Do Older Harleys Have Radios?

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The first radio ever to be fitted on a motorcycle was in 1921 on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It was just for advertising, but a lot has changed since then.

Radios on older Harleys were rare and had to be custom ordered before 1980. They were clunky, heavy boxes awkwardly fitted between the handlebars. Until the transistor radio was invented, it wasn’t common or standard on factory bikes. After 1980, lighter radios were weatherproofed and became a standard feature for the Harley-Davidson. They still weren’t perfect, and upgrades are almost always necessary for it to be loud and clear enough for the road.

Most older motorcycles weren’t meant for radios, but the cruisers by Harley-Davidson were meant for long-distance treks and begged for the music and information that came out of the well-protected speakers. Older Harley radios weren’t popular, and there were very good reasons for that.

Early Harley-Davidsons didn’t mix well with a radio. Even the cruisers built for the long highway rides weren’t a great fit since the radios needed so much power, were expensive, were heavy, couldn’t be heard over the thundering engine, were sensitive to the weather, and just felt unnecessary. The average biker wasn’t interested in listening to the news or trying to hear Pink Floyd while revving up mountain roads. They bought Harleys for a different sound: the powerful chug of the engine under the seat.

Checking the history of Harley-Davidson radios from leading websites as well as researching bike technology over the years gives a good picture of this technological development that has changed drastically over the years. I’m not a radio expert, but the connection to our technology on the road, including news, weather, and up-to-date traffic info found on radios, has never been more important.

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Older Harley Radios Were Not Popular

Older Harleys did not have the advantages of modern radio technology and were not as prominent between the handlebars. The desire for music, news, talk, and the weather was lacking on motorcycles which makes a lot of sense.

Perhaps it’s today's constant culture of diversion and clamor for entertainment (even when you’re already being entertained) that make motorcycle radios a necessity, but there was a simpler time when people rode for the experience of riding. Technology has introduced us to the possible. That new “possible” is now more important than the actual need. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should, but still … we do. So not only were pre-1980 motorcycle radios inefficient, but most people didn’t see the need. If they did, however, there were a plethora of problems.

Older Harley Radios Were Too Heavy

During the early evolution of motorcycles in the 1930s and 1940s, radios were rare. One-way tube radios on military or police bikes used to communicate emergencies were incredibly heavy and could throw off the balance of the motorcyclist. These devices became a little more popular after World War 2, but it wasn’t until after the transistor and small circuit technology were developed by Bell Labs in 1947 that they became more feasible. On October 18, 1954, The Regency TR-1 began selling in electronic stores. This allowed the placement of a much lighter AM radio on motorcycles although it was only a factory option.

Older Harley Radios Were Too Expensive

Before the invention of the lighter and smaller transistor radio, the heavier tube-style radios were too expensive for the average biker. Even in mass production, the TR-1s were introduced for $50.00 which comes out to over $400.00 by today’s standards. It was a luxury that just wasn’t worth it for most people. Even today, to upgrade your Harley radio or add amps and new speakers, the average cost is from $800 to $2000.00 (Booom! Box GTS) depending on the system.

While some argue that the factory stereo is not powerful enough, it does depend on your style of riding and your personal expectations. While I prefer not to have a radio on when riding, my own experience is that the clarity is quite compromised when trying to listen to music and especially when listening to talk. The throttle will invariably drown out the sound of the radio even with the automatic volume control that raises the volume when accelerating.

For those that are satisfied with the original stereo equipment, here are the Harley-Davidson models that come standard with stereos, cd players, auxiliary jacks, or blue-tooth capability.

  • Street Glide Standard
  • Ultra Glide Standard
  • Road Glide Standard
  • Ultra Limited Standard
  • Tri-Glide Standard
  • Road Glide Special
  • Ultra Limited Low
  • Street Glide Special
  • Ultra Limited
  • Ultra Limited Low
  • Tri-Glide Special
  • Ultra Classic
  • Road Glide Ultra
  • All CVO models

Motorcycle Radios Were Too Sensitive To Weather

Older radios made for motorcycles were notoriously delicate. The wind alone could pull the wires out. Add rain and you have a real problem. Water and electronics have never mixed well, and without the plastic, rubber, and weather-proofing of today’s technology, the radios often succumbed to the weather.

Of course, it’s not just the physical elements of rain and wind, but the cold and contrasting heat will also do a number on an outdoor radio. The early Harley-Davidson radios were known for not lasting and constantly breaking under various weather conditions.

Motorcycle Radios Were Too Weak And Quiet

The amount of power it took to blast a radio was too much in the early Harley radio days. The engine noise alone made the radios virtually useless. Finally, When radios condensed and the batteries caught up with the amps in 1980, an AM/FM stereo became an option on the Electra Glide. In 1986, this radio system became standard on the Electra Glide Classic.

Today Harley-Davidson has a quiet 40-watt per channel music system put together by Radio Sound Inc of Louisville on the Ultra Classic Electra Glide and Electra Glide Classic. Many Harley fans upgrade immediately to a system that boosts power between 300 and 600 watts.

Some purists only want to hear the sound of their engine transitioning through gears, other traffic, and the wind whistling by, but they are becoming rarer these days. The most popular option is blue-tooth technology and in-helmet headsets. The problem is that it’s easy to lose focus and safety is compromised when you can’t hear traffic. Earbuds can be dangerous on the road and are illegal in some states. So our technology has changed the bike culture, but some aren’t sure if it’s for better or for worse.