Buying Guide – Harley-Davidson Sportster

14 Jun 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on Buying Guide – Harley-Davidson Sportster
Harley-Davidson XL 1200L Sportster Superlow


The Harley-Davidson Sportster is an American motorcycle that was introduced in 1957 as a competitor for the high-performance bikes being produced by the British that were selling in the United States in huge numbers. The Sportster was one of the first Harley-Davidsons to be fitted with rear-suspension (it’s parent bike, the Model K series was the first) and it was also the first of the Harleys to be fitted with a higher performance, overhead-valve engine.

The look of the new, sportier Harley-Davidson was immediately reminiscent of the popular British bikes that were dominating the sports-oriented motorcycle scene in the late 1950s, it had a very similar profile to the Triumph Thunderbird and proved to be very popular in the same demographics in the US motorcycle market.

The Ironhead 900cc V-twin engine had a 45 degree offset and could produce 40hp at 5,500rpm, it had a top speed of somewhere in the 100mph range and a total weight of 495lbs. Somewhat amazingly, that Ironhead engine would stay in production for 28 years until it was replaced with the Evolution engine in 1986.

This long production run is excellent news for prospective Sportster owners as it means there’s a vast market for spare parts, an immense amount of mechanical know-how and a brilliant community of people around the country who love to meet other Sportster owners, talk shop and offer some hard-learnt advice.

Some in the Harley-Davidson community will try to tell you that the Sportster is a “beginners” bike but I disagree with that sentiment pretty strongly – The very first Harleys were essentially motorised bicycles, they were designed to be light, manoeuvrable and capable of racing against Indians, Cyclones, Hendersons, Excelsiors and Popes with relatively few modifications. The large, highway cruising, chrome plated motorcycles we all associate with the Harley-Davidson brand nowadays name didn’t come about until many decades later, meaning the Sportster is actually the truest representation of the original DNA of the company.

A Timeline of the Sportster

1957 – This was the first year of the Sporster, it used the Ironhead overhead-valve engine, it had twin-spring rear suspension and was aimed squarely at younger people who valued speed and performance over everything else.

1972 – The Ironhead engine was updated, most notably with a new 1000cc capacity in place of its original 900cc volume.

1975 – This was the year that the DOT specified that all motorcycles sold in the USA had to have a standardised, left-side gear shift. The Sportster was switched from right to left and many other bikes did the same, including the Norton Commando.

1986 – The all new, Evolution engine was introduced with either an 883cc or 1100cc swept volume. This marked the end of the road for the now legendary Ironhead power-plant, after a remarkable 28 year production run.

1988 – Due to popular demand, the 1100cc engine option was increased in size to 1200cc, this engine size has been kept through to the modern day, as has the original 883cc engine.

1988 – The classic butterfly carburettor was switched out for a more modern constant velocity unit.

1991 – The now antiquated 4-speed transmission is replaced with an all-new 5-speed unit.

1991 – A belt drive replaced the chain drive on the 883 Deluxe and all of the 1200 models, the belt drive is now synonymous with the Harley-Davidson name and does away with the tedious task of maintaining the chain.

1993 – Belt drive was now standardised on all Sportster 883 models, meaning the entire line is now running belts.

1994 – HD made the improved oil tank and clutch standard on all bikes in the Sportster range, this would be a continuation of the slew of improvements made to the model line throughout the 1990s. A new, weather-proof electrical system with fully-sealed connectors was also introduced, further improving reliability.

1995 – The long run of the mechanical speedometer comes to an end with the introduction of an electric speedo on all models.

1996 – XL1200C The Sportster Custom is introduced for the first time. This bike is a Sportster with some of the chrome, style and refinements usually only seen on larger Harleys. It’s commonly known as a “starter cruiser” and has been a popular member of the Sportster family for over 17 years now.

1998 – XL1200S This higher performance Sportster was fitted with dual spark plugs and performance cams, it became popular with those who wanted a solid foundation for building a faster, higher performance Sportster.

2000 – Sealed wheel bearings and better performing 4-piston brake callipers were added across the range, continuing Harley’s slow but steady improvement cycle for the model.

Harley-Davidson XL 1200L Sportster Superlow

2004 – This was a big year for the Sportster, the frame had been 100% redesigned and now used a rubber mounting system for the engine to reduce vibration. The battery was now enclosed, the bike also had a redesigned hamcan, transmission door and a new oil tank. There were some other modest changes, making this the biggest update the Sportster range since the introduction of the Evolution engine in 1986.

2005 – Only one minor change this year, the rear axle was expanded to 1″ for increased stability.

2006 – The new and hotly anticipated XR1200 is announced in Europe. The bike is a modern interpretation of the now legendary XR750 race bike, it uses the same Evolution V-Twin as the stock Sportster with a new Down Draft DDFI II fuel injection system.

2007 – Fuel injection is now installed as standard on all Sportsters.

2008 – The front axle is slightly enlarged and the rear axle is decreased in size a little, both are now metric and have the same size – 25mm.

2010 – The engine control unit is moved allow more room for aftermarket seat selection, one of the most popular aftermarket purchases for Sportsters.

2014 – This is another big year for the Sportster, similar to 2004 and 1986. An all new electric system is installed on all Sportsters, larger brakes are now standard, keyless entry is offered, the Evolution engine has an increased compression ratio and ABS is offered as an option.

Interesting Sportster Sub-Models


The Nightster was introduced in 2007 and became quite popular. It has a retro feel, the 1200cc engine and is one of the better looking modern Sportsters (in my opinion). It went on to spawn the “Iron” and “Forty-Eight” which are both specified below.

This is an 883cc parallel to the 1200cc Nightster, it’s now one of the cheapest of the Harleys you can buy new and offers great value for those looking for a fun, simple V-twin that’ll still be running come the start of the next century.

Harley-Davidson XL 1200L Sportster Superlow
Harley-Davidson XL 1200L Sportster Superlow
Harley-Davidson XL 1200L Sportster Superlow
Harley-Davidson XL 1200L Sportster Superlow
Harley-Davidson XL 1200L Sportster Superlow

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