Does A Harley-Davidson Make A Good First Bike? My Experience

Are you planning on getting your license (or already have it) and looking to buy your first motorcycle? Many of us have been brainwashed into thinking we must begin riding on a small, boring starter bike. Well, they might be safe and easy to ride, but are they cool? Not even close.

This is where the dilemma begins. Do you buy the Harley right off the bat or do you have to put in a certain amount of time first, in an effort to “earn” the bike you truly want? I have good news for you.

A Harley Davidson can make a great first bike for a new rider. They’re well built, hold their value, and in the case of most models, are too slow to really get you into any trouble. Their heavy weight poses the biggest downside but as long as you’re physically strong enough, you’ll get used to it.

So if people are telling you that you’re crazy for wanting to buy a Harley right away, don’t worry. I did exactly that 8 years ago, and I’m still alive to write this article!

Reasons why a Harley might be the perfect first bike for you

We’ve all heard the downsides of getting a Harley for your first bike, but let’s first talk about all the reasons why one might just be perfect for you. Yes, there are a few.

Buying the bike you truly want is a better investment

Yes, Harleys hold their value really well, but that’s not what I’m getting at here. If you buy a small, 250cc bike or an old beater, you’re certainly not going to be keeping it for the rest of your life. Those bikes are disposable and aren’t intended to be owned long-term.

When you choose a Harley Davidson as your first bike, you won’t have to worry about upgrading to a bigger or better bike anytime soon.

In contrast, how many Harley Davidson owners have been riding the same bike for decades, and even plan to pass it on to a future generation? They rack up a ton of miles and invest good money in maintenance and repairs in an effort to keep them on the road for many years to come. 

I’m not a gambling man, but I’m willing to bet that scenario is far more common with Harley owners than those with skinny tired starter bikes. When you invest in a Harley, you’re getting a machine that is built to stand the test of time.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “buy once, cry once” before and I think it applies here. Harley-Davidsons are expensive bikes. Does it really make sense to spend the money on a starter bike, only to end up selling it shortly after (likely at a loss) so that you can buy the Harley you want? 

I’m not convinced. I’ve purchased one motorcycle in my life and not only do I still own it, but I’m still perfectly content with it. My Night Train has quickly become part of the family.

Small bikes just don’t fit you comfortably

.Honestly, this was another big reason why I chose to buy my Harley as my first bike. I had sat on my Dad’s Wide Glide and moved it around the garage plenty of times – and it fit me really comfortably. 

I’m 6’3” and 220+ lbs so putting me on a small 250cc bike will certainly have me feeling cramped. As a matter of fact, the 125cc dirt bikes they had us riding at the motorcycle safety course where I got my license felt smaller than some of the mountain bikes I’ve owned!

If one of the biggest arguments against getting a Harley for a first bike is its size and heavy weight, we also have to acknowledge that might not be an issue for every rider. A smaller, weaker rider might have trouble handling a Sportster and yet I’ve been able to confidently toss around my Softail with ease from the beginning.

I can’t imagine trying to ride a small bike with a hunchback on a longer ride out of town. I’d be miserable – and if you’re not enjoying the ride, what’s the point? Just buy the Harley.

Harleys are built to last (for the most part)

To continue with my earlier point, the build quality of these bikes is typically pretty high. They’re simple, and they’re solid. Some models might leak oil, or try to vibrate the fillings out of your teeth. But for the most part, these heavy beasts are going to be on this earth for a long time.

Take the chrome plating for instance. My Dad and I both own 20+ year old Harleys and the chrome finish still looks like new. The paint is another high-quality feature – I’ve polished a lot of Harleys and in my opinion, their clear coat is some of the best to work with. 

I polished and ceramic coated my Night Train over 6 years ago and have done nothing more than wash it ever since. The photos in this article were taken last week – look at that shine!

Buying a Harley grants you access to the community

This might be a little controversial, but Harley owners tend to stick together. While others might see this as elitist behavior, I choose to believe that we’re just like-minded individuals with a passion for the same brand. 

I’ve had plenty of times when someone thinks I’m a loser at first, but once they find out I ride a Harley, suddenly I’m their “brother”. Yes, it’s ridiculous and I don’t condone it. But there’s a really positive side to this:

In general, Harley owners really are like a brother/sisterhood. I can’t count how many Harley owners have struck a conversation up with me randomly, and we chat as if we’ve known each other for a long time. There is so much support in this community, whether it’s at the dealerships or with fellow riders. 

This one is kind of hard to explain, to be honest. But Harley owners really are like one big family and it’s a cool feeling to be able to share your love for the brand with others who get it.

Modern Harleys have safety and stability features

Nobody is going to accuse Harley Davidsons of being high-tech but for a lot of us, that’s why we love them. The thing is, the newer bikes do in fact have features like anti-lock brakes and traction control that can offer extra safety in the event that a newer rider pushes too hard. 

Harley Davidsons have some of the best resale value

We all know someone that talked a mean game, ended up getting their license, and gave up on riding just a short time later. Riding a motorcycle isn’t for everyone and some people need to experience it first before they realize they’re one of them.

If this happens on your Ninja 250, you might have some trouble selling it for what you paid (or selling it at all). Those bikes just aren’t in high demand, and realistically, they’re kind of boring.

