The first Harley Sportster was a Brit beater.
The 1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster XL.
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.
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.
The Tariff Commission eventually turned Harley down, but by then Harley’s new twin, the Harley-Davidson K model, was on sale. Harley had introduced its new sport machine to its dealers in December 1951. Bruce had just turned 21 years old and was enjoying a beer as he watched the show. “We had lunch at the Schroeder Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, and then they unveiled two white K models elevated halfway up the stage. The dealers weren’t really excited by them. The K model didn’t really look like a Harley and it wasn’t sparkly like a Triumph,” Bruce remembers.
Importantly, the Harley K model was a modern motorcycle. It had a left hand clutch and shifting was by the rider’s right foot, just like the competing Brit bikes. The front end was telescopic and the rear was a swingarm with twin shocks, a first for Harley and in 1951 quite an advance. Several British makes, including Triumph, were still selling bikes with rigid rear ends.
Although it still used a side-valve layout, the 45 cubic-inch (743cc) K engine was a fresh design, built in unit with the four-speed transmission. Harley built this engine in two versions: the racing KR, which was smoking fast despite a modest 37 horsepower, and the 30 horsepower street K model, which was both heavier and slower than the competition. This fact did not help sales of the street bike.
In 1954, Harley stroked the Harley K model to 54 cubic inches (883cc), which made it fast enough to keep up with the BSAs and Triumphs, and renamed it the Harley-Davidson KH. Jim Belland bought a KH from San Francisco’s Dudley Perkins Harley-Davidson and bolted on a small peanut tank, cut down the fenders and replaced the mufflers with straight pipes. “I was a teenager at the time, hanging around Dudley Perkins and working on my K model,” Jim remembers. “In 1956, they hired me as parts guy — I retired from Dudley Perkins 40 years later as general manager.”
According to Jim, the average 1950s motorcycle enthusiast in San Francisco was “a working class guy. Professional people were rare. There were a lot of sailors interested in bikes. Mainstream people rode Harleys and Indians, and there was a growing British motorcycle scene.” The Harley KH fit the market well, Jim says: “It was an all purpose motorcycle. If I wanted to go someplace, I pointed it there and went. I put a lot of KR parts on it. I was doing TT races on it and drag racing, and I went to work on it. I had a great time on that bike. At one point I was timed on the quarter mile at 11.58 seconds, with a terminal speed of 112mph.”
Harley also built a hopped-up version of the KH, the Harley KHK, in 1955 and 1956. Featuring a roller-bearing bottom end, polished ports and hot cams, it was rated at 52 horsepower versus the KH’s claimed 38 horses.
Through most of its history, Harley has followed a policy of making one major improvement at a time. After the K’s foot shift transmission and swingarm frame had been proved sound, Harley engineers went to work on updating the side-valve engine. They came up with a new overhead valve top end, which, in an inspired moment, someone decided should be called the Sportster.
Aside from the engine, most of the new for 1957 XL Sportster was carried over from the K model. The frame, large fenders, touring-size tank and front suspension were straight from the KH, lightly modified to fit the taller overhead valve engine.
The 1957 Harley Sportster had iron barrels and heads, a 7.5:1 compression ratio, and made 40 horsepower at 5,500rpm. Like the predecessor K, each valve had its own camshaft and the engine was in unit with the four-speed transmission. Other carryovers from the K models included a dry clutch, drum brakes and six-volt electrics. The first Sportster was not particularly speedy; a good KHK, discontinued for 1957, would blow an early Sportster into the weeds, Bruce says. List price for 1957 was $1,103.
Harley did not have a dealer’s introduction for the Sportster, but unveiled its new bike at regional gatherings, instead. San Francisco riders were introduced to the new Sportster at a local flat track. Jim says there were two reactions at the time: “The guys who rode dressers kind of liked it, but the Sportster wasn’t big and masculine enough for them. The sporting guys thought it was butt ugly. They all thought it needed to be made into the kind of motorcycle I had — small tank, bobbed fenders.”
In the summer of 1957, Harley gathered its dealers in Milwaukee to show them the new Duo-Glide, where the Sportster was a major topic of discussion. Bruce remembers: “We had our Southern California dealers meeting a week or so later. My father and I didn’t go to the national, but the dealers that did go to the national convention explained what happened. There weren’t a lot of happy dealers. They expected more — a better Sportster. The California dealers, especially, wanted a KRTT (a road-racing version of the KR) with the Sportster engine. They went to Harley Engineering to make sure it would work, and then they confronted Walter Davidson and demanded he build this bike. Walter Davidson finally said, ‘OK, we will make 100 of the sonuvabitch and if you can’t sell them, we aren’t going to make any more!’”
