Harley Davidson’s FLH touring series has been around since 1965 and still dominates the large bore touring market. I wanted to know which year and model was “The Best”. So, I went over every engine design, major frame, and suspension upgrade and looked at the model packages offered since 1965.
So what year and model of Harley Davidson touring motorcycle is the best? The 2009 FLHTCU, Electra Glide Ultra Classic, with these standard features and improvements,
- 96cu / 1584cc twin cam engine, reliable and proven
- New stiffer frame, with a higher weight capacity
- Frame improves low and high-speed handling
- 5 lbs. more capacity per saddlebag and per top box
- 17” front wheel replaces 16”
- Wider rear 5” rear tire, replacing previous 3”
- Brembo triple-disc brake system with ABS
- Larger 6 US gallon fuel tank
- Ultra-Premium 80 watts sound system
- Standard CB & Intercom system
- Lower fairing, for added leg protection
- Electronic cruise control
The “best” will mean different things to each reader. I measured it on overall design, comfort, reliability, availability, and value. Adding it all up I concluded the 2009 Electra Glide Ultra Classic was a clear winner, as well as a bit of a mouthful to rhyme-out!
Just to note, the FLT Road Glide is basically the same machine as the Electra Glide with a frame mounted “shark nose” fairing, it also shares the top pick in 2009. It comes down to a personal choice which fairing style you like better between the fork mounted FLH batwing or the FLT frame mounted version.
Every FLH/FLT year has its pros and cons, and many avid riders just prefer a certain year and model regardless of what the numbers or the crowd says. Personally, I am stuck in 1982, because it’s my first, I love the shovelhead and still ride it. It doesn’t come out on top of the scorepad, but I don’t care at all and never will. You may guess, my “next” Harley will be an addition to the stable.
So, if you are interested in how I came to pick the Electra Glide Ultra Classic 2009 FLHTCU, as the best value for design, features, and comfort, read on.
FLH Touring Series
You can put a windshield and saddlebags on any HD and go touring. But the FLH series is designed from the ground up to do one job – and support your touring habit in extreme comfort. So, I did not consider any cruisers, like the Dyna, Softail, Sportster, or even the V-Rod.
The Road King FLHR is also a touring machine, but it gives up a lot for that classic 50’s style. The only windshield option is a relatively small clear retro style unit, and all gages are on the tank. With this setup, you are limited to the accessories that can be added directly in front of the rider without losing all the style the bike has. You could upgrade the Road King with almost all the items that an Electra Glide offers, but why not just start with a motorcycle that has it all, to begin with?
The Road King could sneak in and take your spot for the best pick though. If you like going without a windshield then there is a quick detach (convertible) option available. However, you can’t easily stow the windshield on the bike, so removing and putting it somewhere on long tours, out on the road will be a challenge.
The heart of a Harley is the classic V-twin powerplant. The first Electra Glide model in 1965 came with an iconic shovelhead engine. There have been a series of major engine designs since this touring machine’s introduction. Harley Davidson’s design improvements are evolutionary, versus completely new from the ground up models. Improvements are added to the base design over time, but the classic 45-degree V-twins remains a constant. The Shovelhead motor powered the FLH line until 1984. A new Evolution motor design was phased in and ran until 1999, then it evolved into the Twin Cam (TC). The Twin Cam was made up to 2016, then in 2017 the radical (by HD standards) Milwaukee-Eight came online.
Harley’s evolutionary design philosophy and phasing in of new features result in “transition” model years that have both old and new features. For example, you can find model years where both engine designs were available, and the same for carburation versus fuel injection.
Off the top, the Shovelhead, a classic 80 cubic inch with a very desirable look, feel and sound. Without going into the technical aspects or issues I found that it is just not available in the marketplace in enough numbers to make the cut. For example, doing a quick check for 1984 FLH and prior, for what would be available to me within a reasonable distance, I found only 3 out of 600 for sale and 2 where ex-police specials. Looking at all the USA, on a major online site, I could only find 30 out of literally 11,500 FLH/T’s for sale. So, the FLH’s with shovelhead powerplants are just way too rare to be considered.
