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Harley Davidson XLCR – The American Café Racer

The Harley Davidson XLCR was the first and only attempt by the company at a café racer style motorcycle.

Perhaps ‘café racer’ isn’t the style you think of when considering Harley Davidson motorcycles unless perhaps, you are discussing custom bikes. 

Typically born out of Brits stripping down their Triumph’s, Norton’s etc. the ‘café racer’ vibe would eventually dominate motorcycling culture.

With the aesthetic seeing a re-birth in recent years, I wanted to take a look back at the Harley offering to the market, so let’s rewind back to the very beginning of how it all started for the Harley Davidson XLCR.

Harley Davidson XLCR History

The café racer scene had begun back in the 1950’s in England, created out of the rock n roll music scene and interpreted into motorcycle riders lives in the form of the bikes they rode. Stripped, lightweight, fast and furious, standing out against all other motorcycles with rocker riders to match, a new sub-culture was soon to sweep across the world. 

Chief designer Willie G. Davidson had his finger on the pulse, Harley Davidson had made their mark in the bobber bikes, chopper fad and flat-track scenes. Now it was time for the unexpected, a Harley Davidson with café racer styling.

Davidson’s plan was to use the standard Sportster as the base, with other crucial components coming from the XR750 (Harley’s race winning flat-track motorcycle). 

The engine was the Sportster’s 998cc, V twin producing 61 horsepower and 52 lb-ft of torque, connected up to a 4-speed transmission, claiming a top speed of 110mph.

The front end was all Sportster while the rear was made up of the rear shocks and swingarm from the XR750. Also, unlike the Sportster the Harley Davidson XLCR was given front and rear disc brakes. 

The real drastic design changes from the standard Sportster, that had been a staple in the Harley Davidson line up since 1957, were the cosmetic differences. 

A small front fender, ‘bikini’ type fairing, a squared off fuel tank, Morris cast-alloy with seven spoke wheels, all-black finish, siamese exhaust and solo-saddle were all attributes that made the 1977 Harley Davidson XLCR unique. The model was graced with rear-set pegs but as opposed to the traditional ‘clip ons’ that many café racer builds were using the Harley received flat bars. 

The 1977 XLCR would remain the fastest production model until the XR1000 release 6 years later. The bike was capable of doing the quarter mile in the region of 12 seconds. While pretty good, it was still 1 second slower than the likes of the Kawasaki Z1 and other similar Japanese models. 

It wasn’t the same as the British built cafe racers by any stretch of the imagination but it was a feat of design work and the café racer vibe was definitely present and making itself known in the Harley Davidson XLCR, which hit showrooms in 1977. 

One could liken the design to that of a Brough Superior and in doing so, the vibrations, loud booming and popping unusual exhaust note, braking quirks, and any other ‘surprises’ that came with riding an Harley Davidson XLCR could be overlooked as visually even to date the machine is superior, elegantly brutal and unforgiving. 

Being a Willie G. creation, it would be daft to expect anything less. The rumour has it that he was into the cafe racer scene and had actually planned the Harley Davidson XLCR as a motorcycle for himself, which makes it a very personal design, but bosses liked it so much it was then sent for production.

Harley Davidson XLCR
This “1977 Harley Davidson XLCR” photograph was taken by Mike Schinkel and is kindly licensed under CC BY 2.0

Harley Davidson XLCR Performance

After it’s 1977 release the Harley Davidson XLCR failed to capture the American public’s imagination and it went under-appreciated with press and public alike not entirely sure what to make of the new model. 

Only 1,923 units were sold in 1977, 1,201 in 1978 and just 9 produced in 1979. 

Despite having disc brakes, the XLCR’s brakes were somewhat lacking and wet weather would be quite risky for the rider; the handling was pretty good but when compared with a Norton Commando it fell short. As with the Sportster, low-end torque was great, but highway speeds over any sort of distance would create uncomfortable vibrations in the seat and bars. 

With that said the transmission was solid, engine bullet-proof, and throttle/clutch easy to pull.

The Harley Davidson XLCR was also priced on the high end of the spectrum and riders could get better performing motorcycles for much less money, which meant a great portion of the market was cut out before the model had even reached the showrooms. 

Cycle World reported famously that “As a motorcycle, the Harley Davidson XLCR has not much merit. As an adventure, the XLCR has no equal.” 

I think they got it exactly right, the XLCR was an adventure, it was built for those who didn’t care much for convention or rules, which even in an industry notorious for flying a rebel flag, motorcyclists of the time just weren’t ready to embrace the digression from what was expected out of the Harley Davidson factory. 

Buying a Harley Davidson XLCR

Unlike the late 1970s, the Harley Davidson XLCR is now a collectors favourite and it is rightly getting the attention and appreciation it has deserved. 

What this means is that prices can be relatively high. This, matched with low-production numbers (just shy of 3,000) means that the market is far from flooded.

Surprisingly, as of time of writing Car and Classic have 3 examples advertised priced at £16,900, £14,500 and £12,350 respectively. All are clean-looking, well cared for, original examples, so for any interested in the UK these are well worth taking a look at.  

There is also a XLCR advertised in Belgium on Centrem for €15,000. 

For readers in the US you might want to take a look at Cycle Trader where there is one advert for a 1978 model priced at $17,500. 

Smart Cycle Guide is also advertising a handful of examples for US buyers with prices ranging from $7,000-$14,500.

Restoring a 1977 Harley Davidson XLCR

As with all motorcycles now considered classics there will be bikes out there that are in need of restoration thanks to age related deterioration. 

The only issue with the Harley Davidson XLCR is that there just weren’t that many in the first place, so the chances of a ‘barn-find’ that will lend itself for a full restoration is very much a needle in a haystack and many of the examples mentioned above are in very good, well-maintained condition, with low mileage. 

Should you purchase the rare $7,000ish XLCR and need to do some work, original parts don’t come cheap and you will likely end up hitting the average $12,500-$15,000 market price before you know it. 

Example parts from eBay are as follows:

  • $649.95 Tank Badge Emblems and Screws
  • $1,200 Seat and Rear-set Footpegs
  • $2,200 Frame

Is an XLCR a Good Investment?

Without any question the XLCR is a good investment for collectors today. The value continues to increase and with such low production numbers they are getting relatively thin on the ground for buyers.

On another note aside from the financial investment, new brake pads and a few modern adjustments the XLCR will make for a fun ride that won’t go unnoticed at rallies and bike nights. 


Harley’s foray into the world of the street racer styling wasn’t valued at the time by the fanbase of the company and neither was it received well by cafe racer traditionalists who picked British bikes for their performance and ties to the origins of the genre. 

However, now the XLCR puts a smile on most who look back at it. It was a true rebellion, a commitment to Davidson’s personal design taste, and thanks to the ever-reliable HD V twin engine it’s a bike that you could ride today, without losing any value over the years. 

The bike now more than ever remains the one to go for if you want to reject convention and embrace an adventure, even if it is just down to the cafe for tea and cake.

The featured photo at the top of the page is a “Harley Davidson XLCR 1000” photographed by Charles SEGUY photography and is kindly licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Thursday 2nd of September 2021

'cafe racer"? for me it's the actual events. Bikes like these (mentioned above) are the base. "Real" cafe were (back in the day - late '70s/early '80s) the hand made frames from the Itialian mountains they put the GS1000 into winning the super twisties on that contintent. Not sure whats been happening since then, not following.