I was all about the Sportsters of the ’50s and ’60s. Somehow, though, ’70s Sportys lost their allure. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment. What’s odd is that Sportsters never sold better than in that decade. Why that was the case might take a little 20/20 hindsight to explain.
First, there’s that allure thing… and some rose-colored glasses, I suppose. Meaning the last great Iron XL was built in 1970. In ’71 someone at the factory determined Sportster dry clutches were problematic. Never mind that it was true for the casual rider who knew not and cared less, until it slipped. For the Sportster connoisseur and sporting enthusiast it was a glitch that could be dealt with rather easily and, in fact, that clutch continued its long life in XR750s, holding more horsepower than street Sportys ever made because when it worked, it worked great. Net result was a “dumbing down” of the ’71 XL, saddled as it was with a new, weaker wet clutch that was never up to the task and over the long term more riddled with flaws than its predecessor. Next, in ’72 was the push to 1000cc—or 61 inches, in Harley parlance. There was a bit of magic and a lot of history and tradition in that particular displacement, since the original OHV Knucklehead was—not coincidentally—the same size when it was born in 1936, some 36 years earlier. Thing is, by then AMF had its corporate hand on the factory throttle (about which, more in a minute) so it was done in a rush (and poorly). The next year, 1973, saw the thing done right, with case studs re-spaced and more, but by then the de-tuned Sportster had a host of fresh, foreign, so-called superbikes to contend with and had already lost the horsepower wars—and my attention.
American Machine and Foundry (AMF) had also done something bizarre with the marketing of Harley-Davidsons. They made them hip, with print ads featuring long hair and bell-bottoms and the insinuation that the “nicest people on a Honda” thing was basically bunk. After all, the surprising success of the movie Easy Rider had already made the case for them, so all they had to do was capitalize on it. That they certainly did, and soon enough Sportys were selling like hot cakes and kept it up throughout the decade. Sadly, the marketing and the building were two altogether different things. As everyone who was there at the time recalls, Sportsters were way too close to junk, shoddily and hurriedly assembled, seemingly shipped with no regard for quality control and a warranty department’s nightmare in those days. It didn’t help that the engineering department kept messing around with things, mostly frames, that improved nothing and resulted in everything from Harley’s first recall (for frame cracking in 1973) to exhaust pipe hell in 1979 when nothing fit!
Then there was the café racer! It was like Joe the Plumber dressed in a Batman suit, with no Christian Bale in sight! Let’s be clear; Willy G. did a masterful job of styling, but the bike wasn’t up to the task at all. The CR even had its own special chassis (yet another one), but did not do what a café racer was supposed to do (especially a factory-built CR) by comparison with any of the few from other companies. Handling was average, brakes were marginal, power was a generation behind—therefore a decent rider on a regular XL could do just as well in any measure of performance.
The last three model years—1982 through 1985—were the rebound years for the Iron Sportster. As soon as AMF was gone, the “new” company redeemed the X platform with better generators, improved electrics, stronger brakes, upgraded gearbox, far better frames (finally!) and much more—not least of which was the long-awaited return to a high-quality manufacture and the XLX. Sold as a stripped price leader by the company, the XLX had the same appeal to Sportster fans as the Speedster did to Porsche freaks, and for the same reasons. It was an essential and elemental machine with no fat and no frills. The XLX reminded folks of the XLCH, but without the drawbacks of kick starting and the necessity of being mechanically inclined and empathetic to get the most out of one. In other words, right for its time and very ’80s!
Which reminds me; perhaps the cleverest and best quality of the Sportster, then as now, was unchanging character. Never perfect, not the most potent beast out there, but always true to the essence of American motorcycling. Ironically, that’s why in the sea of change that swirled around it in those decades, the fact that it was refined, but did not fundamentally change, is what saved it. The XL is still standing! Name any of its contemporaries from that era that can say the same—there simply aren’t any. A testimony for consistency (and a known commodity) if ever there was one, the Iron XL went out in 1985 as it came in 28 years earlier… an honest motorcycle.
Almost 28 years ago, a worthy successor appeared on the scene, in the form of the Evolution Sportster. Still a four-speed, blessed with an alternator and built from the bottom end up to address every concern a rider might have, the new machine in retrospect might now seem a stop-gap design. After all, the four-speed Evo XL had the shortest production run of all—a paltry five years. I suspect the short run was a result of problems in the long run, notably regarding the clutch-cum-rotor arrangement and the fragile shift pawl issues that haunted these bikes all along. Both tended to bite the owner after the warranty expired and did nothing to enhance the reputation Sportsters had at the time of being a mere entry-level Harley; the one you bought to get into the game until you could trade up to a Big Twin. Thing is, that mentality kept the good qualities of the Evo X-engine off the radar of many riders. Once again, the folks who understood and appreciated Sportsters as Sportsters were the biggest winners. Quick, reliable, good handling and, well, balanced performers in ways Big Twins couldn’t be, Evo XLs functioned properly as motorcycles!
Harley-Davidson, for reasons ranging from insurance rates to pricing structures to time-honored tradition, decided to abandon the 1000cc displacement category, replacing it with a two-fold approach. There was the insurance premium, price-point-friendly, less-intimidating 883cc bike, harkening back to the original “900” Sportster’s actual displacement. Then there was something quite different—an 1100cc version! Arguably the rarest of the Evo XLs, these bikes were born loaded for bear—and ran accordingly. Sort of lost in the mists of time, details like the fact the 1100 had heads remarkably similar to the “bathtub” design (made famous and effective by Jerry Branch) complete with huge valves and clean ports to go with those trick combustion chambers, meant that this engine was a top-end “breather”—par excellence! This machine was a stab at reincarnating the XLCH/XLR performance rep—pure and simple. Trouble is, it wasn’t what folks who bought big-inch Sportys wanted in the ’80s. Instead the market demand was for mid-range torque and smooth running, so the 1100 died a quick death in favor of the 1200cc Sportster introduced in 1988. The extra 100cc masked a re-tuning that included open chamber heads with smaller valves, which got the desired result at the expense of top-end power—and a certain degree of fuel-fussy “pinging” behavior that lasted throughout the XL1200’s original design life.
The ’90s were a big decade for Sportsters fans, kicking off with the new five-speed transmission in 1991. A cool alternator setup and some other design details got the XL into a rarified “zone” of nearly zero problems, right outta the gate. By that I mean compared to Big Twins, the damn things were near bulletproof mechanically; leak free, quick, reliable, durable, easy to service, cheap to keep and a whole lot more. Two fundamental foibles remained—namely oil puking out the air cleaner after a high-speed charge and, yeah, they vibrated!
Then miraculously, along came this fella Erik Buell and Sportster performance, indeed its entire future, met with a renaissance on all fronts, the likes of which we haven’t seen the last of yet! We’ll talk about that soon…