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How warranties work

The questions gets asked often enough “Will putting (fill in the blank) on my bike void my warranty?” The short answer to that is: “Wrong question.” That’s because the real concerns lie in how the machine will hold up and perform both during and after any warrant considerations. And, truth be told, there are lots of concerns because there are, in fact, lots of warranties!

It’s not a good plan, for example, to buy and install a set of swoopy, sexy “ designer” drag pipes on a whim in Sturgis then ride the new sled home like you stole it, without the benefit of an EFI remap. That will burn up a computer-controlled EFI engine quite nicely, as someone I know found out the hard way. Why should the factory pay for this kind of dumb move? You can’t get away with just anything, warranty or no!

Sometimes, however, it makes sense to try a smart move. Case in point, from 1999 through 2006 most Twin Cams have something of a designed-in time bomb ticking away inside the cam chest. Tensioner failures and the resulting hassles tend to occur at mileage intervals beyond the factory’s two-year, unlimited mileage coverage. Since the vast majority of new riders won’t get enough miles on the machine for this issue to arise before the time part of the warranty runs out, it will most likely be on you to fix the thing, sooner or later. Put another way, Harley knows odds are the stuff isn’t likely to break on their watch, or their dime. Knowing that a gear drive conversion solves the problem for the life of the motor, would you hesitate to make the modification? Presuming the motorcycle is to be yours for the long term, and the manufacturer is simply baby-sitting for a short time, where does the responsibility (reliability) really rest?

Well, whether The Motor Company likes it or not, most of the intelligent answers to warranty questions for us owners are a matter of common sense. Meaning performance pipes and an air cleaner have no bearing on a defect in the paint job. Or, more subtly, adding cams shouldn’t create tranny failures. In broader strokes, the rest (as liberally annotated, interpreted and abbreviated by me) follows here:

Legally, a vehicle manufacturer (let alone a dealer) cannot void any warranty on a vehicle due to and aftermarket part unless they can prove that the aftermarket part caused or contributed to the specific failure in the vehicle) per the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a federal consumer protection law).

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (15 U.S.C. 2302 ( C ) regulates (so-called “Limited”) warranties. The essence of the law concerning aftermarket vehicle parts is that a vehicle manufacturer may not condition a written (or implies) warranty on the consumer using parts or services that are identified by brand, trade, or corporate name (this includes Harley Davidson) unless the parts or service are provided free of charge.

Translation: You do not need to use “factory” oil, filters, parts or shop time to maintain a valid warranty…and the dealer can’t make you.

This law also means that the use of an aftermarket part alone is not cause for denying the warranty. (Particularly if the aftermarket parts actually improve things, such as the aforementioned gear-drive cam conversion, to name one.) However, the law’s protection does not extend to aftermarket parts in situations where such parts actually caused the damage being claimed under the warranty. (Like stupid exhaust tricks!) By the same token, no warrantor of a consumer product may condition a written or implied warranty of such product against he consumers using, in connection with such product, any article or service which is identified by other brand, trade or corporate names.


Translation: Just because a given dealer may have a bad taste for and/or attitude about, say, NGK spark plugs or Fram oil filters of proper specification, doesn’t mean they can void the warranty simply because you prefer to use them.

And, regarding warranty #2, “Ye ol’ emissions,” on your new Twinkie: Clean Air Act Warranty Provisions (42 U.S.C. S 7541 ( C ) (3) (B) requires vehicle makers to provide two emissions-related warranties, a production warranty and a performance warranty. The production warranty requires the vehicle maker to warrant that the vehicle is designed, built and equipped so that it conforms to emissions requirements at the time of sale, (This law has been on the books for a long time, but don’t worry that you’ll ever be required to install 2006 emissions equipment on a 1996 Harley -- won’t happen. Also note: “Dealers” are not mentioned and have no real discretion here, except regarding this next part…) The performance warranty requires the vehicle maker to warrant that the vehicle will comply with applicable emissions requirements as tested under state vehicle emissions inspection programs (none are in force or in practice for motorcycles in most state that I know of) for the warranty periods specified in the law. (For 1995 and later vehicles, the warranty is two year/24,000 miles for all emissions-related parts and eight years/80,000 miles for the catalytic converter unit and on-board diagnostic device). The performance warranty is conditioned on the vehicle being properly maintained and operates. (And the main reason for its inclusion in this dissertation is that you might actually find yourself in a situation where the emissions portion of your warranty will get you free parts and repairs that the main warranty may not -- EFI stuff like injectors, plug wire, ECMs and such, for examples.)

