Why Do Harleys Break Down So Much? (Explained & Solved!)

If there is one thing Harleys are famous for it is their perceived reputation for unreliability. More than any other motorcycle brand, Harleys are criticized for breaking down a lot.

Why do Harleys break down so much?

Harleys break down for several reasons. A major reason is the predisposition of Harley owners to modify their motorcycles excessively. Often, people perform these modifications without expert guidance and cause problems for the bikes later on.

There is also the failure of Harley owners to maintain their bikes properly.

Many owners consider maintenance too costly and so skip regular servicing. The bikes will break down eventually, after a long period without maintenance.

Do Harleys Break Down More Often Than Other Motorcycle Brands?

Many people believe that Harleys are notoriously unreliable, compared to bikes from rival motorcycle brands.

These people will tell you that a bike from Honda or Kawasaki is ten times better than a Harley is. They will also claim that Harleys spend more time in the repair shop than on the road.

Here are some reasons for Harley’s supposedly have more frequent breakdowns.

Lack of Quality Control

In the past, claims like these held for many Harley motorcycles, especially those made during the “AMF Years.”

This period, which ran from the 60s to the 70s, witnessed the production of some of the most unreliable Harleys on record. Quality control was non-existent at Harley-Davidson production plants, and this was reflected in the bikes the company produced.

These motorcycles were prone to several problems and left many owners on the roadside repeatedly. Only loyal owners could tolerate the problems that came with owning a Harley.

Less-loyal owners preferred to cut costs by selling off their bikes before repairs became crippling.

Japanese-made motorcycles soon flooded the American market and made Harleys look like Stone Age contraptions. These bikes were not only faster and more powerful than Harleys were; they were more reliable and broke down less.

Soon, people started considering Harleys to be of inferior quality compared to the Japanese brands.

Here’s something that you need to know What Harleys Do They Actually Ride?

Unpleasant Reputation

A series of takeovers later changed the fortunes of the ailing Harley brand.

The production process was improved, and the quality of Harley motorcycles improved drastically.

Despite the improvement, the idea that Harleys break down more than other motorcycles is still persistent in the motorcycling world.

Look into our article which reads about Do Harleys have Reverse Gear?

Excessive Modifications

Several factors are contributing to this.

First is the enthusiasm of Harley owners for over-the-top modifications.

“Modding” or “Chopping,” as they call it, is a big part of the Harley culture. No other group comes close to Harley owners in terms of motorcycle modifications.

It is not strange to see an individual swap the exhaust, change air intakes, flash the ECU, and change lights, all on the same Harley.

Modifying certain aspects of your motorcycle to improve its performance or look is not bad. However, modifications can go awry if done haphazardly.

Even with this knowledge, Harley owners will still chop and mod their bikes to death. When these bikes breakdown, the same owners will go to online forums and complain about the “unreliability” of Harley motorcycles.

Maintenance Hacks

The second major factor is the failure of Harley owners to carry out proper maintenance on their motorcycles.

Maintenance costs on Harleys are higher than for the average motorcycle, especially if you take the bike to a dealership. Some owners have their bikes serviced by quack mechanics who have the less technical knowledge and charge less to cut costs.

Some owners may do the servicing themselves, even though they don’t have the required knowledge. Others may go as far as skipping the maintenance process altogether.

Poor maintenance, or skipping it altogether, will eventually lead to problems as no motorcycle can run well unless given proper maintenance.

When these Harleys develop faults because of poor maintenance, no one blames the owner. Instead, they blame the manufacturer, further strengthening the “Harleys are the least-reliable bikes” idea.

Heavy Riding

Another reason for Harley’s reputation for unreliability is the rigorous riding habits of owners.

In riding motorcycles, no one comes close to Harley owners. Harley owners ride their bikes a lot. In fact, it is not strange to see a Harley with over 50,000 miles in a year after multiple cross-country runs.

