The company said in documents filed last week with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that brake light switches can be exposed to too much heat from the exhaust system. The heat can cause the brake lights to fail, and the problem also can cause fluid leaks and the loss of rear brakes, the documents said.
The problem affects Touring, CVO Touring and Trike motorcycles from the 2009 through 2012 model years. They were built between June 6, 2008 and Sept. 16, 2011.
Harley says it will notify owners of the recall. Dealers will install a rear brake light switch kit free of charge.
The recall affects about 251,000 motorcycles in the U.S. alone, with the balance in other countries.
Harley said it noticed the problem in June of 2010 when it got a report of a Trike model motorcycle that lost its rear brakes due to the problem. The company began investigating, and in July of 2010, it sent investigators to a dealership in Louisiana to inspect another bike that was involved in a crash due to the problem.
The crash is the only one that Harley-Davidson is aware of. It was unclear if anyone was hurt. Messages were left at the company's Milwaukee headquarters seeking comment.
Harley said in the documents that there have been no more reports of the problem occurring since July of 2010.
The company also said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it expects the recall to cost $10 million to $12 million, which will be charged as an expense in the fourth quarter.
Shares of Harley-Davidson rose $1.18, or 3.1 percent, to $38.78 in midday trading Monday.