A Harley Davidson is a different story. Think of it as a way to hedge your bet. If you end up changing your mind about riding and have to sell your first bike, you’re going to have a much easier time offloading a Harley. They simply hold their value better than entry-level bikes. 

I definitely took this into consideration when I bought my bike.

Downsides of buying a Harley for your first bike

Well folks, I’m afraid we’ve made it through all of the cheerleading in this article. The truth is, I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t acknowledge that buying a Harley for a first bike isn’t for everyone. There are indeed some downsides and it’s up to you to decide how much they matter to you.

Harley Davidsons are heavyweights

Aside from the smaller Street 750 and Sportster models, there’s no denying that Harleys are heavy. My 640 lb Night Train would be tough for a smaller rider to maneuver at slow speeds (especially with drag bars). 

Perhaps the biggest threat to a new rider is the possibility of laying the bike down. With a small and lightweight bike, you have a better chance of turning a crash into a near-miss. There’s a longer window to catch a bike when it starts falling over when they’re lightweight.

Harley Davidson cruisers and especially touring bikes can be very difficult to save if they begin tipping over. That can be a really scary feeling for a new rider. Heck, I rented an Ultra Limited on my honeymoon and even the weight of that bike compared to my Softail was enough to wake my nerves up a bit.

If you’re a larger rider with plenty of strength in your legs, you probably don’t need to worry about this. But it can take a smaller, inexperienced rider a while to truly feel comfortable handling all that weight. 

It’s worth noting that skill and technique play a huge role in rider confidence. So even if size isn’t on your side, that doesn’t mean you have to rule out a Harley for your first bike.

Insurance on a Harley Davidson can be expensive

You wouldn’t think insurance companies would see these lazy cruisers as “high risk” but you might be surprised – I know I was. My insurance company (one of the few that would even insure me at all) told me that they base their rates on the CC of the engine and the experience of the rider.

As you can probably imagine, this isn’t in favor of a newbie rider on a 1450cc bike. In their eyes, it might as well have been a Hayabusa. 

Replacement parts can be expensive and insurance companies know it. If you drop your bike or get in an accident, it can be pretty expensive to repair it. Insurance companies never lose, so that means they’re going to charge you good money just in case they have to pay out.

Apparently, some insurance companies believe Harleys are more likely to be stolen. My agent told me “If you’re going to steal a bike, you’re going to steal a Harley”. I’m not so sure I agree with her there, but that is indeed what I was told.

The initial cost of a Harley is high

I know I’ve been preaching to buy the bike you want, but that does come with a price. Harley-Davidsons, especially brand new ones, are expensive – plain and simple. Depending on how deep your pockets are as a new rider, you might have trouble fronting that kind of money.

Used Harleys can be found for pretty good deals if you know where to look though. In most cases, you’ve gotta pay to play. But that just makes you appreciate the bike even more.

Harley-Davidson cost of ownership

As I mentioned, parts and labor at a dealership can be pretty dang expensive. Maintaining or fixing a Harley properly will cost you in the long run. It’s totally worth it though.

If you’re mechanically inclined, Harley Davidsons can be pretty easy to work on, however. That can save you a ton of money. If not, that doesn’t mean you’ll be forced into dealership labor rates – there are plenty of private shops that have tons of experience with working on Harleys. 

If you’re like many other riders, your costs won’t stop at simple maintenance – you’re going to want to modify and upgrade it! The high price of aftermarket parts can certainly add up quickly.

Which Harley Davidson model is best for beginners?

I could very easily repeat what everyone else says: “Buy a Street 750 or Sportster if you want a Harley for your first bike”, but I don’t think it’s that simple. The whole idea here is to buy what you want. Many of us simply don’t want a small bike, even if it’s made by Harley.

If you’re smaller in size and have a lower budget, it’s possible that a used Street 750 is for you. They’re fine for tight, city riding and won’t cost you nearly as much as a larger hog. 

The Sportster is a popular entry-level choice for good reason – they’re affordable, easy to ride, and (most importantly), they’re cool. I think HD has done a great job of designing the modern Sporties to have more of a cafe racer look for the younger crowd. 

The thing is, I’m not convinced that a Sportster would be right for everyone. They’re actually kind of top-heavy so if you have short legs, you might not feel as confident as you’d expect.

In that case, my oddball recommendation would be a Softail like mine with a lowering kit on it. My bike is lowered about 2” and has a pretty low center of gravity. I’ve had height-challenged friends that thought they could never ride a Harley sit on mine and say “Hey, wait a minute!”. 

If you came here hoping to justify buying a bagger for the first time, you might be feeling a bit left out by now. Don’t worry, we’ll touch on that here. If you only like baggers, buy a bagger! 

Yes, they’re heavy and awkward but you’ll get used to it, as long as you respect the bike and don’t expect it to maneuver like a dirt bike. 

A friend of ours has only ever owned Street Glides, Ultras, and Road Glides. He’s logged thousands of miles on them and has even ridden from Canada to Las Vegas. He’s never dropped a bike.

Final word

Remember, riding a motorcycle is all about freedom – and you have the freedom to buy whatever bike you want! How many people have you heard say they regret buying a Harley right away? How many regret buying something else first?

The bottom line: If we lived our lives in fear, we wouldn’t be riding motorcycles in the first place. So buy the bike you’re excited about, get on the open road, be safe, and enjoy it.

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