Harley-Davidson Sportster History

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Harley-Davidson Café Racer

Harley-Davidson Sportster History

When Harley-Davidson bolted a new motor to their K-Model in 1957, the Sportster legend

Early Ironhead Sportster

The new displaced 883cc (advertised as and was derived from a 3.81 and a 3.00 bore. Both rods shared a common pin, referred to as a ‘knife and design. Each valve was by its own cam, simplifying valvetrain

One carburetor fed both front and cylinders.

The bottom end of the XL motor was the as the K-Series bike. Inside the of the engine cases housed the transmission, with twin jugs sitting 45 degrees The new OHV motor, fitting neatly the gas tank, sported a pair of cylinder heads.

Aluminum is the preferred material for cylinder — not only is it lighter cast-iron, it dissipates heat Harley had previously used heads on their Panhead (introduced in 1948), which reduce engine operating in warm weather. But early riders experienced top-end so H-D engineers chose to use cast-iron for the heads.

For the first year of production, concerns of overheating the compression ratio at a conservative Making 40 horsepower and weighing 495 the new XL Sportster was not yet burning up roads.

In the XL remained the standard Sportster, a new XLH model was fitted with valves and higher, 9:1 compression Power increased significantly. A model, originally set up as an off-road was named the XLCH.

It was sold no headlight or taillight and had twin exhaust pipes. A small 1.9 gas tank, borrowed from the Hummer, would become the Sportster ‘Peanut’ tank.


The XL model received new and headlight nacelle, and an ignition mounted on the left fork. available in either white or were optional. The XLCH proved quite popular, and in lights, mufflers, and full were fitted. The left-handgrip advance was still retained.

A smaller 5-3/4 headlamp eyebrow was used, and would a classic Sportster feature.


Built to compete in TT scrambles, started producing the XLR in 1962. between it and the XLCH were engine modifications. Different and cams were used, and were used at the crankshaft to reduce friction.

Produced in quantities, the XLR weighed about 300 and properly tuned, could put out 80 The motor would power race-bikes, including Cal Rayborn’s streamliner in 1970.

Early Sportsters

Sportster models the early Sixties remained unchanged, receiving small, refinements. In 1963, an ignition key was to the XLCH. Popular options turn signals, spotlights, and In anticipation of upcoming electric both the XLH and XLCH were to 12-volt electrical systems in

Sportsters now had automatic spark which helped starting.

The oval-shaped ham-can air cleaner, about by federal emission first appeared in 1966. this year. the Linkert was replaced by a Tillotson, which was sensitive to lean and tilt, and helped power and driveability. cases were revised to electric start, first in 1967.

Two years later, were redesigned, and had larger

In 1969, Harley-Davidson was acquired by AMF Machine and Foundry Company), a business conglomerate who manufactured and among other things, and garden equipment, golf snowmobiles, sailboats, powerboats, mopeds, and now, motorcycles.

Came Bronson Bike

was the second and final season of the TV show Then Came The show starred wool-capped Parks riding around the finding adventure on his red ’69 XLH. Bud Ekins, the famous stuntman, appeared in several

The show and the bike were popular, prompting Harley-Davidson to a Bronson Red paint option for years.

Sportster-Powered Bonneville

The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah have long a mecca for high-speed competition. It was that a Sportster-powered streamliner broke the world speed in 1970. The streamliner body was a aluminum tube, with a of only 23 inches.

Inside was a cockpit and a modified XLR motor, and stroked to 1,480cc (89-cubic The engine ran on 70 percent nitro-methane. by Manning/Riley/Riveria, the pilot was famed factory rider Cal Rayborn.

His speed of 265.492 mph would for fifteen years.


The Sportster’s distributor, formerly atop the right-side engine was moved inside the gearcase, and an advance mechanism was added to aid

In 1971, Sportsters were to a wet clutch setup. As its name a wet clutch sits in oil, a dry does not. Wet clutches are and give an easier pull at the lever.

The fiberglass seat and section, known as the ‘boat-tail’ was again this year for the time.

Now in its 14th year, an of 6,500 Sportsters were sold annually — the amount from a decade And in that time, the Ironhead fan-base had widened deeply. On one end the race guys, who loved its power and the endless ways to out more.

On the other end were the guys, who embraced the clean, symmetry of the compact V-twin

1972 Sportster

To keep up the litre-bikes that Japan was the Sportster got a bump in motor in 1972. Boring the cylinders of an inch brought displacement 883cc to 997.3cc (advertised as The increase also gave a optimum bore-to-… ratio, in a smoother running motor. was also increased, pushing past 110 mph.

Quarter-mile times dropped the mid-thirteens, and by removing the stock baffles, another half-second be gained.

The Sportster for 1972 saw minor changes. Prone to lock when the engine was the Tillotson carburetor was dropped in of a Bendix unit. The new carb sat closer to the motor, causing of an obstruction to the rider’s right The magneto ignition used on the models was gone, in its place was the system from the XLH.

padding was reduced. Sales doubled from the previous with just under units sold.


