Looking Past the Past: Greg Hageman’s Harley-Davidson XLR Tribute

Bike builder extraordinaire Greg Hageman turns a Sportster into a tribute to the Harley XLR.

Greg Hageman’s Harley-Davidson XLR tribute bike.

Photo by Erick Runyon

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Let’s play the “what if” game: What if we could go back in time, but take with us the conveniences and amenities that we enjoy today?

In terms of vintage and classic motorcycles, what if we could go back in time to create a bike that commands the nostalgia and charisma normally associated with old iron, yet engineer it in such a way that we benefit from today’s technology?

Bike-builder Greg Hageman pondered that concept and came up with a plan. Although he knows that there’s no way to really jump back in time, he figured he’d create a motorcycle that gave a worthy salute to yesteryear anyway, bringing with it the convenience of modern components. Things like disc brakes, electronic ignition, self-adjusting hydraulic valves — even a carburetor that doesn’t require a gentle tickle to initiate proper gas flow — found their way into the build.

XLR tribute

People who’ve religiously been thumbing through the pages of Motorcycle Classics magazine for more than a few years might recognize Hageman’s name. MC has featured two Hageman-built bikes in past issues; his Yamaha Virago 920 café racer was chronicled in the May/June 2012 issue, and a time-honoring Yamaha Seca 900 café racer borne by his shop, Hageman Cycles, is forever part of MC’s May/June 2015 edition. Now we give you his tribute to Harley-Davidson’s vaunted XLR, an early Sportster model crafted for one primary purpose, and that was to win TT races.

To appreciate Hageman’s tribute bike, based on a 2003 XL883, it’s best to have an understanding about the original XLR. To do that we need to travel back to 1958, one year after Harley launched the first-ever XL that replaced the aging K model flathead in the lineup. Interestingly, there’s little or no evidence of XLR models listed in period marketing or sales literature, although according to Allan Girdler’s book, Harley Racers: Machines and Men From Flat Track, Hillclimb, Speedway and Road Racing, an XLR developed at the time sported a rigid frame and no brakes, a design clearly intended to conform to the flat track trends of that era.

According to Girdler, Clyde Denzer, H-D racing department head Dick O’Brien’s right hand man from 1959-1983 before becoming H-D’s racing team manager following O’Brien’s retirement, said that “to the best of his knowledge that rigid XLR was the only one built. None were offered to the public, he says, and no rigid XLRs were ever sold.”

Instead, Harley offered what became known as the XLRTT, a bike destined for the flat tracks of America. The bike rolled to the line with front and rear brakes and a swingarm rear suspension — and number plates.

Speaking of journeys back in time, Hageman worked for a Harley dealer some years back. “When I worked at the Harley dealer, I loved it when some of the older riders would come in and tell me stories — they were the best.” He mentions, too, a friend who rode back in those halcyon days, telling Hageman about the bikes he and his companions rode. “They were ride-anywhere and do-anything bikes,” Hageman quotes his old friend. “If they [the riders] wanted to ride offroad or out in the woods with their Sporty, that’s how they equipped them. Built them to ride,” he proudly told Hageman.

History books support those words, too. As early as 1953 Harley built what amounted to an experimental race XLR that was entered and ridden in the Catalina Grand Prix the same year by a young racer named Don Brown. Brown later became editor for Cycle magazine before moving on to be general manager for Johnson Motors, the West Coast distributor for Triumph motorcycles.

According to Buzz Buzzelli’s book, Harley-Davidson Sportster Performance Handbook, “The prototype was whisked away and never seen again until production street machines began appearing on showroom floors a couple of years later.” Buzzelli didn’t give details about the bike, but sketchy photos indicate that the prototype XLR was based more on the K model and its flathead engine than the overhead valve configuration that showed up in 1957.