Next engine was the Evolution, 88 cubic inches which upped the horsepower and torque, higher oil pressure and fewer oil leak problems due to tighter machining tolerances and better construction design. The EVO’s major design improvement was its aluminum cylinders with cast iron liners, versus the all cast iron barrels on the Shovelheads. The Evolution’s aluminum barrels expand at the same rate as the heads so there is less stress on head gaskets and fasteners. The EVO’s were a success for Harley, extensive testing showed that the new engines ran cooler and lasted much longer than previous shovels.
The Evolution motor was a progressive step forward but was still mechanically simple and easy to work on. Even though it was phased out in 1999, the selection in my local area was much better than a Shovelhead, at 50 out of 600 for sale. USA wide I found 131 out of 11,500. While not a lot to choose from, the Evo’s are still available and have proven power and reliability.
The next design was the Twin Cam, which was produced in 88 then 96 cubic inch formats. As the name implies there are 2 cams one for each cylinder, that are joined by 2 timing chains. So, it is more complicated but produces a bit more power. And ironically the biggest reliability issue for the TC 88 was related to the new cam chains. Many found that there was “premature” wear of both cam chain tensioner shoes. And also the less frequently the cam roller bearings going early, due to bad materials.
To put it in perspective – cam tensioners are maintenance items, Harley recommends replacement every 35k to 45k miles. If you are replacing them at every 30 k miles to be safe, all is well. And the good news is you only need average mechanical skills to do the work yourself. Both tensioners can be replaced in about an afternoon, and maybe $100 in parts. Taking it to the dealer or shop, expect it to cost $400 to $500 estimated labor. Learn to wrench a little and save big.
More expensive but a complete solution is to install a gear driven cam kit. The S&S Cycle 510 kit eliminates the 2 cam chains (no tensioners required), and beefs up the bearings, provides better valve timing and added performance. The kit is online for $570-750, dealer install should be similar to cam tensioner replacement charges. It’s recommended you replace the pushrods ($235 – S&S Quickie units) and hydraulic lifters, and possibly stronger valve springs, so it’s a slippery slope of cost going this route.
A third option is to go with Harley’s all hydraulic upgrade kit (on $499 + misc. parts $75), by the time you finish with this it may not be worth the time and money. You get the improved tensioner arrangement, with varying hydraulic force versus the constant spring pressure, and higher flow oil pump – and it’s all Harley OEM parts.
To fix the tensioner issue Harley put this improved hydraulic tensioner system on 2007 models forward. Reports of cam chain tensioner failure went way down. although the wear pads are still a consumable maintenance item.
In 2007 the Twin Cam was bumped up to 96 cu in – increasing torque to 92.6 ft lbs., over the TC 88’s 86 ft lbs. The cam tensioner issue was largely fixed this year with a hydraulic tensioner design replacing the springs. Following up in 2012 engine was increased to 110 cu in, with a bump to 100ft-lbs. of torque.
The Milwaukee-Eight 107 cu in motor, introduced in 2017 is radically new by Harley Davidson standards. The engine has two cooling methods – oil or liquid cooled cylinder heads. The new motor also has 4 valves and dual spark plugs per cylinder. Plus, an internal counterbalancer to reduce vibration. For sure there are numerous little engineering tweaks also.
Overall the new Milwaukee-Eight looks good, but it is still relatively new so any reliability issues are still unknown. At the other end, the Shovelhead is too rare in the market, the EVO is still rare but available, the TC 88 is fine, but the TC 96 fixed the tensioner issue and added more power. So, the Twin Cam 96 wins the best motor for purposes of this review.
Carbs & Fuel Injection
There was a lot of grumbling when fuel inject started to be used on motorcycles. The old-school DIY types complained that EFI systems were too complicated and a failure would be cataphoric. While the first designs had issues and bugs, I don’t think anyone can successfully argue now that carburetors are superior to electronic fuel injection (EFI). The only basis may be simplicity and ability for the home DIY mechanics to work on them. But modern EFI is pretty reliable technology.
In 2007 Harley made EFI a standard on all FLH machines. A side note – back in 2001 Harley used Magneti Marelli EFI units, and they have been problematic. Many owners have successfully swapped them with Delphi units for better performance and reliability.
