Bigger and Better: 1986 Harley-Davidson XLH1100 Evo Sportster

Best bets on tomorrow’s classics: 1986-1987 Harley-Davidson XLH1100 Evo Sportster.

Honda Shadow

1985-1990 Honda VT1100 Shadow

Photo By MC Staff

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Harley-Davidson XLH1100
Years produced: 1986-1987
Claimed Power: 63hp @ 6,000rpm
Top speed: 104mph (period test)
Engine: 1,101cc air-cooled; OHV 45-degree V-twin
Transmission: 4-speed
Weight: 494lb (dry)
Price then/now: $5,200 (in 1986)/$3,000-$5,000

Though tradition is a core tenet at Harley-Davidson, it still seems surprising that the stroke length of its XL engine has remained unchanged since the introduction of the Ironhead Sportster in 1957. So when the first all-aluminum alloy “Evolution” 883cc and 1,100cc Sportsters arrived in 1986, their pistons rose and fell, as they had for 29 years, by 3-13/16 inches — or 96.8mm. Tradition retained.

New, however, was the XLH1100’s enlarged 85.1mm bore, giving a swept volume of 1,101cc, up from previous 997cc of the big Ironhead. New aluminum alloy cylinder heads used larger valves, a narrower included valve angle and more efficient port profile for more power, while hydraulic lifters replaced the iron engine’s adjustable rockers in the valve train. Inside the crankcase went a new three-piece crankshaft (replacing the previous five-piece unit) and lighter pistons. Under the smart new aluminum primary cover, primary drive to the diaphragm clutch was still by chain — unlike the new belt drive on the 1,340cc Evo Big Twin introduced in 1984. In all, though, more than half the Sportster engine’s components were improved or modified, making for smoother and lighter clutch operation, reduced valve train noise and quicker, quieter gearshifts.

The unit-construction engine was solidly mounted in a dual-downtube steel cradle frame with twin Showa shocks controlling the rear swingarm, while a Showa fork with 35mm stanchions provided front suspension. Cast alloy wheels were 16-inch diameter at the rear and 19-inch at the front, with a single 11.2-inch disc brake front and rear. Dry weight snuck in at just less than 500 pounds. With its power boosted from the iron engine’s 50-odd horsepower to a claimed 63, the new Sportster turned in 13.5-second standing quarters at 97mph — respectable, but a second slower than the contemporary Yamaha Virago 1100.

Yet while it may have been slower than the Japanese competition, more important, Cycle World wrote in 1986, was the kind of power the Sportster had. “It’s that brute, thumping, always-usable style of power that is so typical of big V-Twins … When the 1100’s throttle is rolled open anywhere between 2,500 and 4,500rpm, the engine usually accelerates with enough force to make downshifting its 4-speed gearbox seem totally redundant.”

The tester was less kind about the Sportster’s “intense vibration, the worst of which comes through the seat.” Unfortunately, the vibration peaked in the mid rev range, at about 55-65mph, “the most often used cruising range,” Cycle World said, noting that the buzzing through the footpegs was bad enough “to put your feet to sleep.” Motorcyclist magazine’s testers agreed, adding, “The excessive vibration combined with the less-than-accommodating seat brought most riders to the pain threshold within 20 miles.”

The Sportster’s handling, though, was a strong point. A low center of gravity, relatively light weight, and strong mid-range power allowed for spirited bend-swinging, though lines had to be carefully chosen. But once leaned over, the Sportster was pronounced “dead stable.” That said, both Cycle World and Motorcyclist found the front suspension springs under-damped, with the fork bottoming out on sharp bumps. In pursuit of a low seat height, the rear shocks offered just 3 inches of travel, which, combined with minimal seat padding, gave the Sportster “a buckboard ride” on rough roads.

Also criticized were the Sportster’s ergonomics, with an overly large reach from the bars to the hand levers; awkward placing of the rider and passenger footpegs around the clutch cover; and the positioning of the air cleaner, which also touched the rear cylinder head, ensuring the rider’s leg got “bruised and burned at the same time.” And while the brakes required a lot of pressure on both lever and pedal, they worked well: it was “possible to lock up either wheel,” Cycle World said, “but you have to be trying pretty hard.”

