The 10 Best Harley Davidson Adventure Bikes of All-Time

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special

When Harley Davidson announced on July 30, 2018, the global strategy leading up to 2022 also made mention the slogan “More Roads to Harley-Davidson.” This meant a new segment of models were on the horizon, namely adventure motorcycles. While the year 2021 marks Harley Davidson’s first dance into the world of adventure motorcycles, they are no stranger to taking on challenges to beat out the competition. What gives adventure bikes the reputation for toughness is the ability to handle cross-country travel, as well as off-road travel. For Harley Davidson, this isn’t a company that simply looks tough, they actually are tough. Adventure touring motorcycles are much like touring motorcycles as they are designed to handle long-distance travel. Due to the rides that can stretch for miles upon miles of road travel, that ride needs to be comfortable enough and strong enough to handle it. Already a powerhouse in the touring motorbike department, it comes as no surprise Harley Davidson’s dominance in the adventure bike department seems to have come so easily for them.

Categorizing

Before Adventure Motorcycles became an official category, Harley Davidson already brought forth its own lineup of bikes that not only make solid touring motorcycles but are tough enough to be called adventure bikes in their own right. Harley Davidson motorcycles have been featured in a number of Hollywood productions, as well as stunt shows. Granted, while these Harley Davidson models may not have originally been designed as adventure bikes, the beauty of specializing in customization into each motorcycle that comes from the company’s production plant, is the ability to tweak the bikes into something that sets it apart from the rest of the pack. Because of this, there is also a collection of Harley Davidson touring motorcycles that can also pass as adventure bikes. Those have been included with this list, along with the 2021 introduction of the two Pan America 1250 models sporting the Harley Davidson brand.

1936-1948 EL Knuckleheads

10. 1936-1948 EL Knuckleheads

The final motorcycle designed by the combined efforts of William Harley and the Davidson brothers was the 1936 EL Knucklehead. Although it’s not at all an adventure motorcycle by today’s standards, at the timing it was first produced, it was the closest thing to it. The 1930s was a difficult time due to the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties. It was during an era where if something new was to be built, it should be built to last without issues. With thanks to a Hemi-style composition chamber design, the Knucklehead boasted an impressive forty-horsepower performance. During that era, this is enough to wow the motorcycle crowd. The design of the Knucklehead, plus all the upgrades leading up to 1948, served as a platform that would bring forth military-grade motorcycles for the American army, as well as the Canadian Armed Forces. The timeline of WWII may not have given adventure motorcycles an actual name, but for Harley Davidson to bring forth motorcycles that could handle the adventure of a major world war, the core concept still applies.

1957 Harley-Davidson XL Sportster

9. 1957 Harley-Davidson XL Sportster

“Big Twins” was the nickname given to the 1957 Harley Davidson XL Sportster for its overhead-valve cylinder head that was fitted onto the bottom end of the KH flathead V-twin and slotted into a carryover chassis. The original 45 cubic inch engines later evolved into the Evolution V-twin in 1986. Although not technically an adventure motorcycle as far as current classifications go, the Sportster series was the platform that launched a flurry of Harley Davidson specialty models, and it is due to the design of the Sportsters, to begin with, that inspired designers to venture down the road that happens to include trend of adventure motorcycles.

2010 Harley-Davidson Commemorative XR1200

8. 2010 Harley-Davidson Commemorative XR1200

To honor the Steve McQueen series that featured the 1972 Harley Davidson XR750 motorcycle, Harley Davidson put forth two different commemorative bikes to honor one of the most popular motorcycles of the 1970s. In 1983, when the first attempt through the XR-1000 was made to do this, it did not draw in the amount of fan appeal the company hoped. For 2010, they try again with much greater success. Technically speaking, the 2010 Harley Davidson Commemorative XR1200 is not an official adventure bike, but for the era of its time, it’s just as close to it as the infamous Ironhead Sportster lineup can get.

1953 Harley-Davidson KR750

7. 1953 Harley-Davidson KR750

Long before the concept of adventure motorcycles became a named category now, Harley Davidson already came forth with a series of motorcycles that definitely earned a solid enough reputation to earn this classification. The 1953 Harley Davidson KR750 serves as one such example. This particular model from Harley Davidson’s lineup began the dominance of flat racetrack racing the company enjoyed since the first of the KR series came out until the late 1960s. On the American Motor Association dirt tracks, the KR750 series and all its relatives were impossible to beat. This resulted in AMA changing the rules as a means to make things harder for Harley Davidson to continue with its dominance, but when the company brought forth its XR750 models as of 1972, the reign of racetrack terror returned until 2008. In reality, the 1953 Harley Davidson KR750 is what officially started the eventual introduction of the adventure motorcycle becoming a marketable thing as it was this particular model that was designed to serve as a two-wheeled adventure for racers on the track.