Transmission & Driveline
In 2007 the new 6-speed transmission was rolled out. The new sixth gear drops gearing by about 15%, making highway cruising all the more comfortable with less vibration and stress on the motor. No significant issues have been reported with this new gearbox.
A note, that in 1985 all large Harleys went to belt drive for the rear wheel. This was a huge improvement over chain drives. Many traditionalists favor a chain but adding up the advantages (no real maintenance and bike stays clean), and very long life – anywhere from 30k to well over 100k miles have been seen, the belt is the best choice.
New Frame and Wheels – 2009
For the first time since the 1980’s Harley reworked the 2009 touring frame. This frame provided a longer wheelbase, a longer wider and stiffer swingarm, and a revised engine mounting & isolation system. They also put a 17” front wheel and increase the rear wheels’ cross-section form 3” to 5”.
Riders all agree it was a noticeable improvement at low speed and high speed, 65+ mph freeway riding. As a bonus, the frame upped the load rating and allowed each saddlebag and top case to carry 5 lbs. more each. To be sure no one was complaining about the pre-2009 frames, the differences come to light when a comparison is made. This one is a pretty big plus for the 2009 model.
Price is an important deciding factor in choosing “The Best” Harley. Of course, Harley Davidson is a very desirable brand, with high-quality components and finishes, which keeps used prices high. You will be very unlikely to find a cut-price bargain HD in the general marketplace. I have never seen a Harley ad that said it was “taking up too much space – has to go”, for example. If you do run across “the deal of the century”, double check everything, including the seller’s background too – it likely is too good to be true.
On the upside, price data from NADA shows that the 2009 model year has depreciated over 50% from original MSRP. Of course condition, mileage, options, and local market forces all drive the asking price. But the 2009 model year is a good balance point between age and the depreciation curve. The 2009 model has already had the bulk of depreciation occur, and the older years settle into a gentle average of 5% yearly drop.
2009 Electra Glide Ultra Classic
Putting it all together the 2009 Electra Glide Classic Ultra combines line a list of improvements and refinements that make it the best choice in my opinion. The proven Twin Cam, boosted to 96 cu in, along with the recently introduced 6-speed transmission and the new frame in 09, all contribute to better highway travel. The new frame allows you to carry a hefty 471 lbs. of rider, passenger, and cargo (2008 FLHTCU with the old frame was 408 lbs. for reference).
Harley also up the fuel tank from 5 to 6 US gallons, and made Brembo triple discs with ABS and cruise control standard. The Ultra gets a premium 80w Harmon Kardon stereo, and a CB and passenger intercom and a wide choice of color combinations and accents. The Ultra comes with lower fairings to protect your legs and feet. Electra Glide’s standard hard locking saddlebags & top trunk, rider ergonomics, classic batwing fairing all combine to create the best touring machine Harley made.
The 2009 Electra Glide Ultra Classic is 2009 it can be had anywhere from 9k USD and up to almost the original MSRP! for super low mileage specimens.
The Electra Glide is available in 3 models Standard, Classic and the Ultra Classic. The Standard is a basic no frills unit, it’s meant to be owner customized. The Classic doesn’t have the lower leg fairings, hi-end stereo, and CB/ rider communications system. So, the Classic may be a good option too.
The 2009 Road Glide is basically the same motorcycle, so if you prefer the frame mounted faring it’s a better choice. The 2010 FLHTCU would be a possible choice, but it came with a catalytic converter which provides no benefits only potential troubles.
Harleys are different, they are relatively expensive, are not modern by design or provide high performance by today’s standards. On the other hand, you don’t need to break the speed limit to enjoy yourself. And a Harley Davidson holds its value, if you take care of it you may not suffer much of a loss due to depreciation at all.
As with any motorcycle, it’s wise to have a full mechanical inspection done. An experienced HD mechanic will be your best friend on this one. After purchasing you will have a large selection of aftermarket parts & accessories, as well as OEM upgrades. And they are at reasonable prices compared with the competition.
As a bonus, Harleys come from an era were rebuilding was normal. So, by design, they can rebuild almost indefinitely. OEM parts come in multiple over sizes just for this purpose. You could buy a Harley Davidson and literally keep it on the road for the rest of your life!