The Interesting Evolution Journey of Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, Sportster

H-D’s Strong And Muscular Sportster Motorcycle

Jaws hit the floor a couple of years ago, when Harley-Davidson unveiled the latest in its long line of Sportsters.

Sure, most motorcyclists had expected the new-generation V-twin to be more sophisticated than the familiar aircooled Sportsters, which had finally fallen victim to tightening emissions regulations.

But the Sportster S was a very different motorbike – not only liquid-cooled and high-tech, but also unashamedly muscular and powerful.

Harley themselves described it as the first chapter in a whole new Sportster book.

In many ways the S-model seemed more like a successor to the V-Rod than to the old Sportsters, with their traditional pushrod-operated engines and twin-shock chassis.

Time will tell whether Harley was right to relaunch the Sportster line with a bike whose 121bhp output, fat tyres and high-tech electronics put it in a very different part of the market to the relatively affordable retro models of previous years.

Meanwhile, a look back at the Sportster story shows the Milwaukee factory is not abandoning tradition by giving the new-generation V-twin some fire in its belly.


Models Of Sportster Motorcycles To Gauge


The original XL Sportster’s name was significant on the model’s launch in 1957.

Sportster was an evocative title for a high-performance motorbike, just as it still is today.

And to emblazon it in capital letters across the crankcase was a real statement of intent. Especially as in those days Harley didn’t really do names.

Admittedly, the factory had released a V-twin called the Sport back in 1919, and more recently the bigger Hydra-Glide and little 125cc Hummer had been given names too.

But generally Harley had stuck to differentiating their models with letters.

The XL Sportster stood out further by having two of those rather than the normal one.

The “X” was Milwaukee’s way of confirming that this model had a new-generation engine, with pushrod-operated overhead valves rather than the side-valves of the familiar K-series V-twins.

The extra “L” had traditionally been used to signify a slightly higher level of tune, but that didn’t really apply to the sole Sportster model, which shared its KH predecessor’s 883cc (54 cubic inch) capacity but reached it via a bigger bore and shorter stroke.

That allowed bigger valves, and could have led to higher revs and more power.

But Harley stuck to cast iron rather than the cooler-running aluminium for the new cylinder heads (perhaps because the bigger Panhead V-twin had experienced some issues with aluminium heads).

And the XL’s maximum output of about 40bhp meant it was only a couple of horses up on the side-valve KHK.

The Sportster had plenty of appeal, even so, with its two-tone red and black tank, raised bars, sprung saddle, and hydraulic suspension at both ends.

Despite its name it was respectably practical, too, with generous fenders, a 16-litre gas tank and a big headlight as standard, plus options including a screen and saddlebags.

More to the point, it was pretty fast – good for a genuine 100mph or 161km/h, just about – handled well, and proved reliable.

The US press were impressed, with Cycle magazine enthusing about, “terrific acceleration all through the speed range.

High cruising speeds can be sustained indefinitely without effort from the ruggedly constructed engine.”

Predictably, that first Sportster was a big hit, selling almost twice as many units in 1957 as the KH and KHK had done the previous year.

A two-wheeled legend had been born.



The Sportster was barely a year old when Harley began the process of turning it into multiple models.

They created a hotter engine, featuring bigger valves, lighter valve gear and increased compression, which boosted maximum output to about 45bhp.

This engine powered the Sportster XLH, the letter H having often been used for tuned models.

At the request of California dealers, the factory also developed a Sportster Scrambler for off-road use, with cut-down rear fender, magneto ignition (so no battery or lights), unsilenced twin exhausts, and the tiny “peanut” tank from the 125cc Hummer.

They called it the Sportster XLC, without explaining what the C stood for, though many people assumed it was for California.

Those people didn’t include the Harley ad agency copywriter who, a few years later, announced that XLCH stood for Competition Hot. Maybe it always had.

Either way, the XLCH was by this time available across the US, with numerous options including full electrics, basic silencing and even a larger tank.

In any form the XLCH was quick and charismatic.

In its original, bare-bones guise it was arguably the purest, sportiest Sportster of all.

Apart from its XLR contemporary, which was built for racing and had a near-identical chassis holding a tweaked and lightened engine that was good for 60bhp.


Those stripped-down competition bikes were quick and cute, but the Sportster’s success through the Sixties was dependent on a much broader appeal.

Sitting below the mighty Electra Glide in Harley’s range, the Sportster by now comprised a small family of models that gave a chameleon-like ability to adapt to its rider’s demands, from the lean XLCH to the infinitely more practical XLH.

That “H” still stood for performance; from 1960 all XLs were fitted with the more powerful 883cc engine.

