Years produced: 1977-1979
Total production: 1,923
Claimed power: 61bhp @ 6,200rpm
Top speed: 110mph
Engine type: 998cc, two-valve, 45-degree V-twin
Weight: 234kg (515lb) wet
Price then: $3,595 (1977)
Price now: $7,500-$11,000
The city streets were thick with traffic, but it was still a memorable ride. With deceptive speed, the slim, black Harley-Davidson XLCR carved a swath through the miles of slow-moving metal. The slightest twist of the throttle sent the torquey V-twin stomping effortlessly forward. Everywhere the menacing black Harley XLCR Café Racer went, its booming bass exhaust note cleared cars from its path, turned pedestrians’ heads and threatened to turn buildings to rubble.
Magical stuff — and I wasn’t even riding the Harley, just following behind on a modern Honda while the XLCR’s owner led the way through his neighborhood with practiced ease. Even before I got to ride it, the original Harley-Davidson Café Racer had charmed me with its unique style and presence. But if that’s the V-twin’s great strength, then it’s also the Hog’s fatal flaw. For if ever a motorcycle was built for image rather than performance, this is the one.
Read about Tony Long's experience of riding and owning a Harley XLCR Café Racer
Form over function
That was not quite what was intended when the Harley-Davidson XLCR — pronounced "Excelsior," one awe-struck tester commented — was launched in 1977. Back then, the advertisements talked excitedly of 120mph top speed, and how this was the most powerful production bike Harley had ever built. But even then, it was the Café Racer’s mean and moody all-black looks that set the bike apart.
The Café Racer concept was dreamt up by Harley design chief Willie G. Davidson, and he took the idea to the limit. Almost every part of the bike was pure black: the bikini fairing, the fuel tank, the tapered flat-track style seat unit, the side panels and mudguards, the frame, the exhaust system and most of the big 45-degree V-twin engine itself. The effect was stunning, and unlike anything Harley had done before.
Beneath the styling, though, the XLCR was considerably less exotic. Its engine was the same four-speed, 998cc pushrod lump used in the Sportster model, with not even a hot cam or big valve to be seen. Compression ratio remained a modest 9:1, and even the 38mm Keihin carburetor was identical. The Café Racer’s one novelty, its siamese black exhaust system, made no difference to the claimed peak output of 61bhp at 6,200rpm.
The XLCR’s frame was new, consisting of a Sportster front section matched with rear tubes and a box-section steel swing-arm based on those of the XR750 race bike. Wheels were seven-spoke alloy by Morris, 19in front, 18in rear. The frame geometry and the 58.5in wheelbase were identical to those of the stock 1977 Sportster, though the Café Racer’s triple-disc brakes were a notable upgrade from the cruiser’s single front disc and rear drum.
If that and the black bike’s racy lines conspired to give the impression of a hard and fast street fighter, then the riding position was enough to inspire a few doubts. That was certainly true as I threw a leg over the low seat and bent forward not to café-race clip-ons, but to near-straight bars. And while the foot pegs are rearset, they are no higher than those on the stock Sportster. Combined with the XLCR’s inch-taller seat, that gives a generous amount of legroom by sporting standards.
Despite sharing its part-faired look and big V-twin engine layout with Ducati’s contemporary 900SS street-racer, Harley’s hot rod has a totally different feel. At the press of the starter button, those massive 81mm diameter pistons begin thudding up and down on their shared crankpin with a loud, deep, offbeat note that could only come from a Harley-Davidson. And when I prod the bike into gear and let out the clutch, the CR pulls away with all the traditional tractor-like ease of a big motor that thumps out its peak torque at just 3,800rpm.
This particular Harley Café Racer is well cared for but unrestored (apart from resprayed black crinkle-finish engine paint). It has the generally lived-in appearance — a few small chips in the paint work, slightly tarnished pipes and alloy — inevitable after more than 23,000 miles of use. And apart from a Screamin’ Eagle fork brace and an S&S carburetor and filter, its black housing slightly smaller than the Harley original, the bike is totally standard.
Contemporary road tests rated the Harley Café Racer less strong than the standard XLCH 1000 below 3,000rpm, although that unequal-length exhaust system, which was claimed to boost mid-range power, was the only difference between the two models. It’s hard to say whether the after market carb helps, but this big black Harley pulled well from below 2,500rpm, even in top gear.
Less impressive were the bike’s erratic hot starting behavior and its unreliable tick over, which combined to make letting go of the fat twist-grip at the lights a risky business. The CR’s other rather annoying trait, which was probably due to its carb, was its tendency to surge on and off the power. At speeds below about 50mph, the tiniest movement of the throttle made the bike speed up or slow down momentarily.
