Motorcycle Classics

The New Year Bike: 1978 Harley-Davidson XLCR

1978 Harley-Davidson XLCR
61ci (997cc) air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin, 81mm x 96.8mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio, 61hp @ 6,200rpm (claimed)
Top speed:
106mph (period test)
Single 38mm Keihin
4-speed, chain final drive
Weight (wet):
485lb (220.5kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
4gal (15ltr)/40-50mpg
Price then/now:
$3,595 (1977)/$12,000-$18,000

Every New Year’s Day, Mark Harrigan, as he has for many years, goes for a ride on his 1978 Harley-Davidson XLCR, a bike he has owned since it was new. This is a little more involved than simply going on a ride, as the Harley spends most of its time in Mark’s living room. During the month of December, it sits behind a fully decorated Christmas tree.

Mark’s New Year’s Day usually starts with the family project of taking the tree down and putting the ornaments away for another year. He then gets out a couple of ramps, making sure there’s no sticky goop on them before using them to bridge the steps between the living room and the garage. He then pushes the Harley out into the garage and installs the battery, which has been patiently waiting on a trickle charger. He checks the tires and the oil. He inspects the chain and the brakes. He adds some fresh gas. He pulls out the choke. Then he hits the button. “It cranks twice and fires, every time,” Mark says.

Like many kids who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, Mark started out riding small, offroad machines. By 1978, he was the proud owner of a Suzuki GS1000 and a big-bore Yamaha. Even though he was just 21 years old, Mark had an appreciation of classics. “I had an early appreciation for old cars, and I felt that some things had a collector’s value,” he says. One June day, Mark was hanging out on his lunch hour, idly going through the local newspaper when he saw an ad posted by a nearby Harley dealership for a Harley-Davidson XLCR Sportster, out the door for $2,900. Here was a classic, sure to become a collector’s item Mark thought, and it was on sale! He ran over to the shop after work — “It was little more than a glorified garage,” he says — and maxed out his credit card to buy it. It was the first Harley Mark had ever owned.

AMF days

Harley-Davidson was going through major changes in the 1970s. In 1969, short on capital and with shareholders wanting out, Harley-Davidson, Inc. sold itself to American Machine & Foundry (AMF), a company interested in diversifying into what its executives thought as “the leisure market.” Between the Honda campaign to make motorcycles mainstream and the rise of the baby boom generation, motorcycle sales were skyrocketing. Harley wanted to catch this wave, but didn’t have the money to expand production. At the time, selling to AMF seemed like a good idea.

AMF poured money into Harley-Davidson. The machine tooling was upgraded and production rose astronomically. However, the push to produce led to worker unhappiness, strikes and quality control breakdown. From the Thirties through the Fifties, Harley was known for a quality product. In the Sixties and Seventies, Harley unreliability became a punch line for jokes.

Yet many people at Harley-Davidson cared, and slowly problems were fixed and the bikes got better. Harley-Davidson was heavily into racing, fighting the up-and-coming Japanese factories and the waning, but still fast, Triumphs, BSAs and Nortons. It was a time when racing, especially flat tracking, was very popular. Looking to do something new, Willie G. Davidson, grandson of co-founder William A. Davidson and then head of the styling department, looked back a few years to the renegade Ton-Up British street racers of the Sixties and thought a café racer (with some flat track notes) might be a good idea. His immediate inspiration was a Sportster he saw in the company garage that Harley engineer Bob Moderow had equipped with a bikini fairing, drag bars and a black exhaust.

The Café

According to Jim Haubert, a machinist and fabricator who was then working as an independent contractor after leaving the Harley racing department, the XLCR project started when Willie G. called a meeting in April 1974 with Haubert and Moderow. Willie Davidson wanted to develop the look of that Sportster he saw in the garage, and was also interested in a rear frame change drawn by Moderow that was inspired by the XR750 dirt tracker. Haubert was to modify the frame to match Moderow’s design. To show just how low budget things were at Harley when this meeting took place, Willie Davidson donated his company Sportster (loaned to him by Harley — Harley loaned its executives a bike every year at this time) for the chassis Haubert was to customize. Moderow was soon pulled off the XLCR project to put out a fire in another department, leaving Willie Davidson and Haubert to soldier on.

