2011 Harley Sportster

Are Harley Davidson’s Reliable? Absolutely, Learn More

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Are Harley Davidson’s motorcycles reliable? What value do I derive from using a vehicle or dirt bike made by Harley? Is Harley truly the best thing to have happened to the automobile industry in the last few decades? What’s the truth about this widely held belief that Harley Davidson’s motorcycles don’t guarantee reliability?  What’s even the big deal about Harley Davidson (HD) in the first place?

Are Harley Davidson’s Reliable: Harley Davidson’s are absolutely reliable, you need to service your motorcycle correctly so your Harley Davidson lasts longer and stays reliable. However, if you fail to service your bike correctly, you will result in an unreliable motorcycle just like every other vehicle.

Well, everyone is entitled to his opinion, just as every customer’s feedback is as equally important as the image and reputation of the brand they speak about. 

There are loads of loads of questions agitating the minds of customers and riders, including the veterans and the newbies. Time and time again, there are many articles and blog posts about Harley. However, not many have addressed the essential questions about what Harley Davidson stands for, both as a testing company and as a reliable brand. 

Here is a post that answers your question and clears your doubt about the seemingly negative publicity and insinuation regarding Harley Davidson. In this article, you’ll come to know all the information that is necessary when other people say that Harley Davidson is the most reliable brand in the automobile industry. 

But don’t join the trail yet. Get a well-padded lounge, a pen, and a piece of paper so that you don’t miss any line in this close-to-an-hour conversation. Your questions can interrupt the discussion to make it a dialogue. That shouldn’t pose any worries. 

Are we set? Here we go!

Harley Touring Motorcycle

Was Harley the architect of the Negative Whispers? 

Maybe the first point to make is that age and experience aren’t given; rather, they’re earned. Has Harley bitten more than it could chew?Not really.The troubling irony with Harley Davidson is that it’s unable to increase sales because it delivers quality. Many of the motorcycles and bikes manufactured by this company in the last two decades or so are still flying high on many major motorcycle roads. A study by Bloomberg suggests that more than 70% of Harleys manufactured since 1903 still gladden their users on the road. 

Economy-wise, will there be any compelling reason to order a new bike when even the one you bought twenty-something-years ago still looks fresh and like a brand new one? That is the case with Harley Davidson’s motorcycles; they guarantee reliability, confidence, comfort, and economy. 

Was that the only reason?

Absolutely not! That’s on the one hand. Of these on-road Harleys were the broken down, the crashed, and the wrecked bikes. How? Good question. During the early days of production, owners of Harley motorcycles, like every other brand, were responsible for repair, replacement, servicing, and maintenance. During that period, a bike owner was also a fabricator and mechanic. He repaired, coupled and fixed damages on the motorcycle. The tradition continued even up till the 80s. At that point, you only didn’t have to have the riding skills, you must also have to be proficient skill-wise in fixing bad bikes. This was to ensure that your bike was roadworthy and reliable as you rode leisurely on the road.

What went wrong?      

The simple answer is a lack of regulation, clearance, and adherence to or ignorance of specification. The freedom to own, fabricate and modify bikes gave rise to the emergence of ‘greasy bikers’. These were people (motorcycle owners, mechanics, mechanical engineers, etc.) who could build their bikes by coupling swap parts; they also would purchase a few wrecks and revive them into barn bikes that others would buy. It means, once you’re responsible for purchasing, fixing, modifying and even coupling a few parts, you can build a motorbike and brand in the name of a private label.  You can imagine the far-reaching consequences of that policy.

It was obvious not every Harley owner would have the budget or requisite skills for the motorcycle they wanted. It was either people spent much of their time working on Harleys they owned or outsourced them to an external mechanic. But once motorcycle owners do  not have the skill, or lack the money to buy spare parts, or don’t own the correct tools to make repairs, bikes are left broken down or become wrecks. 

Breakdowns also happened when bike owners with little or no mechanical skill damaged their bikes in the process of trying to repair them. What’s more, even inexperienced bike builders caused so many bikes to damage because of a lack of requisite knowledge. 

In such an unregulated environment, you find instances where builders ended up assembling parts that produced nothing close to a bike. At times, people could build a motor without clearance or the need to first check all the necessary specifications. Consequently, for instance, you find an assemblage of parts that only reduce the life span of, say, a crankshaft to less than 10,000 miles. There’re situations builders would ridiculously weld bearings and thrust washers to cams.

You may want to say that, ‘but all these are external factors.’ ‘How did Harley contribute to the whole crisis that rocked its stead, then?

Let’s open up the discussion further. Remember the wise quote from Kurt Vonnegut that where there’s no order, people must adapt themselves to the requirements of chaos instead. That truism holds for life; no less for Harley. 

Harley unconsciously created space for people who lacked the knowledge to tinker with what they knew little or nothing about. At that level, builders started to do some trial and error while ending up causing serious damage to their bikes. Of course, the consequence on Harley is that people began to cement the unreliable label on Harley Davidsons. That Harley scar would take some time to heal. But it will definitely take a dint of sacrifice and wide publicity to erase it from the subconscious of many bike lovers and enthusiasts. 

