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by Genghis

Photo by Genghis


Perhaps overlooked because of the heat generated by the classic Swingarm versus Rigid debate, was the revolutionary development of the telescopic fork in Harley's Big Twin history. A year after the introduction of the Panhead motor, The Firm offered for the first time, a telescoping hydraulic front end for the Big Twin. In 1949, Harley-Davidson debuted the Hydraglide. According to reports of the time, these were a technological jump in handling and comfort over the springer design. This from Wright's "The Harley-Davidson Motor Company-An Official Eighty-Year History":

"In 1949, the year following the Panhead's premiere, the company installed hydraulic front forks. These were an immense improvement over the rigid-spring forks known previously. Riders reported crossing railroads---even railroad ties---with ease. The forks were the single biggest improvement to date in terms of ride and handling and contributed to the touring reputation the 74 has passed on to the FLH and FLT."

The advantage afforded by the Glide front end would seem irrefutable. Yet today, many bikers dump their hydraulic forks for aftermerket springer forks. The question is, why? I believe that this springs---if you'll pardon the expression---from a yearning for the past when life and living, including riding---were simpler. It represents a subconscious turning back of chronology, a primordial effort to return to a younger and seemingly more enjoyable time. The simplistic alternative explanation would be that some bikers just want to have something different from everybody else, but this would be of course---an illusion. There is truth in the adage that there is nothing new under the sun. No matter what one does in configuring a bike, it has been done before---but in another era. This need to be different as an explanation, is perhaps too simple. It is my belief that there is more to the subconscious story. I believe that bikers are reaching out to the past for psychological comfort because of the stress that we face on a day to day basis. Is there something wrong with this? No. I do it myself, in my defense of my 1971 Superglide's righteous 4-speed swingarm frame.

In 1958, The Firm made the second most important historical step in terms of Harley Big Twin suspension, by introducing the famous Duo-Glide. The Duo-Glide was a Panhead that already had hydraulic front suspension, that was further enhanced by the new rear swingarm design dampened by two massively impressive shock absorbers. These two massive shocks gave the bike a muscular appearance that I liken to the hamstrings and glutes of a powerful and unstoppable running back. Smooth sailing however, wasn 't in the cards. A handling problem surfaced, but ironically, the problem was not with the new rear shocks, but the front forks. From Wright's book again:

"Ever hear of a fit too perfect on a motorcycle? That was the only initial problem with the Duo-Glide, offered from 1958 through 1964 and still seen in large numbers on the highway. A series of prototypes was built of the machine, some nearly a decade before production. All of the prototypes were afflicted with a fork damping problem, according to Art Kauper, who worked at the time with engineers assigned to the project. 'We went into production at the absolute eleventh hour,' he reports. The problem was solved when it was discovered, during the first few months, that the rubber seals on the fork legs actually rubbed the legs to mirror finish, creating a perfect fit. This left no room for oil, which was forced past the seals as the forks worked up and down. The solution proved to be a new seal with slightly looser tolerance and a slightly rougher finish on the fork legs. The other malady surfaced following delivery of a sizeable Duo-Glide order to the California Highway Patrol. Officers experienced instability at or above the legal limit. John Nowak, service school dean and troubleshooter for years for the company, was dispatched to the West Coast to attempt to solve the problem. 'The police took a a ride and wanted the solid rear ends back,' says Nowak, who tried a number of fancy stunts before discovering that the head bearing was too tight."

Please note that the Highway Patrol's yearning for the rigid frame did not germinate from a desire to be different and for superficial cosmetic reasons, but came from a functional point of view. Today's bikers turning to rigids originates from more frivolous reasons, encouraged by the me-tooism of conformity and peer pressure. There is no doubt in my mind, that the Duo-Glide once perfected with all the bugs removed, produced a superior motorcycle. Bikers should appreciate the march forward of advancing technology. So that leaves one question unanswered: "Why do I think that the classic four speed swingarm is better than say, the modern day Dyna Glide suspension?" My response is, "Hey! Watcher mouth! My four speed rulz, baby!" I must be yearning for an earlier and simpler time. Now, if Panhead riders would realize the venerable Shovelhead is a vast improvement over the Panhead, they'd be in good shape. My advice to those who seek an earlier and simpler time in Harley design is, be careful what ya wish for--ya may get it. Later.