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Harley Davidson FLHS 1340 Electra Glide
Superbike magazine 1978
Bikes, bikers end the great outdoors seem to form a sort of unholy trinity, an eternal triangle comprising man, machine and, uh, the elements if you like. Sadly the trouble with this scheme of things, in Great Britain at least, is that the elements don't really piay the game. Or to put it more bluntly, as a nation we suffer from goddamned awful weather. After the rainswept excesses of what's laughingly catted the English summer, the prospect of a seemingly endless winter of dripping boots, deep frozen hands and non-waterproof waterproofs is enough to dampen the ardour of even the most hardened all-weather biker. So what do you do if you want to retain your sanity and hold your head up among your sneering car borne contemporaries who think you're some kind of masochistic nut? The answer's a busman's holiday, a trip to far off lands where the sun actually shines, a two-wheeled odyssey to more temperate climes.
It hits every biker worthy of the name sooner or later; that feeiing of wanderiust, that yearning for distant piaces and iong open roads, that urge to fottow the sun and leave these damp isles far behind.
That's when the great outdoors becomes a friend rather than an enemy, and the act of riding a bike turns into a pleasurable, rewarding experience. Mind you it helps if the bike in question isn't any old bike. I wouldn't actually derive much pleasure from covering a thousand miles on a Lambretta - (come to that I wouldn't derive much pleasure from riding a Lambretta in any circumstances, but that's another story). No, if you're planning to put in some heavy duty touring mileage, it helps to be riding a purpose built machine. What constitutes a purpose built machine? For my money you could do no better than starting with a big, uncomplicated low revving engine with lots and lots of torque on tap. Hang a well sprung rolling chassis with a logically thought out comfortable seating around this powerplant and you're starting to hit paydirt. Hound off the package with vast dollops of luggage space, good lighting and a full coverage fairing and, in my humble opinion, you've got a recipe for the ideal tourer. Look around for a currently available bike that fits this bill and the choice is limited, 'fact it narrows down to one bike: Harley-Davidson's mighty mutha Electra Glide.
I can hear gasps of indignation already from BMW buffs. XS1100 freaks and Guzzi gourmets alike, but it's true; given that my definition of the ideal touring bike is correct there \ust ain't another sickle in the same ballpark as H-D's flagship. Admittedly this view doesn't coincide with that of the vast majority of the British biking press who seem to be in a state of permanent undeclared war with Harley-Davidson.
A tone of sneering condescension ("they might be fine on American roads, but on the A10 no way") coupled with a smattering of grudging admiration seems to be the approved style when it comes to describing Hogs. OK I'm the first person to admit that a Glide wouldn't give a Dharmah a hard time around a test track, or blow off many CBX's. On the other hand the ra/son d'etre of the big cube V-twins is to keep chugging along when all the others have fallen by the .wayside. Sure the Electra Glide's agricultural compared with the sophistication of the opposition, but it works, so why change it?
So what could be better than 1200ccs of larger than life Electra Glide? Not much admittedly, but you could try. wait for it, 1338 gargantuan ccs of Electra Glide II. Yessiree, the people who brought you The World's Most Monstrous Motorcycle have gone one better and the result's the Electra Glide to outshine all the others. So when good old Coburn and Hughes offered to let us have one for two whole weeks did we tump at the chance? We jumped. A quick trip to Luton and there it was, gleaming in the sunlight, 80ci (that's American for 1338ccs) of full dresser Hog resplendent with the full top box 'n' panniers King of the Highway package.
The best way to test such a bike objectively is to use it the way it was intended to be used, ie covering a lot of miles laden down with enough luggage to make the average "touring" bike visibly wilt, plus a pillion passenger.
That's just what I did. Estimating on a fairly easygoing 300 miles per day, the borders of sunny Yugoslavia were within three to four day's riding time so, with two weeks to play around with, me and my lady Angie set our sights on the Costa del Communism and back as a realistic proposition.