Sportsters were upgraded front drum to single front brake in 1973. The year, turn-signals became on all motorcycles sold in America.

Harleys began rolling off the Pennsylvania assembly line, the AMF logo had been appearing on gas since 1971. Harley-Davidson was now one of dozens of divisions in a corporation, and control was becoming an issue.


Under the control of build-quality seemed secondary. To profits, the corporation began production and cutting the workforce. led to a 101-day strike by union

With the influx of quicker and Japanese bikes, Harley-Davidson’s of the 750cc and larger motorcycle had fallen to 21 percent.


New federal regulations required all sold in America to have shift and right-side brake AMF’s remedy was to continue the existing engine cases and the gear-shift linkage across the of the engine, thus avoiding the of re-tooling. New cases were fitted in 1977.

Approximately Sportsters were produced in

1976 Sportster

To help celebrate America’s Birthday, Harley-Davidson offered Bicentennial Edition models, commemorative decals applied to the gas and oil Later in the year, Sportster switched from Bendix to carburetors.

1977 Sportster

In an to re-capture some of its lost two new Sportster models were in 1977. The first was the XLT, set up in style with a thicker touring handlebars, saddlebags, and It was also geared higher, and a larger 3.5 gallon tank.

Harley-Davidson Café Racer

The new model was the Cafe Racer.


All Sportster models upgraded to a new, stronger and swingarm, derived from the which was in its second and final of full production. Also from the Cafe Racer dual-disc front brakes and aluminum wheels, as well as exhaust pipes, which both torque and mid-range Longer … rear helped increase rider and comfort.

All models now had electronic and a solid-state voltage regulator, provided easier starting and less maintenance.

To commemorate 75th year in production, a Sportster was offered, featuring paint highlighted by gold gold cast-aluminum wheels, and anniversary graphics.

The factory proclaimed the 1978 model as the most powerful, most yet. Sales for 1978 17,000 units, the highest in Sportster history.


In 1979, the Sportster’s mechanical drum brake was upgraded to a disc brake, and the breaker-points were replaced with a breakerless electronic type. guides were changed to iron to provide better to the valve stems. This be the last year of the kick-start

Using the XLCR’s frame, the XLS had cast wheels, extended forks, 2-into-1 exhaust and a 16 rear wheel. With a dual rear seat and bar, the XLS was decidedly un-Sportster and curiously named the Roadster.

Looking back over the the Sportster had come a long It was still a great looking, street-bike, and more reliable ever. At 500 pounds and sporting a inch wheelbase, cornering was not its suit, but a low center of gravity the bike easy to manage, when cruising slow.

The sprung suspension gave a but comfortable ride at highway

1980-1981 Sportsters

The ignition from last year was by a Magnavox system, which an inductive pickup to send to a timing control module. module is often referred to as the box. A new electric starter and were used, as was a double accelerator cable.

An electronic replaced the cable-driven unit.

In members of the Davidson family, executives from AMF, and others bought the Harley-Davidson Company back from Once that was done, put themselves on the stock market, shares of the company to the public, and themselves out of a large debt.

the eighties brought us high-revving, motorcycles with ten-grand the Sportster was still getting it at 5,500 rpm. Accelerating above 2,000 rpm, was not necessary — a twist of the and the 1,000cc V-twin responded all the torque you needed.


Now 25 years-old, 1982 XLH and XLS Sportsters special anniversary trim in and black. To comply with regulations, engine compression was to 8:1 CR, which lowered both and top-end speed. Early Sportsters were fitted a stronger and lighter frame.

Sportster XLX61

Clearly one of greatest marketing moves, the level, no-frills XLX61 was offered in 1983. This machine came with but a solo seat, peanut gas and single (speedometer) gauge. to sell for $3,995, it was available in only. In its first year, examples were sold, than all of the other three XL combined.

The XLX helped the Sportster become one of the motorcycles of the 1980s.

1983-1984 XR1000

As a tribute to the flat-track of the XR750, Harley-Davidson offered the XR-1000 Sportster. The XR cylinder specially prepared by Jerry were all-alloy and featured valves than XL Sportsters. To the larger valves, intake were moved to the right and exhaust ports were on the

Because the XR cylinder heads larger than the stock heads, the cylinder barrels had to be to fit in the Sportster frame.

A pair of Dell’Orto carbs brought output to 70 horsepower, dipping times under thirteen Dual eleven-inch front rotors supplied the best power yet. Approximately examples of the XR1000 were in 1983, and about 750 produced in

1985 Sportster

With trimmed in anticipation of the new aluminum-head engine, less than Sportsters were built in the last year of the XL Ironhead

The Ironhead Sportster, arguably the and meanest-sounding V-twin ever, a 28-year production run. live the Ironhead!

Harley-Davidson Café Racer
Harley-Davidson Café Racer
Harley-Davidson Café Racer
Harley-Davidson Café Racer


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