Special Order Racer: 1965 Harley-Davidson XLRTT

Bill Sherman reunites with his old Harley-Davidson XLRTT after more than 30 years.

1965 H-D XLRTT

1965 Harley-Davidson XLRTT

Photo by Doug Mitchel

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1965 Harley-Davidson XLRTT
Top speed:
115mph (observed, 1/4-mile)
883cc air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin, 3.005in x 3.8125in bore and stroke, 82hp @ 7,500rpm (est.)
Weight (dry):
350lb (159kg)
Price then/now:

The clutch lever is pulled tight to the handlebar and the throttle opened. Both eyes are on the lights as they blink from amber through to green. 

Dumping the clutch, Bill Sherman launches his Harley-Davidson XLRTT down the straight asphalt track. He uses the clutch once more for the shift to second, and then only feathers the kill switch and nudges the shifter to move into third and finally fourth gear.

Following the same drill every time he drag raced with his XLRTT, Bill was undefeated in 1965. He set two track records, even winning the Rockford 500 Nationals on the July 4th long weekend with a quarter-mile elapsed time of 12.10 seconds at 109.74mph. According to Bill, who now lives on a farm near Peru, Illinois, the XLRTT was simply a firecracker, a factory hot rod and an unbeatable competition motorcycle — especially on the drag strip.

The competition

During the 1960s, motorcycle racing was important business. Here in the U.S., brands including BSA, Harley-Davidson and Triumph hotly contested many competitions, including the AMA Grand National Championship.

By the 1950s, Harley-Davidson was building more than one model to compete on dirt and road tracks, as well as Tourist Trophy, or TT races. Harley had the KR and KRTT machines, powered by a completely updated 750cc sidevalve V-twin engine the Motor Company first pioneered in 1929. They saw many successes with these models, and won Daytona 13 times between 1953 and 1969.

To compete in AMA Class C TT racing, in 1954 Harley-Davidson introduced the 55-cubic-inch or 883cc sidevalve KHRTT. This was superseded in 1958 by the XLRTT, which featured Harley’s then-fresh overhead valve engine that debuted in the Sportster, or XL series, in 1957.

To remain competitive in TT races, Harley slipped a race-prepared overhead valve engine into the rails of the KHRTT chassis — thus creating the XLRTT.

By 1963, the frame of the KRTT and the XLRTT was upgraded, constructed with more steel and less cast iron to lighten and strengthen the chassis. The rear shocks were also relocated.

Special order only

According to Bill, the XLRTT was almost a secret with dealers and was only available by special order. Bill should know, because in 1965 he ordered an XLRTT new from Pierce Harley-Davidson of DeKalb, Illinois. “I’d been dabbling in dirt track and scrambles racing at an amateur level,” Bill says. “In 1963 and 1964 I began drag racing a 1963 Triumph TR6. It was a brand-new bike, and I’d made a lot of modifications to it. I wasn’t really that serious about drag racing, but I did well at it.

“The XLRTT was a very limited production bike, and apart from the AMA Class C racers, not many knew about the bike. A lot of the XLRTTs wound up in the hands of drag racers and hill climbers, where the rules weren’t limited by cubic inches.”

Bill became a regular at Pierce Harley-Davidson, a family-owned mom-and-pop shop that was headed by namesake Wayne Pierce. Wayne took a liking to Bill, and the young man’s drag racing successes aboard the Triumph did not go unnoticed. Wayne was competitive himself, and had earlier won the 500-mile Jack Pine Enduro with a Harley-Davidson. Because of his wins, Wayne was in the good graces of Harley’s racing department, a special branch of the Motor Company that was headed up by Dick O’Brien from 1957 to 1983.

“Harley-Davidson wouldn’t sell an XLRTT to just anyone, and a dealer had to put in a good word for someone to get one,” Bill explains. “Now, I don’t have any evidence of this, but I think Wayne put in a call and probably said something like, ‘We’ve got a young guy down here doing really well drag racing a Triumph, and it sure would be nice to see him on a Harley-Davidson.’”

Wayne took Bill’s Triumph in on trade, and an XLRTT was special ordered equipped with Firestone tires instead of the usual Goodyear Grasshoppers, a long solo saddle, speedster handlebars and, most notably, a vertically mounted Fairbanks-Morse magneto, visible on the right-hand side of the engine just under the air cleaner. Most all other XLRTTs were equipped with a horizontal front-mount magneto, but Bill wanted the ease of access offered by the vertical magneto. The engine, with serial number 65XLR1007, was the seventh built for the year. It was completed on Jan. 15, 1965, and it was then shipped to the chassis department on Jan. 18 for final assembly. Bill’s XLRTT arrived at Pierce’s shop in late February.

“I couldn’t believe how fast it was the first time I rode it,” Bill recalls. “It was a rocket for the day. I was told before racing it to put 50 miles on it to break it in. After those first 50 miles, the front cylinder was down a bit on compression and didn’t seem to be bedding in, so I put another 50 miles on it and the compression came up.”

Modifications begin

“We took the front wheel with its drum brake off of the bike, and I put on a KR front wheel with a spool hub,” Bill continues. “The first time I raced it at the drag strip I was in the low 13s, and that was incredible for the day.”

Bill knew the rear tire wasn’t hooking up and was holding him back, so he soon swapped the 4.5 x 18-inch Firestone for a 4 x 18-inch racing slick from Avon. Just changing the tire moved him into 12-second elapsed times on the quarter-mile, but competition was fierce and to further improve his times more drastic changes were needed.

To pare down weight, Bill removed the 2-1/4-gallon gas tank and installed a small go-kart tank, removed the Heco rear shocks and replaced them with solid alloy struts, added drag bars, and dispensed with the seat altogether. For racing, he sat right on top of the frame, and with a pillion pad bolted to the rear fender he was able to launch harder and get tucked down out of the wind.

