By Mark Masker, Photography by Courtesy Of Harley-Davidson, Mark Masker
If you want to know how much history you can pour onto two wheels, look no further than the Harley-Davidson Sportster. How many bikes can you name that outlasted Elvis, the Beatles, the Cold War, and TV’s Law & Order?
I didn’t meet my first Sportster until I was an editor at Hot Rod Bikes back in 2000 when I rode a 1200S at Jason Pridmore’s Star Racing School out in Pahrump, Nevada. That’s where I got my first inkling of what the so-called “beginner Harley” could really do. I wasn’t able to keep up with the pace set by all the crotch rockets but that’s as much a function of my own limitations as anything else.
No other Harley has as long or rich a story as the Sportster line. The bike’s tale runs the gamut from racing to touring and everywhere in between.
Origin Story: I am Iron Head Harley’s involvement with middleweights goes back at least as far as 1929 with the 45 cubic inch WL. A series of bikes, which featured the famous WLA Army bikes the military used while kicking the Axis Powers’ asses for making us put our beers down and getting up out of our chairs after Pearl Harbor. In the years during and after the war, American troops stationed overseas partook in the local culture, gaining a taste for all kinds of things that were hard to find back home; among them pizza, foreign beer, and British motorcycles. Finding those lighter bikes in America proved about as easy as finding a clean hooker in Bangkok.
With Indian on the ropes, Harley-Davidson didn’t have much domestic competition after the war. A light middleweight in the late 1940s meant stripping down a flathead-powered WL or similar machine. This, as we all know, gave rise to the first bobbers and choppers. But that’s another story.
Sportster History 1954 Harley Davidson KHK Model
1954 The predecessor to the Sporty, the KHK had a 885cc side valve engine.
Harley didn’t see the need for a new middleweight until British bikes invaded American soil in the ’50s. When American riders took to the streets on the new imports, Harley took notice. The old WL and its flathead motor were reliable (for the time) but not very fast or maneuverable compared to their UK counterparts. That’s when Harley replaced the W’s with the K series in 1952.
The K was a whole new animal. For starters its motor was a single, compact unit in one set of cases. The flywheels, crankpin, gears, cams, and four-speed transmission were all unified inside said cases. Unlike the Sportster you’ve come to know and love, the K had a chain final drive instead of a belt. H-D’s shiny new toy also had a new swing arm suspension to replace the W’s old rigid rear, a foot shifter, and telescopic front forks.
Sportster History Early Sportster
1966 The ’66 Sporty saw a 900cc power plant and some stunning graphics.
While the K model was a leap ahead of the W, it still fell short of the scoots offered by BSA, Norton, and Triumph. In 1954 Harley tried to remedy this by upgrading the displacement in the Model KH from 45 inches to 54 (aka 883 cc). The ’55 Model KHK even had hot cams, polished ports, and a roller-bearing bottom end but at the end of the day, none of these changes saved the K from extinction.
Harley learned a lot from the experiment, though. The knowledge H-D gained bore fruit in 1957 when Harley introduced the world to the new Sportster XL, incorporating the good parts of the Model K and it also ran overhead valves. While the new engine shared the K line’s displacement, its larger bore and shorter stroke made for better breathing, higher rpm, and an increased cruising speed. Its cast iron cylinder heads and rocker boxes gave it a nickname any super villain would envy-the Ironhead. Most companies used alloy heads at this time for cooler running and higher endurance than iron. Harley may have chosen iron for the XL motor due to leakage issues with the alloy Panhead. The motor design proved so successful that Harley applied its principles to the top end of the Shovelhead in 1966. Other than the new motor, the 1957 Sporty had the same basic frame, engine case, and other new features of the Model K that we mentioned above. The company finally had a machine that could compete with its middle-sized English rivals and win
Harley-Davidson didn’t miss a beat in staying competitive, either. A year after America met the XL, the manufacturer followed up with the faster, stripped-down XLCH, which featured staggered duals and the peanut tank that is now a staple of American customization and the chopper lifestyle. It was a higher compression bike that out ran comparable Brit machines and a bestseller to boot.
Come 1969, the world was a darker place for Harley-Davidson. Mostly because it got swallowed up by AMF via the infamous buyout and the vivisection that ensued. AMF slashed production, chopped away at Harley’s labor force, and basically told it to put the lotion in the basket or it would get the hose again. Quality suffered to match and with that, so did H-D’s reputation for solid iron.
The Sportster was not immune. In 1972, Harley replaced the cast steel connection node under the seat with a U-shaped stamped steel strip. It proved to be the weakest bone in the skeleton. The rigors of vertical load caused by normal riding were more than it could bear. Harley recalled all the new Sportster models, provided dealers with reinforcement strips, and had the dealers weld them on at an angle to shore up the support points at the shocks and rear fender. The news wasn’t all bad, though. Harley bulked the Ironhead up from 883cc to 1000cc for more power that same year.