Walter Davidson made good on his offer, and the scrambles-oriented XLCH appeared in 1958, along with the XLH, a higher compression version of the original Sportster. The first XLCHs came with no lights, a 9:1 compression ratio, magneto ignition, straight pipes, bobbed fenders and the 2.25 gallon tank off the KR dirt track racer. It was exactly what the sport guys wanted. Dealers had no problems selling this version of the Sportster, and Harley ended up building about 239 XLCHs that year. Harley also offered a kit to make the bike street legal. For 1959 the XLCH got a little more civilized and came with lights, and sold very well.
Dudley Perkins Harley-Davidson sold a lot of Sportsters to smaller people, including some pioneering women. “Our best sellers were the big twins,” Jim remembers, “but riders of smaller stature were interested in the Sportster. There was always a hard core of women riders, and a lot of them rode Sportsters. Some rode them as they came, without modifying them.”
Jim remembers early Sportsters with affection. “The XLCH straight pipes made the most wonderful noise. At that stage of my life, noise equaled speed. The handling was pretty good by the standards of the day. The relatively long wheelbase made Sportsters relatively lazy handlers, which meant you could get away with a lot. The forks were contemporary K model forks, which were copies of contemporary Triumph forks. You varied the thickness of the fork oil to make your forks stiffer or softer. The K model guys had learned to make the K work, and the first Sportster was basically the same, with the same forks, although it was heavier than the K.
“The brakes were the same as the K, not particularly bad,” Jim continues. “In the Fifties, no one sold bikes with really good brakes. Vibration? It did! But the bars were rubber mounted and the seat was on springs, so it wasn’t too bad.”
Fifty-four years later, Harley-Davidson is still selling Sportsters. And not too surprisingly, the first year model has developed a certain cachet. 1957 Sportsters also have a personal attraction for Glenn Bator, a well known motorcycle restorer, auctioneer and broker. Glenn was born in 1957, and the first bike he ever restored was a 1957 Harley Sportster.
Glenn has met a lot of people in his travels, and some have become more than business contacts. One of these was Giovanni Valla, the Harley-Davidson dealer in Milan, Italy. Signore Valla bought our photo bike over the Internet from someone in the U.S., and asked Glenn to restore it for him.
Glenn agreed to do the work, mostly because he had a soft spot both for 1957 Sportsters and Giovanni Valla. Unfortunately, the bike was in bad shape, with, among other problems, cracked engine cases. Compounding the issue is the simple fact that parts for early Sportsters are hugely expensive, if you can find them, and Glenn’s varied business ventures left him little time for the concours-quality restoration Giovanni wanted. Further complicating matters, Glenn was finishing up the restoration of a 1930 KJ four-cylinder Henderson and a 1922 Harley Sport Twin.
Realizing he was too busy to do it all himself, Glenn had someone else rebuild the engine: It came back in worse shape than it was in when Glenn sent it out. A second try produced no better results. “I guess if you want something done right, do it yourself,” Glenn says philosophically.
By this time, what with locating all the missing correct parts, getting the chrome re-plated and having the sheet metal and frame painted in the correct colors, a couple of years had gone by. Giovanni was being encouraging and patient, but there was a limit. Appreciating that he was running out of time, Glenn called in Dave Carleton, one of the West Coast’s best known Sportster experts, to help. He also tapped into the talents of well known Harley machinist/mechanic Dan “Fuzzy” Quaranto, who lent his vision, guidance and inspiration to the project. The final rebuild produced a correct, matching numbers 1957 Sportster looking just like it did when it rolled out of the factory, running as strongly and smoothly as it did when new.
With the Sportster finally finished, Glenn took it and another early Sportster to the 2010 AMA Hall of Fame Concours D’Elegance, winning first and second place in the Classic American category. Glenn was to send both bikes to Giovanni in Milan right after the show, but as he was getting ready to ship the Sportsters, he was notified that Giovanni had died. “The bikes remain as a tribute to Giovanni Valla’s passion and love for American motorcycles,” Glenn says. “He will be missed.” Elvis and jukeboxes may be gone, but Giovanni’s 1957 Sportster lives on. MC