An American who wanted to buy a new motorcycle in 1969 had a lot of choices.
Honda was building the CB750, BSA had both a twin and a triple on offer, Kawasaki was selling its iconic H1 500cc 2-stroke, and Norton was selling the Commando twin. Triumph Bonnevilles were popular, as were Ducati singles and BMW twins. Tom Myers walked past all these alluring imports and bought one of the 5,100 Harley XLCH Sportsters produced that year. “My Dad was always a Harley guy,” he explains. More than fifty years later, Tom still has that XLCH.
“My first bike was a Yamaha YDS-2, but I lusted after a Sportster since I was very young. After the YDS-2, I had a Sportster, bought used, but it was stolen. Understandably, I was pretty upset. My parents helped me buy this 1969 Sportster as a replacement for the one that was stolen.”
Tom Myers’ XLCH is unusual in many different ways, besides being a one-family survivor. To start with, Tom bought it to use as transportation, and chose options based on functionality. At the time, Harley was building two different Sportster versions: the XLH (4-gallon tank as standard, touring tires, a 12-volt battery and coil ignition and an electric starter) and the XLCH (peanut tank standard, magneto ignition, no battery, and racing tires). 1969 Sportster buyers had an optional choice of either tank, and Tom wanted the larger tank that was standard on the XLH version of the Sportster. The dealer Tom bought his bike from swapped the tank with the one on an XLH on the floor.
“I was going to college and rode the bike back and forth from my parent’s home. I graduated and went into the Army for three years. The Sportster was stored at my parent’s house. When I got out, I went to graduate school. My Sportster was my primary transportation. I even talked a girl into going on a date on the bike — once. I went on trips to Arizona, Idaho, Washington and Nevada. I racked up 30,000 miles on that bike.”
In 1969, most Sportster owners sprung for a fancy psychedelic paint job, threw away the front fender and extended the forks. Aftermarket ape hanger bars and a solo seat with passenger pad completed the look. Tom, more practical than most in 1969, (and probably racking up more miles) just polished the left gear case cover and otherwise rode the bike the way it was. He even, at one point, had rigid bags installed. That isn’t to say that Tom was always a saint. He fondly remembers the time he rode across a bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area at 110mph.
Back in time
Harley-Davidson started building sporty, midweight motorcycles after World War II, in reaction to the influx of sporty, midweight British imports. The first effort, the sidevalve K model introduced in 1952, was heavy and underpowered, but Harley’s engineers soon made it go faster. An overhead valve evolution of the K model, the Sportster, debuted in 1957. California Harley dealers pushed the idea of a stripped sport model of the Sportster, and, in response, the first XLCH came out in 1958. It had a magneto, a peanut tank and no lights, unless the buyer ponied up extra cash for a light kit. Starting in 1959, the XLCH had lights as standard, although this version of the Sportster continued with magneto ignition until 1970. Up until 1970, the XLCH had no battery, and the lights ran off a DC generator.
The XLCH quickly became popular. In 1964, Harley sold 13,270 motorcycles, 1,950 of which were XLCH Sportsters. In 1968, the count was 4,900 XLCH’s and in 1969, the last year factory statistics are available, 5,100 were sold. Options were many. An XLCH buyer had their choice of a large or a small tank, three standard and three optional colors, chrome or aluminum rims, six different seats, three different handlebars, crash bars (Harley referred to them as a safety guard) and two different windshields. Not content with all the factory options, most contemporary owners heavily customized their machines. Antique Motorcycle Club of America Assistant Chief Judge and Sportster specialist Dave Carleton estimates that there are 50-75 magneto-powered Sportsters that have survived in even mostly stock condition.
On road and track
A lot of Sportsters owners headed to the local drag strip, where a well prepared XLCH could run quarter-mile times under 13 seconds and trap speeds of over 100mph. So many people wanted to drag race their Sportsters that Cycle Guide ran a series of articles in 1970 on how to prep a Sportster for a run under the timing lights.
Dave Carleton says that the frame on the magneto Sportsters flexed, and the rider has to adjust their cornering style to get the best out of the bike. “It’s a leap of faith to pitch it in hard to a corner, but it will get in there. We used to call it the Harley Hula. I saw a magazine somewhere that said the Sportster was the fastest bike tested in 1969. It’s not a motorcycle for the faint of heart.”
Cycle magazine hosted a Superbike Shootout in early 1970 of seven fast 1969 two wheelers, including the XLCH Sportster. The Sportster test bike proved to have some non-stock engine work, very similar to the porting that would be done on a drag strip competitor. It clocked a quarter mile in 12.97 seconds at 102.15mph. Testers also took the bike on a closed road course, and stated that the Sportster was disconcerting in corners, but that the gearbox and clutch worked extremely well. The lap time was 46.5 seconds, a half second slower than the Honda CB750. The brakes were third best in the test, only beat out by the 500cc Kawasaki and the front disc brake-equipped CB750.
