rails” feel than the current FLT.  Basically, as he goes on, “we started with a “clean sheet” of paper and then decided we’d keep the FLT mounts and build into the new frame all that we’d learned about making a bike go through corners”  It’s Chief Engineer of Motorcycles, Mark Tuttle that continues on by stating that “at a personal level, that he particularly didn’t care for Sportsters because of their lack of ground clearance, you simply couldn’t ride them as aggressively as I wanted to ride, with the “FXR” we solved that particular problem.”  



The FXR was never meant to be a “crotch rocket”, always maintaining the goal of working within the frame work structure of Harley Davidson.  At each design level the engineering design team pushed the envelope of “modern performance” whenever possible and where practical, to make it “stiffer and give it more precise steering” affirmed Rit Booth.   The frame was designed using the latest in computer-assisted technology.  In the process known as "finite element analysis", the frame configuration, specifications, and dimensions were fed into a computer.  A “drawing” of the frame could then be brought up on a computer display “terminal”.  The computer then assisted the engineering team in changing the frame characteristics until they were able to come up with the optimum design.  Among other things, the computer assisted them in locating stress points and indicated where the frame needed stiffening.  Using this stress analysis and computer modeling, “Team FXR” designed the new frame for maximum stiffness.  Like the FLT frame, the new frame’s backbone was comprised of two-inch boxed tubular steel with massive stampings to add strength creating a large box-section that linked the steering head to a triangulated rear section and used round tubing at all points where the frame showed.  To make the new frame even stiffer than the FLT’s the engineers added more gusseting between the steering head and both the backbone and down tubes.  In the end, it was claimed to be 5 times stiffer than the old FX frame, yet added nothing in weight. Like the FLT, the FXR Super Glide II mates the smooth and quick 5 speed gear box with a vibration-isolating Tri-mount chassis.  With the vibration eliminated and the wider choice of the shorter gearing of the 5 speed, the FXR would cruise effortlessly.  In fact the gearing and lack of vibration tend to make the motorcycle reach engine speeds that were significantly above those to which riders were accustomed on the traditional HD 4 speed.  Even today as one rides the 1999 FXR2, FXR3, or 2000 FXR4 with 2.925 final gearing the cycle is extremely comfortable at 3,600 RPM and still accelerates strongly beyond.

The Tri-mount chassis adapted from the new FLT also utilized the maintenance-free, automotive type elastomer mounts, one in front and two in the rear at the swing arm junctions with the transmission,  This was a departure from the traditional rigid mounting of the engine to the frame in which case the engine was generally a stressed member of the chassis.  The elastomer mounts basically allows the engine to do its thing (shake) without transmitting that vibration through the frame and on to the rider.  Thus the term, “isolated vibration”.  The FXR Super Glide II featured 6.12 inch of ground clearance and a long wheel base of 65.7 inches.  Rake was 30 degrees, while the trail came in at 4.7 inches all of which led the FXR into any corner without fear.  It would be right here where HD would spend their greatest time modifying the FXR riding experience to capture the greatest amount of riders.  While never modifying the chassis/frame, one year marketing side would cut the fork tubes down and make the rear shocks shorter and as quickly as that was decided upon the engineers would step back in the next year with the tension to take it the other direction, in the end it would be viewed as a sea of compromise one year the engineers would be victorious while yet in another the marketing side would see to it that the bike went to a lower stance.  At no time did this "sea of compromise" affect the uniquely wonderful riding experience in terms of the FXR comfort factor, what was constantly being debated however, was just how aggressive HD riders were willing to become as they entered into the curves with a frame/chassis that knew no fear.  Time and substance out distanced fast and furious and so it is that HD continues to allow us to dream while we cruise.

As one can only imagine at the “alter” of  marriage between the “styling” wing and the "engineering" wing what was being debated within the “Styling” part of Harley Davidson, was the engineers’ insistence on using rear-mounted shocks on the FXR, as they had on the FLT, which made the rear suspension work better and allowed for longer shock travel. Lou Netz and Willie G. Davidson had always wanted the FXR shocks laid down and forward mounted, but as Rit Booth explains, “they were told absolutely no by the engineers, myself included”, thus the union was created at least for a little while.

