Change Your Brake Fluid

February 12, 2018

All Posts, News

Change Your Brake Fluid

Last Wednesday Harley-Davidson recalled 175,000 motorcycles in the United States and 251,000 motorcycles worldwide because not all owners are changing their brake fluid every two years.

If you don’t know you should know that brake fluid attracts moisture. That water in the lines can corrode brake components. In this case the water is affecting Harley’s anti-lock brake systems (ABS) actuator valves. Sometimes they unexpectedly fail.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started looking at the problem in July 2016 after it got 43 complaints from riders. Two riders complained they had been injured. In most cases, either only the front or rear brake failed. In one case, a rider crashed into his garage door after both his front and rear brakes failed.

Building Riders

The Motor Company, which announced it was closing its Kansas City assembly plant last month, seems to become more tone deaf and cynical by the day. Company executives are incapable of actually listening to their customers or speaking honestly to them. Last month Harley Chief Executive Matt Levatich announced the company had made a “critical mindset and cultural shift…from we build motorcycles to we build riders.” Whatever that meant.

Last week, Harley resisted this recall. “Complex, ongoing discussions regarding what was ultimately identified as a maintenance issue continued with the agency through January 2018,” the company said in a written statement. Harley thinks the recall will cost about $29 million. NTSA told the company to do it anyway.

Part of Harley’s problem is that the company’s motorcycles were once simple, mechanical systems that appealed to tinkerers and shade tree mechanics. Now they are complicated, computerized systems and that discourage owner maintenance. The company virtually compels most owners to make regular visits to a dealer where, typically, they wind up spending about two hours in a tee shirt store.

Bleeding your Harley’s brakes is a lot more complicated now than it once was – way back in that ancient time when Harleys came with carburetors that could be tuned by the side of the road with a flathead screwdriver. Amazing though it may seem, very, very long ago Harleys had mechanical rear brakes and some dare devils went without front brakes. Such madness is probably illegal now.

Now you are going to need more than a Mityvac – if you are old enough to know what that is – to bleed your brakes yourself. You are probably going to have to go to a dealer or a shop you trust.

Do it now before you have to buy a new garage door.


33 Responses to “Change Your Brake Fluid”

  1. Penguin Says:

    Just now the licensed MoCo scoots I own are DOT 5 silicone, which, if it gets on a disk… (I know)…results in a dramatic loss of friction and a PITA swap of old nasty for new non-nasty bits, like brakepads, and a triple cleaning of the disk in question, with lots of hand-washing etc etc… The change back to glycol fluid puzzles me.

    Who changes the DOT 3 in their car? (I do when when I buy a used sled, once, along with the rest of the “fluids”, bodily or otherwise. I throw away the empty beer cans too.

    I suspect the MoCo went cheap-o on the guts of their ABS, as in galvanic corrosion…glycol is an alcohol, and alcohols oxidize to acids, and acids conduct, and thus, if dissimilar metals are present…the ABS becomes, with H2O and air, a shorted battery, with evident crapout feature. see:

    see also the electrochemical series:

    But honestly I would prefer cable brakes… Cable and disk can be mated, but it’s probably easier to find drum hubs and lace and weld on the torque arm anchors.

    If I build another bike it will be cable, simple, goodnuf, and strong. Especially if you, like me, prefer to keep the lard outa the machine. Even the 618 (nominal pounds) FX I have is heavier than I like.

    Yes, they’ll lock, and get hot, and fade. I grew up with that and it’s ok, you just gotta stay engaged and non-stupid.

    I gotta spare 1200 sport motor and pink…maybe I will see how light a sporty can be…cables weigh nothing at all, and they cost nearly zero – you can (I have) simply spin the ends on the lathe and braze ’em to “blank” cable. Hellzbells, BSA and Trumpet used to sell their cable and housing in reels and you or the shop made ’em up as needed.