Concluded Cycle World: “The 1100 Sportster emerges as a much better bike than its 883cc or 1,000cc predecessors. Which only makes sense: It’s greatly improved in some areas and no worse in the others, so the end result is a superior motorcycle — perhaps the best Sportster ever. But it’s also just as traditional … a motorcycle that continues to exude the kind of classic appearance that the Japanese companies continue to strive for — and generally fail to achieve … the maintenance of this tradition … makes the bike a, well, a Sportster.”

The XLH1100 lasted just two years, replaced by the XLH1200 in 1988. Limited production doesn’t add up to high value, however, as Evo Sportster 1100s don’t trade as collectibles. Yet. 

Contenders: V-twin rivals to Harley’s Evo twin

1986-2000 Yamaha Virago XV1100
Years Produced: 1986-2000
Claimed Power: 70hp @ 6,000rpm/119mph
Engine: 1,063cc air-cooled SOHC 75-degree V-twin
Transmission: 5-speed
Weight: 514lb (dry)/35-50mpg
Price then/now: $4,499 (1986)/$2,500-$4,000

The Virago made its first appearance in 1981, as a 750. The 1,100cc version introduced for 1986 followed its smaller sibling as an air-cooled, 75-degree, single-crankpin V-twin with single overhead camshafts and two valves per cylinder, a 5-speed transmission, and shaft final drive. The powertrain was suspended from a backbone chassis, giving the Virago clean lines, while the distinctive styling package included low, slash-cut exhausts, big eye-level gauges, a slender, raked-out front and dual rear shocks. The distinctive engine was embellished with chrome and even gold-colored trim, and quality of finish was exemplary.

Like Honda, Yamaha was hoping to get a slice of Harley’s big cruiser market. Its light weight and revvier, oversquare engine gave the 1100 Virago a performance advantage in its class, setting sub-13 second quarters at about 100mph.

Sadly, the wheels came off in the corners, and comfort was also compromised: Poor ground clearance caused footpegs to touch down too easily, with “a poorly padded seat and borderline shocks that are too harsh in their response to bumps,” Cycle World said, while also noting that the bike’s sub-60-inch wheelbase contributed to a cramped riding position.

Yet while relatively inexpensive, it seems the Virago wasn’t what the market really wanted, which was … a Harley.

1985-1990 Honda Shadow VT1100
Years Produced: 1985-1987 (first series)
Claimed Power: 80hp @ 6,500rpm/115mph
Engine: 1,099cc liquid-cooled SOHC 45-degree V-twin
Transmission: 5-speed
Weight: 550lb (dry)/35-55mpg
Price then/now: $4,198 (1986)/$2,500-$4,000

Big Red builds the benchmark bike in most classes, but then as now, all cruiser comparisons start in Milwaukee. So how did Honda make out?

The 1985 1100 Shadow grew out of its 750cc namesake and borrowed its overall plan: a liquid-cooled, 45-degree, dual spark V-twin with single overhead cams, three valves per cylinder and a 5-speed transmission with shaft final drive. And like the 750 (but unlike any H-D), the Shadow used two offset crankpins, giving the engine perfect primary balance — which at the same time denied it a Harley-like exhaust beat. 

In true Honda fashion, the Shadow 1100 was hard to fault in fit, finish, performance and handling, though a lack of ground clearance severely restricted cornering angles, and limited suspension adjustment compromised comfort on rough roads.

Cruiser cred, though, is mostly styling, and here Honda came up short. Firmly rooted in the “custom” era with exhausts on both sides, the Shadow’s looks were also compromised by a huge radiator in front of the front frame downtubes. A major makeover in 1987 moved both exhausts onto the right side, boldly slicing their way to the rear axle. Better — but still lacking. Honda had the “big” Sportsters firmly in its sights with the big Shadow, but in terms of cachet, it seemed the Shadow would always be playing catch-up. MC