“Because there were never any blueprints, I was actually a co-creator of the bike,” Haubert says. “It was the creation of two artists working in close communication with each other with vital direction from a third, Bob Moderow. Dean Wixom also deserves credit for designing the seat and fuel tank for the 1970 XR flat tracker, which were modified for the prototype.”

The prototype was finished in February 1975 and shown to Harley management, who decided to go ahead and build the bike. An engineer named Ching Lo designed the siamesed pipes, which were supposed to improve horsepower. At the time, getting more horsepower out of the Sportster was a priority. The bike was falling badly behind other contemporary motorcycles in quarter-mile tests, and everyone was convinced that good quarter-mile performance sold bikes. Another year went by, during which six pre-production motorcycles were built and subjected to extensive testing.

The XLCR finally saw the light of day in 1977, accompanied by a splashy advertising campaign that leaned heavily on the Willie Davidson connection. The XLCR was powered by the same 61 cubic inch (997cc) Sportster engine as the rest of the 1977 Sportster lineup, but with the modified frame produced by the Moderow/Davidson/Haubert collaboration, a reworked gearshift linkage to match the frame, lower gearing, a special gas tank, triple disc brakes and an all-black finish. List price was $3,595, plus tax and setup.

The market responds

In the late Seventies “custom” bikes — think Chopper Lite — were becoming popular. The XLCR was different. In fact, it was like nothing else Harley-Davidson had ever built. Contemporary testers (most of whom were racing and sport bike fans) liked the looks. “The highest stare factor since Lady Godiva,” said Cycle Guide. Here was a Sportster that actually looked like a sport bike. They also liked the fact that the XLCR had a few more horses than the rest of the Sportster line, and they liked the cast alloy wheels, the 4-gallon gas tank and the reasonable — for a big bike — 515-pound curb weight.

Objections were made to the rear shocks, which, as modified for the XLCR, had a mere 2.3 inches of travel. Although contemporary testers thought they were the same as the stock Sportster shocks, Haubert says they were sized from the XR750. Testers also found the rear shock springs too stiff, with seal friction making matters worse. Lower gearing helped Cycle World generate a quarter-mile time of 13.08 seconds in tests, which at the time put the XLCR in the middle of the Superbike pack. Although the XLCR had triple disc brakes, hard brake pad material chosen for long pad life caused the bike to eat up 201 feet to stop from 60mph. By comparison, a stock Sportster with a single front disc and drum rear could stop in 165 feet. The stiff clutch was the subject of jokes and testers couldn’t reach the turn signal button and keep the throttle open at the same time, but everyone loved the bike’s looks and its great sound — “exhaust booming off mountainsides,” as one journalist put it.

Testers were surprised, however, that the XLRC’s minimally padded seat was comfortable for long rides and that the clip-on bars were in the right ergonomic spot for most people. “You have a café racer version that is more comfortable and practical than the touring version it’s based on. Surely, this is a first,” Cycle World said.

The $3,595 asking price was considerably more than the standard Sportster’s $3,131, and was at the time a high price for any motorcycle. In 1977, the top of the line, full-tilt touring BMW R100RS would set you back $4,500 and a Suzuki GS750 could be bought for around $2,200. Unfortunately for Harley, the XLCR’s head-spinning looks were not enough to justify the high price for many riders, and the lack of passenger accommodations didn’t help. Harley offered a dual seat as an option for 1978, but by that time is was obvious the XLCR was an answer to a question nobody had asked. The model was discontinued, but many of the XLCR’s cycle parts were repurposed for the 1979 Sportster, which looked more like a traditional Harley-Davidson and sold a lot better.

Mark’s XLCR

The XLCR sat on dealers’ floors. Some dealers, like the shop that Mark Harrigan bought his bike from, gradually discounted the model until it moved. Even when new, a few people thought that they would be collector’s items. They looked for discounted new machines, pickled them and sat back, waiting for the bike to appreciate.

