Classic Motorcycle Build

Ironhead Clutch (Remove and Install)

Article by Mark Trotta

If you're experiencing clutch slippage with your 1971-up Ironhead Sportster, and you've already tried lubing and adjusting the cable, it's time to remove the primary cover and see what's going on.

Ironhead clutch remove and install

Slippage can be caused by worn friction discs or weak spring tension. If your clutch is dragging or not releasing, the clutch discs may be gummed up or warped.

1971 To Early 1984 Sportster Wet Clutch

Early Sportsters (1970 and earlier) have a dry-clutch setup, and therefore have different procedures. This article covers 1971 to early 1984 Ironheads with a wet-clutch. Late 1984 and up Sportsters have a different clutch setup and is also a different procedure.

Remove Clutch

Stabilize the bike in an upright position. If you don't have a motorcycle work stand, put the front wheel into a chock or clamp so the bike is vertical. Another way is place a piece of wood under the kickstand so the bike sits more upright (careful it doesn't fall over the other way).

If you have an electric-start bike, disconnect the battery. You may have to remove the battery and the battery tray to remove the primary cover.

Remove left foot peg and foot lever. Place a drain pan under the motorcycle. Remove the bottom oil plug from the primary cover and drain the oil.

Ironhead Sportster clutch removal

Remove the primary chain cover and gasket. Note that some of the bolts are longer than the others, and one of the bolts is thinner than the others.

To keep the bolts in order, I punch holes in the shape of the cover in a piece of cardboard. Not only does this prevent them from getting lost, it also saves time on reassembly.

Ironhead Sportster primary cover bolts

Clutch Spring Compressor Tool

To remove the six pressure plate nuts, a clutch spring compressing tool is needed to take pressure off the clutch assembly. You can either buy one, borrow one, or make one.

DIY Sportster clutch removal tool

Read: DIY Sportster Clutch Removal Tool


Ironhead Clutch Removal

After you have removed the six lock nuts, slowly back off the two nuts holding the tool to the primary cover.

With a flat-blade screwdriver, remove the large retaining ring from its groove in the clutch shell. The first clutch piece to come out is the outer drive plate.

NOTE: 1971-1974 Sportsters have six spacers behind the nuts.

Remove the eight friction plates and eight steel plates from the clutch hub. In the Harley-Davidson service manual, the friction plates with the teeth are called drive plates, and the steel ones are called driven plates.

The metal ring with the six studs inside the clutch shell is called the pressure plate, or clutch backing plate. It is removed by holding the studs and pulling it out.

Clutch Inspection

Once the clutch plates are out, inspect each one of them. The friction plates come with oil grooves in them. If the grooves are gone, replace the plates. Also check for burns or scores, indicating they have been overheated.

Check for warped steel plates. A little blueing is OK. If the plates are rusty, pitted, or grooved, replace them. Clean all parts before reassembly - wipe the steel plates with a clean cloth or rag - do not use cleaners.

Ironhead motor with clutch assembly reinstalled

Inspect the clutch shell for any wear, particularly the teeth. If you need to remove the clutch shell, see Primary Chain Remove and Install

Ironhead Clutch Installation

Install the pressure plate back in the clutch basket with the studs sticking out. On 1974-1974 Sportsters, the six spacer tubes make the correct plate adjustment and also line up the pressure plate.

Install a friction plate, then a steel plate over the studs. Alternate steel plates and friction plates until eight of each are installed. This should leave a steel plate on the outside.

Ironhead clutch diagram

Shop: Ironhead Clutch Parts

Once the eight drive plates and the eight driven plates are installed, the outer drive plate goes back on. Set up your clutch compressing tool and slowly tighten both ends evenly.

Tighten the tool until you can thread the lock nuts (1/4"-20) on at least three of the six studs. Tighten these nuts on the studs until the others show enough threads to be started.

Ironhead clutch pressure plate nuts

Tighten all six nuts evenly. Do not re-use the old nuts - buy new ones.

Before installing the primary cover, inspect the inside of it. Make sure that none of the three ball bearings in the clutch cable release mechanism are missing or distorted. A ball out of round will cause binding, and the clutch will fail to function properly.

Ironhead Sportster clutch removal

Install the primary cover with a new gasket. Some owners use double gaskets to help prevent leaking. Re-install rear foot brake lever and foot peg.

The final step in Ironhead clutch replacement is refilling with oil. Remove the top oil plug and bottom oil plug. Add oil through the top plug until it starts coming out the bottom plug. Re-install both plugs.

The factory service manual recommends Harley-Davidson oil, but you can use the same oil as you put in the motor.

Ironhead Clutch Adjustment

To adjust the clutch, unscrew the large assess plug. (using the side of a wrench works well). Loosen the locknut. With a flat-blade screwdriver take up the free-play on the adjusting screw, then back off a 1/4 to 1/2 turn. Basically you are turning it in until you feel pressure, then backing it out some. The backing off is to make sure the clutch is fully engaged.

Ironhead Sportster with clutch assembly reinstalled

Tighten the locknut without moving the adjusting screw. Make sure there is an O-ring on the back of the assess plug before re-installing (to prevent a possible oil leak).

NOTE: You don't have to remove the clutch basket to replace the clutch plates, but if you need to remove the basket for another reason, read Primary Chain Remove and Install

Ironhead Clutch Parts

I've been buying from J & P Cycle for many years. Even though they were bought out by another company in 2020, they are still committed to selling products for pre-Evo Harleys.

Ironhead Sportster clutch parts

Shop: Ironhead Clutch Parts