As has been mentioned above, part of making the new chassis as stiff as possible, involved making the new frame “triangulated” and given the odd-shaped covers to hide the battery and the oil tank, it was this “triangulated” side view look which was ultimately the FXR’s least popular feature design. 

To this end, Mark Tuttle exclaims, we all loved the bike, “You could run it into a corner and tip it over to oblivion and it just all worked”. 

The first sales of the NEW FXR's actually occurred during the fall of 1981, however these sales were attributed to the 1982 FXR Model Year, thus:

1982 FXR Super Glide II       Sales Totaled: 3,065
1982 FXRS Super Glide II     Sales Totaled: 3,190

The first year sales for the FXR "model" were quite good, totaling 6,255.  The 1982 FXRS Super Glide II and the 1982 FXR Super Glide II were the Number 1 and Number 2 best-selling "Big Twins" for 1982.  However, as history would point the end of the day…..sales at best were mixed year in and year out and continued to drop for the FXR, ultimately being defined as too “Japanese” in appearance for the “staunch” traditional “FX” crowd….the conflict of purchasing a cheaper version of the FXR coming from abroad for some combined with the “failed” look of the “triangular” frame resulted in effort by the motor company to go to it’s roots, that of building a bike that could only come from Milwaukee like the “softail”.  As remembered by Mark Tuttle, “we got a lot of “negative” response to the triangular area under the seat, even though we had created what we were indeed after, a very stiff chassis, very neutral handling, and a really good lean angle, which resulted in a fair amount of ground clearance and a higher seat height, and while it was probably the best-handling Harley ever built, Unfortunately, it just wasn’t selling as well as the rigid mounts were”.  

“Best handling” it was and still is, but the original FXR was a whole lot more, first, it was the best motorcycle Harley’s engineers knew how to or were allowed to build.  

Mark Tuttle, states that, “we found that other than a “handful” of riders, nobody was using that “capability” the market would, “rather have had lower seats and more of a low cruiser look than all that “handling capability”.

“IF” the original FXRS bike had started out as an “engineer’s bike”, in 1982, then in 1984 it could have just as easily been stated that the FXR was indeed “recast” into a “marketeer’s bike” with shorter shocks that took away some of that “ground clearance” and “lean angle” that had originally been engineered into it, in favor of a lower seat height that Harley’s marketers thought would revive it’s flagging sales.  

Because the shorter shocks still had to control the same load, fork and shock springs were made stiffer.  The result was a great loss in cornering clearance (now less than that of the Wide Glide or Softail, but noticeable only by the few who actually tried to ride the FXRS the way the original was meant to be ridden and a stiffer ride balanced by a lower, more Harley Davidson like feel.  To emphasize the “charge” in “stature”, the marketeers gave the shorter FXRS a new name, ie: Low Glide.  The “irony” was, once the FXRS was given a “motor” as good as its chassis (evo engine replacing the shovel) the chassis was taken back a half-generation in function. A few noticed and complained, but the majority were pleased their feet were now flat on the ground, and sales went up as well.

Turning from the "chassis" and looking at the power plant of the FXR we see that once the evo engine came into the chassis of the bike, major changes for the evo engine were kept at a minimum until 1992, receiving cases with the oil filter boss out front, and a breather system redesigned to vent through the cylinder heads and then into the carburetor.  The new breather worked well for normal highway or in-town use.  Unfortunately, it became known for dumping oil into the air box under extended high-rpm use.  Carburetors had recalibrated jetting for easier cold-starting. As a running change in January 1992, the factory switched to an INA-type cam bearing (from the Torrington / Timken B138).  This is an update that stood up well in normal service but NOT so well under “hot-rodding”.  

The evo engine, close to bulletproof from the start, had slowly been refined to the point where it was bombproof.   The major update for 1994 was a revision of the primary ratio from 3.37 final gearing which had begun in 1989 and moved to 3.15 final gearing to put the gearing more in the starter’s favor in turning over the engine.  It could be said this too was another step towards "cruising" and another step away from "aggressive" cornering.  Not only did the gearing move towards the starter's favor, in the end it awakened a even more comfortable vibration free isolated riding experience.  What this all speaks to is the amazing flexiblity of the FXR "chassis/frame" experience as once again not only could one modify gearing to the pleasure of one's own predetermined riding experince, but indeed, the "chassis/frame" of the FXR was proven to be accomodating in which ever direction it's engineers or stylers wanted to explore.  Isn't this the overwhelming evidence that proves and supports when something is as special as the FXR chassis/frame is, that its most wonderful compliments can be expressed through the eyes of so many successfully different riding variations?