When you're contemplating that sort of journey you don't just hop on your bike and hope for the best. Leastways you might, but I most certainly wouldn't. Before we set off the right hand pannier of the Glide was filled with a weird and wonderful assortment of tools, spare clutch and throttle cables, a spare master link naturally and an inspection lamp. That lot left precious little room for much else, a state of affairs aggravated by the clumsy locking catches H-D insist on fitting their panniers with.
These gems of stone age engineering are guaranteed to snag on any item of clothing in the vicinity when you're trying to shut a heavily laden pannier. A small point, but incredibly irritating when you're on the road and having to repack them every day. The capacious top box was eventually filled with a largish camera case, a large bag full of clothing and the thick wodge of documentation that's part and parcel of travelling au continent. That left the left hand pannier to cram the rest of our clothing into. With this minor feat of logistics accomplished, and a tent and two sleeping bags strapped on the lid of the top box, we began to feel very thankful for the Glide's extraordinary luggage carrying capability.
So far so good. With the bike packed and the obvious final checks on tyre pressures, oil level and the battery over and done witn, it was time to head off into the unknown. Well the A2 to Dover at least. Six o'clock on a Sunday morning with only a couple of hours of sleep behind you isn't a good place to be, but suitably fortified with strong black coffee we ventured out in the early morning chill, cursing the twisted logic that had taken us to a somewhat inebriated party the evening before. The plan was to catch Townsend-Thoreson's 10 o'clock Dover-Calais ferry, head on down to Paris as fast as the Harley would take us and then put as many miles of hyper-expensive France behind us as possible before evening.
The Glide itself had 1475 miles on the clock peanuts for a bike that's reckoned to be just about run-in at 6000 miles so it still felt stiff, tight and horribly new. "It should hardly notice a 4000 mile trip", said the man from Coburn and Hughes when I picked the beast up, but almost immediately a string of nasty little occurences made me lose all hope of reaching Calais let alone Yugoslavia. First off one of the twin petrol caps flew off on the M1 heading down to London, drenching me with petrol. No sooner had I purchased a replacement from Pratts in Greenwich than the bike refused to start. Boy did it refuse to start. The starter motor was working fine, the coil was sparking a treat, but were the spark plugs doing their thing? No way.
Luckily Coburn and Hughes, helpful as ever, sent their Harley expert down to look at the recalcitrant Glide and his diagnosis was rapid; ignition failure. See Harley in their wisdom, fit solid state electronic ignition to their big twins these days, and when solid state sparks give up the ghost there ain't no way you're gonna get home with the aid of the proverbial matchbox and silver paper. Nope, replacement's the only cure and that's just what CErH's man did.
Apparently the first batch of electronic gizmos on this year's bikes proved defective, but fear not prospective purchasers, because later units work just fine. Leastways the one on our bike did, covering nearly 4500 miles without a murmur.
The A2's the A2, and I can't really get ecstatic about the joys of traversing Kent's main artery, even on an 80inch Electra Glide, so I'll skip on to the point where we had to cross the murky blue fastness which separates England and France. And what better way to do the journey than on one of the Townsend-Thoreson's luxuriously appointed and frequent (grovel grovel) ferries. Seriously though, I found it noteworthy that T-T's chaps handled the considerable bulk of the Glide in a far less roughshod manner than a certain other state run cross channel outfit I've experienced recently. After being carefully trussed up at non-damageable points, chocks were shoved under the wheels to prevent the bike running amok in mid-channel. OK, so they took special care of it because it was a £4000 prestige bike, you might say.
True possibly, but I noticed just as much care being lavished on the grubby Honda 360 down the gangway, so given that cross channel ferries in general are one of the biggest ripoffs in the history of transportation, you might as well entrust your prized scoot to someone who's going to take care of it.
And so to La France, gateway to the continent, home of left hand driving and suicidal little gents in ageing 2CVs. More of the latter anon, but riding out of the incredibly grubby port of Calais was enough to bring me to the verge of death on at least two occasions. I can cope with driving on the wrong side of the road with the best of 'em, but honest officer, the road system around the docks at Calais is, ow you say, tres dangereuse.