  2. penguin Says:

    The factory book on my FXSTC calls for silicone fluid, which is hydrophobic – it rejects water… Do not smear it on the paint… But quite honestly I would prefer cable brakes and drums instead of disks. As for ABS…well, the BS parts is true enough…ALL BS brakes is what we get from the company… So? Build yerownbike.

  3. neh Says:

    One Eye wrote:
    “Out of curiosity, has BMW ever had issues with their ABS?”

    BMW had major issues with the inside of their soft lines disintegrating and sometimes clogging the ABS system. The one I worked on looked like it was spewing small charcoal. This usually happened when the machine was out of warranty. The fix is an aftermarket braided stainless/Teflon line kit or new stock lines. Post-Airhead BMWs don’t sell for much used and after working on them I see why. Fun rides but they are everything mechanics hate about German cars in a smaller package.

    Mic Crusty wrote:
    ” There are 20 year old Honda Gold Wings on the road with the original brake fluid in them.”

    True, and it’s not kind to brake systems to leave it that long. Jap bikes are no different in brake fluid longevity than anything else and I’ve had the joy of unfucking plenty of neglected customer Wings. Fluid turns to coffee, or worse, snot depending on moisture content. Caliper pistons stick and/or pit (pits eat seals), brake drags or won’t release then it’s overhaul or replacement time. Fluid is cheaper than parts especially now motorcycles are turning into cars with two wheels. If you have ABS and want it gone the plumbing is easy enough. Your local industrial hydraulic shop can make and pressure test any oddball lines if DIY from parts looks like too much hassle but -3 AN adapter fittings and assembled straight lines are very reasonable online.

    Bleeding ABS at home is usually easy enough. If your machine is being a cunt remember air rises and you can bleed brakes at any disconnect point by cracking the line nut as you would a bleed nipple. (I anti-seize all my nipple and fitting threads because fuck galling.)

  4. stroker Says:

    As many here may know, I’m an old biker who traded in a Road Glide for a 2014 Victory XC. I love the bike. HOWEVER… thing I do NOT love is the ABS! I too like the absolute control of wanting to lock up my back wheel and do a controlled skid when I want to. On the Victory, the damn ABS kicks in, and the bike shudders FORWARD instead of stopping! I do NOT like that feeling. I leave extra room in front now when I stop. I just recently asked a shop how to disconnect it (rather involved….have to change out a whole brake line!).
    I’ve still got my panhead though… skids quite nicely!

  5. ed Says:

    The last years of the carbed bikes are the best. ECU, crank pick up, map sensor and the cv carb. Most reliable motorcycles they ever built. Why the hell do you need abs on a motorcycle anyway.

  6. One Eye Says:

    Rebel,the only thing funnier than listening to HD’s stupidity is reading your commentary on it. Out of curiosity, has BMW ever had issues with their ABS? I know they have been utilizing that system for years. “Do it now before you have to buy a new garage door.” Ha ha ha ha ha!!

  7. Aanon Says:

    Guess some will ride this piece of shit til it dies, then fix it. Others ride this piece of shit home first. Eh?

  8. Paladin Says:

    @ 10-Pin

    Didn’t know that you couldn’t use Dot-5 in an ABS system. I’m finishing up a highly modified Triumph Rocket Roadster that has an ABS system. It’s the first bike I’ve ever owned with ABS brakes. I’m not sure I’m gonna like brakes that I don’t have absolute control over.

    Long May You Ride,


  9. Carlos Says:

    2018 HD Sport Glide
    MSRP Vivid Black: $18,599
    Twisted Cherry: $18,999
    Silver Fortune: $18,999 Plus all the BS dealer add-on charges.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Doesn’t the recall end at 2011 or 2013?

    For FXR fans, Harley makes a bike (according to reviews) that far outperforms the FXR frame being 60% stiffer and a whopping 90% stiffer than dynas. I haven’t ridden any of the three, but would love to see an objective ride review by someone who has. The ’18 Sport Glide. Of course, you’d have to remove some parts and customize it, but you’d do that on any bike…

    Thanks for all you publish Rebel and also, the regular commenters here. Always interesting.