If you ride your motorcycle hard, you need to do some “hardcore” maintenance. It would be best if you serviced your bike regularly, or else it will break down.

Many Harley owners will ride their bikes hard without maintaining it, yet expect them to run optimally. This is not possible. Any bike that is not well-maintained will develop major and minor problems.

The average Harley needs no more maintenance than a Japanese, German, or Indian motorcycle.

They may even last longer than motorcycles from rival companies.

What Typically Breaks On A Harley?

Harleys are as reliable as any other motorcycle but are still prone to certain problems, just like any other motorcycle.

Most of these problems are usually traceable. Below, we consider the Harley motorcycle components that develop problems repeatedly:

Clutch

The clutch not only allows you to change gears while you are riding but is also responsible for transferring power from the engine to the transmission and wheels.

Without the clutch, changing gears, accelerating/decelerating, or moving at all would be impossible.

Motorcycle clutches are prone to wear, just like any other component. However, Harley owners complain that the clutches on their bikes wear out rapidly.

Faulty clutches reportedly cause the following issues on Harley motorcycles:

  • Changing gears becomes difficult. The clutch plates are partly responsible for the gear switching process. If they are worn out, riders will find it difficult to change gears. In extreme cases [e.g., if they are stuck in place], it may be impossible to change gears at all.
  • Delayed engagement/gears slip. An obvious sign that the clutch is faulty is that the gears slip or do not engage on time. Gear slipping is what happens when the motorcycle’s RPM increases, but the speed does not. This problem occurs mostly at start-up.
  • The motorcycle accelerates poorly. When the bike’s clutch is faulty, it will lose power and may not accelerate properly.

Clutch problems are a widespread issue among most Harley motorcycles and have led to many recalls.

Below is a list showing the number of Harley motorcycles recalled because of faulty clutches:

  • 2013 [25,000 bikes]
  • 2015 [45,901 bikes]
  • 2016 [27,232 bikes]
  • 2018 [238,380 bikes]

Gaskets

Gaskets are another problem area on many Harley models.

According to owners, both the rear and front head gaskets can fail with varying consequences. On most occasions, a gasket(s) replacement should solve the problem completely.

A major reason these gaskets fail is continuous exposure to high internal pressure. The pressure weakens the gasket, leading to cracks and holes. With time, the oil will leak through these holes and cracks. This explains why you’ll likely find oil puddles under a motorcycle with bad gaskets when it is parked.

Improper warm-ups can also lead to gasket damage. Gaskets need to expand before exposed to the pressure and friction created when you pull the throttle.

Warm-ups allow gaskets to heat up and expand gradually.

Failure to warm-up means the gaskets don’t have enough time to expand, reducing their ability to handle the pressure and friction in the engine. As a result, it will crack and become leaky.

Leaving your Harley parked in the garage for extended periods can also lead to gasket failure. When you don’t ride your bike regularly, the gaskets cannot heat up and expand, as they should.

They will get brittle and wear out rapidly.

In severe cases, faulty head gaskets can cause significant engine damage, requiring an engine rebuild or engine replacement to keep the bike running.

Symptoms of gasket failure on Harleys include:

  • Loss of power and reduced engine performance
  • White smoke pouring out from the bike while riding.
  • Oil puddles beneath bike when parked.

Electrical Components

Electrical components on Harley-Davidson motorcycles are prone to faults.

Many owners report these problems on their Harley motorcycles, especially the more expensive models.

Most of the complaints about the electrical systems revolve around the malfunctioning battery. One such complaint is that the battery does not charge even when connected to a power source.

Another is that the battery drains while the bike is not in use. This usually happens when the bike is parked for the night or a long period.

Excessive battery drain will make it harder to start the bike, and in severe cases, the motorcycle may not start at all.

Other components, such as the regulators, rectifiers, stators, and wiring harnesses, are also notorious for developing faults.

