The History of the Electra Glide

Electra Glide

On the list of most important H-D motorcycles,

The Electra Glide model belongs near the top.

For one thing, it’s the only Harley-Davidson motorcycle to be part of a movie title.  But that’s not why the storied Electra Glide motorcycle looms so large in Harley history.  Fifty years after its introduction, it remains an H-D icon.  But it didn’t just appear out of thin air in 1965.

     The Electra Glide motorcycle’s evolution goes all the way back to 1941, when the 61-cubic-inch “Knucklehead” engine (EL) was joined by a 74-inch counterpart, the first FL model.  Eight years later, an all-new telescopic front fork began to replace the old “springer” front end.  The name “Hydra Glide” was originally intended for only the front fork but more commonly became associated with the motorcycle itself.  With the arrival of the 1958 model year, rear suspension was added, and the name changed to Due Glide.

     The next big improvement came in 1965 with the addition of an electric starter.  Like the naming of the latest child in the family, something new and different had to be paired with the existing ancestry.  The name Electra Glide was a perfect fit.  And it stuck.

     It also helped bring touring to the forefront of the design.

     The electric starter made life easier and broadened the appeal of motorcycling.  Wrestling with the kick-start engine could be difficult, and the electric start quickly took over.  Even if some today look back on the kick-start as a romantic age, others remember trying to kick over their Big Twin motorcycles on a cold morning.  As the 1965 sales brochure read, “We’ve taken a few of the kicks away, but none we thought you would miss.” 

     The earliest marking of the Electra Glide most frequently showed the bike with the “King of the Highway” option group, which included saddlebags, removable windshield, luggage rack, and plenty of chrome goodies.  It resulted in a look that firmly established the iconic H-D Touring motorcycle that carriers into the present day.  The Road King models from 1994 onward draw their inspiration directly from the classic 1960’s Electra Glide models.  But a new defining feature was yet to come. 

For 1969, designers crafted an accessory fairing, specifically for the Electra Glide model, to keep more wind off the rider.  It began as merely a shell, with no inner fairing or instrumentation.  By 1971, the “windshield fairing kit” – more commonly known as the “batwing.” Fairing – became a standard feature.

     For years, the Electra Glide was the sole member of the Touring family.  The model wasn’t joined by a sibling until 1979, with the addition of the Electra Glide Classic.  The Touring family has typically been the first to receive new features, and the Electra Glide often set the pace.  Disc brakes were first employed in 1972.  Harley-Davidson’s first electronic fuel injection appeared on the 1995 Electra Glide Ultra.  And for the 2009 model year, all Touring bikes received a new frame that led to improved maneuverability and seating position.

     The motorcycle also served as a platform for the leaner Electra Glide Sport (1977) and more deluxe Electra Glide Ultra Classic (1989).  The Ultra Limited was introduced for the 2009 model year, bringing the features and trim level to new heights.

     The Electra Glide was there at many historical moments of the last 50 years.  When the famous buyback from AMF took place in June 1981, the first ceremonial bike from the assembly line in York, Pennsylvania was an FLH Electra Glide Heritage Edition.  The Electra Glide motorcycle also became the bike of choice for countless police departments worldwide.

     Without the Electra Glide motorcycle there is no Road King or Street Glide motorcycles.  Compare a 1965 Electra Glide model with a modern Road King and see for yourself.  But Harley-Davidson stylists have never forsaken the Electra Glide motorcycle roots.

     It was the spirit that led to the Project Rushmore upgrades for 2014.  The batwing fairing was redesigned to reduce buffeting, but the classic shape remained.  Saddlebags and Tour-Pak were streamlined, while increasing capacity.  Even passenger comfort was researched for improvements.  These features and many others marked the single largest product launch in Harley-Davidson history.

The importance of the Electra Glide motorcycle goes far beyond its versatility and popularity.  It’s the modern standard for Touring motorcycles.  Competitors have increasingly tried to copy everything from the fairing to the luggage units, always missing the mark.  H-D remains the dominant for in North American Touring and is gaining ground in other nations.

    And the movie title?  It was the 1973 motorcycle cop drama Electra Glide in Blue.  But don’t be fooled.  Today you can get one in just about any color you want.

1960’s Harley-Davidson Electra Glide
1980 Harley-Davidson Police Electra Glide

This article is in the Harley-Davidson Motor Officer Magazine Fall 2015 Issue, The orginal Article Courtesy of Harley-Davidson HOG Tales Magazine

This was reproduced with permission of Harley-Davidson Police Fleet.