  11. Mic Crusty Says:

    Load of crapola! There are 20 year old Honda Gold Wings on the road with the original brake fluid in them. Of course changing break fluid is a great idea. In a perfect world you should be changing fork oil ever year but who does that? Face it Harley you got serious issues that need to be addressed.

  12. Neuro Says:

    Whoops, age is really catching up here. The current motor is 4x 4 5/8.” The new unfinished block started out as 4 1/16 (120R) but was immediately punched to 4 1/8 for 124″ ( 4 1/8 x 4 5/8) Sorry for my senility. FXDXI

  13. Neuro Says:

    It will stand up and has 20″ more. 4 1/8 x 4 5/8″

  14. Sieg Says:

    BC, got a bottle of Indian Head on my bench, and another in my road bag. What could we do without it?

  15. 10-Pin Says:

    Harley doesn’t use DOT5 (silicone) brake fluid in ABS systems for the same reason no other ABS system uses DOT5… Namely, the rapid cycling of the valves in an ABS system turns silicone based fluid into a froth, which results in loss of brake function.

    Unfortunately, while the DOT5 us old timers know and love is hydrophobic (doesn’t absorb moisture), DOT4 and other glycol based fluids are hydrophilic and READILY absorb moisture. This is why the can always has a warning label to use within a certain time after breaking the seal. And this is why Harley specs replacing the fluid every two years…

    Personally, I hate ABS in a cage, and probably would on a bike bike… Damn things have almost gotten me killed in the snow more than once. At least with “normal” brakes you can pump them, and lock/unlock/re-lock to get some slowing action. With ABS the damn pedal just goes to the floor and vibrates like hell, and the car keeps going!

  16. bcnasty Says:

    @ Sieg,
    plus one on the mighty vac.I have had folks bring bikes into the garage that the break fluid looks and comes out like Indian head gasket cement. There, I just dated myself.

  17. oldskewl Says:

    zero Says:
    February 13, 2018 at 11:25 am
    @everybody. When they were actually making FXRs nobody wanted one. They were too jap looking. Everybody with a computer is on the FXR kick these days. If half of these folks had bought one back in the day there might be enough to go around now.

    I’ve had the same one I bought off the shelf 24 years ago. I put a 96″ S&S stroker in it for almost 9 years and it will and does outrun any new bike built today. Lemme see you stand that dyna on the rear tire with a twist of the wrist.

    The problem people had with FXR’s in the day was about where the controls were located.

  18. zero Says:

    @everybody. When they were actually making FXRs nobody wanted one. They were too jap looking. Everybody with a computer is on the FXR kick these days. If half of these folks had bought one back in the day there might be enough to go around now.

  19. Will Says:

    My understanding is that you can’t properly change the ABS systems without a special factory-only tool and that the ABS systems won’t work with silicon brake fluid. None of my bikes have ABS and all are running DOT 5 so it’s just been what I’ve read about.

  20. Mark Says:

    Harley has had it’s issues with brakes over the years. It used to be the front brake was only good for holding the bike still at stop lights on hills. Useless for stopping. The banana brakes needed to be doctored to keep them from rattling, and Harley didn’t give a rat’s ass. Then the front single caliper pistion sticks so there is little brake pull unless it’s rebuilt. I change the brake fluid ever few years when I wash it. I use the HF (china tool store) brake bleeder and it works well. I have seen a big irrigating syringe to push up the brake fluid with hard to get out bubbles. HD’s real agenda is truning gasoline into noise, who got the crazy idea the bike was built with safety in mind.

  21. Maven Says:

    Bleeding the brakes and changing the fluid on my 2015 RG is as easy as it’s ever been.

