Harley-Davidsons made the vintage American cruiser style of motorcycle a global phenomenon thanks to their distinct sound and style.
And while they’re some of the most fun motorcycles to cruise the highway on, that fun can be short-lived if your Harley-Davidson motorcycle won’t change gears.
This article dives into the most common reasons why a Harley-Davidson bike won’t shift from second gear into third.
Table of Contents
Leaking or Compromised Hydraulic Clutch Fluid
Some Harley-Davidson motorcycles still use old-school mechanical clutch cables. If your HD model doesn’t have a hydraulic clutch, you can skip to the next section.
Harley-Davidsons with hydraulic clutch systems must have their fluid levels filled to the spec level, or they will fail to shift from second to third gear.
Furthermore, running contaminated or low-quality hydraulic fluid can cause your Harley bike to develop shifting issues.
- If your HD’s hydraulic clutch fluid is lower than the spec level or the liquid is thickened, the air can enter the extra space in the clutch lines.
- Once the air is present in the clutch lines, it hinders the clutch’s disengagement action.
If enough air gets into the hydraulic clutch system due to a hydraulic fluid issue, your Harley-Davidson won’t shift from gear to gear, either from disengagement failure or because the gears are jammed.
Gear jams can cause your Harley-Davidson to experience shifting issues, stall-outs, and transmission damage.
If your hydraulic fluid is topped off and you’re sure it’s in good condition, you may want to inspect the clutch actuator piston, as Harley-Davidsons are known to develop leaks in the actuator seals.
If you’re experiencing issues with your Harley not shifting from 2nd to 3rd gear, read the following notice from HD’s HQ to their dealerships to see if your bike is on the list—there are quite a few HD models listed, as you’ll see below:
“Dear Dealer: Harley-Davidson has learned that the hydraulic clutch system with secondary clutch actuator part numbers 37200131 and 37200131A on certain motorcycles (see Model List below) may exhibit an internal leak of fluid past the secondary clutch actuator piston/seal. If this leak continues for an extended period, the clutch master cylinder reservoir could lose enough fluid to expose the hydraulic clutch circuit to air, which may result in the inability to generate enough lift to disengage the clutch. If this condition remains undetected, it could lead to losing control of the vehicle when started in gear, first shifted into gear, or coming to a stop.
Model List – Recall 0173 2017 Touring, Trike and CVO Touring Motorcycles Built in the US – 03/08/16 through 06/21/17 Built in Brazil – 09/24/16 through 11/08/17 FLHP, FLHR, FLHRC, FLHRXS, FLHTCU, FLHTK, FLHTKL, FLHTK SHRINE, FLHTP, FLHX, FLHXS, FLTRU, FLTRX, FLTRXS, FLRT, FLHTCUTG, FLHTKSE, FLHXSE 2017 Softail and CVO Softail Motorcycles Built in the US – 03/04/16 through 04/28/17 FLSS, FLSTFBS, FXSE 2018 Touring, Trike and CVO Touring Motorcycles Built in the US – 03/27/17 through 06/29/18 Built in Brazil – 09/20/17 through 09/28/18 FLHP, FLHR, FLHRC, FLHRXS, FLHTCU, FLHTK, FLHTK ANV, FLHTK SHRINE, FLHTKL, FLHTP, FLHX, FLHX ANV, FLHXS, FLHXS ANX, FLTRU, FLTRX, FLTRXS, FLRT, FLHTCUTG, FLHTCUTG ANV, FLHTKSE, FLHTKSE ANV, FLHXSE, FLTRXSE”
- On hydraulic clutch-driven Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, fluid inspection, and refills are critical steps of routine service maintenance.
- We suggest you or your mechanic follow the maintenance schedule in your HD’s owner’s manual to ensure you’re always topped off.
If you follow the schedule and notice your clutch fluid is low every time you inspect the bike, a worn clutch could be the source of your shifting failures, as a neglected Harley clutch system will guzzle hydraulic fluid at a faster rate.
Chain Has Too Much Slack/Too Little Grease
As your Harley-Davidson motorcycle’s manual will tell you, checking your bike chain’s tension is part of the standard service.
You or your mechanic should also check your HD chains for grease, as a lack of lubrication on your Harley’s chain harms the bike’s feel, rideability, and performance.
An over-slacked, overtightened, or under-lubricated chain is one of the leading causes of gear-shifting problems on a Harley Davidson Motorcycle.
- If your Harley’s chain has too much slack, the chain slips off track and causes interference when you’re shifting from 2nd to 3rd.
- If the chain is too tight, your HD’s gears get compressed by the tension, hindering your shifting through the gears.
If your motorcycle doesn’t change gears, be sure your chain is torqued to the settings outlined by HD in the manual for your year model.
- Start by adjusting the chain adjuster nuts.
- If your HD’s chain is so tight the adjuster nut won’t turn, loosen the chain’s tension to loosen the nut on the wheel axle.
- Twist your HD’s chain tension until it’s torqued to spec.
- Inspect the rear wheel’s alignment, tightening the axle and chain adjustment nuts to rectify any issues.
If you’re experiencing problems shifting from second to third gear on your Harley, there’s no shame in taking your bike to a Harley-Davidson dealership for a quick and easy chain and axel alignment from an HD-trained technician.
Damaged or Worn Chain/Sprocket
Many Harley-Davidsons still use chain drives to transfer power between the engine, transmission, and rear wheel.
