Bigger and Better: 1986 Harley-Davidson XLH1100 Evo Sportster

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

  • 1985-1990 Honda VT1100 Shadow
    Photo By MC Staff
  • 1986 Harley-Davidson XLH1100 Evo Sportster
    Photo By Doug Mitchel
  • Yamaha XV1100
    Photo By MC Staff

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.”

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