But by the middle of the decade the XLH had incorporated useful features including 12V electrics and a dual-seat, and in 1968 it gained a headlamp nacelle and even an electric starter.

Many riders added options including screen, engine bars, centre-stand and panniers, turning the Sportster into a genuine mid-capacity tourer.

The XLH was longer, heavier, taller-geared and less lively than many of its predecessors.

But for many American riders its combination of performance, practicality and price was just right..



Through the early Seventies, Harley upgraded the Sportster with a bigger-bore engine that took capacity to 1000cc (61ci), and introduced chassis improvements including a front disc brake.

Willie G Davidson’s design department also tried giving the Sportster metal-flake paintwork, which was popular, and a large glass-fibre “boat-tail” seat unit, which wasn’t.

The decade’s most distinctive Sportster model, though, was the XLCR – the long, low, all-black machine whose initials stood for Cafe Racer. (There was no debate about that.)

Its basic layout was promising: handlebar fairing, flat bars, V-twin engine from the XLH, and rearset footrests.

The four-speed unit was solidly mounted in a chassis that combined Sportster frame tubes with a rear section from the XR750 racer, plus cast wheels and a second front brake disc.

The XLCR’s basic problem was that although its old-school engine and chassis technology still worked well enough with the XLH, the format was outdated for a model with sporting pretensions.

Vibration was a problem, and cornering performance was limited by the Cafe Racer’s weight, crude suspension and poor ground clearance.

At the time the oddball Harley failed to appeal either to sporting riders or to the marque’s traditional cruiser crowd, so its sales were a small fraction of the Sportster total.

Decades later, the XLCR’s style and charisma makeup for the fact that it never really was a true cafe racer at all.


To say that the XR1200 inherited good genes would be an understatement.

The 1984 roadster’s inspiration, and its engine’s free-breathing top-end layout, came from the XR750 that had dominated dirt-track racing for the last decade.

And it’s simple chassis, featuring peanut tank, single saddle and tubular steel frame, was based on that of the previous year’s Sportster XLX, which had been a hit, helped by its keen $3995 price.

Combining the two was no easy task, but legendary race team boss Dick O’Brien did his best.

The engine featured alloy cylinder heads finished by famed tuner Jerry Branch.

On its right were twin Dell’Orto carbs with big cylindrical air filters; on its left, matt-black high-level shotgun pipes. Peak output was a healthy 70bhp.

The XR1000 was quick, handled respectably well and looked menacing in its understated grey paintwork.

It also led to a successful Battle of the Twins racer which earned Harley useful publicity.

But a high price and some unreliability ensured that its time in the spotlight was short.



The Evolution Sportster story really starts in 1986, when Harley introduced the new-generation V-twin motor with old-style 883cc capacity and aluminium top-end, soon followed by a larger, 1100cc version.

Both models combined reliable performance with traditional Sportster styling and subtly uprated chassis, and both proved popular.

By the start of the Nineties the larger engine had been bored out to create the XLH1200.

Meanwhile the visually near-identical 883 was still going strong, offering an inexpensive route to Harley-Davidson ownership.

Another smaller variant was the Hugger, whose shorter suspension and thinner seat gave an ultra-low seat that appealed to many female riders.


Continuous development had long been a Sportster trait when the XL1200R Roadster and more laid-back XL1200C Custom were launched, but few steps had been remotely as big as this one.

These two models and their XL883 contemporaries featured rubber-mounted engines, instantly raising the level of comfort.

Whereas the previous, solid-mounted Sportster Sport had shaken like a road drill at high revs, the new rubber-mounted V-twin revved towards its 6000 rpm limit with a smoothness that made using the acceleration much more enjoyable.

This was matched by respectable chassis performance, especially from the Roadster with its twin front discs.

Harley’s styling department had done a typically good job of creating models with a subtly different visual appeal, too.

Almost half a century after the original Sportster’s introduction, the rubber-mounted V-twins brought the famous family serenely into the new Millennium.



Conceived by Harley-Davidson Europe and produced exclusively for the European market, the XR1200 was significant as the first Harley model not to be sold in the land of its birth.

Ironically, this fastest yet Sportster streetbike was of course inspired by the XR750 that had long dominated dirt-track racing, that most American form of two-wheeled competition.

Harley did their best to tempt performance-hungry European riders.

The 1200cc Sportster motor was tuned with higher compression, lightened internals and a free-breathing downdraft intake system.

A new chassis featured sportier steering geometry, firmer suspension, lighter aluminium swing-arm and four-pot front brake calipers.

The XR1200 was enjoyably quick and sweet-handling although by 21st-century standards it was no sports bike.