After that, the well ordered well laid out N1 to Paris was a relief. Riding through one of the rare sunny spells of the North-West European summer the world was indeed a rosy place as we left the hordes of GB sticker laden cars, campers and. yuck, caravans that were congesting the D940 to Boulogne, well behind. At this stage I might as well unburden myself and reveal a deep seated hatred of those grubby little boxes with windows which sports-shirted gents with clapped out Cortinas insist on towing all over the continent. I find this an affront to civilisation in itself, but when said gents insist on roaming the highways in packs, their caravans swaying ominously from side to side and obstructing other road users, my rage knows no bounds. Better by far to be experiencing the scenery at first hand from the saddle of a motorcycle.
The Glide was in its element, running on the sort of roads it was designed for, and loosening up by the minute. With fully sprung footboards a fully sprung seat, with no less than five adjustable ride settings, and an engine which was hardly turning over at an indicated 65mph, the 120 mile leg to Paris felt like a ten minute jaunt up the road.
When it comes to long range touring there aren't many tricks the men from Milwaukee have missed. Take for instance the heel and toe gearshift. Get the hang of synchronising this with clutch and throttle and shifting becomes a slick, effortless operation, contrary to what many a reviewer has said in print.
Then there's the throttle itself. Turn a neat little grub screw and you can progressively override the return spring, allowing you to have the nearest approach to the variable cruise controls fitted to luxury cars on two wheels. Mightn't seem important, but boy you can get a sore wrist on a long journey wrestling with the snappy throttles the Japs delight in fitting on their big bikes. Paris, and that automotive obstacle course the route peri-pherique ■ It's a sort of Parisian North Circular except a lot more plush.
Trouble is that when they got around to fitting road signs on the opulent multi lane peripherique they must have run out of francs, because it's a frighteningly easy road to get lost on. Take a wrong exit and you're in trouble. Like, it took us an hour to find the turning for Autoroute 6 after an unscheduled mystery tour around the sights of the south bank and a brief but pungent argument with my navigator The Delectable Angie who, to be fair, was trying her utmost to extricate us from the clutches of the French capital.
On the A6, the route du sol from Paris to the South of France, we had our first experience of an unwelcome French invention, rain grooves or rainurages. Cut parallel with the carriageway to stop cars aquaplaning, they made the ponderous Harley feel like a tramp steamer in heavy seas as the wheels wandered on and off the channels in the concrete. A disconcerting experience. Never mind, it obviously never rains from approximately 50 miles south of Paris onwards, because the rainurages ended as suddenly and inexplicably as they began, thank God.
With our wallets distinctly lighter due to the combined effects of paying outrageous tolls and eating in equally outrageous French motorway caffs (come back Scratchwood all is forgiven) we wanted to get out of the Godforsaken country as rapidly as possible. With evening descending, the foothills of the massif centrale turning distinctly chilly and over 400 miles on the clock since we'd set out, the time came to bed down for the night. I'd love to be able to tell you that.
hardy souls that we were, we pitched tent and spent the night under canvas, but in actuality we were so knackered that we pulled into a small town called Beaune and staggered into the first reasonably priced hotel we could find. Reasonably priced worked out at around £7.50 for a double room; roughly what you'd expect in a comparable British hostelry. Unlike a British hotel there were no turned up noses at the sight of a couple of bedraggled bikers staggering into the lobby, and the Electra Glide parked outside soon became a major local tourist attraction.
After showering and making ourselves human, time for a spot of la vie Frangaise, and this is where the rub came. With Beaune being situated right in the middle of the Nuits St George wine region, we expected plentiful supplies of cheapo plonk, but a couple of miserly carafes of house wine at a local bar set us back nearly £5.
After that episode we couldn't wait to take our leave of France so, following an excellent French breakfast (included in the price ol the room) we headed back to the motorway. On the approach road the journey very nearly came to an untimely end when I braked hard to check out a sign. What I hadn't noticed was a large patch of gravel in the road, and when 750lbs of bike plus, say, 430lbs of riders and luggage hits gravel, you start praying. Fast. The bike ended up pivoted around my leg which didn't enjoy the experience, but luckily the only damage was to my pride.