If the chain or sprocket on which it rolls is clogged or worn by road debris, rusted from harsh conditions, or worn down from lots of riding, your Harley-Davidson motorcycle may fail to shift from 2nd to 3rd gear.
That said, a damaged chain and worn sprocket are quick and easy to diagnose, although your hands will get soiled unless you’re protecting them with gloves:
- Follow the chain toward the end closest to the motorcycle’s rear until you find the sprocket.
- Lift on the chain. If the chain is worn down from use, lifting it will reveal the sprocket tooth; a healthy chain will be so snug on the sprocket that you won’t steal it high enough to see the tooth.
- Replace your Harley’s drive chain at the first sign of wear to avoid interference when changing gears.
- If the chain is snug, but you notice it’s dry or corroded, lack of chain lube could be why your HD won’t shift from second to third—service your chain per the guidelines outlined in the owner’s manual for your year model.
Furthermore, examining the sprocket for chipped or bent dog teeth is another way to keep your Harley shifting like new. Even a build-up of chain gunk or a lodged rock can cause hard going on a Harley-Davidson bike—we suggest you inspect and replace these parts as needed.
Still, chain inspection and lubrication are straightforward for an HD-literate technician.
Seized, Corroded, or Warped Transmission Gears.
This typically results from running your HD hard with low or contaminated oil in the primary case.
The result is that the gears overheat. If pushed hard past the point of overheating, the packs can warp and fail to shift correctly.
Furthermore, if the gears aren’t adequately lubricated or the gearbox isn’t sealed, moisture in the rain or air can enter your transmissions and corrode the gears.
If your Harley-Davidson Motorcycle is permanently stuck in second gear and thus won’t shift up to third or down to first, the issue could be that the gears are rusted, fused, or warped severely enough to be stuck in gear.
Bent Shifting Shafts
Another reason an HD moto gets stuck in second gear and refuses to shift into third is an unaligned or damaged shifter.
If your Harley’s shifting shaft is bent or not lined up with the gear teeth correctly, you may have experienced resistance when shifting, leading up to the bike’s failure to change gears.
If the shifting shafts are unaligned, the shifter may need to be re-installed correctly. That said, examine the gears for damage, as misaligned shifting can harm the gears.
Damaged gears and shifters must be replaced to restore your bike’s gear-shifting capabilities.
Improper Gear Installation
Although this rarely happens on bikes bought from the dealership, HD factory errors aren’t unheard of. Still, the issue covered in this section is more common on Harleys bought used that were maintained or upgraded by the previous owners rather than at an HD-literate shop.
If the gears were installed into your Harley-Davidson motorcycle’s gearbox inadequately, it might cause problems shifting from second to third gear.
- As with any gearbox failure, if poor gear installation is the culprit behind your shifting problems, you likely would have noticed resistance and clunky shifting before the gears got stuck.
- Suppose you suspect the wrong installation is why your Harley doesn’t shift from 2nd to 3rd gear consistently or smoothly.
- In that case, you’ll have to get a pro-Harley tech to examine your transmission for errors and re-assemble the gears if necessary.
A gearbox is a dynamic system of multiple parts working together with the clutch. If the machinery wasn’t installed correctly, other damage might need to be fixed during the re-installation.
Faulty Primary Case/Engine Oil
Low or contaminated motor oil in your primary case and the engine is one of the most frequent occasions resulting in a Harley=-Davidson that won’t go from second to third gear.
While many custom and vintage Harleys used open, dry-sump, belt-driven primaries, modern HDs equip a sealed, wet clutch system that needs to swim in engine oil during operation to keep from overheating.
Furthermore, some Harley models must have their primary oil changed separately from the engine oil; riders may neglect to drain both when conducting their routine oil service. Oil loses its cooling ability as it heats and cools repeatedly.
Running your Harley-Davidson Motorcycle with low or contaminated oil in your gearbox can cause your bike to experience shifting malfunctions, including but not limited to the failure to change from second into third gear.
In other cases, riders use the wrong type of oil in their HD’s gearbox, resulting in rough or improper shifting.
As we mentioned in a previous section, running your Harley with low oil levels or expired or improper oil can cause gearbox overheating that seizes the gears together. In this case, you’ll need more than an oil change; you’ll need a transmission rebuild.
Clutch Cable is Out of Adjustment
If you skipped the first section because your HD doesn’t have a hydraulic clutch, this section is for you.
The most common reason Harley-Davidson motorcycles with mechanical clutch cables won’t shift into third gear from second is improper clutch cable slack.
If you noticed your clutch plates were lugging while shifting from neutral to first and then felt even tighter when moving from first to second, it may be that the cable ran out of slack and thus won’t go any higher.
All clutch cables fall out of adjustment from time to time, from frequent use friction, temperature changes, or even elevation.
- The lack of free play can prevent the bike from shifting beyond second gear if your clutch cable is tighter than spec.
- On the other hand, if your Harley’s clutch cable has too much free play, the lack of tension translates to a lack of force, and the line may not have the strength to shift any higher than second gear.
- The specified adjustment for an HD clutch cable varies from model to model—consult your owner’s manual for the proper spec before adjusting your line.
- If you’re reading this while stranded in second gear and think a poorly adjusted clutch cable is the culprit, the generic sweet spot is between 2mm and 3mm of free play.
That said, consult the service manual for your bike to find the proper technique and measurements for clutch cable tensioning on your specific year model Harley.
Consult the service schedule and inspect, lubricate, and adjust your Harley-Davidsons clutch cable accordingly to keep it shifting smoothly and consistently from gear to gear.