Unfortunately for Harley it was too aggressive to tempt many of the firm’s existing customers, and there weren’t enough dirt-track fans in Europe to make it a winner.


With its raw, elemental look incorporating fat-tyred 16in wheels, single saddle and tiny peanut tank, the Forty-Eight was inspired by its racy XLCH forebears from the late Fifties.

Slightly strangely its name was honoured 1948, when the peanut tank was introduced with the tiny 125 S, later called the Hummer.

Power came from a softly-tuned 1200cc engine inherited from the Sportster Nightster of two years earlier, giving similarly torquey and relaxed straight-line performance.

Despite those fat tyres the Forty-Eight steered with a pleasantly neutral feel, and its short rear shocks allowed a low seat that helped make it manoeuvrable in town.

At higher speed the bike soon became uncomfortable, but a fuel capacity of less than eight litres meant its rider would normally be contemplating a stop after less than 100km anyway.

Few production streetbikes were less practical than the Forty-Eight, but arguably even fewer were more cool.

Which was enough to make it one of Harley’s most popular models.



By the time the Iron 883 was launched in 2016, Harley had released the liquid-cooled Street 750 in an attempt to attract younger riders.

But you only had to ride that new-generation V-twin back-to-back with the Iron to realise that the traditional Sportster format still had plenty to offer as an entry-level model.

By modern standards the Iron wasn’t remotely fast or sophisticated, but its rubber-mounted motor ran smoothly enough.

And its chassis – featuring cartridge forks, progressively wound shocks, lightened alloy wheels and ABS-equipped brakes – was a capable accompaniment.

More to the point, the Iron looked good – in paint options including Hard Candy Custom Gold Flake – and had heaps of old-school V-twin character, plus a competitive price.

Like the updated Forty-Eight that sat above it in the range, it was proof of how well the Sportster concept had aged in almost 60 years.



Few race bikes have come close to matching the longevity of the XR750, which changed little while dominating the AMA (American Motorcycle Association) Grand National championship for more than three decades.

The XR was introduced in 1970, when Harley race-team manager Dick O’Brien put a modified Sportster engine into the chassis of Harley’s outdated KR racer.

That first, iron-barrelled XR was uncompetitive, although it was ridden to spectacular effect by stunt ace Evel Knievel.

For 1972 Harley introduced a much-improved aluminium-engined XR, on which factory rider Mark Brelsford won the AMA championship.

In subsequent seasons the XR was all but unbeatable, at the hands of riders including Jay Springsteen, Chris Carr and especially Scott Parker, who won a record nine titles between 1988 and ’98.



The Buell story illustrated just how far the Sportster concept could go – not just to a new family of bikes but a whole new marque.

Erik Buell was a former racer and Harley engineer who in 1987 built a striking, fully-enclosed race bike, the RR1000, around an XR1000 Sportster engine.

Erik then adapted its innovative method of rubber-mounting the engine to create Buell streetbikes including the S2 Thunderbolt and S1 Lightning.

Buells were powered by modified Sportster engines, and the marque’s links with Harley-Davidson strengthened when the Milwaukee giant bought firstly a 49 per cent share of Buell and then, in 1988, a controlling stake.

The 2003-model XB9R Firebolt was a striking sports bike featuring a heavily modified, 92bhp Sportster-based engine, and a chassis whose aluminium beam frame contained fuel, with oil held in the swing-arm.

Models including the naked Lightning and dual-purpose Ulysses followed, and were generally cleverly engineered and fun to ride.

By 2009 the firm had produced a total of more than 100,000 bikes. But in that year Buell fell victim to the global financial crisis and was abruptly closed down by Harley.


Over the years the Sportster has formed the basis for countless specials, many of them intended to add more sport to the standard Harley format.

Of those, a good number have been inspired by the XR750, notably those built by California-based former Milwaukee race team mechanic Steve Storz.

Storz’s XR883R combined racy bodywork with a heavily uprated engine and chassis.

Influenced by the factory XR road-race bikes ridden by Seventies stars including Cal Rayborn and Renzo Pasolini.

Other outstanding examples included the XLR1200 from Los Angeles based Harley dealer Bartels, which comprised a tuned, 81bhp Sportster engine in a tubular steel frame from dirt-track specialists Champion.

Foreign specials included XR750-inspired machines built around nickel-plated tubular steel frames by British firm Metisse, renowned for creating chassis for everything from motocrossers to Japanese fours.

Back in North Carolina, bodywork specialists Fast Company shaped a glass-fibre tank/seat unit around a standard XL frame.

A hotted-up engine and upmarket cycle parts gave their 1200 Sportster performance to match its looks.

Check out our LiveToRide magazines for even more intriguing material to keep your riding love alive.

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