Except for signs pointing out areas of interest along the side of the carriageway (nice idea, although I never did manage to spot the prehistoric dwellings which, according to said signs, proliferated around Chalon) French motorways are very like motorways the world over, so it was nice to be able to turn off and head towards the mountains at Tournus. Before we set out we'd divided the entire route to Yugo into 300 mile segments, and that day's itinerary called for us to reach Geneva at midday, travel under the Alps through the Mont Blanc tunnel and head deep into Italy before nightfall.
Heading towards Bourg on the D975 the buildings in the numerous villages along the road started looking more alpine in contrast to the flat boxy edifices we'd become used to in central France.
We didn't catch sight of any honest-to-God mountains until we were on the road from Bourg to Nantua, but then the picture postcard stuff came up on the horizon and the sweltering mid-morning heat eased off a bit as we began to get higher. At this juncture we saw an unusual sight indeed.
The local cops were riding around on BMWs nothing strange in that - but these guys were doing their bit to preserve law 'n' order on 1000cc machines complete, would you believe, with full 100RS fairings fetchingly finished in deep metallic blue with matt black trim panels. Sure beats the local woodentop on his Triumph Saint.
Pulling into a garage for some petrol (not, thankfully, a frequent experience with the Glide's miserly 45-50mpg fuel consumption and five gallon tank) I noticed that the engine was running hot enough to fry an egg on the casings. Harleys always seem to run hotter than most bikes, but this one was something else. Turned out that in a mere 300 miles a litre of oil had gone astray somewhere.
The most likely cause was the over generous chain oiler, but from then onwards oil consumption stayed at around 350 miles per litre, which at continental oil prices is a good route to bankruptcy. Nothing wrong with the rest of the bike though. The brute seemed to thrive on high mileages and as long as both petrol and oil tanks were kept well filled, it was content to chug along at a steady 70mph all day long. At about this stage I stopped noticing the sheer bulk of the Harley and started treating it like any other bike. Surprise, surprise, it handled too. Nothing too spirited you understand, but set up right it cornered well.
On the mountain roads up towards St Germain de Joux the bends proved a bit too tight for the Glide's limited ground clearance though, and I soon learned that the sound of the offside footboard scraping on righthanders was not a prelude to disaster. 'Fact after a while I began to worry if the footboards didn't ground. The scenery and roads in this part of France were equally impressive, and the only real hassle was passing long queues of cars stuck behind slow moving lorries on the steep inclines.
Brakes have never been H-D's strong suit, . and the sheer inadequacy of the Glide's puny discs front and rear began to make itself felt on the swervery. At first this was a strain but gradually I became accustomed to thinking about a quarter of a mile further ahead than usual and hitting the anchors well before I wanted to stop. Luckily H-Ds have more than their fair share of engine braking, and the simple expedient of dropping a cog or two could easily match the combined efforts of a set of Brembo's finest disc brakes. Mind you, that set of Brembo's finest discs would still have been more than welcome aboard the Glide.
After skirting Geneva we hightailed it down the extortionate toll motorway towards Chamonix and that large hole through Mont Blanc which connects France and Italy. By the time we reached the tunnel we'd become so shell-shocked by the toll prices in this part of the world that we hardly noticed the £4.50 we were relieved of for the privilege of travelling through 12 kilometres of dank, badly lit tunnel. Even the Black wall tunnel on a bad day isn't as bad on a bike as this gloomy edifice, and that's saying something.
And so to Italy, and boy were we looking forward to buying ourselves a whole stack of those cut price petrol coupons they dole out to foreigners in the land of pasta. Trouble was, we didn't get any. After showing an ill-mannered young lady in the coupon office all our documentation, she decided she wanted to see the Harley's logbook. In vain Angie explained that the bike wasn't ours, that I was a journalist writing a road test and that the Italian tourist office in London had assured 1 her that she wouldn't have any hassles. She might as well have been talking to a brick wall because the coupons weren't forthcoming, which led me to the conclusion that either the Italian tourist office in London were a bunch of assholes who don't know what they're talking about, or the lady at the border post and her colleagues were a bunch of officious pricks. Whatever, we gave Italian cut price petrol a miss.
