COAL: Cycles Of A Lifetime Part Seven — ’81 Harley-Davidson FLHS — A Dream Realized!

A candy apple red dream come true! Photo by author.


The realization of a dream can cut two ways, and it usually does!

I had yearned to have a Harley-Davidson Big Twin since I started riding motorcycles in high school. These were the bikes favored by all the chopper magazines and the bikes that were ridden by dedicated riders, true bikers!

One of my classmates had an uncle that had been a hardcore biker until his wife gave him the ultimatum: either it’s me and the family, or the bike. I imagine that it wasn’t just the motorcycle itself, it was probably a combination of certain other behaviors, as well as the company that he may have kept. Like many of the guys that been confronted by this ultimatum, he had to make a choice. In this situation, he chose domestic peace. How long that lasted I didn’t know or really care about. All that I knew was that he was thinking of selling his Harley, a Knucklehead chopper. My buddy acted as the intermediary, and I routed all my questions through him. Just as the day arrived where I would visit the moldy basement that the bike had been banished to, his uncle changed his mind. Even if he couldn’t ride it, he definitely decided that he couldn’t sell it!

This was probably for the best. I had been told that the bike was in bad shape, and I knew nothing about HDs except what I read in magazines. I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t have afforded to buy the bike and fix it to get it back on the road. I was much better served by the Kawasaki Mach Three that I bought instead. Of course, the Kawasaki was tremendously faster than the old Harley. But a Knucklehead, that was V Twin loyalty!

I decided to put the Big Twin thing on the back burner.

I was living in Whittier just a year after we were married. I had just bought my Wife a set of diamond earrings that she had been “dreaming” about. I still had my Coupe de Ville and my Sportster. I spent a lot of time at the local Harley dealer. There were a couple of used Big Twins for sale. One was an FLT, a fully dressed touring bike, the other was an ’81 FLHS. The Electra Glide Sport. It was a factory “stripped down” dresser, an offshoot of the Wide Glide model.

The looks took a lot of getting used to.


The FLT was not a very popular model at the time. This was a fully equipped touring bike, but it looked too different for HD loyalists. It had Harley’s first rubber mounted engine that needed a totally different double loop frame and it also sported HD’s first five speed transmission. It had a full frame mounted fairing that featured a dual headlamp arrangement and the fork had a reversed triple clamp setup that looked kind of weird (which was probably why the fairing hid it). The finish of the fiberglass accessories could also have been smoother.

It was like a two wheeled Cadillac.


The second bike was an 80 inch, that’s 1,340 cc, Electra Glide Sport. This was a classic Electra Glide, just stripped down a bit. It was a traditional model until you saw the extended control highway foot pegs, the low slung “Lowrider” seat, and the staggered dual exhaust. It still had the traditional five gallon fat tanks, the large shrouded fenders and the aluminium headlight nacelle crowned with twin driving lights. It was candy apple red with chrome wire spokes and dual stripe whitewalls. The primary cover was chrome plated and there were plenty of polished alloy castings.

The red bike was a real beauty, but it was priced at a solid thousand dollars more than the FLT. One day when we were driving around town on errands, I stopped at the dealer to show my wife both bikes. I showed her the FLT and talked it up. It was a better touring bike, if you could get past the looks, and the price seemed within reach. My wife listened as I made my case, but drifted over to red FLHS. “What’s wrong with this one?” she asked.”Nothing” I said. “But the FLT is quite a bit cheaper.” She looked at me and said, “I think that the red bike is prettier, but buy whichever one you like.”

Just like that, a lifetime dream was realized!

Unless you have been a long time HD fan, you can’t imagine the satisfaction of owning a Big Twin. It’s like buying your first Cadillac. These are the direct connection to the great models of the late 1930’s. The FL series started with the EL Knucklehead in 1936, transitioned into Panheads and Shovelheads and continued into the 1980’s and beyond. These were the traditional looking bikes that personified the Harley mystique. I’d owned a couple of Sporsters up to then, but they just didn’t compare!

With an FLH, every component is a feast for the eyes.