Midyear, new cylinder studs and base gaskets were introduced that really helped eliminate base-gasket leaks.  IF you look closely another modification for the 1999 FXR2’s FXR3’s and 2000 FXR4’s were given the same outer primary cover as used on the Twin Cam outer primary for touring models with more “ribs” to stiffen it.  While the Evolution engine was mainly an “update” “from the base gasket up”, the Twin Cam was essentially all new, top to bottom.  (By 1999, though, you could also call the Evo all new from top to bottom, too, because nearly every part of it had been updated between 1984 and 1999.  Though 1999 was the end for the EVO Big Twin engines being only used in the 1999 FXR2’s FXR3’s and the Softail models, the ONLY 2000 model to carry the EVO motor was the 2000 FXR4 produced in the silver powdercoat on the engine cases.

In 1994, Harley Davidson felt it was time to move away from the labor intensive FXR frame knowing too that with the advent of the Twin Cam on the horizon which would result in having to go through a very expensive recertification process with redesigning of the current FXR chassis for the new motor as well as the obvious perceived market resistance to the "triangular" tubing of the chassis it was time to end the run of the "FXR" Harley Davidson.  Thus the last two models of the FXR were produced in 1994, the FXR Super Glide and the FXLR Low Rider Custom.

The emergence of the 1999 FXR2; 1999 FXR3; and finally the 2000 FXR4.

Since we are speaking about the "emergence" of the FXR2's, FXR3's, and FXR4's perhaps here is a good spot to "link" a great thread showing the bikes themselves, so if you would like just click and view, and after viewing you can come right back here and continue with the reading about these bikes.


The three most important reasons for the emergence of the FXR after a half a decade of sabbatical were:

a.   Since the end of the FXR in 1994, the FXR had taken on an entirely unique and reestablished life in the after market world of motorcycles.  Many of the best customs were being built on the FXR platform because they were less expensive and more available for “chopping” than any other Harley model.  Ever wonder why you don’t see very many FXRT’s or FXRP police bikes any more?  They were all chopped into the customs.  Same with the FXR Super Glides.  As the supply of these dried up then the aftermarket began offering “stock-type”, as well as lowered and stretched versions of the FXR chassis.  Build an aftermarket motor and the only one loosing is Harley Davidson.

b.   Harley Davidson still had many left over FXR frames available and lying around. EPA was going to make it very difficult to and very expensive process of acquiring EPA “recertification” of the “old chassis” with the “NEW” Twin Cam Engine.  Thus once the evo engine was gone so would the FXR chassis.

c.   In 1998 Harley Davidson realized they would be loosing a military contract to build the single-cylinder ROTAX-powered motorcycle in York, PA in Building # 42, leaving the availability of a “production line” for such an experiment into a “Custom Vehicle Operations” CVO specialized project.   Dan Adams who at the time was the Program Manager for the CVO project, stated that the mission was to provide a “limited-volume, highly accessorized motorcycle to customers who wanted this type of bike. 

The specialized FXR models were assembled by teams of two employees each, who kept the necessary parts and tools for the job on push carts.  They worked their way through six stations on the line until the bike was fully finished.  Adams went on to state that they would have “two people build an entire unit”.  “The same two-person team would move from station to station until the bike would be taken off the line.  They were able to run the assembly line with one to six (2 person teams) teams at a time. Each team was able to make two bikes a day.  According to Jim Hoffman within the Parts and Accessories area of the company addresses the prevailing “rumor” of the day, that Harley Davidson simply had a bunch of unused FXR chassis laying around collecting dust, He goes on to say that the FXR chassis was put back into production along with a number of other FXR components.  Essentially the FXR2’s and FXR3’s are mechanically identical to the 1994 version of the FXR with a few upgrades such as a new wiring harness that used the latest type of connectors, a vacuum operated fuel valve, as well as the new nine-plate clutch fitted to the evo. 


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