“I ran against some tough competition,” Bill recalls. “After I made those changes I got into the low 12s, with my best pass ever being 11.71 seconds — all with a 55-cubic-inch motor. There were highly modified strokers not turning times like that,” he adds.

While the XLR engine might look similar to the standard Harley-Davidson XL powerplant, it does have its differences. First of all, externally, there’s the horizontally positioned, front-mounted magneto (with the exception, as noted, of Bill’s special order vertically mounted magneto). Also, the XLR had different heads with larger valves and raised spark plug bosses. A stock XL uses half-inch reach spark plugs, while the XLR uses plugs with a three-quarter-inch reach. Internally the XLR engine is similar to the KR, with the flywheel and camshafts running in ball bearings as opposed to the bushings and roller bearings of the stock street engines. According to Allan Girdler in his book Illustrated Buyer’s Guide — Harley-Davidson Since 1965, the XLR also featured different camshaft timing, valves and ignition from the XL. And, unlike the street X-series overhead valve engines where the oil pump turns at one-half engine speed, the XLR runs at one-quarter speed. The XLR’s cylinders were honed to 3.005-inch, which, according to Harley-Davidson, is 0.005-inch larger than the stock XL bore. Solid skirt aluminum pistons were cam ground and fitted with 0.006-inch clearance.

“I think Dick [O’Brien] and the boys did some things different with the engine in my bike, and I wish I knew all the little things they’d done,” Bill says. “I’m pretty sure Dick did some trick grinds on the cams, but we can’t ask him now.” O’Brien retired from Harley-Davidson in 1983, and died in 2003.

After a successful race season in 1965, Bill, who was at that time a tool and die maker, planned to build a top-fuel drag bike. Although he got started on the project, it turned into a complicated proposition and he became frustrated with the endeavor. He sold the drag bike, and in 1967 he also sold the XLRTT to fund the purchase of a machine he could race on short tracks and half-mile dirt tracks. “I knew who I sold it to, but then immediately lost track of the XLRTT,” Bill explains. “I rode some on the street and in the dirt, but by 1972 I began farming, and that and the family occupied my time. From then until about the year 2000, I didn’t think about it much.”

Time marches on

In the next 30-plus years, Bill only visited Wayne Pierce a few times. Wayne had begun collecting and displaying historically significant motorcycles at his dealership, and in 2005 Bill went to see the newly expanded store and what Wayne called the Barb City Motorcycle Museum.

“Wayne, who was in his 80s at the time, and I chatted for a while, and then he took me over to see the museum. That’s when he said he wanted me to send him some pictures of my old XLR, because he had a bike like my old one. I was impressed that he was lucky enough to find an XLR, and as we’re walking along I spotted the bike with the vertical magneto.

“My first thought was Wayne got taken because of the vertical mag: I thought it was an XLCH street machine — apart from my special order, most are horizontal. Then I kneeled down and looked at the cases and saw my serial number —  65XLR1007. If I live to be 100 I’ll never forget that number, and I said to Wayne, ‘This isn’t a bike like my old one, this IS my old one.’”

Wayne wouldn’t sell the bike, but he did tell Bill he’d be the first to know if it was ever available. About five years later, Bill heard Wayne had died so he visited Pierce Harley-Davidson to offer his condolences, and to ask what was to become of the motorcycles Wayne had collected. The Pierce family said the collection was going to be kept intact, and it was for a time. Ultimately, however, Bill was given the opportunity to buy back his XLRTT, and he says he’s grateful to the Pierce family for that.

Restoring the XLRTT

Bill says Wayne had performed a “10-foot restoration,” meaning the bike looked good from 10 feet, but up close several incorrect details were visible. That was OK for what Wayne wanted, but after mulling it over Bill opted for a full restoration back to the condition in which the XLRTT would have left the factory.

“I don’t know how many times it had changed hands after I’d sold it,” Bill reports. “When I sold it, I had put everything back to stock. I don’t think it got used very much, though, because the engine had never been out of the frame and there were no nicks or gouges on any of the alloy covers.”

As purchased from Wayne’s estate, the XLRTT had been altered with regular XLCH triple clamps and steel wheel rims. The ultra-rare alloy rear fender was no longer with the bike, and a steel fender was in its place. Yet pretty much everything else was present and accounted for. Even the stock racing frame was straight and undamaged.

Bill’s friend Yoshi Kosaka of the Garage Company in Inglewood, California, was enlisted to perform the restoration and Bill shipped the bike to Yoshi’s shop on the West Coast. There, the XLRTT was taken completely apart. The wheels were rebuilt by Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim with new spokes and alloy shouldered rims, and Bill sourced the correct XLR triple clamps. He also found — and paid handsomely for — an original alloy rear fender. The engine and close-ratio “C” transmission were disassembled, cleaned, inspected and put back together with fresh pistons, valves and springs and all new bearings throughout.

Yoshi had the frame powder coated, while Emilio Anzalone painted everything else that’s black. All of the original fasteners were cleaned and cadmium plated, and a new-old-stock exhaust system was sourced and treated to high-temperature paint, just as it would have come from the factory.

Bill has fired and ridden the finished XLRTT only a few miles, as the bike really isn’t a rider. The Harley joins a growing collection of period TT racers, including five Triumph TT Specials, but of all those bikes it holds the most meaning for Bill. It’s been 50 years since his drag racing success aboard the XLRTT, and for Bill, resurrecting — let alone finding — this very special racing machine is a fitting tribute to his glory days and Harley-Davidson’s winning ways. MC