Adventure Ahead! The story of the Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide

The journey that started as a rough road and became a smooth and stylish ride. Learn more about the Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide and its place in motorcycling history.

Front fork of 1917 model (1917) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

From the very beginning of motorcycles, designers found ways to smooth out some of the bumps in the road. They did this with a primitive front suspension that used springs and rocker arms. The design evolved over the next few decades, but mostly for functionality.

Front fork and headlight of 1956 Hydra Glide model (1956) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

In a post-World War II burst of product changes, Harley-Davidson made the decision to change the front suspension on their largest models, the EL and FL.

The design was an assembly of springs and shock absorbers in telescoping tubes. Hydraulic shock absorbers were not new to motor vehicles, but they would provide a more comfortable ride and improved handling over the previous design.

Harley-Davidson 1949 model FL (1949) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

The update also included the goal of styling the new design for a modern, sleek look.

Brooks Stevens was an industrial designer working in Milwaukee. His notable work included designs in transportation, from automobiles to railroads. Stevens was contracted to style the new suspension, headlight and front fender for Harley-Davidson.

Hydra-Glide stamp on 1949 model FL (2023) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

With the new design, the name Hydra-Glide was created for the 1949 model. Referring only to the motorcycle’s front end in the early years, Hydra referenced the new hydraulic shock absorbers and Glide denoted comfort. Later, the name Hydra-Glide was given to the full motorcycle.

1956 model FL Hydra Glide (1956) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

The design became a standard for the H-D “big twin” models. In this era, a group of accessories were available for purchase to complement the bike. The “King of the Highway” option group allowed Hydra-Glide owners to easily convert their cruising motorcycle for longer trips.

Touring often meant more luggage capacity and accessories for comfort. Items like luggage racks, saddlebags, a windshield and a tandem seat were part of “King of the Highway.” 

1949 poster for new model FL (1949) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

America’s highways were improving rapidly in the 1950s, and automotive comfort and technology was along for the ride. Motorcycle touring was in a golden age. 

Mary and LeRoy Dondelinger with LeRoy's son and children (1955) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

"Our California Vacation"

Stories from riders were submitted to The Enthusiast magazine. Rider Mary Ellen Dondelinger wrote about their camping vacation through northern California. 

Mary Ellen Dondelinger at a campsite (1955) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

According to Mary Ellen, “The whole trip was fun and a complete success. Our Hydra-Glide surely can take it. Its abundant horsepower made for a wonderful, comfortable ride no matter what was in front of us.” 

Berkeley TigersHarley-Davidson Museum

Motorcycle clubs and events were popular prior to World War II. After the war, group riding entered a new golden age, and clubs were busier than ever. The Hydra-Glide served as the motorcycle of choice. Clubs like the Berkeley Tigers of Oakland, California were common riders.

Front page of 1958 Harley-Davidson motorcycle sales brochure. (1958) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Soon the smooth-riding technology was added to the rear suspension, too. In 1958, Duo-Glide replaced the name Hydra-Glide, reflecting the new front and rear suspension. The following decades continued the naming with Electra Glide®, Street Glide®, and Road Glide® models.

2021 FLH Electra Glide Revival (2021) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Icons

Harley-Davidson now offers the Icons Motorcycle Collection. Each year, the new model takes direct styling cues, colors, logos and other elements from a historic model.  

2024 model year FLI Hydra-Glide motorcycle (2024)Harley-Davidson Museum

2024 marks 75 years since the launch of the Hydra-Glide

This year, the Icons model is the revival of the Hydra-Glide. The paint scheme chosen is from the 1956 model.

Hill Climber statue (2008) by Jeff DeckerHarley-Davidson Museum

Make a trip to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee to see the original 1949 Hydra-Glide and its influence on the motorcycles of today.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
United States of Culture
From Yosemite to Broadway, take a trip around the States with more than 530 American institutions
View theme
Google apps