Asking a motorcyclist to name his/her favorite Harley-Davidson is like asking a music fan to name his/her favorite song: ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred answers.
We tried to come up with a definitive list of the Top 10 Harleys of All Time. We really did. We asked our friends and colleagues; we asked neighbors, and their cats; we posted on Craigslist and took out classified ads in the local paper (no, not really). Mainly, we sent out queries via social media. We hit up fellow motorcycle journalists, whose knowledge and experience is vast and insightful. We asked builders and customizers, whose creative takes on the American classics have ranged from practical to unrideable. We queried rockers, racers, computer geeks and everyone in between, because the Motor Company’s appeal is universal. Our panel was varied, and everyone had a favorite – but no one could agree on the best of all time.
And keeping true to the spirit of motorcycling, no one tried to force their opinions down anyone’s throats. Fact is, for the most part our queries were met with everything from incredulous scoffs to unrestrained guffaws. Everyone made it clear that their opinions were, and should be, irrelevant to anyone else. “If you like it, then you should ride it,” was the unanimous theme of the responses we received.
So on the following pages we’ve compiled a list of the Best Harley-Davidsons of All Time, a list which in no way should be interpreted as definitive and one that’s presented in no particular order. Better, we’ve included anecdotes on each model by our panelists, a variety of motorcycling luminaries and MoCo fans from the industry and beyond. And we want to hear from you, too: What’s the Best Harley-Davidson of All Time?
Descended from the FX Super Glide and the precursor of the Dyna platform, the FXR seems to be the Harley most loved among enthusiast builders and customizers on our panel.
Brian Klock of Klock Werks: “The FXR was my first-ever H-D product. It continues to carry a timeless hot-rod style that is still a very functional motorcycle. The frame style itself is just a great stance.”
“The FXR was the best-handling H-D to date,” agrees Bill Bryant of Biltwell, Inc. “It was Eric Buell’s first Harley project. I even like the fact it was killed early, since purists hated it.”
Since 1941, large-framed Harleys receive the storied “FL” designation, signifying overhead-valve Big Twin engines with wide front tires and long-distance capabilities. With the exception of some Softail models, today it’s the Touring line of Harley-Davidson that live up to the big and plush FL designation.
That “deluxe” reputation really got rolling in MY1949 when the FL was Harley’s first recipient of hydraulically damped telescopic forks and was bestowed with the moniker Hydra-Glide.
“Easier if you had asked me, ‘What’s your favorite date of all time?’” veteran moto-journalist Reg Kittrelle laughs when asked about his favorite Harley-Davidson. “My first thought was a 1987 FXRC, as it was my first Harley and a bit of a stunner, looks-wise.” However, being a journalist Reg is inclined toward objectivity, so he does his best to leave sentimentality out of the equation and gives the nod to the 1949 Hydra-Glide FL. “To me, this model is a bridge from the old to the new…I prefer the looks of the older Knucklehead FLs, [but] the hydraulic forks of ’49 ushered in a new era for Harley.”
In 1958, the FL received a new frame with a swingarm and a pair of coil-over shocks – the first Big Twin to feature a fully suspended chassis. The Hydra-Glide was renamed the Duo-Glide.
Jason Fogelson, automotive contributor to Forbes and Motorcycle Enthusiast for Best Western’s travel blog You Must Be Trippin’, is a fan of the entire FL line of touring bikes but lists the 1958 Duo-Glide as a personal favorite. “I think it’s the sweet spot – modern chassis and suspension (relatively) with classic looks, all-day comfort and a simple, (sometimes) reliable Panhead engine,” Fogelson says.
(For the record, in 1965 the Duo-Glide received an electric starter and was renamed the “Electra Glide.” But no one voted for one of those.)
If the K model was the predecessor to the Sportster, the KR750 was the granddaddy of flat-track racing. It was the popular choice from the early Fifties until the late Sixties, as racers famous and obscure rode the side valve ‘Class C’ stalwart to countless trophies the world over and was so dominant that in 1969 the AMA rules were tweaked to allow British and Japanese bikes to actually compete.
“Everyone knows I’m not a huge fan of ‘the bar and shield,’” The Vintagent, Paul d’Orleans, told Motorcycle.com. “But I do have a favorite. For me, the most exceptional H-D ever built was the late 60s KR TT racer. Its development was taken further than any other racing engine, ever. How they managed to squeeze 150 mph from a 750cc side-valve engine is still a miracle of intense and inspired tuning.”
Veteran moto-journalist Mark Gardiner, author of “On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker,” agrees. “I know I’m not the only one who’ll choose the KR750. Although the motor was primitive, tuners like C.R. Axtell devised many ‘hot rod’ tricks to keep it competitive with the British bikes that were allowed in the class,” Gardiner says. “I read one guy mixed oil with jeweler’s rouge and put that in the transmission. Then he spun the tranny for hours with an electric motor, letting the gears lap against each other. Finally, he drained the polishing mix, thoroughly cleaned it, and replaced all the bearings. The result was a tranny with the absolute minimum friction.”
Unsurprisingly, Evel Knievel’s favorite Harley was on the lists of many of our panelists. Another racing legend, the XR750 took the mantle from the KR and zoomed away with it, and remains to this day the winningest bike in AMA racing history.
For Will Benedict, a Brooklyn-based software engineer, avid builder and motorcyclist, there’s no doubt which Harley is the choice of the enthusiast who relishes diving and dodging. “All time? I’d take an XR750,” he says. “And even if we’re talking production Harleys, I’d pick the XR1200. It was unique and compelling model in an endless sea of giant cruisers. Dunno why they stopped making them.”
