This article was originally published in the April-May 1999 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
When is a revival not really a revival? Well, how about when the Motor Company resurrects the FXR after a four-year absence?
Introduced in 1982, the FXR was the first of Harley’s rubber-mounted customs, spawning an entire family of models that went out of production in 1995. But although the FXRs were gradually replaced by Dyna-series models, the Dynas have failed to erase fond memories of the FXR.
Which, in part, explains The Motor Company’s recent introduction of the FXR2 and FXR3, two limited-production, Evo-powered models decked out with Harley factory accessories. But don’t expect these reborn FXRs be followed by more of their kind. According to Jim Hoffman, the Parts & Accessories Program Manager who shepherded the two machines into production, “We’ve pretty much decided that this is it; we’ll build 900 FXR2s and 900 FXR3s, and the FXR is gone again.”
It’s not hard to understand FXR nostalgia. Harley-Davidson and the overall motorcycle market were very different in the late Seventies and early Eighties when the FXR was being designed. Japanese motorcycles dominated the market, and the Harley enthusiast press didn’t exist in its present depth and vibrancy. General-interest motorcycle magazines such as Cycle World and Cycle were the foremost evaluators of motorcycles, and they had a definite bias, openly preferring performance over cruising style or tradition.
Consequently, the FXR was designed to be the most performance-intensive Big Twin to date. Rubber mounting, using the tri-mount and link system that had been introduced a couple of years earlier on the FLT, eliminated vibration as an issue. A very stout and stiff frame wrapped around the mechanicals, instead of the purer backbone designs of previous FXs, which hung components onto the central backbone structure. Suspension travel was increased for the FXRT—albeit at the cost of low seat height—to give a better ride-vs.-handling trade-off, and to allow the first FXRs to lean over farther than previous Big Twins while cornering.
There were grumblings that those early FXRs were “too Japanese,” but their smoothness and handling were much appreciated. And over the years, as suspension travel was shortened and styling subtly altered, FXRs took on a more traditional Harley look. Custom builders discovered, too, that the FXR made an excellent platform for more radical machines, as they stretched and lowered FXRs into some of the most dramatic and outrageous one-offs ever seen. Even today, aftermarket FXR-style frames often are the foundation of long-and-low customs.
But by the time the market got behind the FXRs, its replacement, the FXD Dyna, was already in the works. In many ways, the Dyna was designed to be what the FXR was not. If the FXR wrapped its frame around components, the Dyna would revert to a backbone construction, harking back to the original FX look even at some cost in frame stiffness. If the soft rubber mounts of the FXR allowed almost an inch of engine movement, forcing gas tank and other components to be located with airy spacing, the Dyna would shorten that with two stiffer rubber mounts—even with some increase in the amount of vibration transmitted. If the FXR frame had too many joints and was expensive to build, the Dyna frame would be simpler, with a investment-cast steering head that plugged right into the backbone—even if that technique made it far more difficult for customizers to rake it out. But by the time the Dyna came out, the FXR was not a strange new addition to the Harley line; it was one of the mainstreams. And when it went away, it was missed.
Coincidentally, Harley was recently looking to add to its corporate capabilities by starting a program known as “Custom Vehicle Operations,” or “CVO.” The idea was to test The Motor Company’s ability to build, in the words of Jeff Merten, Director of Marketing for P&A, “a limited number of high-end custom niche vehicles, as some of our competitors have been doing.” Reading between the lines, this simply means that The Motor Company wants to take business away from clone manufacturers.
So, why bring back the FXR? According to Merten, there were four reasons, starting with: “It was requested by our customers.” Second, production capacity was available, because the company had stopped producing the single-cylinder, Rotax-powered military bikes it had been assembling in “Building 42” at the York plant. Third was to test Harley’s ability to build and make money on a highly customized, limited-production model. And fourth, the FXR offered an “incremental sales opportunity”—corporate-speak meaning that the people most likely to buy the new FXRs probably would not have bought something else in Harley’s line instead.
Jim Hoffman of P&A was given the job of making it happen, and on a incredibly tight schedule: Go-ahead was last September, with the first of the FXR2s leaving the assembly line in January of this year. “No,” he says, “contrary to rumors, we didn’t find 1800 old frames in a warehouse someplace.” Instead, the FXR frame was put back into production, along with a number of other FXR components. Both the FXR2 and FXR3 are essentially mechanically identical to the last FXRs made in 1994, with a few upgrades such as a new wiring harness that uses the latest type of connectors, a vacuum-operated fuel valve, the same nine-plate clutch fitted to the Evo, and the five-hole derby cover.
Cosmetically, though, both the FXR2 and FXR3 dip deeply into P&A’s bag of goodies. The FXR2 comes equipped with a Badlander seat, “Profile” shocks, a 21-inch spoked front wheel, a chromed, slotted rear wheel, and just about every piece of chrome in the catalog. The accessories by themselves would retail for around $3500, but they’re included in the FXR2’s $16,995 suggested price—though we suspect very few of the 900 units will sell without a premium over retail.
The FXR3 takes the custom theme farther yet, adding an arresting, two-tone flamed paint job in blue or emerald green to the tank—and, yes, that is the same flame pattern as used on the 1980 Wide Glide. Other equipment includes P&A’s new five-spoke cast ThunderStar wheels (19-inch front), a new and unique seat, a taller sissybar, chrome trim on the sidecovers, and braided control cables. The accessory bill alone would run some $4000 on the FXR3, explaining in part its $17,995 suggested price.
You may wonder why the new FXRs are powered by Evo motors, even though Harley has proclaimed the Twin Cam the engine of the future. Says Hoffman, “We looked at the Twin Cam for about 10 seconds at the beginning of the program ... then it became clear that using it involved a new frame program. That was outside our mission.”
As you talk to Hoffman, you also realize that the FXR revival is not part of any grand corporate strategy. “We did the FXR because we didn’t want to get in the way of the main line,” he says. “We didn’t want to slow down mainstream production on existing models.” Instead, the FXR2 and FXR3 really do seem a test of the CVO idea, lending credence to the company’s claim that there will be only 1800 of these last FXRs ever made.
For most Harley fans, the important thing will not be these particular machines, but the test of the production process in Building 42, with two-man assembly teams putting together just two bikes a day. If this program is a success, expect similar small, customized production runs in the near future, perhaps based on Softails or FLs or other current production models.
But, if you must have an FXR2 or FXR3 for your very own, you’d best run, not walk, to your local dealer. And unless you’re his son or married to his daughter, be prepared to participate in a bidding contest. They’re ultra-cool bikes, but your chances of owning one are only slightly greater than of finding a Martian meteor embedded in the Antarctic ice cap.