1972 Harley-Davidson XR750

6. 1972 Harley-Davidson XR750

Fans of the Steve McQueen series that have ever watched the series will recognize the 1972 model of the Harley Davidson XR750 motorcycle. Although not officially designed as an adventure bike, it’s one of the closest things to it, thanks to the side-valve KR that was rendered for competition racing only, thanks to the rules that were set in place by Grand National Racing. Otherwise called Ironhead, the XR750 lineup brought in aluminum cylinder heads in 1972 to resolve the problem the older Sporster models were experiencing with overheating. Once Harley Davidson made this change, along with an oversquare bore/stroke ratio, Harley enjoyed another long run of flat racetrack dominance that saw the brand win twenty-nine out of thirty-seven Grand National Championships held by the American Motor Association from 1972 until 2008. Although not officially classified as an adventure bike, for some riders, racing around the track at speeds much higher than what motorists typically do on the highway is an adventure all unto itself.

1972 Harley-Davidson XR750 (Evel Knievel's)

5. 1972 Harley-Davidson XR750 (Evel Knievel’s)

While the 1972 Harley Davidson XR750 series has already been mentioned in regards to the Steve McQueen series, it should be pointed out that this particular 1972 Harley Davidson XR750 mentioned here was customized by one of the most famous daredevils America had ever known. Evel Knievel also had a 1972 Harley Davidson XR750 that he used in his stunts that he made famous by adding the flair of show business to attract a captive audience. While Harley Davidson didn’t officially enter the realm of adventure motorcycle production until 2018 when they first announced they were doing so, the closest thing the company had ever come to building one was the customized version Knievel rode during his stunt shows. The bike he rode was every bit as much a star as the rider was. His version of the Harley Davidson XR750 series flew through one stunt after another, many of which saw Knievel sustain serious injuries. Knievel admitted he chose the 1972 Harley Davidson XR750 because of its lightweight frame of steel, aluminum, and fiberglass that had the bike only weigh three hundred pounds. He also trusted the dependability of the motorcycle being able to do its part as the closest thing to a two-wheeled flying machine that could handle the perilous risks that came with some of the stuntman’s most extreme displays of mostly death-defying feats. From 1970 until 1976, Knievel wowed the crowd.

Harley-Davidson Pan America Police Concept

4. Harley-Davidson Pan America Police Concept

Since 1908, Harley Davidson’s lineup of motorcycles has been a part of the American police force. The introduction of the Pan American Police Concept is set apart from any other cruisers built for cops that have so far been introduced. The design strategy involved with the Pan America 1250 is to serve as a cruiser-class motorcycle on the highway that is equally capable of performing like an off-roader. For the police force, an additional set of panniers and larger cargo carrying capacity has been installed, along with the police standard issue of red and blue LED flashers to complete the police motorcycle look.

3. 1915 Harley-Davidson 11F

Granted, the 1915 Harley-Davidson 11F would not fit today’s definition of an adventure motorcycle, but it is the bike that started it all. When previous attempts to upgrade a bicycle to be able to perform as an automobile on two wheels, already marked the start of adventure bikes for William Harley and Arthur Davidson. 1915 saw Harley Davidson bring forth the 11F series that boasted its first three-speed transmission. This shifted the company’s reputation from merely making motorcycles to actually building motorcycles. The beginning of the infamous sixty-one cubic inch engine that made eleven horsepower also had an automatic engine oiling system. This is what not only made Harley Davidson famous but paved the way for the company and its lineup to become the American icons they’re known as today. At the time, this classic motorcycle featured a full electrical system with a magneto ignition system, which was considered revolutionary at the time.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250

2. 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250

The seemingly inconquerable 2021 Harley Davidson Pan America 1250 is so far the adventure bike to beat in the world of Harley Davidson motorcycles. The all-new range of Revolution Max engines is marking another reason why Harley Davidson’s brand of motorcycles continue to create and define history ever since it made its first mark in 1903. The new lineup of V-Twin motors is inclined towards athleticism due to their high compression ratio and high peak RPM range. The unveiling of the 76.27 cubic inches Pan America 1250 also has a rating of 145 horsepower and 90 pound-per-foot torque power outage. As a liquid-cooled unit, the 2021 Pan America promises to produce an improved RPM performance. The target market Harley Davidson has in mind for this lineup are the big boys who want the best combo of muscle and performance as one of the meanest machines to rumble the road.

Specifications

  • 19-inch front cast aluminum wheelset
  • 17-inch rear cast aluminum wheelset
  • High riding position with a low center of gravity
  • 150 horsepower Revolution Max liquid-cooled engine unit
  • Five pre-programmed riding modes
    Off-Road
  • Off-Road Plus
  • Rain
  • Road
  • Sport

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special

1. 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special

The difference between the 2021 Harley Davidson Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special simply comes down to the amount of technology involved to best accommodate the rider’s interests. Just like the model just mentioned, 1250 has it all, plus more.

  • Everything already listed with the Pan America 1250
  • Semi-active front suspension with vehicle load control
  • Semi-active rear suspension with vehicle load control
  • Daymaker Signature Adaptive Headlamp
  • Tire Pressure Monitoring System
  • Adaptive ride height availability
  • Available adaptive ride height
  • Multi-position rear brake pedal
  • Heated hand grips
  • Hand wind deflectors

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