That question is also on the mind of the Seattle musician Andrew McKeag, who races vintage motocross at AHRMA events when he’s not touring. “Mine [XR1200] is my favorite!” he laughs. “But of all time, I’d have to say the XR750. It’s got racing heritage [going] back to board trackers of the teens, and it’s still winning today. Name another bike that can say the same.”
6. FXDP Dyna Defender
Harley’s police-issue Dyna was produced from 2001-04 and for some reason was never very popular with police departments. (Perhaps our commenters can shed some light on this?) It differs from the standard Dyna of its time in its solo saddle, dual disc front brakes, boxy bags, mini-ape bar, tall rear shocks with black springs and, if you’re lucky, a factory-mounted light bar with red and blue pursuit lights. Designed as an active-duty police vehicle, there were approximately 300 manufactured in each year of its existence, making the FXDP a rather collectible Dyna.
“I love it because with its the blacked-out drivetrain, dual-disc front end and plenty of storage in those hard bags, it’s a like an early version of a bagger, only more maneuverable,” Ken Conte, owner of Rise Above Consulting and moto-blogger at 4Ever2Wheels.com, told us.
5. FXB Sturgis
“It’s the most badass bike Harley-Davidson has ever made.” I’m with my old buddy Tyler Greenblatt, Associate Editor of American Iron Magazine, on this one. I love the short-lived FXB, from the king-and-queen seat to the “Sturgis” nameplate emblazoned right across the forks so everyone can see the badness coming their way. It was only produced from 1980-82, but while many discontinued Harleys are no-brainers, the obsolete FXB, like many others on this list, is a cult favorite.
Featuring dual primary and secondary belts and thick spoked wheels, the FXB was an all-black version of the successful FXS Low Rider. “For something made over 30 years ago,” Tyler says, “it sure has a lot in common with the Dark Custom bikes rolling off the MoCo line today.”
After 110 years of building motorcycles, the Sportster is arguably the most versatile platform the Motor Company has ever produced. Whether in 883 or 1200cc versions, the Sporty is so many things to so many people, from an excellent beginner bike to a cool-as-hell barhopper to an effective commuter. Is there nothing the Sportster can’t do? David Zemla of Burly Brand says no.
“Sportsters are my favorite, and not for what they are but for what they can be,” Zemla told us from the climate-controlled comfort of a cross-country flight to the inaugural AIMExpo. “It’s a virtually unkillable platform, right at home as a chopper, dirt-tracker, cafe, bobber or scrambler and does each with minimal spend and maximum fun.” Okay, that sounds a bit like the hyperbole of a zealot. But it’s hard to argue with Dave’s logic.
“Not many other bikes are that versatile, inexpensive, reliable or plentiful and absolutely none provide the ideal balance of old/new, wrong/right or fast/slow that is the venerable Sportster,” Zemla continues. “Maybe it’s the cabin pressure at 30,000 feet, but I look at the XL and cannot help but smile.”
With its 1936 EL line the Motor Company introduced the Knucklehead V-Twin, often considered the grandfather of modern Harley engines due to its overhead-valve set-up. It had a displacement of 61 cubic inches, or about 1000cc.
“I’m drawn to mid to late ’30s ELs,” says Jacqui Van Ham, documenter of the classic bike scene at The Vintage Advantage. For Jacqui, the early era of Knucks hearkens to the days when motorcycling was still a Gentlemen’s Sport, before it became a symbol of rebellion and freedom.
“Great lines, vivid colors, strong fluid shapes that reference Art Deco styles,” she explains. “These bikes are beautiful pieces of Americana, what I think of when I think ‘American Motorcycle.’”
Famed rally emcee and personality Jay Allen, formerly of the Broken Spoke Saloon and Kiwi Indian Motorcycles, offered one of his typically uproarious exclamations in response to our query of the Best Harley of All Time.
“There isn’t ONE!!!” Allen wrote, his enthusiasm bellowing through the computer. “But 1948 was the last year of springers and the first year of Panheads. So a ‘48 Panhead is a serious contender!” And if you’ve ever attended one of Jay’s bike shows or bikini contests, then you know there was no need for us to add emphasis to his commentary; those exclamation points and capital letters are all his.
1. 1915 11F
As a member of the Motorcycling Hall of Fame, avid collector, participant in the annual Motorcycle Cannonball and originator of the Kickstart Classic, Buzz Kanter, editor and publisher of American Iron Magazine, is an obvious panelist for any list of all-time Harley-Davidsons.. Buzz offered many suggestions, and we appreciate them all. But it wasn’t until after we compiled the results that we realized one of his choices was ideal for the only obvious number placement on this list. All of the other Harleys listed here show up in no particular order. But the 1915 11F belongs at number one.
“The 1915 11F was the first Harley with 3-speed transmission,” Buzz notes, “which immediately transformed the company from one that made motorbikes into one that built motorcycles.”
The three-speed transmission wasn’t the only cutting-edge innovation the 11F offered. The 1915 model and its 61-cubic-inch F-head V-twin utilized an automatic oiler and larger intake valves, which helped to boost output to 11 horsepower. The bike also rocked a magneto and – get this – an electric lighting system, including a taillight that was designed to be removable for use as a nighttime service light. The bike – no, the motorcycle – was such a trailblazer that the 11-F topped all other Harleys in sales for the year, eventually becoming the best-selling Harley-Davidson to date.