Do Harleys Typically Rust?

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If you are buying a vintage Harley-Davidson or thinking about shopping from the showroom floor, you need to know about its reputation concerning rust.

Why does it seem that many of the Harleys you see parked outside of a bar or restaurant have so much rust? You may be wondering if Harleys have more steel parts, are less protected, or perhaps the frame is poorly manufactured. Is it possible that they rust more than other bikes? Or conversely, do they rust less? These are important questions to answer before making an expensive investment in a beautiful machine that may have a propensity to transform into a rust-bucket overnight.

When air and moisture react with iron, the metal breaks down into flaking corrosive rust. When this happens on a chromed-out Harley-Davidson, it ruins the ride. Nothing dampens the vibe more. But Harleys are not unique in this issue: all bikes rust, but what can prevent it, and what can you do?

Before you believe rumors about Harleys rusting more or make decisions based on limited experience, wouldn’t it be helpful to have the facts? Let’s look at the data along with the science to know if Harley-Davidsons rust more than other bikes and what to do about it. The reason for the rusty reputation is not based on manufacturing or materials but because of longevity, weather, environment, and maintenance. If you want to know if Harley rust is a legitimate issue, then read on for a deep dive into the facts.

After looking at Harley Davidson materials in the manufacturer’s spec sheets, we will check the science to see if there are natural design flaws creating an environment conducive to corrosion. The statistical data reports and the Harley forums suggest that there are logical reasons why these bikes rust. And if they do, then reliable web sources, as well as local bike shops, are enlightening when it comes to knowing what to do about it.

In this article...


Harley Davidson Materials

The freedom of cruising down a coastal highway with the salty air in your face on a humid day, the sun glinting off the chrome of your Harley, is absolute heaven. But it can be hell on the steel that you are riding. Because Harleys are made mostly of metal, specifically iron and iron alloys, it is possible for the iron to oxidize with oxygen and water producing rust. Iron loses electrons during this process resulting in more ions. The manufacturers try to prevent this from happening by coating the iron with reflective chrome. But even the littlest scratch by a kicked-up pebble in the road can chip the chrome and expose the iron.

Many chemical reactions are possible with dehydration, hydroxylation, and oxidation which are seen in the following formulas: Fe (OH)3 = FeO (OH) + H2O, 4Fe (OH)2 + O2 + x H2O = 2Fe 2O3 (x+4) H2O, 2 FeO (OH) = Fe203 + H2O.

Notice the iron (Fe) mixing with water (H20) and the air oxidizing and accelerating the corrosion process.

Unless the bike’s metal is protected by chrome, clear coating, or paint, any rain, snow, salt, sea mist, and even fog will instigate the oxidizing process of air and water. Many Harley bikers report these common components rusting:

  • Mirror Stems
  • Handlebars
  • Fork Tubes
  • Suspension Shocks
  • Wheel Spokes
  • The underside of the frame
  • Fenders
  • Exhausts
  • Gas Tanks

An important thing to remember is that these metal bike parts are not exclusive to Harley Davidson. They have no extra iron or iron alloys in their manufacturing than any other motorcycle. This is just science: iron alloys plus water plus air result in rust. Add salt to the mix and you have a catalyst that acts as an electrolyte hastening the loss of electrons to the metal which creates rust even more quickly.

When purchasing a used Harley, you will want to find out if it’s from a northern city where they spread salt on the highways during the winter or a coastal city where salt sea spray exists, and then find out if it’s been stored in a garage or shed. The southern bikes will often have more miles on them because of year-round riding but are often better preserved since rust from salt is not as much of a factor.

Harley Davidson Longevity

The reason why it appears that Harley Davidson motorcycles have more rust is the simple fact that they are more prolific than other older bikes. This iconic American machine becomes art after so many years. Vintage Harleys are considered classic motorcycles and thus collectibles. Many collectors spend a lot of money trying to find their classic Harley, and sometimes these bikes have a lot of rust on them. They’ve been poorly stored outdoors or in leaky sheds for years and years. It makes sense: older bikes mean rusty bikes. The association with the brand is simply because there are more vintage Harleys around than other older collectible bikes.

Harley Davidson Maintenance

The elements can be brutal to your motorcycle. Harleys will rust at the same rate as any other bike, but their reputation for rust is often because they are used more than other bikes. These cruisers are the father of long-distance riding. More miles are put on Harleys than most other bikes. More miles mean more potential for rust. So the reputation for rust on Harleys is misplaced. They simply are exposed to more weather because of more use, and, thus, need to be properly maintained to prevent rust.

Preventing Rust Through Proper Storage

Keeping your motorcycle away from rain, snow, humidity, salt, and mud by storing them indoors will preserve not only the frame, spokes, forks, and chain but the internal machinery as well. Condensation in the engine can be a real problem when storing your bike improperly, so the storage unit or garage needs to have proper ventilation and be free from moisture.

Many Harley owners that don’t have access to a garage or shed will use a tarp or plastic cover for outdoor storage. If it isn’t vented or has a corrosion-proof lining, it can actually do more harm than good by trapping moisture inside the cover. This moisture leads to condensation and corrosion. Finding a cover that zips up and has the proper lining is vital to preventing rust.

Preventing Rust Through Proper Cleaning

After a wet ride through rain or snow, you need to take the time to clean the bike from the dirt, mud, and rain that will adhere to the metal. Road grime, bugs, and dirt are all acidic and can corrode the clear coat, paint, and chrome. Taking the extra ten minutes to clean and dry your Harley will prevent the rusting process adding years and resale value to this classic motorcycle.

Preventing Rust Through Proper Products

Catching a rainstorm is common on the road, and it’s impossible for your bike not to pick up the dirt, mud, salt, snow, rain, and asphalt grime. Add humidity and the salt in the sea spray of coastal towns, and you will need to have your motorcycle protected by good products that are the only barrier between the elements and the metal on your bike.

There are a lot of good products that can protect your bike’s metal from rust. The tried-and-true method of spraying WD-40 on the chrome will get the small nooks and crannies but is also messy and won’t last very long.

A less messy solution is a combination of mineral oil, anti-corrosion elements, and surfactant found in Scottoiler’s FS 365. It holds to the metal better than WD-40 and is pretty inexpensive.

A more pricey option that is an excellent defense against salt is ACF-50 which repels water and creates a good barrier. Several Harley forums like Rust cop or ceramic coating like 9H. This product is better than just the paint or clear coat that the manufacturer supplies.