History of the right side shift Harley Davidson Ironhead
Some things never change. Until they have to. The Harley Davidson “Ironhead” first arrived on US lots in 1957 and become an immediate hit. The Ironhead has a slightly unusual history as it relates to design, shifting, and federal law. We'll dig more into what makes the Ironhead special, and how laws changed motorcycle design.
What's special about the Ironhead?
The XL Ironhead was developed to fight off competition from British bikes like the Triumph and Nortons of the mid 1950s. Harley's XL brought a few things that motorcycle riders craved: a fresh new design, a more powerful overhead valve motor, and a name they knew well in Harley-Davidson. The design, speed, and weight of the XL made it an ideal machine to transform into a bobber or a chopper – the looks of which made it acceptable to own one if you weren't an “outlaw.” Harley-Davidson was going for a cleaner image outside of motorcycle gangs.
Ironhead earned its nickname very simply from having an iron cylinder heads used to make the engines. At the time, more motorcycle cylinder heads were being made of aluminum – which was in the early stages of being an effective metal for motorcycle engines.
Does the shift hand matter?
If you ask the government, it can. There were no standards when it came to manufacturing a motorcycle. Just like Harley had two different sides for shift and throttle, Indian and other motorcycle manufacturers could switch sides. Indians in the era put the carburetor left of the engine, so having a left side throttle made sense. This could be confusing to riders who were trying to learn a new bike.
There were rumors that having a left handed throttle made it easier for law enforcement on motorcycles to “shoot on the run” with their left hand while operating the throttle with their right. This is a myth though it does make sense – it didn't necessarily change laws.
Motorcycle manufacturers slowly became more united – in part to have a competitive advantage. Prior to the changing of laws in the 1970s, Indian motorcycles offered throttle conversion kits to make their bikes operate more like Harley-Davidsons for people switching over.
One big advantage of this is not thinking about where the brakes and throttle are in an emergency – which even for the average user, can be confusing in a pinch.
Motorcycle manufacturers were a bit stubborn though, considering that it took 30 years to get them to agree upon where the throttle and brake places should be.
The law change is akin to requiring left hand drive vehicles in the United States, though American roads and infrastructure are built around it. In the case of left hand shift motorcycles, the development is more a reflection of the need for safety and ability to reach quickly when needed.
The Era of AMF
From 1971 to 1985, AMF owned Harley-Davidson. AMF was far better known for bowling alleys and entertainment centers than for motorcycles. With that said, some say that the quality of HD suffered while AMF was in charge, but their bikes looked nicer. AMF went more visual – with a centennial edition decked out in patriotic decals and a much more rare Confederate edition with some confederate flag decals – though few of these exist.
Post AFM era
The Sportster received a new engine at the end of the AFM era, with the Evolution motor coming along with 883cc and1200cc sizes. The Sportster remains in production, in part because entry level riders love it as a relatively inexpensive, small bike that is great for commuting as well as comfort.