The Sportster is one of Harley Davidson’s most iconic motorcycle lines, yet it’s also one of the most polarizing. Either you love the motorcycle’s versatile design, with its iconic twin-shock rear suspension and “peanut” gas tank, or you think it’s an abominable creation for novice riders and women.
For those who are fans of the Sportster, no other motorcycle can compare. Elvis Presley was firmly in this camp and can be seen riding upon his two-tone “Deluxe” KH on the front of his Return of the Rocker compilation album.
While the Harley Davidson XL, commonly known as the Sportster, firmly arrived on the map during the 1950s, the landscape was primed for its arrival several decades prior, during WW2.
In the 1940s, US soldiers got a taste for many aspects of foreign culture - high on the list was a newfound appreciation for British motorcycles. The lightweight, minimalistic designs found in British motorcycles caused returning servicemen to customize their motorcycles (this preceded the rise of the American bobber and chopper).
The stylistic demands of American motorcycle enthusiasts continued to evolve, and in the 1950s, British motorcycle companies started exporting heavily to America to capitalize on the booming postwar economy. Because consumers were demanding faster, lightweight motorcycles, Harley Davidson needed to rapidly innovate in order to avoid getting blown out of the marketplace by foreign competitors.
In 1952, Harley Davidson introduced the K series - the most sophisticated bike on the market to date. It was capable of a top speed of over 100 miles per hour and immediately became popular with young, thrill seeking riders. This motorcycle was the predecessor of the Sportster, which shortly followed in 1957.
Innovation and mass adoption
The Sportster had the same beautifully shaped gas tank, front suspension and fenders of the K series, but the engine marked a significant step forward.
The 55-cubic-inch pushrod overhead valve engine allowed for better breathing, a higher rpm and improved cruising speed. It’s cast iron cylinder heads resulted in the engine being known as the Ironhead - now a part of motorcycle lore. This engine was used until 1985 when it was replaced by the Evolution engine.
Less than 2,000 Sportsters were built in the first year of production, but in subsequent years, demand increased. In 1960, over 2,700 units were built and by the Sportster’s pinnacle in 1974, this number had increased to over 23,000! This surge in popularity came after 1972, when displacement increased from 883 cc to 1,000 cc.
In 1977 and 1978, Harley Davidson became swept up in the cafe racer craze, releasing the Cafe Racer XL which was based on the classic Sportster, but with cafe racer stylistic alterations. This model was dropped in 1979, along with many of Harley Davidson’s small motorcycles - leaving the Sportster as the brand’s smallest displacement (still 1,000 cc).
In the 1980s, more innovations took place.
In 1986, the Ironhead engine was finally retired and replaced with the new Evolution engine. This engine was lighter in weight than the previous Ironhead, with aluminium cylinders and heads which resulted in better durability and less oil leakage.
Subsequently, Harley Davidson started offering 883 cc and 1200 cc variants of the new Evolution engine. Naturally, the 1200 cc variant was the most popular and it became the standard protocol to have one.
Also in the late 1980s, Harley Davidson introduced the Sportster Hugger, which featured a low seat height and received a polarized reception. The Hugger is the reason that the Sportster has feminine associations, as this motorcycle was initially designed to entice female riders towards the brand.
To this day, the Sportster is regarded as an excellent motorcycle choice for women, as well as men with shorter statures. This is because it’s the smallest of the three Harley Davidson engine categories, and it offers excellent maneuverability - however, it doesn’t have the beefy, masculine look often associated with the brand.
Minor innovations continued in the 1990s.
In 1991, Sportsters received five speed transmission and the chaindrive was replaced with a belt in 1993. Belts helped with noise reduction and made the bikes require less maintenance.
The modern era
Unlike other motorcycle styles, which soared to notoriety and vanished just as quickly, the Sportster casually rolled into the 21st century with a loyal fanbase. In 2000, the motorcycle received upgrades to its internal transmission system, front brake calipers, crankshaft and wheel bearings.
With constantly changing consumer demands, Harley Davidson decided to give the Sportster a more significant revamp in 2004.
Historically, metal mounts were used to join the motors and chassis. As a new innovation, insulated motor mounts were used to reduce vibration and create a larger, more masculine aesthetic. This made the motorcycle weigh more, and the cost also increased. The transmission door was also scrapped and the exhaust balance pipe was relocated to showcase the motor.
As gas prices soared with the war in the Middle East and the popularity of the gas guzzling chopper waned, fuel efficiency became a concern of motorcycle enthusiasts - so the Sportster made the change to fuel injection.
In 2007, the XR 1200 was released, utilizing fuel injection technology. It was immediately cherished by Sportster fans. The ride was fast, highly maneuverable and nice to look at - although the detailing certainly wasn’t popular with everyone.
In 2017, the Sportster range is still going strong and a variety of models are available for purchase from Harley Davidson. The Superlow is notable for its low seat, low centre of gravity and adjustable suspension, which makes it perfect for cruising, whereas the Roadster is renowned for its agility and garage-built custom style.
Perhaps most notable of the modern Sportster range is the Forty-Eight, known for its fat front end, adjustable rear suspension and cast aluminium wheels. The Forty-Eight represents the minimalistic style associated with the Sportster series, yet benefits from modern engineering and a beastly 1200 cc Evolution engine.
Pictured above: 2016 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight
In addition to the stylistic and performance attributes, Sportsters are popular because the aftermarket parts available to them are vast. Many custom builders choose Sportsters as their base models because of the huge array of design options available to them.
Whether you love or hate the Sportster, you cannot dispute its iconic status and enduring appeal.