Motorcycle Classics

The Harley-Davidson Sportster 1000

Harley-Davidson Sportster 1000
Years produced:
Claimed power: 61hp @ 6,200rpm (1972)
Top speed: 116mph (1972 test)
Engine type: 998cc air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin
Transmission: 4-speed
Weight: 492lb (wet)
MPG: 40-50
Price then: $2,136 (1972)
Price now: $2,000-$5,000

With an unbroken production run of 53 years, the overhead valve Harley-Davidson Sportster has outlived all of its early rivals, and is still able to raise its middle finger to the vagaries of the motorcycle marketplace. Riding a 2010 model instantly channels the first Sportster of 1957, even though the characteristic engine vibes have now been softened by rubber mountings.

The Sportster was an instant hit in 1957, but by the Seventies it was showing its age. Imports easily outperformed and outsold it. In a Cycle magazine seven-bike shootout in 1973, the XL Sportster ranked dead last overall and propped up the other six bikes in almost every performance category. Even so, reviewers liked its torquey, long-legged highway running and easy in-town traffic manners. They also liked its conservative styling and offbeat engine sound.

The Sportster’s future was being written, not as a competitor to the all-conquering four-across-the-frame Universal Japanese Motorcycle, but as a bastion of American durability and timeless style. So why would you want one now?

Conception and birth

The story goes that after WWII, American GIs in Europe became enamored of the sporty, lightweight parallel twins then coming out of British factories and brought some home. BSA, Triumph and Norton, among others, began shipping 500cc twins and singles to the U.S., but it was the new crop of 650cc twins (especially Triumph’s 1950 Thunderbird) that demanded a response from Milwaukee and Springfield. Indian’s parallel twins bombed in the marketplace (and all over the pavement, too), but rather than copy the parallel twin, Harley-Davidson stuck with what it knew: 45-degree, single crankpin V-twins.

Introduced in 1952, the model K was essentially a WL bottom end in unit construction cases with a dry clutch and 4-speed transmission. On the top end were new alloy, side-valve heads. Cylinders were iron, and displacement was 45ci. The engine featured a right-side foot shifter — a first for H-D — and a new frame with a swingarm rear end. For 1954, the stroke was lengthened to a whopping 4.56 inches (from 3.81 inches) for 887cc, or 54ci, and the new model designated KH. A high performance KHK with hot cams and polished ports came in 1955.

But flathead engines were limited in power, and a change was needed to keep up with the Brits. The 1957 XL Sportster got overhead valve heads while the crank used the model K’s shorter stroke with a larger 3-inch bore for 883cc (54ci). Power was around 40hp at the crank (Triumph’s 1957 Tiger 110 made a claimed 42hp), which propelled the 460-pound machine to over 90mph. Finally, here was an American motorcycle that could compete with the Limeys.

For 1958, the XLCH sports model arrived, basically a stripped-down XL, but with an identical engine specification. To save weight, the XL’s battery was eliminated, with sparks and lighting coming from a magneto/generator. Only minor changes were made up to 1964 when new full-width aluminum hubs arrived, but still with single-leading-shoe drum brakes. Electric starting was added to the XLH in 1967. The XLH lost its kickstarter completely the next year, while the XLCH remained kickstart only. The XLCH also went battery/coil ignition in 1970, and both models switched to a wet clutch in 1971.

1972 was the year of big changes. With AMF now in charge at Juneau Avenue, the Sportster became 998cc, or 61ci, with bore increased to 3.18 inches. A Bendix/Zenith carb replaced the Tillotson, but still lacked a throttle return spring, meaning you had to close the throttle manually. Good for cruising, but trickier in the city. Power was a claimed 61hp at 6,200rpm, enough to propel the 492-pound XLCH to a 13.38-second standing quarter, terminating at 97.7mph, according to Cycle World. (The mag also recorded 12.76-second/102.6mph without the restrictive California mufflers). Cycle Guide managed 13.73-second/95.1mph with the 35-pound heavier XLH, and found a similar improvement with the mufflers replaced by straight pipes. Top speed was 116mph.

It was around this time that the development path for the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1000 separated from the routes being taken in Japan (and in what remained of the European industry). Contemporary reports began to emphasize the Sportster’s touring capabilities rather than outright performance. 1973 brought new Kayaba forks, a front disc brake and turn signals, with a throttle return spring finally being fitted in 1974. 1975 saw a mandated switch to left-side shifting. Showa 35mm forks replaced the Kayabas.

Two new models joined the ranks in 1977: the XLT tourer with a 3.5-gallon gas tank, extra seat padding, hard luggage and a windshield; and Willie G’s iconic Harley XLCR café racer with Morris cast alloy wheels, dual front discs and a claimed 68hp. Just 3,200 were produced, ensuring its collectibility.