I guess by now we should have started riding around on little used mountain tracks and other suitably touristic routes, but I'm afraid I'm not some sort of latter day Ken Craven and I had a lot of ground to cover so we stuck to the Autostrada virtually all the way to Milan. On the one brief occasion when we strayed away from the motorway, the road was beautiful, but progress was painfully slow and at the rate we were travelling we'd have been lucky to make 100 miles a day. All this and we got ripped off something rotten when we stopped off for coffee in a seemingly untouched, unspoilt village and were charged five star hotel prices.
We reached Milan by early evening, but one look at the industrialised sprawl of the city persuaded us to move on without stopping. The Milanese certainly seem to be into biking judging from the dazzling array of class machinery on the roads around the city. We spotted MVs, Guzzis, Laverdas and BMWs in great profusion, usually ridden with great elan by helmetless elegantly dressed business types. Noticeably less Japbikes than Britain though, which says something for Italian import controls.
We stopped off for the night in Bergamo, an ancient university town that's grown into a major manufacturing centre, and once again we took the coward's way out and looked for a hotel. That's easier said than done as it turned out because, surprisingly, hotels seemed to be a non-existent commodity in Bergers. Maybe they were having their night off or something with our knowledge of Italian we wouldn't have been any the wiser if World War III had broken out while we were on the motorway but it took us an hour and a half to find a restaurant which let accommodation on the side. By this stage it was too late to do much except flake out for the night after sampling some excellent Italian cuisine and parking the bike in a safe place. The safe place in question turned out to be the local police compound. From what I could figure out the proprietor of the restaurant had an arrangement with the police concierge who extracted a generous "tip" before allowing me to move the bike next morning. Italy works in a different way from the rest of the world and I guess sometimes it pays to just sit back and accept it.
Day three on the road, and after the previous day's hard travelling through the hills and mountains, an easygoing 150 mile journey to Venice, our next port of call. As a nation the Italians seem to have a permanent love affair with powered vehicles of every sort and wherever the Harley stopped it was soon surrounded with admirers. The inevitable question in broken English was "how many cubic?", followed by a whistle of disbelief when 1338ccs was translated into whatever 1338ccs might be in Italian. One family who had just come back from England after holidaying in "Vimbeldown". that
An well known London suburb,
even insisted on having group portraits taken with the bike. Being merely
the guy who rode the thing, I was beginning to feel slightly superfluous.
Nothing much except that the canals stink and the place was full of beer-swilling Germans who managed to destroy any atmosphere it might have had by breaking into raucous song at the drop of a beer glass.
On this occasion we did camp, pitching tent in a picturesque little site midway between the steelworks, the chemical plant and the Autostrada roundabout.
That's the side of Venice you never see in the guidebooks, the industrial wasteland which surrounds the island which Venice proper is built on. Have to report a small malfunction here; the rearview mirror which had previously become looser and looser was finally put out of its agony when the rivets in its internal mounting clamps gave way, and the sorry mess was consigned to the toolbox.
Aside from that no problems.
Christ, even the chain didn't need adjusting, which made that extravagant
chain oiler worthwhile.
Ah yes, Yugoslavia, the object of our trip. We were well on the way having covered 1025 miles since we'd left home, and 120 miles or so would see us to the border of the first communist country I'd ever visited. First we had to find the border, which is easier said than done.
The gateway to Yugo is a sleepy, dusty town called Trieste which, as I remember, figured heavily in From Russia With Love as the place where the Orient Express crossed the Iron Curtain, bringing 007 plus Russian tart to safety. Well there ain't an Orient Express any more, and the town has sod all else to recommend ft except the border.
Trouble was, the border isn't actually in Trieste it's another ten miles or so outside. Plus it's signposted in a most erratic manner. After three attempts we finally found ourselves on the right road and there in the fullness of time it was The Border tucked out of sight past a bend. Not your EEC non-existent border either; a real honest-to-God Graham Greene setup with gun toting guards and barriers. And that was only the Italian side.
About 50 yards on we reached yer
actual Yugoslavia where an imposing glass and concrete building suitably
staffed with heavies who gave the Glide an admiring once over, marked our
entry into the clutches of communism. We'd made it.