Symptoms of damaged electrical components on a Harley include:

  • Lights on motorcycles flicker and perform erratically.
  • Lights go off while you are riding. Headlights, dashboard lights, and indicator lights may go off while you are riding.
  • Lights do not come on at all.
  • The lights on your Harley may refuse to come up even though the motorcycle is running.
  • Bulbs burn out

Brakes

Another component that develops problems is the brakes.

However, defective engineering causes are not the only source of these problems.

Sometimes they happen because of a lack of maintenance.

For instance, Harley-Davidson issued a recall of around 180,000 motorcycles in 2018. The problem? Owners were not replacing the DOT 4 brake fluid within the period specified in the service manual.

As a result, deposits formed on components in the brake system, especially the ABS module. These deposits could cause the components to stick, reducing braking ability, and increase the risk of a crash.

Other problems associated with the brakes on Harley motorcycles include soft or “mushy” brakes and front/rear brake failure.

Brake components such as calipers, rotors, and brake pads also wear out quickly with use.

How Much Does It Cost To Service And Fix A Harley?

Contrary to public perception, the cost of servicing a Harley is comparable to that of an average motorcycle.

Yes, scheduled service for a Harley can be expensive, especially if a dealership technician does it for you. However, scheduled servicing will protect your motorcycle from more costly repairs.

This will eventually reduce the money you have to spend on services.

You can further reduce the money you have to spend on servicing by doing it yourself (if you have the know-how). Labor costs form a large percentage of the amount dealerships charge for repairing/servicing your motorcycle.

Do the servicing yourself, and the only things you’ll pay for are the parts.

For this, you will need to have the requisite technical knowledge and repair tools. You can watch online tutorial videos and consult other materials to learn how to service a motorcycle. You will also need to invest in equipment such as a motorcycle stand, torque wrench, socket wrench, pressure gauge, oil pan, etc.

A copy of the service manual is important too. The service manual prescribes the various servicing you need to do and how you should do them.

If you don’t have an in-depth mechanical and electrical knowledge of automotive systems, it is better to handle only the minor servicing/parts replacements and leave the major repairs to trained technicians.

For instance, you may not carry out any scheduled servicing yourself once your bike crosses 10,000 miles. At this stage, more problems are likely to appear, many of which require expert knowledge and tools.

A dealership will charge more than an indie shop. However, the indie shop may not have a certified technician or offer after-service support, which can be useful if something goes wrong after the bike is repaired.

Below is a table showing the average servicing costs for Harleys:

Service Cost
Oil & Filter Change $110-$160
Brake Pad Replacement $200-$300
Clutch Replacement $300-$500
Tire Replacement $200-$500
Gasket Replacement $450-600

How Much Does A Harley Scheduled Service Cost?

Scheduled servicing is an important part of owning a Harley.

Harley-Davidson recommends servicing your motorcycle at the following intervals:

  1. 1,000 miles
  2. 5,000 miles
  3. 10,000 miles
  4. 15,000 miles
  5. 20,000 miles

After your motorcycle’s 20,000-mile service, it needs a scheduled servicing every 5,000 miles.

How much does scheduled servicing cost?

It depends on a couple of factors:

  • The motorcycle’s mileage:
    • The present mileage of the motorcycle determines the cost of a scheduled service.
    • More components will have worn out at 25,000 miles than at 5,000 miles. You will have to buy more parts and pay more for labor.
  • Who does the servicing:
    • We already explained that your preferred location for servicing would affect servicing expenses.
    • Harley-certified repair shops often charge more than independent outlets. But they may offer warranties and after-sales support that the indie shop won’t.

The table shows the average price repair shops charge for scheduled servicing on various Harley models:

Servicing costs [includes parts and labor]  Big Twin                  Sportster
1,000-mile service $365-390  $250-275
2,500/7,500 mile service  $150-175  $125-145
5,000-mile service  $390-410  $330-410
10,000-mile service  $375-400  $315-325

Are Harleys Considered Reliable?