Cycle Guide did a test on the 1970 Sportster, and a lot of what that magazine had to say is relevant to the 1969 version. Testers were impressed with the low speed torque, providing horsepower on demand. “It will cruise all day at high speed with little effort.” The testers made an impromptu appearance at the local hill climb and made it to the top — in third gear. The clutch was light and the gearbox was easy to operate. Although the Sporty didn’t really like to be thrown into corners, “if ridden properly can be a tremendous source of enjoyment.” The bike was also reliable. It “will take an inhuman amount of abuse and still keep on running.” On the minus side, the Tillotson carburetor was difficult to tune for peak performance (testers said to get it right and leave it alone), the suspension was totally inadequate for off-pavement riding, and the bike was heavy.
Then Came Bronson was a popular TV show in 1969 and 1970, featuring the protagonist riding around on a XLH, the road version of the Sportster. The first bike used was a 1968 model. Sportsters shipped to California during this time period had dual “Super Quiet” mufflers, which came to be known as “Bronson pipes.” In 1969, all Sportsters came equipped with the Bronson pipes. “My bike has the same exhaust setup as the Bronson bike,” Tom explains. When magazine testers said the Sportster was reliable, they meant reliable by the standards of the day. “In earlier days, you expected to do a lot of maintenance,” Tom says. “The Sportster would go 15 to 20,000 miles without problems. I did have to pour a lot of oil into it. Although the oil usage was extreme — and it mostly burned oil, not leaked it — the Sportster only left me stranded once. I was riding back home after dark, and the generator stopped working. I had no lights, so I had to find a place to stay — in the dark. A guy in a gas station introduced me to a friend of his who was a forest ranger. He let me stay overnight in the barracks. It turned out to be a simple fix when I got home — it was a stuck brush due to a slightly bent guide.”
Eventually a seal went out in the clutch, and the clutch started slipping. 1969 Sportsters were supposed to run with a dry clutch, but, with the clutch inside the primary case and with seal technology not well developed, the clutch often became contaminated with oil. Tom replaced, the clutch seal, which cured the slipping for some time. The Tillotson carburetor became worn, and gas mileage went from 55mpg to 25 to 30mpg.
In the late 1970s, Tom added the black trim on the front and rear fenders to cover some scratches. By this time, the Sportster was a little down on compression and using even more oil than usual. Luckily, Tom’s brother was an aircraft mechanic. The two brothers tore down the Sportster’s engine and bored the cylinders twenty thousandths oversize. They put in larger intake valves and pressed in valve seats. As a result of the machine work, the bike not only uses less oil, and has better compression, but is also able to run on unleaded gas. Tom painted the cylinders and heads black instead of the original silver.
Tom kept riding the Sportster until 1981, when he got married and needed to pare down his possessions. Tom’s father bought the Sportster from him and rode it occasionally. He started having trouble starting the bike and replaced the troublesome Tillotson carburetor with a Bendix, but the bike was still hard to start. The clutch seal went bad again, and Tom’s dad replaced the stock dry clutch with an aftermarket wet Barnett clutch.
Tom’s father got older and started having more difficulty kickstarting the bike. Tom now had room for the Sportster in his garage and took it back in 2006, but with one thing and another, it sat until 2015. “It was surprisingly easy to get going after maybe 20 years of mostly sitting in a garage. I took the Bendix carburetor apart and cleaned it with a soak in 50/50 Pine Sol and water in addition to using carb cleaner and installing a rebuild kit. It ran pretty well after reassembly and a tune up.”
Joe Hunt in Rancho Cordova, California, has been the go-to shop for any kind of magneto problem since World War II. Tom’s father had the Sportster’s magneto worked on by Hunt many years ago. After Tom got the Sportster running again, the tachometer would not read correctly. He found that the spiral shaft on the magneto that drives the tachometer was stripped. He took the mag back to Hunt (now run by Joe’s son) who rebuilt the unit with stronger magnets. Another change was to replace the original “banana” seat with an aftermarket solo seat.
With the Sportster starting consistently, Tom had the idea of taking it to an Antique Motorcycle Club of America event and have it judged. The AMCA is the largest antique motorcycle club in the U.S. (there are also some overseas branches) and evolved the point judging system. If someone claims they have a 99-point bike, they should be able to show an AMCA judging sheet to prove that claim. The Sportster was judged in the “unrestored” category and, first time out, earned over 85 points and a Junior Second award. “The principal deductions were for the seat and a gearshift lever that my brother and I made, and, of course, that black trim on the fenders.”
Tom continues to ride and maintain his old friend. “I ride it to shows. I went on the Floats and Needles Run in conjunction with the MotoAmerica races at Sonoma Raceway. It had a problem starting when cold, but I figured it out — I have to run the gas out of the carburetor before I turn it off. The metering valve sticks in the seat. It still has an issue with vapor lock when starting hot. I can’t start the bike until it cools off.”
“The handling is a little sluggish, but it’s stable. I have never had spooky things happen, and I used to ride aggressively. The footpegs are beveled off at 45 degrees from grinding on the pavement.” Motorcycle brakes have come a long way since 1969. “At one time I thought the front brake was great. The brakes do work, and with the long brake lever on the front, I can stop the bike. The rear brake is adequate.”
“It’s the bike I will always want. It has character. It’s always fun to ride. It is lighter than the current Sportster. It’s torquey — turn the throttle and it yanks your arms out. When I ride my Sportster, it reminds me of what a kick I got out of it when I was young.” MC