Road Rider magazine took an XLT touring that year, and commented on the reduced vibration compared with earlier models (perhaps a result of taller gearing), and improved fuel consumption from the new Keihin CV carb. In the first 1,000 miles, the starter failed because of an incorrectly installed cable and a “sealed” generator bearing seized. Overall, though, the XLT performed well, even if the seat was still too firm and vibration still marred images in the mirrors. “After all, it’s a Sportster,” was the conclusion.

Opinions of the Sportster’s appeal seemed to be polarizing. Cycle Guide’s test of a 1977 XLH concluded that Sportster diehards “would not own or ride anything else. These riders are attracted by the Sportster’s larger-than-life, primitive, macho demeanor,” adding that the MSRP of $3,131 “is too much to pay for an anachronistic, unrefined, functionally awkward motorcycle, even if it is viscerally appealing.” Meanwhile at Cycle World, the reviewer found the 1977 Sportster to be “an endearing bike that grew on one by its very ease of progress and lack of temperament.” Apparently, you either “got” the Sportster or you didn’t.

The Sportster ran on with minor improvements until 1982 when a new all-welded duplex frame arrived, and a stripped-down version, the XLX-61, was sold at a price point of just $3,995. The iron engine’s last year was 1985, with the XLH 883 and 1,100cc “Evolution” alloy Sportsters arriving for 1986.

The iron-head XL was intended to compete head on with the best motorcycles of the day in 1957. Almost 30 years later, it had either become an anachronism or created a market niche for nostalgia. In a rapidly morphing motorcycle marketplace, it was a constant, a known quantity, something you could rely on not to compromise its ideals of simplicity, conservatism and steadfastness. It was, literally, a principle you could hang on to. MC

Two-cylinder rivals to the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1000

1973-1982 Triumph T140 Bonneville 750
• 53hp @ 7,000 rpm, 115mph (1973)
• Air-cooled OHV 744cc parallel twin
• 5-speed
• Disc brake front drum rear
• 413lb (dry)
• 40-50mpg
• $3,500-$6,500

Like many products of the British motorcycle industry, the Bonneville finally came good when it was too late. Like the Sportster, the Bonnie survived being dropped from the Superbike ranks, but it wasn’t clear how — or if — production would continue after 1973, when threatened closure of Triumph’s Meriden factory precipitated a workers’ sit-in. The Bonnie survived. Just.

The 1973/4 model, with its 744cc parallel twin engine, 5-speed transmission and front disc brake was (and is) a reliable, lightly tuned bike with excellent handling and good long-distance comfort. A rear disc arrived for 1975, and shifting went from right to left. New cylinder heads and much improved Amal MkII carbs were fitted in 1978, and 1979 saw the arrival of the T140D Special with Lester alloy wheels, siamesed exhaust and blacked-out engine.

The 1980 ES model was the first with electric start, followed by the Executive (with hard luggage) and the 8-valve TSS in 1982. Final Meriden Bonnies were the TSX and rubber-mounted TSS, both with the 8-valve engine.

The 1970s Bonneville and Sportster make for interesting bedfellows, motorcycles that evoked earlier glories and appealed to an older rider. That the Bonneville defied economic logic and continued in production well beyond its sell-by date underscores the power of the brand: the Sportster likewise.

1968-1975 Norton Commando 750/850
• 56hp @ 6,500 rpm, 115mph (750)
• Air-cooled OHV 745cc parallel twin
• 4-speed
• Disc brake front/drum rear
• 398lb (dry)
• 40-50mpg
• $4,500-$8,000

The 750 Commando hit the U.S. in 1968. It made more power than the “stripped” 61-inch XLCH Sportster and weighed 50 pounds less, though it took until 1975 for the Commando (then 850cc) to acquire electric start like the XLH.

Cycle magazine’s 1973 seven-Superbike shootout included both the 750 Commando and the XLCH. The Commando’s lighter weight helped a lot in the timed tests, but both finished well behind Kawasaki’s 750 2-stroke triple and the new 900 Z1 four. The writing was on the wall in the performance stakes.

In 1973, Commandos came in two basic flavors: Roadster (2.5-gallon gas tank) and Interstate (5-gallon). Interstates are very collectible, so gas tanks are rare, and swaps are common. How can you tell? Interstates came with a trip odometer, Roadsters didn’t. Perhaps the best Commando of all is the 1974 Mk1 850, with the added torque of the bigger engine, but without the extra weight and complexity of the 1975 Electric Start model.

With routine maintenance, Commandos (especially the later 850 models) are reliable and easily keep up with modern traffic. Electrical issues are almost always the result of ham-fisted home repairs, and modern electronic ignition makes for easy starting. Amal carbs need to be re-sleeved or replaced with a modern Mikuni.

  • Published on Feb 9, 2010
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