Carburetion was otherwise impressively crisp, and the Hog was happy to chug forward hard, its low-down torque encouraging short-shifting through the rather sluggish and long-travel four-speed box. Back in 1977 the Café Racer’s top speed was very close to the 120mph mark that Harley claimed, though the solid-mounted, 45-degree V-twin motor’s inevitable vibration was another very good reason for concentrating on the lower part of the rev range.
On the road
A quick burst to about 90mph was enough to prove that this wild boar can still charge pretty hard, but I wouldn’t have wanted to keep that pace up for long. Although an indicated 70mph came up with a lazy 3,500rpm showing on the tach in top, vibration started getting tiresome at much above those revs, swiftly followed by pain from the thinly-padded single seat. Higher speeds produce even more vibrations, which would affect not just the rider but the bike, too, as various pieces are prone to come loose.
The Harley’s handling is no great incentive to rapid cruising, either, as at much over 80mph the bars began to deliver a vague feel that could well have been provoked by the unhelpful aerodynamics of the handlebar-mounted fairing. Contemporary tests reported a weave at speeds above 90mph, with the spindly twin-down tube frame being another prime suspect.
Handling was nevertheless rated acceptable in its day, although the XLCR came nowhere near matching the poise of Italian sportsters such as Ducati’s 900SS and the Moto Guzzi Le Mans. Time moves on. My most vivid memory of this ride is of negotiating a tight bend for the first time. The Harley, with its ancient geometry and 19in front wheel, needed much more effort than I initially applied, and I had to take another big haul on the narrow bars to get the bike around.
Once into a bend the suspension, although hard and lacking in damping, coped fairly well with the task of keeping this fairly long and heavy (515lb wet) bike on the right track. This XLCR’s blend of Michelin front and Metzeler rear tires doubtless give considerably more grip than the original rubber (generally Goodyears), although I didn’t push my luck hard enough to confirm reports that the gear lever is the first thing to touch down in left-handers.
I did use the brakes very hard, though, and I needed to because the twin-disc front setup was very wooden, despite receiving praise in 1977. (Urgent stops required the Harley rider’s traditional stamp on the foot pedal.) Testers in those days were more keen to criticize the feeble headlamp, drag-prone clutch, total lack of storage space for a much-needed tool kit, and leaky fuel cap. This bike was built long before Harley’s Evolution era advances in quality control, and it showed.
Those faults didn’t stop testers of the day enthusing about the style and class of Big Black, “the meanest, manliest, meatiest, gutsiest, hustlingest mutha” ever built by Harley, as one put it. “In a world of mass produced standardization,” another wrote, “a bike like this stands out like a hooker at a convent school speech day.”
But when new, the Harley Café Racer was mighty expensive, costing more than the best Italian sport bikes, and the public was not convinced. Harley’s image then wasn’t nearly as trendy as it is now, and the XLCR appealed neither to genuine sports riders nor to the traditional Harley crowd with their cruisers and tourers. If the CR was notable for anything, it was for proving that there was more to a sport bike than slick styling and a few chassis mods.
But of course all that doesn’t matter any more. All Seventies superbikes are slow and cumbersome by modern standards, so who cares that this one is even slower than its contemporary rivals? Much more importantly, Willie G’s grand folly is still just as black, loud and mean as ever it was – and the fact that Harley has not built anything remotely like it before or since merely adds to the appeal. All these years later, the XLCR’s looks, noise and charisma more than make up for the fact that it never was a true Café Racer at all. MC
"… the XLCR may be one of the most appealing bikes of the decade, a combination of two of the strongest profiling elements on two wheels — big, thundering Harley-Davidsons and sleek, kinetic-looking café racers."
— Cycle Guide, July 1977
"Brake performance was, well, poor. At low speed, the CR stopped in average distance, but from 60 mph, the CR used up more room than any comparable large road machine in recent memory."
— Cycle World, May 1977
"… with the exception of a few items like a rough-looking rear brake disc, almost everything is well-finished and neatly fitted — which is a nice change from the last H-D to pass our way."
— Cycle Guide, July 1977
"The CR's saddle was designed to look sleek — which it does — but it's an unsatisfactory place to sit for more than 15 or 20 minutes."
— Cycle Guide, July 1977
"As a motorcycle, the XLCR has not much merit. As an adventure, the XLCR has no equal."
— Cycle World, May 1977
Read more about the motorcycles mentioned in this article:
• 1976 Moto Guzzi LeMans MK1