There were some downsides to the bike. The 55 mph. National Speed limit had been in effect for years, and HD had balanced the engine to run the smoothest at the legal limit. Cruising at 55-60 mph. it was fairly smooth, but as the speedo approached 70 mph. the shaking increased until it resembled a paint mixer! Surprisingly, it would smooth out as the speedo hit 85 mph. but that was of little help. In comparison, my Sportster was much smoother at 70-75 mph.

As a larger machine, it was more spacious and comfortable for both the rider and passenger and it also rode smoother than my smaller Sportster. Handling was another matter, it couldn’t be leaned over too far before it grounded out the exhaust pipes on the right, and the bottom of the primary case on the left. I discovered that early on. I entered a left turn a bit too fast and had to lean the bike over further than normal. I grounded the case and the bike hopped sideways to the right. I had to put my left foot down to keep it from sliding out. This was pretty rough on my left knee! There’s a reason that these were touring bikes and not Cafe Racers. It was best to keep it as upright as possible.

It was surprisingly easy to handle at low speeds.


On the other hand, the bike had great balance. With practice, low speed maneuvers and tight turns could be accomplished with amazing smoothness, There’s a reason that the Shriners used to ride these bikes.

It wasn’t as quick as my Sportster, but it was fast compared to most cars on the road. Fuel mileage was pretty good at 40 mpg. and with five gallons, it had a great range.

I took a couple of long rides with it. One time my wife and I rode up the Angeles Crest highway. Another time I rode it up to Sacramento for some training. My final long trip was to the Bay Area to attend my Grandfather’s funeral. It never gave me any mechanical problems.

I really liked the bike, as it was a real status symbol to a dedicated motorcycle rider, but I chafed at the restrictions that it imposed on my riding style. I liked to ride fast through the curves. I liked to cruise at 70-75 mph, instead of at 60 mph. I also liked to occasionally blast off from a stoplight. The Electra Glide was a great bike as long as you kept it within its limits.

My FLHS had forward controls instead of footboards. The control pedals had to be accessible with the rider’s feet on the pegs. The controls weren’t located far enough forward and my legs had to be bent at an odd, uncomfortable angle. Traditional choppers hung the front pegs in front of the brake and shifter levers at the crash bar mounts, at least a foot further forward and lower. FLH foot boards were much better, but at this time, replacement parts to convert the setup to boards were quite expensive.

Sam the Olympic Eagle, mascot of the ’84 Olympic Games.


The most memorable event that I experienced with this bike occurred when the Olympic torch was going to be relayed through Whittier. There were throngs of people along the route on Whittier Blvd, and I told my Wife that we were going to watch the procession from the Harley. I attached two American flags to the driving light mounts. The shiny red Harley was a reflection of American pride.

We rode over and took our place just before the torch arrived, then I spun around and took a parallel back street and stopped ahead of the procession again. After it passed I once again spun around and raced to get ahead of the torch run. It passed us three times. People cheered when I pulled up on that beautiful red Electra Glide!

Both motorcycles made the trip up north as we relocated to San Jose. We had sold the “rain car” and hadn’t yet bought a replacement. That first winter I bought a bright fuscia HD Dry Rider rain suit and rode to work, rain or shine. Luckily we didn’t live very far from the office, only six or seven miles. I would generally ride my Electra Glide as I was so proud of it, though I continued to ride the Sportster occasionally.

We bought our first house and both bikes lived in the single garage. It was a duet townhome, that shared a single wall. It was brand new, and that was nice. My wife was happy to have a new place, but I wanted a real house.

After two years I really wanted to buy our own traditional single-family home with a two car garage, and a big backyard. It didn’t have to be new, but my wife was wary that I’d want to buy some old hovel just for the garage.

Luckily, we had made a fair amount of appreciation during the two years that we lived in our first place.

We looked at nearby neighborhoods and found a place that we both liked. The price was a bit of a stretch, but my folks were willing to lend us a bit of money to make the deal. After we had settled in I wanted to pay the folks back. Even though they said that there was no hurry.

I decided to sell the FLH and pay them back, and truthfully I enjoyed riding my Sportster more than I had my Big Twin. After all those years of dreaming of the big Harley, I discovered that it wasn’t really the answer that I had been looking for.