    Now, the electronics…that’s a whole other can of worms :-)

  22. Kenny Says:

    Im on my fourth master cylender do to leaks. They tried same lid on tank as the brake and we all know that hydrolics have pressure plus when bikes on stand it seaps out eating the paint. Also the stock radio is junk if ya wanna go to media and use pandora it takes like 5 mins to get bluetooth hooked up. Othern that my 15 RoadGlide is the best Harley I ever rode.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    +1 for the FXR

  24. Stlrzfan Says:

    Just gonna keep on beatin’ that horse, eh rebel?

  25. Hero Says:

    We all know this machine is a death trap. Either the cage beside you on the road, the debris left as an obstacle course or the idiot who doesn’t have hands so they shoot you in the back as you ride past. Now add in the manufacture killing off its clientele. Got to love the life or don’t live it.

  26. MtPockets Says:

    Rebel, I sure do like your writing style! Just the right mix of fact and humor. In fact, I think I’ll be hitting that button right over there as a little thank you.
    Anyway, thought I’d share a quick little sumthin I learnt a few years ago whilst out on a little road trip.
    I’d been having a little trouble with my rear brakes sometimes sticking on. I had several different shops look at the bike, but all anyone ever said was either that I needed my caliper rebuilt (it had recently been rebuilt) or that the master cylinder was over full.
    At one point, I made my way to FOG Cycles in KC, Mo. I think they’ve since quit working on bikes and went full time into the music venue they were just putting together the last time I was there- Knuckleheads.
    Anyway, I had been in there a few times and knew they worked on bikes, so I had Frank take a look.
    When I went to pickup the bike he said two things- one was along the lines of “I thought you musta been half fucked up to ride a Shovel that far” and the other was something I had not heard before and dont know that I have since, either.
    He fixed my brakes by draining and thoroughly flushing all the old brake fluid out and replacing it.
    He said that not all brands of brake fluid are compatible and that the best thing to do was always use the same brand.
    I thought he was full of it, but I’ve never had another incidence of it.
    Just thought I’d pass that on.
    Thanks again for the awesome site!


  27. Sieg Says:

    Tiopirata, I don’t pine for the old-days, I just don’t choose to buy all the latest sparkle.

    A point…I have never changed the brake fluid in my sled. Oh, it’s been changed when other things necessitated it, working on the brake system, like that, but never just as a maintenance item. No need to. My master cylinder isn’t aluminum, or pot-metal. And I can-and do-carry enough tools to pretty much overhaul anything on my sled, and have no trouble doing it. Top-end on the side of the road? Yeah, been there, done that. Don’t know about wrenching on the new bikes, and got no desire to learn…I’ll keep my Shovel till I die, then my kids are lining up for it!

    There have been faster bikes around since my old bitch was born, but like I always told the Kawayappie-pilots, come back when it’s thirty years old.


  28. tiopirata Says:

    I don’t get it. I recently changed all the fluids,including brake fluid, on a 2017 Fat Bob. Piece of cake, as easy as it ever was. That Fat Bob is a better bike ride then my brother’s FXR too. Wrenching the new bikes is as easy as the old ones, just different skills for some parts.
    While some among us pine for the past we need to remember that the Evo FXR couldn’t keep up with the fast Brit bikes of its time.

  29. Neuro Says:

    Three cheers for the FXR !

  30. Sieg Says:

    Been using silicone fluid since it first came out…and i still got my MityVac, too!

    FTF / FTP

  31. oldskewl Says:

    Its all this new age BS they add to a sled nobody but some suburbanite wants. Stick that GPS, Sirius, CB, ABS, heated grips and goofy crap up your ass and give us back the FXR platform! Don’t need your FI either.


  32. Paladin Says:

    In Rebel’s last article I mentioned the fact that the quality of Harley’s product was overpriced crap. I rest my case. Harley could have gone to silicon brake fluid, which would have negated the water absorption problem, But noooooo, that would have cost a couple of cents more per bike. Typical penny pinching bullshit from a bullshit company.


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