What to Know When Riding an Older Harley

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You just bought an older Harley Davidson. You are anxious to kick start it and blast down the road but there are a number of general maintenance points and inspections that you should address on an older Harley before you ride to help you stay safe and help you get from point A to point B without incident.


Brake failure can cause serious injury or worse. Mechanical drum brakes on an older Harley have poor stopping power, even when they are functioning at 100%. Lift each wheel to inspect for proper brake function.Roll the wheel by hand. It should spin free, without any drag. Actuate the brake lever while you try to force the wheel to spin. Try to gauge the brakes stopping power.

Adjust the brake’s cable or linkage as needed. A final brake test should be performed while riding but before hitting the street. When spinning the rear wheel, it is also important to inspect the chain for correct tension and tracking.


With a front or rear wheel lifted, it is also important to check for proper wheel end play on an older Harley. Tug back and forth from side of the wheel. If the end play feels excessive, it will need to be corrected. If a wheel is hard to spin but it is not a brake issue, the end play may be set too tight. Before moving on from front and rear wheels, always check the condition of the brake stay and verify that the axle nuts are properly torqued.


Check for correct clutch and shift functions. With the rear wheel elevated, you should be able to smoothly shift through all four gears and neutral. When attempting your first test ride, the clutch should have a smooth engagement. If the clutch lunges, there may be an adjustment issue or the clutch plates may need to be serviced.


Inspect the older Harley’s engine mounting points. Verify that motor mounts and motor mount hardware is secure. Check for proper oil level in the engine as well as the transmission. Take note of or repair any leaks that appear to be accessible. If the engine does not initially start:

Check for spark – Check for correct fuel delivery – Check compression – check ignition timing.


Inspect the Springer front end. Lubricate all grease fittings. Inspect neck cups and bearings.


Inspect the petcock for proper function. Replace any dry rotted fuel hoses. Check for the correct throttle and choke function. An older Harley may have a different petcock that you are used to.


Inspect oil lines for safe routing. Be sure that they can not rub against something hot or sharp. Hoses that are dry rotted should be replaced.


Start with a fresh set of spark plugs. Older Harleys are different here for sure. Make sure the magnito, headlight, taillight, rear brake switch, are all in good working condition. Also inspect spark plug wires.

Watch FMH Interview with Kevin Baas Here