Like the Magnuson-Moss Act, vehicle manufacturers may not refuse warranty repairs under the Clean Air Acts performance and defect warranties merely because aftermarket parts have been installed on the vehicle.

(Tricky, but for the time being, let’s just say that a gadget like a Power Commander installed on your machine could theoretically void only the performance portion of the emissions warranty -- not the equipment part.)

So, how does this really affect you?

Your rights to personalize your vehicle

You have the right to use high-quality aftermarket parts and know that your new vehicle warranty claims will be honored. Legally, warranty denial works only if there is proof an aftermarket part caused the failure being claimed.

You have the right to patronize independent retail stores and shops for vehicle parts and service. The aftermarket offers a bewildering selection of performance and specialty parts, accessories and styling options. These aftermarket products satisfy the most discriminating customers seeking personalized vehicles for today’s lifestyle and, perhaps even more importantly, provide viable, significant and in some instances superior alternatives to factory-supplies parts and accessories. That’s the “Catch 22” in this whole thing. An independent shop is often a better choice for routine service, but not even an option if you have a claim, since the factory will reimburse only its franchised dealers for any parts and labor involved in “warranty work.”

You have the right (speaking of the above) to actively oppose any proposed (or existing) laws or regulations that will reduce your freedom to use aftermarket parts and services or curtail your ability to take part in the motorcycling hobbies of your choice.

Fact is, there are several warranties involved regarding new Harley Davidson motorcycles, including (as expressed in your owner’s manual) noise, emissions, and the “materials and workmanship” biggie we all regard (or disregard) most. And those are just the ones that are “legitimate” new vehicle warranties. There are others, like replacement tire or battery warranties. Some, you might get to pay for in more ways than one, whether you ever use them or not.

I’ll try to explain… No doubt, the factory’s cost for coverage reflects in the price of the machines on the showroom floor. In a very real sense, there are several bucks included in the MSRP directly related to this cost. Currently, the language of H-D’s warranty-speak leans heavily on the “two-year” aspect of coverage. That clock ticks whether out on a ride or stuck in the garage. The unlimited-mileage part of the warranty is very underplayed and it doesn’t surprise me one bit. Yet it stands to reason that the relative costs to the Company of a machine that remains unused for 90 percent of that time, versus one that accumulates 40,000-50,000 miles (or more) in the same period are enormously different! Let me put it this way: For what these buggers cost, if I were to buy a new one, I’d ride the friggin’ tires off it for that first two years! The primary reason begin, I’d want that warranty money imbedded in my purchase price back, so, I’d take it in “trade.” What the hell; if I’ve got to spend money, time and effort to keep the warranty valid anyway, I might as well see what kinds of “defects in materials and workmanship” might come up under serious use and mileage. (Nothing else makes as much sense, presuming one doesn’t buy a Harley merely to impress the neighbors.)

Instead, people who don’t know Harleys well or ride enough to know, spend additional big bucks on a so-called “extended warranty,” which isn’t. Any extended warranty is really an insurance policy, and consequently not nearly as useful as the factory item. Without entering into a debate on the subject, I’ll simply state: Never buy one of these until your are absolutely comfortable with the specifics of the thing and whether or not the shop you will wind up using for the work on your bike will take it as payment. Please, please pay attention to this little detail: I said, “wind up using,” not “start out using.” Too often, those are two different establishments by the time any of your warranties are used up or any claims are settled.

You see, in the end, there are no real guarantees anyway, so the burning question asked at the beginning of this article almost never applies to anything but the power train when its asked and is never adequately answered, except by you. Perhaps the truly thoughtful version of the classic inquiry should look something a bit more like this: “How will the modifications I intend to make, properly done, affect the machine I own in the long run?” Notice the idea of “warranty” becomes merely an implied subset here?

For best results, consider working with performance-oriented dealerships and/or independent shops with a proven history of working with customers and their Harleys, not just a set of rules and guidelines that only matter till the “new” wears off.
You have the right to buy high-quality, reliable aftermarket performance and specialty parts, accessories and styling options.