Sadly, the bikes produced on the label of Harley were underwhelming as many were of low performance, poor power, substandard delivery, no high-technology, heavy, underpowered. Imagine if you have to replace or fix the umpteen times your bike’s fuel system, exhaust system, slip-on muffler system, electrical systems, wheel bearing, or other critical aspects within a month. That was how bad things really went. Yet, a large number of these bikes required a lot of skills, money, and tools to maintain and keep on the road. 

Here’s the last straw that broke the camel’s back: Harleys were for several years substandard to Japanese imports relatively; Harley’s machines and their function had no substantial mechanical or aesthetic modification to them from 1936 to 1990. Meanwhile, there were a few exceptions.  

After successive takeovers of HD, first by American Machine Foundry Corporation (AMF) and then by a consortium of investors led by the duo of Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson, the situation did not change. The attitude of buyers to any bike bearing that ‘HD’ was nothing to write home about. In fact, it grew worse. At that stage, it became a common trend that Harley’s bikes often needed repairs even right before reaching the sales floor. 


Was Harley’s reputation restored along the line?

Absolutely! But that did not come on a platter of gold. Our old wise saying hold truth, it takes whopping time and resources to rebuild a penny-damaged reputation. By the early 80s, a new rhythm surfaced and Harley saw a huge investment and rebranding management that changed the entire history of the company. 

How did that happen?

The management put in multi-million investment into the company, introducing state-of-the-art technology and design, rubber-mounted motors, and 5-speed transmissions. Also, there was aggressive spending on introducing new manufacturing models, assembly techniques, and detailed service intervals. Production of bikes that no longer needed to rely on frequent mechanic‘s intervention became a top priority. Other areas that caught the attention of the management was retooling.

Shouldn’t ‘Harley’s unreliability’ cliché have far gone, then?

How does the reliability problem persist in the first place? The mechanical, operational and strategic refinery that has transformed Harley since then has made the company gain more traction and restore the earlier trust reposed in its manufacturing and design by customers. Now, a manufacturer that was on the brink of bankruptcy, collapse, and disrepute, was gaining some traction, becoming the leader in the market for bikes with over 600cc displacement. To answer your question:  for the last 35 years or so, Harley has properly maintained and serviced its reputation, and the ‘unreliability’ song had waned significantly. One can boldly say without fear that Harley is reliable. Hence, getting bikes operating at 100,000 miles or more from a Harley has now become a common trend.

Here’s the thing: reliability becomes an issue as a result of a lack of adequate understanding of what scheduled service of bike should be. The old mentality is always that repairmen and women treat scheduled service as just an ‘oil-and-filter change’ thing. They don’t go beyond this. But this is dangerous and hardly anyone will trust such a system. The whole thing gets more aggravated when you find out that people doing this oil-and-filter change stuff hardly use the factory service manual; that will be if they even have it in their hands. So, they lack a proper idea of what a service job is. 

Ideally, Harley provides dealer service techs with a long checklist they have to go through before doing a routine check on the bike. Many bike owners also compromise in this regard and allow technicians to take words such as “inspect and adjust as needed” as merely to check and certify a bike as being in good condition as long as nothing is falling off it. No proper diagnosis is done to ascertain what is wrong.  For instance, an adequate understanding of a scheduled service will consider a deeper directive like “lube, inspect, and adjust the clutch cable.” In that way, the technician or mechanic knows that he will need to back off the clutch cable adjuster, sever the cable from the clutch lever, examine the cable for any fraying and the ferrule for any damage. It will also mean that the cable is lubricated with light oil before it is reinstalled to the lever and the clutch is adjusted to its normal position.

That’s one out of many instances of errors repairmen need to avoid and the understanding they need to have. Another instance is when a Harley manual says, “Inspect the swingarm pivot”, there’s a lot to be done here. It means the bike has to be put on a lift, the rear wheel jacked up, the shock absorbers removed, and end play on the swingarm bearings is checked with the aid of a dial indicator. The process also requires that you insure the swingarm pivot within spec, and then remove the rear brake caliper and wheel if necessary. 

Where Does Harley Davidson go From Here?

Harley has moved on from the past. As it stands today, the popularity of Harley has restored the confidence of millions across the world. Today, less economical, younger, and almost maintenance-free bikes are produced by the company. Even maintenance and scheduled service can be done at home through a DIY model. Professional s charge between $300 and $500 for a scheduled service, depending on several factors including the distance of dealer, bike’s servicing interval, the model of bike, and so on. Bike owners should 

To avoid repeating the ‘unreliable’ past, what must Harley do?

The fact that can’t and shouldn’t be glossed over is his: if you neglect or fail to understand the requirements of any of those ‘little and short’ description in the factory service manual, you’ll end up returning Harley to its gory past. Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Neglect is bad for Harley‘s reputation; half-baked service technique or skill is dangerous for its future; compromised scheduled service is suicidal; bad mechanical habits are damaging to the brand and your bike as well. If modifications, repair, scheduled service, and other critical things are done the right way, nothing stops a modern Harley bike from going 100,000 miles before it’ll require any major repairs.

Thanks for the enlightenment so far. So, what is your final take on Harley

Truth be told, tagging a brand like Harley ‘unreliable’ is reputation-damaging. The bottom line is that Harley is a VERY reliable brand with great bikes and top-quality OEM and aftermarket parts. If you are going to do a scheduled service on your bike, do it properly and never neglect any detail, however little it may look to you. Remember, the last drop of urine could wet your pants.  

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