The 1970’s: The AMF Years

As the 1970’s began, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and golf carts maintained their popularity, despite growing competition from the foreign marketplace. The Sportster remained the ultimate macho machine, even though it was no longer the fastest motorcycle available. Demand far exceeded supply, so it wasn’t unusual to wait months for delivery of a new Sportster. The 1970 XR-750 Sportster introduced a boat-tail fiberglass seat/fender combination that jutted out the back like a torpedo. It was an extreme change from the motorcycle’s classic look that many riders didn’t appreciate. Aftermarket seats became a booming business.

With the addition of the AMF corporate logo on all 1971 gas tanks, Harley fans began to realize that Harley-Davidson was no longer the much loved family owned business. That summer, AMF named a new president and promoted William H. Davidson to chairman. This was the first time in sixty-eight years that someone other than a Davidson sat in the president’s chair. At the same time, John Davidson was promoted from vice president of sales to executive vice president. Earlier that year, William J. Harley, engineering VP, passed away. His brother, John, remained as the last Harley to hold a position of responsibility with the company until his death five years later.

The bright spot of 1971 was Willie G. Davidson’s newly designed FX 1200 Super Glide. The FX got its name and custom looks by combining the frame and running gear of the FL series to the lighter, sportier front end of the XL series. The FX sported a fiberglass seat/fender similar to the 1970 Sportster. Again, this design never achieved widespread acceptance, but the red, white, and blue “Sparkling America” versions became instant collectors’ items.

1971 was also the year Harley-Davidson started to receive some of the company’s greatest publicity ever as it teamed up with one of the greatest daredevils of all time. In what proved to be a most rewarding relationship, Harley-Davidson began providing motorcycles and support to none other than Evil Knievel.

In 1972, the Sportster was in the headlines again as it grew in size to 1000cc or 61 cubic inches. The Sportster-based XR-750 was also replaced by a more advanced, more powerful version with a new aluminum alloy engine.

1972 was also the year the FLH Electra Glide as fitted with a 10 inch front disc brake, making it the first production motorcycle to have both front and rear hydraulic brakes. This great improvement came on the fiftieth anniversary of its 74 cubic inch engine.

In 1973, assembly of motorcycles and golf carts was moved from Milwaukee to a modern 400,000 square foot, single story AMF plant in York Pennsylvania. Harley-Davidson headquarters, racing division, and parts and accessories operation remained in Milwaukee’s Juneau Avenue facility, while its Capital Drive plant was used mainly to manufacture engines, transmissions, and component parts to support the York assembly line.

William H. Davidson retired as chairman in 1973. Later that year, his son John, was promoted to president.

Almost the entire line underwent changes in 1973. All models names were dropped in favor of “letter”-“number” designations, which fell more in line with the rest of the industry. New tanks, fenders and graphics were also part of the upgrading process.

The Rapido was replaced with the TX-125, and a smaller version of it became the Z-90. The Sprints received electric starters among other improvements, and became known as the SX-350 and SS-350.

The old Sprint streamlined teardrop gas tank was added to the Super Glide for a longer, sleeker look and a more custom appearance. By 1973, the fiberglass seat was gone, and all bikes came with front disc brakes.

Few changes occurred the following two years. In 1974, the Super Glide received an electric starter option. And in 1975, the Sprint was dropped from the line. Our country celebrated the bicentennial in 1976, which is also the year Harley-Davidson created its dazzling display entitled “A Salute to American Motorcycling” at Daytona Bike Week. Harley-Davidson pulled out of the regular motorcycle show and put together its own exhibit a few miles down the beach. The show was so successful that HD decided to make it an annual event and make each year bigger and better.

Willie G. created the FXS Low Rider in 1977. With its mag wheels, lettered tires, drag style handlebars, and special paint and engine treatments, the FXS Low Rider began a new tradition of factory custom cycles. Later that same year, the company released Willie G’s second custom, the XLCR Café Racer. Unfortunately, the café racer design was a little too radical for the general public, and the model was discontinued the following year.

In late 1977, Harley-Davidson began making plans for its seventy-fifth anniversary. Company chairman, John Davidson, and Vaughn Beals, who had just become president, agreed that a massive ride of HD executives would be just the thing to commemorate the event. Sixteen executives, including Davidson and Beals, departed from locations along the U.S. coastlines, and followed seven different routes to their destination at the Louisville motorcycle races in June 1978. The men collectively traveled over 37,000 miles, visiting over 160 Harley-Davidson dealerships along the way. Additionally, to pay tribute to the anniversary, the company produced special anniversary additions of the XL and FL models in black with gold trim. In addition, the Electra Glide had its engine upgraded to eighty cubic inches, or 1340cc.

Little changed in 1979. The most notable change was the addition of large “ham can” air cleaners, which were required to meet new federally mandated noise limits. Harley-Davidson also decided to cease production of the smaller, lightweight cycles, at this time, choosing instead to concentrate on the larger V-twin models. Contrary to popular belief, Harley-Davidson experienced its most successful sales year ever in 1979. With the financial resources of AMF, HD was able to purchase needed machinery and move into the modern York assembly plant. As a result, a record number of motorcycles were manufactured in 1979. But, despite AMF’s efforts to make the company a worldwide industry leader, many owners came to blame AMF for apparent quality-control problems, and as the Eighties drew near, consumer frustration with AMF continued to escalate. It was only the public relations efforts of Willie G. and Vaughn Beals that kept customers interested in the Harley-Davidson brand name.

Bolfert, Thomas. The Big Book of Harley-Davidson: Official Publication by Harley-Davidson Motor company; Centennial Edition. Milwaukee: Harley-Davidson, 2002.