1957 was the first year of the Harley Davidson Sportster. 64 years later and rumours are swirling about it being dropped from Harley’s model range. Say it ain’t so Harley?
On the back of these rumours, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the legendary Sportster and why it is one of the greatest American bikes that ever existed. Let’s start with its roots.
Table of Contents
- Harley Davidson Sportster Timeline
- Harley Sportster Popularity
- Harley Sportster Achievements
- Buying an early Sportster
- Restoring a Harley Davidson Sportster
Harley Davidson Sportster Timeline
To understand how the Sportster came to be, it is important to understand what was going on in the American market at the time. Harley’s main customer base up to this point had been Police, Military and organised riding clubs opting for big cruising machines.
A new breed of rider was on the horizon, made up of predominantly young men returning from the war, and they wanted speed, fun, customisation options and power, so they were turning to the imported British twins for their riding fix.
Harley needed to compete in order to cater to this new market.
So, taking the lead from the Brits and removing as much non-essential parts off the Model K (the model that the Sportster was derived from) and bumping up the engine the first Sportster model XL was set to go in 1957.
Following the K series, the Sportster was the first to be fitted with rear-suspension and also the first Harley to be fitted with a higher performance, overhead-valve engine, it was also to be on the lighter side of things.
The Ironhead 883cc V-twin had a 45° offset and produced 40hp and a top speed around the 100mph mark. The Ironhead engine was to stay in production for 28 years until 1986 when it was replaced with the popular Evolution engine.
The 40hp Harley V-twin engine was just about keeping up with the British parallel twins so they upped the compression and created the XLH Sportster model that ran with 55hp, which was far more competitive.
1958 – The XLH, XLC and XLCH models with the higher compression ratio were out with the XLC being a racing version and XLCH the off-road model.
1959 – The XLCH was the street-legal hot-rod and the XLH came stock with high lift intake cams. The bike was attractive to the riding scene that wanted top performance and a good looking machine.
1970 – The year that the XR750 was released as a production model based on the bike used in the AMA’s C Class racing.
1972 – Saw the engine upgraded to a 1000cc
1974 – The Sportster was at its peak of popularity with 23,830 units in production.
A Cafe Racer version was later added as well as a touring Sportster with Electra-Glide saddlebags, a windshield, thicker padded seat and slightly larger tank. Neither of these lasted long in the line-up.
1986 – The return of the 883cc engine and a new 1100cc both of them based on the new Evolution engine, so it was goodbye to the Ironhead sporty.
The early 90’s saw belt drives replace the traditional chain drives and the Sporty finally got a five-speed transmission.
After this it was more gentle upgrades and performance enhancing features through the 2000’s to keep up with the industry.
It continues to evolve and new variants added but at its heart, the Sportster still remains a torquey powerhouse that can lend itself to any motorcycling task, it really should be called ‘the people’s bike’.
Harley Sportster Popularity
Harley Davidson was tentative in its first year of production by only rolling out 1,983 units from their factory. The number of units shot up over the following years, the most notable rise was the 40% increase in production following the first year.
The popularity continued to be reflected in the production figures and by 1967, 4,500 units were released making it the second favourite Harley behind the Electra-Glide.
By 1970, 8,560 units were built making it the top selling Harley Davidson.
The Sportster was quick to take the title of the first American sports bike that could rival offerings coming from British powerhouses, particularly after the release of the Triumph Bonneville in 1959.
It is not often a bike is in production that can be adapted to so many areas of motorcycling, from flat-track, hill-climbing, touring, street races, speed-record races, the customisation scene, a good beginner’s bike and suited toward women and shorter riders.
The Sportster covered all the bases and therefore each rider could adapt it to their own purpose, this is why the bike was such a success for Harley and why it has stood the test of time.
Harley Sportster Achievements
1969 was the year Leo Payne on his custom Sportster, set the record of being the first person to reach a speed over 200mph on a non-streamliner motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
In 1970, Cal Rayborn took the land speed record on his streamlined Sportster with a top speed of 265.49mph.
Evel Knievel thrilled his audience with insane motorcycle jumps during the 1970’s using the XR-750. The same model has won more races than any other motorcycle in AMA racing history.
Buying an early Sportster
Here is the problem with buying an early Sportster, they are out there, so don’t worry but by the late 60’s Sportsters were one of the most heavily customised Harley’s. This has carried through to the present day.
Therefore, finding an original that hasn’t been chopped and changed too much is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.
The good news though is that when you do, it’s usually immaculate and been looked after, so it’s worth the search.
Car and Classic have several early sportsters up for sale including a stunning 1979 XLH 1000 that has been carefully restored to be as original a bike as possible, for £9,950.
US collectors will be able to find 60’s,70’s and 80’s bikes for between $4,000 and $8,000 which is significantly cheaper than those available in the UK particularly in good condition.
Some things you should look out for when purchasing an early HD Sportster are:
- Rust, the Sportster is a stripped back bike and open to the elements. So, check nuts, bolts, engine, under the tank, fenders, anything metal!
- Are the parts original to that bike? If not, have they been restored accurately with correct parts?
- Make sure the bike has matching frame and engine numbers.
Restoring a Harley Davidson Sportster
When a bike has been in production for a long time and has remained relatively unchanged it means that for bike builders and collectors, that particular bike is the perfect restoration project.
Never has this been truer than with the Harley Sportster.
Notoriously the Sportster has the most affordable parts for the whole Harley range, there is no struggle to find parts and you don’t need super deep pockets either.
Some examples are as follows:
- $149.95 for 1970 Muffler Header Pipe
- $319.99 for 1970’s Alloy Wheel Rim
- $719 1960’s Forks
- $250 1960’s 2-up Seat
There is also a rich replica parts market for all Sportster models so it is very unlikely that you wouldn’t be able to find that last part that you need.
Which early models have ‘classic’ potential?
With so many variants it is hard to nail down which particular bikes are going to be classics, predominantly each model will have appeal to different people as they had different purposes.
With that said the early XLH, XLC, XLCH models are coveted. They set the bar for competing with British twins thanks to their 55hp.
The original XR750 from 1970 is also a fan favourite as it is a heroic race bike with many titles to its name, as well as the stunt bike reputation from the King of tricks Evel Knievel among others.
The next question when considering which Sportster is deemed as a classic is the change from the Ironhead to the Evolution engine. It is safe to say the Ironhead Sporty’s will stand strong as collectable bikes, however, the early Evo’s are also worth getting a hold of because the engine revolutionised the performance and reliability of the Sportster.
Restored early Sportsters to original spec, can go for anywhere between $10,000 – $22,500, so if you can pick up your project bike for under $10,000 there is some profit to be made in a restoration project.
I can honestly say, the day my fiancé sold his Iron 883 we nearly broke up right there and then.
Is it a girl’s bike? Who cares? I love Sportsters, they are rich with history, adaptable to nearly every genre of motorcycling, a custom bike builders dream, have a bulletproof engine good for 80,000 miles before needing some TLC, and should something break there are an abundance of affordable parts to fix up your bike.
So, for what it is worth, a little personal plea to Harley Davidson, please don’t drop the Sportster, how many bikes are good to serve Harley lovers for 64 years?
If you do, you can expect some stern words from me and any troops I manage to rally up.