Up until this point, Sportsters had the flat track-inspired right foot shift found on its Model K and W parents. The safety Nazis at DOT decided in 1974 that all new motorcycles needed left side shifting instead. True to AMF’s cheap-and-cheesy approach to bike design, Harley’s solution was hackneyed and lazy. Harley just ran a secondary shaft under the frame connecting to an elongated shift lever. It wasn’t until 1977 that the company did what it should have in the first place and redesigned the tranny box to let the shifter shaft go to the left. On the upside, Harley also jumped into the cafe racer trend that year by offering a cafe XL for the next two years.
As Harley wound down the Cafe Racer XL, they also finally solved the frame problem once and for all. That obnoxious connection under the saddle died in favor of a vertical triangle made of steel tubing like you’d find on the British and Japanese machines that were the Sportster’s direct competition. The change was revised in 1982 for better support at the shock support. It also held the new triangular oil tank that’s part of the modern XL’s look.
Harley’s Theory of Evolution A year later the dark age ended when company execs bought Harley-Davidson back from AMF, leaving their clueless overlords to go back to making bowling balls, which is something they understood very well. This happy event wasn’t the end of just one era. In 1986, Harley Davidson retired the old Ironhead warhorse in favor of the Sportster Evolution engine to match up with the company’s new image and new Big Twin Evo launched prior in 1984. Evo engines had aluminum cylinders and heads meaning not only less weight than iron ones but also less oil leakage and more durability. Since H-D had turned to outside assistance to create the smoother new motor, a lot of folks consider the Ironhead the last “real” Harley mill.
Two years after the Ironhead retired, Harley began crafting both 883 cc and 1200 cc versions of the new engine. The only real differences between the two were price tag and bore. Beefing up your 883 to 1200 became so standard people look at you funny if you don’t do it. Harley-Davidson also debuted the Sportster Hugger in 1988 and changed the bike’s image dramatically. All of you out there who hate the Sportster label of being a women’s or beginner’s machine have the Hugger to thank for that. Why? Because H-D aimed the Hugger at bringing women and beginning riders into the fold. Its lowered suspension brought the seat height down to 26 inches so that little people could sit on it with both feet touching the ground. For some reason, the Motor Company tripped over its own shoelaces by not advertising it toward women to draw them in and actually buy it. Still, the reputation has stuck despite the XL’s rich heritage as an early super bike and race machine.
Upgrades continued throughout the ’90s but nothing nearly as exciting as a new motor design. The switch to a smoother five-speed transmission in 1991 was a great upgrade, as was replacing the chaindrive with a belt in 1993. Belts made for quieter bikes and require far less maintenance than oiling and tightening a loose chain every few thousand miles. The next model year Harley gave the XL series a new electrical system with sealed connectors as well as an improved clutch, too.
Four-piston calipers became standard equipment for Sportsters in 2000, and while it gave the bikes more stopping power, that improvement was overshadowed by the launch of the 883R in 2001. It was semi-blacked-out and wore a throwback paint scheme to the old XR750, combining modern tech and historic racer looks in a package many people enjoyed.
Both of these were tremors compared to the earth-shaker Harley-Davidson created in 2004. As Harley looked back on 100 years of history, they also began to feel a shift in demographics. New riders wanted something different than what the old XL had to offer so H-D rethought not just the model line, but the concept, adding in new comforts. The biggest difference came from the frame and motor mounts. For the last 47 years, Sportster motors joined the chassis in solid metal mounts. All of the 2004 bikes had insulated motor mounts to reduce vibration and add a beefier look. It also weighed more and came with a beefier price tag. Harley also did away with the transmission trap door, relocated the exhaust balance pipe to show more of the motor, enclosed the battery with a side panel drive side, smoothed out the oil tank, and gave the tank a push-and-turn filler/dipstick.
There were other good reasons for Harley-Davidson to focus its design eye on the Sportster too. With gas prices fluctuating wildly due to wars in the Middle East and the fade of the big-ass chopper trend, new and old riders looked for cheaper ways to get around. Demand went from high-dollar pimp machines to cheaper, more fuel-efficient bikes near the mid-decade. More and more motorcycles made the leap to fuel injection and so did the Sportster.