After he bought it, Mark rode his XLCR around some, but felt it was best to keep the mileage down. Yet even with this limited exposure to the Harley experience, he got bit by the Harley bug. The Honda versus Yamaha wars in the early 1980s, when Honda and Yamaha battled to undersell each other, affected him. “I wanted to buy American,” Mark says, so he bought a Harley Low Rider, eventually putting 109,000 miles on it. “I own eight or nine Harleys now,” Mark says, and he buys another Harley every five years — he has learned to pace himself — and puts around 25,000 miles a year on his collection of bikes, which includes a Honda Dream. “I just love riding it.”

Although 1970s Harleys were “a joke and junk,” Mark says that once management understood and implemented quality control measures in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the bikes became reliable transportation. “My Harleys have been great bikes, and very reliable.”

The reliability of the XLCR has been noted by many people, most notably motoscribe Peter Egan, who once wrote that, “Compared to other vintage bikes I have owned (from an island nation that shall remain unnamed) the Harley has been a paragon of reliability.” Mark says his XLCR has always run well, despite being static in the living room for long periods of time. “It amazes me, it’s so simple to maintain. I change the oil, get on the bike, push the button. It goes.”

Mark also thinks it’s a good ride. “It wasn’t as good a handler as the Suzuki 1000 I had back in the day, but it’s not as bad as the Harley haters made it out to be,” he says. “It’s a relaxing ride on the freeway; you don’t have to lean over a lot. In fact, it’s more comfortable on the freeway than big Japanese multis. Cruising speed is 65-70mph and it will do more, but the vibration gets annoying. The brakes are more than adequate.”

With his annual New Year’s Day ride over, Mark rode the XLCR home, took the battery out and put it back on the trickle charger. Once the engine cases were cool, he rolled the XLCR up the ramps and back into the living room, where it sits patiently waiting for its next outing on the Fourth of July, when Mark will celebrate Independence Day by going for a ride on his old Harley. MC

Jim Haubert and the XLCR Prototype

Jim Haubert is a little grayer than he was when he was working on the XLCR back in the mid-1970s, and he now lives in Arizona instead of Wisconsin, but he still enjoys machining and fabricating parts for motorcycles and Harley-Davidsons, and he lights up when talking about his work with Harley in the Seventies.

Haubert came to Harley’s attention through his drag racing. He learned his trade in his father’s machine shop in Milwaukee, and in his spare time used his skills to build fast bikes. In February of 1972, he was offered the chance to work in Harley’s racing department. “I was the experimental machinist — I wasn’t experimental, that was my job title!” he says. In fact, he was the only machinist in the racing department.

The dream job in Harley’s racing department didn’t work out like he thought it might, and a year later Haubert left to start his own business. He had made contacts at Harley, however, and in late 1973 he was approached by William Davidson, then chairman of the board, to restore a 1920s single-cylinder “Peashooter” racer, which is now on display at the Indianapolis Speedway. William Davidson was Willie G. Davidson’s father, and Haubert met Willie G. through Mr. Davidson. Several months later, Willie G. asked Haubert to work on the XLCR project. It took 10 months to complete, and once the prototype bike was done Haubert took it to Greg Polak, a commercial photographer friend. Haubert had a complete set of photographs taken and delivered the photos and bike to Harley. Willie G. liked the results.

Haubert worked on other prototypes, including the prototype Low Rider, the 1979 XL prototype, an FL engine/transmission unit merged with an XL chassis, the prototype Wide Glide and the prototype Softail. He was also responsible for restoring the 1903 Harley for the Daytona exhibit in 1976. Eventually, Haubert branched out into mechanical instruments, electron microscope repair, work for NASA and ultra-high-vacuum welding. However, his favorite project remains the XLCR — even if it didn’t sell. He is currently reconstructing a twin of the original prototype. “It was too extreme for the market,” Haubert says. “But the important thing was, the project broke new ground within Harley-Davidson, particularly in the area of quality control.” — Margie Siegal

  • Published on Jun 14, 2016
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