In any case, even though the original XL Sportster was intended for street use, racers raced them. Perhaps the earliest success was enjoyed by Michigan-based Harley dealer Gerald McGovern who entered a modified XL in the 1957 Cowbell Classic Enduro, which he won handily. To get an idea how tough McGovern and his XL were, the combination beat 413 other competitors, of which only 115 — including McGovern — finished the two-day, 500-mile event. Try that with a UJM or other street-based motorcycle today and see how far you get.

Inspiration

It was those early XLs that inspired Hageman for this particular build. As he put it, “You could always tell an old diehard biker from their limp, either from an accident or kicker mishap.” With that in mind, Hageman set about to follow through with his XLR tribute, and the first step of the journey required a donor bike, leading to the purchase of a rather pristine and low-mileage 2003 Sportster resplendent with its unique 100th anniversary black-and-silver paint job. The price for the bike was a paltry $2,800, and when Hageman realized he wasn’t going to be apprehended for grand theft, he began the build. “I stripped off a ton of extra weight,” he begins, “so I could make it kind of a scrambler style.”

He hung the bike’s old tins on his garage wall to join about 50 other gas tanks that didn’t make the cut for previous projects. He replaced the stock 3.3-gallon gas tank with a new 2.1-gallon peanut tank found on the current-model Sportster Forty-Eight and he bobbed the rear fender. Gone, too, is the front fender, replaced with an aluminum fork brace that shoulders the stubby aluminum fender that Hageman fabricated.

“I was originally going to put a number plate on it, with no headlight,” Hageman says, but then his sensible side prevailed, which accounts for the Bates-style headlight up front. There’s also a small speedometer mounted to the upper triple tree (affixed using cool mounting brackets that Hageman fashioned out of stainless steel spokes), and the bobbed rear fender was left naked; a small, round LED taillight subtly resides on the tip of the swingarm’s left leg, the wiring discreetly leading to the bike’s now-minimalist electronics.

Since Hageman’s Sportster was destined for more than street use, he beefed up the suspension with Progressive Suspension fork springs and Hagon rear shock absorbers that boast stainless steel springs. “I use Hagons on all my builds,” boasts Hageman. Rolling stock consists of Buchanan stainless-steel spokes laced to stock XL hubs and Excel shoulder rims (19 x 2.15 inches at the front, and 18 x 2.5 inches at the rear), wrapped with ball-busting Continental TKC tires, 110/80 x 19-inch front and 140/80 x 18-inch rear. Those big-block knobbies are the perfect combination for offroad and street use, Hageman says.

Motivation

The 883cc engine represents Hageman’s keep-it-simple-stupid theory of building. The Sportster engine’s innards remain stock, while a slight re-jet to the stock carburetor puts it in step with the Supertrapp headers capped with a stainless-steel resonator of unknown origin, another item that Hageman located while shopping eBay for other components on this XL-cum-XLR scrambler. Additional custom work by him includes the aluminum bash-plate he fashioned to shelter the engine’s bottom side while on the trail.

The vintage-looking seat is actually an item straight off Lowbrow Customs’ selection of customer-ready Sully’s seats. And those red-sparkle, barrel-shape hand grips? They’re oldies that Hageman located years ago before stashing them in his toolbox for a future project. “They looked right for this project, so I plucked them out,” he said. They’re relics from the Seventies or Eighties, originating from Backman Auto & Bicycle Company. To maintain the old-school theme, a flat track-style handlebar from EMGO completes the front end. The vintage-style rear-fender luggage rack is a genuine H-D quick-detach accessory, found in today’s Motor Company catalog! “I put it there because I knew that I’ll be taking stuff with me when I ride offroad,” Hageman says, “but I think it [the bike] looks cooler without it.”

No matter, because any way you look at this modern-day scrambler, the bike echoes the coolness found in any genuine classic motorcycle. That includes the custom gold-and-cream paint job applied by Moe Roberts of Moe Colors. And after Hageman has had a chance to flog his throw-back bike through the woods, we’ll be curious to see if he reports to work on Monday with a slight limp. You know, the way the old timers often walked back in the day when XLRs and XLCHs ruled the roost. MC