Compared to older models, newer Harley models have improved considerably in terms of reliability.

Gone are the days when Harleys leaked oil and broke down several times. Thanks to improved quality control and better production processes, the quality of Harley-Davidson motorcycles has increased.

Although the brand has been hit with some recalls, this is not something peculiar to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. For example, Harley’s arch-rival Indian Motorcycles was forced to recall over 5,000 motorcycles in 2019 for a stalling problem.

Similarly, Japanese motorcycle maker Kawasaki had to recall over 3,000 bikes in 2017 as the bikes were at risk of crashing.

One thing you should note, however, is that the reliability depends on how well you maintain it. You must read and follow the service schedule and perform all maintenance tasks that the manual recommends.

Also, get your scheduled service from professional technicians. Improper servicing can put your bike at risk of damage.

7 Tips To Make Sure Your Harley Keeps Running

As we said before, your Harley is only as reliable as the maintenance you give it.

If you do not maintain your motorcycle properly, it will run poorly and break down repeatedly. Don’t know how to go about maintenance?

Here is a list of things that will help keep your motorcycle on the road for long:

1. Read the Owner’s Manual

If you want to keep your bike running for as long as possible, you need to consult the owner’s manual regularly.

The owner’s manual has a list of maintenance activities designed to keep your bike in tip-top condition.

You must carry out maintenance activities as specified in the owner’s manual. The manufacturer of your bike is more knowledgeable about the bike than you are. Hence, follow their directions as described in the owner’s manual.

Sometimes, you may have trouble understanding a particular instruction in the owner’s manual.

If this happens, consult online forums for help or ask questions from other motorcycle owners.

2. Keep the Tires Properly Inflated

Wrong air pressure in your Harley’s tires can affect everything from handling to fuel economy.

You should check the air pressure in your tire at least once a week to ensure they are at optimal levels.

This will improve your bike’s overall performance and reduce the risk of a crash.

3. Check Fluids

The fluids in your motorcycle are important for its operation.

To keep your motorcycle running, you need to check the fluids regularly and replace them as needed. A good strategy is to inspect your fluid levels each morning before you ride.

In particular, top-up the transmission fluid, coolant, and engine oil at intervals.

Fluids typically lose effectiveness with time, so top up with fresh supplies.

4. Drive with Care

You can reduce wear-and-tear on your motorcycle by riding it responsibly.

Avoid things like revving past the redline, riding the clutch, and braking hard. They will only increase the rate at which the components wear and may reduce the lifespan of your motorcycle.

You should also remember to warm up your bike, especially if it has been parked for long.

5. Don’t Purchase Inferior Spare Parts

Do not fall into the trap of buying cheap parts in the name of “saving money.”

Nothing good in life comes cheap, and this applies to spare parts too. Cheap parts are, often more than not, lesser in quality than the expensive ones.

Using parts like these for your motorcycle may cause damage and make for extra maintenance costs.

We recommend buying parts from only Harley-certified retailers and auto shops. These parts will cost more but will last longer.

6. Avoid Excessive Modifications

In this article, we have explained that modifications can be the death of your motorcycle if they are not done properly.

We emphasize this point because we know that there is always the temptation to outfit your Harley with the newest gizmo in town.

However, “modding” your motorcycle will only put a strain on parts of your motorcycle like the brakes and transmission.

7. Always Inspect Your Motorcycle

You should always be on the lookout for signs of trouble on your motorcycle.

Ensure that brake pads, calipers, rotors, etc., have not worn out and are in good condition.

Doing a pre-ride inspection will enable you to detect minor faults before they snowball into bigger problems. More importantly, look out for weird noises, either when the bike is idling or when you are riding it.

These noises usually show that something is wrong with the motorcycle.

If you are not sure where the sound is coming from, take the bike to a trained mechanic for a thorough inspection.

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