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Sportster History

Part 1: Early Sportsters

First off, why an article about the Harley-Davidson Sportster? That's easy. I used to own a 1994 Sportster XLH-1200, and I wanted to learn more about the history of the Sportster. Also, this venerable model has been around a long time and has a legion of devoted fans -- and detractors. The Sportster has multiple personalities. We'll explore some of them here.

Part 2 of this article will discuss Evolution Sportsters & Racing.

The Harley-Davidson Sportster was first sold in 1957. That makes it one of the longest continuously produced motorcycle models. In all that time, a lot of people have ridden Sportsters and a lot of changes have occurred to improve the model. Of course, a lot of rider opinions have been formed too.

Much of the information contained in this article came from several books: Harley Davidson Sportster by Allan Girdler and Ron Hussey; Harley-Davidson Data Book by Rick Conner; and Complete Harley Davidson: A Model-by-Model History of the American Motorcycle by Tod Rafferty. No attempt has been made to cover all Sportster models in the following. Consult the books referred to for more details and some good reading.

The Sportster was given a model number that began with the letter "X" since X was the next available letter in the alphabet that Harley had not previously used. It was known as the Sportster XL. (Actually Harley also used the "X" for its wartime model, the XA, that was basically a copy of a BMW model.) Harley normally applies the "L" to a model as the first step toward more power.

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The Sportster was developed to compete with imports. It featured a right-hand shift, 4-speeds and full suspension. Its engine had cast iron heads, developed 40 bhp with a 3.0 inch bore and 3.81 inch stroke. It was a 55 ci OHV V-twin with a 7.5:1 compression ratio. Its displacement was also referred to in CCs however to differentiate it from the other Harley models. The factory identified it both as a 55ci and an 883cc machine. The first Sportster cost $1103 and 1,983 machines were sold in 1957.

By 1958, the Sportster XLH model was added. Harley historically added an "H" to designate the second step beyond a basic model. Some would say that the "H" stood for High-Compression.

In 1966, the "Ham-can" air cleaner cover was added to the Sportster and gave it a distinctive look.

Early models had a toolkit but that disappeared in 1967 when a battery and new electric starter needed the space.

The shorty dual exhausts were a $30 option in 1971 but were outlawed in California and Detroit, Michigan.

Front disc brakes were added in 1973 but required a strong grip to get stopped.

In 1974, Harley added a return spring to the throttle under a government safety order. Up to that time, the throttle stayed where you put it and riders got used to riding that way.

Various other models appeared including the 1983 XLX-61 that was a black stripped-down model with no other name. It had a solo seat, peanut tank and one front disc brake.

=> Page 2: Evolution Sportsters & Racing

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