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Harley-Davidson Super Glide – Rise of the Boattail

harley-davidson super glide tank close up

The Super Glide was chirped long and hard when it was introduced in 1971. Times have changed though, and today it’s regarded as one of the more collectible Harley-Davidsons.

It was the early 1970s and I was still a kid in a Winnipeg high school the first time I ever laid eyes on a “Boattail” Super Glide. It was collecting dust in a motorcycle shop on the north side of the city. There were places that sold Harley-Davidsons back in those days that weren’t quite as organized or sophisticated as they are today—and that’s me being nice. Its surroundings were a touch on the rustic side, but I thought the Super Glide was the most beautiful bike I’d ever seen, all done up in its “Sparkling America” livery of red, white, and blue.

Didn’t take long for my riding buddies to set me straight: “The Stupid Glide,” they said, “It’s ugly. Forget it. AMF bike. Not a ‘real’ Harley.” Some of these friends were older than me, so obviously they knew better, right? In hindsight, I had friends back then who also weren’t very organized or sophisticated. But their chirping was fairly typical of the verbal abuse heaped on the Super Glide when it first emerged from the AMF-Harley-Davidson factory in 1971. Famously, this was Willie G. Davidson’s first big styling effort, and it’s fair to say that it wasn’t well received. How ironic that today auction houses such as Bonhams rate the Super Glide “among the most collectible of post-1960s Big Twin Harley-Davidsons.”

Ray Prince is a well-known collector and restorer who reckons he’ll ask upward of $25,000 for his minty 1971 Super Glide when he finally decides to sell (which seemed it might be this year when I visited his garage in February). Ray says he’s lost track of how many Harley-Davidsons he’s owned over the decades but even after just a few moments in the man’s workshop you get a clear sense of his long history with the brand. The walls are covered with H-D memorabilia and scores of photos from bikes he’s owned in the past. Also taking up room in the garage are a pair of daily (summer) rides: a gleaming red Knucklehead and a 1923 Model JD Harley-Davidson once operated by the Victoria City Police. On the workbench at present is a small displacement single-cylinder Harley that he’s restoring and assembling for the former Harley-Davidson dealer and good friend of Canadian Biker, Steve Drane. (Watch for the story of this build later in the year.)

Among Ray’s past inventory was the Super Glide he purchased new in 1972, making Mr. Prince at the time one of only an estimated 5,000 buyers of the original FX—a model that would eventually overcome the stigma attached to it and evolve into the seminal and highly stylized Low Rider. From that point a whole new breed of “Factory Customs” began to emerge.

The Super Glide was actually a hybrid, powered by Harley-Davidson’s 74-inch Shovelhead engine housed in a heavy FL frame to which was fitted a XL Sportster front end, Fat Bob tanks, and a fender-seat combo molded from fibreglass into one piece: the Boattail. The concept was outrageous, and people voted with their wallets. That’s to say, they didn’t. The model was returned to the lineup for 1972, but the Boattail experiment was drawn to a close with the fitment of a steel fender.

harley-davidson super glide rear suspension close up

For Ray Prince though, it became a case of everything old is new again when at a swap meet in the US naval base town of Bremerton, Washington three years ago he made the acquaintance of a fellow who had a ’71 Super Glide and a willingness to part with it. 

The guy had acquired the bike in tattered condition after its former owner was divorced from his wife who took possession of the motorcycle as part of the settlement. We can only speculate from a distance of course, but it seems the divorce must have been ugly. Perhaps not quite as wretched though as the condition of the bike, which Ray describes as “disgusting” after it had sat unattended for five years in an unprotected carport.

Though Ray admits that, “nobody liked them at the time” when he bought his first Super Glide attitudes have since changed and now that he was presented with an opportunity to again own a ‘Glide a certain nostalgia also kicked in.

Says Ray: “It’s one of those things when you get older and you look back and say ‘Hey that was pretty cool bike.’

harley-davidson super glide engine close up

Though the Bremerton bike needed sweat equity and a few parts, Ray was certainly up to the task. And this time, the feedback was nothing but positive. “I put it together and everybody loves it today,” he says. “[Maybe because] it’s from a whole other era.”

The generally warm feeling people now express for the Boattail Super Glide is an object lesson in how the course of time can change perceptions. Some things though never change. One of the constant aspects of life (and motorcycles) is that you just never know what you’ll need once you’ve committed to a restoration project.

Even a very experienced hand like Ray can be surprised. As he sourced parts for the Super Glide it came as a mild shock to learn that the rectangular reflectors on the side of the Boattail are especially difficult to find, and even if you do, expect to pay $100.

harley-davidson super glide side profile red white and blue

“Guys used to just tear them off and toss them away,” says Ray. Lesson learned: never discard anything attached to a Harley-Davidson. 

Story and Photos By John Campbell Canadian Biker Issue #329


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