two wheels forever > how-tos > How to Change the Rear Tire on a Harley Davidson Softail

How to Change the Rear Tire on a Harley Davidson Softail

This how-to is applicable to 1984 to 1999 Harley Davidson Softails, although it may be helpful for other HD Models. These pictures and steps are from a 1993 FXSTS.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 1  
Step 1 (optional):

Step 1 and 2 are optional, but they make it much easier to get the drive belt off the rear pulley.

Use a 9/16" socket/wrench to remove the three visible bolts holding the upper and lower belt guard in place.

Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 2  
Step 2 (optional):
Remove the two 9/16" bolts that hold the upper and lower belt guards to the inside of the swingarm. The upper bolt can be removed farly easily with a 9/16" wrench, but the lower bolt is tough to access. I found it easiest to access from the right side of the motorcycle, using a deep socket and an extension bar on my ratchet.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 3  
Step 3:
Remove the axle covers (if installed) by removing the two small allen bolts with an 1/8" allen wrench. Once the axle covers are removed, I typically thread the allen bolts back in to avoid losing them.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 4  
Step 4:

Before loosening the axle adjusters, measure the distance between the axle and the frame and make a note of it. This will make the alignment of the rear tire and tensioning of the drive belt a lot easier when it comes time for re-installation.

If your motorcycle is not already on a lift, now would be a good time to put it on a lift. If you don't have one, try building the $20 Motorcycle Lift. It's cheap, easy to use, and very stable. Depending on what service work I'm doing, sometimes I prefer it over my $100 Craftsman lift.

Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 5  
Step 5:

Using a 9/16" wrench, loosen the axle adjuster lock nut and then loosen the axle adjuster on both sides. Make sure the axle adjusters are loose enough to allow plenty of room for the axle to slide forward in Step 7.

Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 6  
Step 6:
Using plyers, straighten the cotter pin and then remove it from the castle nut on the left end of the axle (depending on which direction your axle was installed, you may find the castle nut on the right side of the motorcycle).
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 7  
Step 7:
Using a 15/16" socket and an adjustable wrench (or two adjustable wrenches) loosen the castle nut to allow the axle to slide forward.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 8  
Step 8:

With the tire slid all the way forward, you should have enough slack on the drive belt to slip it off the rear pulley and out of the way. Alternately, you can leave the drive belt on the rear pulley until you drop the tire out of the frame if you'd like.

To make removal of the axle easier, I like to block up the rear tire to take weight off the axle.

Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 9  
Step 9:
Once the rear tire is supported, you should be able to easily slide the rear axle out of the swingarm and roll the tire out. I suggest lining up all of the nuts, washers, spacers, etc. in exactly the same order you removed them in order to avoid confusion on re-installation.
That was the easy part. If you've never changed a tire before, you may want to take your wheel to a motorcycle shop with a tire machine and have them remove the old tire and install the new tire for you. Changing a tire by hand is not for the faint of heart, especially if you don't have access to a bead-breaker. Nevertheless, if you want to save a couple of bucks (like me), proceed at your own risk!
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 10  
Step 10:
Now remove all of the air from the tire and break the bead free from the rim. If you have a bead-breaker, this isn't too difficult, but if you're like me you'll have to do it with a couple of clamps, blocks of wood, and tire irons. Gradually work your way all the way around the tire on both sides to make sure the tire bead is completely free from the rim.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 11  
Step 11:
Place plastic rim protectors around the edges of the rim to avoid damage from your tire irons. Working your way around the rim, pry the tire bead over the edge of the rim. This can be quite challenging to get started, and will most likely take quite a few tries, and several tire irons. I was using three, but wished I had a few more for additional leverage.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 12  
Step 12:
Once you have the top tire bead over the edge of the rim, you can unscrew the valve stem and fish the tube out of the tire. Then use your tire irons to lever the other tire bead over the edge of the rim. The bottom bead of the tire is much easier to get off the rim than the top bead.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 13  
Step 13:
Success! Now that you have the tire completely off the rim, you'll want to clean the inside of the rim to make sure the new tire has a nice clean surface for the bead to seal against.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 14  
Step 14:
Before you install your new tire on the rim, check (and double-check) the direction of the arrow to make sure it is rotating in the same direction of your rim. The last thing you want is to install a tire with the tread running backwards and have to do the whole thing over again. If you are looking at the rim and tire from the brake rotor side, the arrow should point in a clockwise direction. If you are on the belt pulley side, the arrow should point in a counter-clockwise direction.
Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 15  
Step 15:

Lubricate the bead of the new tire thoroughly with bead lube (dishsoap also works). This will help the bead pop over the edge of the rim easier. Place the tire on top of the rim and work the bottom edge of the tire over the top edge of the rim. You may need to use tire irons, but should be able to get it on fairly easily.

Remove the two nuts from the valve stem and set them aside. Put just a little bit of air into your new tire tube and insert it inside the tire all the way around. Be sure to line up the valve stem with the valve stem hole in the rim, and then work the tube between the bottom bead of the tire and the top edge of the rim all the way around. Once the tube is positioned correctly, you'll need to force the valve stem through the hole in the rim. This is a bit tricky and will take some patience, but persistence pays off. Once you have the valve stem through the hole, be sure to lock it in place with the two valve stem jam nuts. Make sure the valve stem comes straight through the rim, and is not cocked in one direction or the other. If it is, twist the tire slightly on the rim in the opposite direction until the valve stem is aligned properly.

Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 16  
Step 16:

Once the tube is in place, lever the top bead of the tire over the top edge of the rim. Take special care not to pinch the tube between the rim and tire or tear it with a tire iron.

Inflate the tire to the recommended pressure and make sure the bead pops into place evenly all the way around on both sides of the rim. Be sure not to overinflate.

Once your tire is installed on the rim, it's a good idea to have it spin balanced. Most motorcycle shops have a machine that can do this quickly and easily.

Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 17  
Step 17:

Installation of the rear tire is the reverse of the removal. Block the rear tire up and slide the axle back through the swingarm and brake caliper, making sure the axle spacers and washers are in the same order they were removed. Thread the castle nut onto the axle, but do not tighten it yet.

Adjust the axle adjusters to align the rear tire (using the measurements you noted in Step 4). Remove your bike from the lift and check the drive belt tension with the motorcycle on the ground. The weight of the bike will compress the shocks so you can ensure there's the proper amount of deflection (5/16" to 3/8") in the belt.

Softail Rear Tire Change - Step 18  
Step 18:

Once the axle is aligned and the belt has the correct tension, tighten the castle nut on the rear axle. Be sure to use a new cotter pin.

Using two 9/16" wrenches, tighten the axle adjuster lock nuts, making sure the axle adjustment doesn't change.

Re-install the axle covers (if applicable).

Reinstall the upper and lower belt guards. The lower belt guard must be installed first.

Step back and admire your work. You're done!

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