It was in 2006 that the company announced its new XR1200 at Intermot in Germany. That bike used Down Draft DDFI II fuel injection. Not only that, fans of the old XR line salivated in the hopes Harley would sell the XR-inspired bike domestically. By 2007, fuel injection was the name of the game on all Harleys. It had been in use on Big Twins years earlier, but the conversion wasn’t complete until that time. When the domestic cousin of the XR 1200 did come home, it was met by a very happy fan base. So much so that the AMA Pro Vance & Hines XR1200 series hit the track during Road America in 2010. It was a set of five racing events with Vance & Hines as the presenting sponsor. They also supplied the race kits for the class (exhaust, Fuelpak, bodywork, 17-inch front wheel, steering damper, oil cooler relocator, and race decals). V&H cited the XR1200’s proven record as an exciting platform for spec racing in Europe as a big reason for its involvement. Since the complete race kit ran for $3,500, it allowed new talent to compete without the use of a second mortgage or a loan shark. In addition to the supplied kit, teams could also tweak their suspension, controls, brakes, and instrumentation. The restrictions aimed to emphasize rider talent over throwing money into a heap of performance parts.
Now, Harley seems to be focusing on widening its stable of Sportster styles in ways fans have talked about for years. When the manufacturer put the Iron 883 on the market, it even went so far as to hold art gallery displays including Sportster tanks worked over by modern artists in an effort to make the bike look edgier and draw it away from the image Harley gave it with the Hugger back in the ’80s. In the three years since, new Sportster models mimicked custom styles like the ’70s chopper (Seventy-Two, with its metalflake paint, skinny profile, and spoke wheels), meaty street brawler (the Forty-Eight, thanks to its low profile, solo seat, and fat tires), and Dark Custom 883 Iron and 1200 Nightster, both of which look like they were influenced by Russell Mitchell.
The Unusual Suspects
If you want to see the Sportster’s versatility in action, check out some of the configurations Harley has made since the machine’s inception in 1957.
XLCH: The 1959 high-compression performance version was also used for off-road riding in a time when there were no dedicated production dirt bikes.
XLCR: 1977’s Cafe Racer, which Harley produced for two years.
XLT1000 “Tourer”: Bags, a Super Glide tank, windscreen, and larger seat made this 1977 Sportster much more comfy on long trips.
XLX-61: Its designation doubled as its name and the bike was just as minimal to boot. Harley offered it as a bare-bones model in 1983 for entry-level riders.
XLC900: Another off-road version of the XL, this stripped-down take had a magneto ignition and was kickstart only. Its high-compression brother was the XLCH900, of course.
Confederate Edition: I’m not quite sure what Harley was thinking when it put commemorative Confederate flag paint on Sportster models back in 1977 (as they did with some of the Big Twins too), but it did. Less than 300 of these Sportsters were produced in any event.
XR1000: In 1984, Harley-Davidson made this street-legal hot rod that looked anything but. With two staggered K&N filters on one side and a set of high-up flat track pipes on the other, the bike looked every bit the XR-750 and XLX hybrid that it was.
The year 1978 was the only occasion where Harley used dual exhausts on its Sportsters instead of staggered ones.
Racer Erik Buell used Sportster engines in his company’s RR1000 sport bike starting in 1986. His company produced a variety of Sportster-powered sport bikes for two decades until its closure in 2009. At first, the engines were XR1000 units but when these ran out, Buell used 1200cc Sportster motors. Buell modified those motors with its own performance parts first in 1995 and again in 1998.
By the end of the ’60s, Harley racing director Dick O’brien had his hands full keeping the company team competitive against stronger and stronger foreign race machines. Although he had two of the biggest legends in Harley history piloting his bikes, it was clear Harley-Davidson needed a new platform if it was going to compete, let alone dominate, at the track.
They tried a new machine loosely based on the street Sportster equipped with dual carbs, special heads with the exhaust ports up front and the intake ports at their rear, and a megaphone exhaust mounted up high. It also had a bit of a weight problem. It wasn’t obese, but it definitely needed less iron in its diet. Introduced in 1970, the Ironhead XR-750 was just a bandage to stop the bleeding; the real solution to Harley’s racing woes came two years later. Dutch racer Peter Zylstra had been added to Harley’s design team in 1969 after emigrating from Holland. He’d road raced a Manx Norton in Europe and was recruited by Foster Uskalio, who ran Harley-Davidson’s engineering design and draft department. Zylstra’s input as a designer was key to the XR’s development. Among the improvements were alloy barrels replacing the iron ones. With other alloy components swapped in, the revamped XR-750 was a completely different animal-a leaner, angrier bike that would carry its jockeys to victory time and again, beyond the dreams of its creators.
Sportster History Evel Knievel
The XR-750 was also the bike of choice for one of the most famous riders in the history of motorcycling. And he wasn’t known for his racing ability. His name: Evel Knievel. Between 1965 and 1980, Evel Knievel (aka Robert Craig Knievel) attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps as well as a jump across the Snake River Canyon in 1974. The 37 broken bones he suffered during his career earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the survivor of “most bones broken in a lifetime.” Knievel died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida, at age 69. He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.