1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster XL

The first Harley Sportster was a Brit beater.

| May/June 2011

1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster X
Claimed power:
40hp @ 5,500rpm
Top speed: 100mph (est.)
Engine: 883cc air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin
Weight (dry): 495lb (225kg)
Price then/now: $1,103 / $13,000-$20,000
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.4gal (16.6ltr)/50mpg (est.)

1957 was quite a year. Sputnik 1, the first satellite, blasted into space, the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, and Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard rocked and rolled from jukeboxes coast to coast. In sports, Milwaukee won the World Series and in motorcycle history, Harley-Davidson launched the Sportster.

The roots of the first Harley Sportster go back to the days immediately after World War II. In order to get bikes in the hands of eager customers who had been unable to buy new motorcycles — or cars — during the four long years of the war, Harley, like many companies, continued building essentially the same models it offered in 1941 before civilian production stopped. These bikes were basically 1930s technology with hand shift, rigid rear ends and springer front forks. Even so, the trickle of new bikes that left the factory in 1945 and 1946 got snapped up as soon they arrived at dealer showrooms.

Bruce Chubbuck was a teenager working in his father’s Los Angeles-area Harley dealership after school at the time, and remembers the strong demand for the few new bikes available. “My father had a list, and when he got a bike in, he would call the next guy on the list. If he didn’t answer, he would call the guy after that,” Bruce recalls.

The British Invasion

This state of affairs only lasted for a short while, as Harley dealers soon found themselves competing against lightweight, sport-oriented British motorcycles — with foot shift and telescopic forks. With huge war debts to pay off, Great Britain turned to foreign markets to sell its products, and to say British motorcycle manufacturers were encouraged to export would be an understatement. For British motorcycle companies, it was quite literally a case of export or die, and the U.S. was prime territory thanks to pent up consumer demand and an exploding post-war economy.

Harley-Davidson did not have an equivalent to the lightweight and relatively high-performance Brit bikes, and quickly found itself at a disadvantage. Although it did introduce the small and lively 125cc S model (basically a Harley-built DKW and effectively identical to the BSA Bantam, also based on the DKW), it had nothing in its lineup to match Triumph’s 500cc Speed Twin or BSA’s 500cc A7. In response, Harley launched a two-pronged attack. While the U.S. Tariff Commission deliberated on Harley’s 1951 petition for a 40-percent import tariff on imported bikes, Harley — belatedly — began designing a midsize motorcycle to compete with the British motorcycles.

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