The stock Harley-Davidson handlebars serve their function fairly well—to comfortably fit the “average” rider and help them safely and securely operate their motorcycle. The problem is however, not everyone is the “average” rider with average body dimensions. Some people have longer torsos while others have shorter arms. Some people may not be able leave their arms or hands in the stock riding position for miles on end and may experience dulling pain or numbness after only an hour or two of riding. And this leads us to one of the reasons why there are so many aftermarket handlebar options available for Harley-Davidsons. Well, that and the fact the majority of the handlebars on most bone-stock Harley-Davidsons are just down right boring looking and do very little for the aesthetics of the motorcycle. Style and comfort are two major reasons why Harley owners will change out the bars on their motorcycle. Heck, depending on how long they own the bike, some salty old road dogs may change out their handlebars two, three, or even four times. Luckily, there are plenty of options to choose from when picking out Harley handlebars and the list below will give you an overview of some of the more popular styles.
The epitome of chopper styling, Ape Hangers are by far the most popular style of handlebars for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Ape Hangers (or just Apes) have been around since that first chopper freak took a cutting torch and welder to his motorcycle. Easily identifiable by their height, Apes have gradual upward bend just past the mounting point at the risers then shoot straight towards the sky. They have another gentle bend outwards at the top so the bar ends are pretty much perpendicular to the ground. One of the reasons many people like Apes is because there are so many different heights to choose from. The most common heights are the 12-, 16, and 18-inch Ape Hangers, but it’s not uncommon to see people taking it to the extreme with 20- and even 24-inch Apes. Another reason why people like Apes is because they look good on just about any style of bike, if done right. From choppers to bobbers, drop-seat customs, rat bikes, and even bone-stock Harley baggers, Apes are a classic style that can give any bike attitude. While the traditional Ape Hanger has smooth radiused bends at the top and bottom, you’ll see some tall bars with hard top angles,, points, gussets, or wild Z-like designs incorporated into them, these are still considered Apes, some may call them Z-Apes but they are not Z-bars. One of the most recognizable custom motorcycles to rock Ape Hangers is the Captain America bike Peter Fonda rode in the movie Easy Rider.
Mini Apes or Baby Apes are a shorter (mini) version of the Ape Hanger. Sometimes people may confuse Mini Apes with Buckhorn handlebars. Compared to Buckhorns, Baby Apes have a much more aggressive look with their straight up rise and opened up hand positioning. Mini Apes are traditionally under 8-1/2-inches tall.
Buckhorn handlebars have been around for a very long time and have been the stock bars on a host of Harley models including Softails, Sportsters, and Dynas. With a short rise similar to a Mini Ape, the difference between the two is the hand positioning. The bar ends on Buckhorns are angled in towards the rider (which also brings the elbows in) and have a slight dip to them. Many people feel the hand positioning with Buckhorn handlebars is awkward and/or uncomfortable and that the styling leaves much to be desired. One of the most noted uses of Buckhorns on a stock Harley was on the 1952 K Model, which was the predecessor to Harley’s longest running production model, the Sportster—introduced in 1957.
Drag bars are another style that is often found on many stock Harley-Davidsons. Basically these bars go straight across at the bottom with little to no rise and then have a slight angled pullback. A very simple and basic design, the drag bars put the rider in a somewhat forward and more aggressive riding position.
T-Bars are similar to drag bars except that they have built in risers. The risers are welded perpendicular to the main bar, making a T-like design. Height can vary anywhere from 4- to 8-inches tall (sometimes even taller). Riser styles vary between straight and those with pullback incorporated into them. Some people may call the bars with pull back style risers drag bars but they are still most commonly referred to as T-Bars. While the Captain America bike typically gets the most attention from motorcycle fans and the general public (mostly because of the American themed paint job on the gas tank and mirror chrome frame) its companion, the Bill Bike, with its chromed T-bars is a pretty sweet ride in its own right.
For a more relaxed look and feel there’s Beach Bars. Similar to the pulled back style of bars found beach cruiser bicycles, Beach Bars have long swooping bends that pull way back towards the rider. Most Beach Bars place the hands in a slightly open position and resting apart a little bit wider than the shoulders. And with little to no rise, the bars sit the hands around low- to mid-waist level. While they probably weren’t called Beach Bars at the time, the motorcycle that started it all, the 1903 Serial Number One, has the earliest iteration of Beach Bars mounted to its neck.
Exactly like the name states, Z-bars look like Zs (opposing Zs) at either end of the bar. With sharp lines and hard angles these are very tight and aggressive looking bars. Smaller than most other bars, Z-bars typically look best on Sportsters and narrow choppers/custom bikes. The rise on these bars is very minimal, usually only about four inches. They have very little, if any, pullback, and the width places the hands fairly close together compared to most other handlebars. We just barely scratched the surface of custom handlebars for your Harley. There are garage builders and major aftermarket manufacturers coming out with new bends, heights, and designs all the time. But now at least now you have a solid understanding of the most popular styles, and the next time you hear someone say “look at those apes” you won’t be scared for your life that you’re about to get beat up by Donkey Kong and his buddies.