You’ll get a kick out of this! (Or not) You haven’t been able to buy a new Harley-Davidson with a factory-equipped kick starter for 31 years. Sportsters haven’t come with one for 38 years! Yet, the desire for a kicker has never really gone way. In fact, it seems to be increasing. This got me thinking about kick starters… or maybe more specifically the bikes that have them, the bikes that can have them if they want them, the bikes that can’t, a curious demographic that wants one… and a new twist.
Bill Harley got his patent (#1184345) for a “motor starter” in May 1916, a scant 11 months before Charley Gustafson got his (#1217300) for Indian’s version. I’m pretty sure Bill knew even then that this was one for the ages. After all, Indian had introduced (of all things) an electric starter two years before, and it flopped mightily! (Mostly due to crappy batteries of the day.) But the attempt underscored the need to get rid of the bicycle pedals (and pedaling) used to start damn near every motorcycle on earth at the time. Engines were getting bigger, pedaling getting harder… it was time for something better. So when Bill’s invention appeared on the 1916-model Harleys, the marketing folks (though probably not called that—then) hyped the hell out of the “step starter,” as they named it. It was appropriate! It worked… and Harley Big Twin motorcycles used them until 1986! You could say Bill got it right… and Indian got what’s left… left side that is… for a couple decades. When Indians finally got their kicker right… on the right side… it was a little late. Another story…
Anyway, as most would know, when Harley tried the electric start thing 50-some years after Indian’s abortive attempt… it worked. It’s tempting to say, the rest is history… but a lot of the back story isn’t. There was a time, a fairly short one in hindsight, when most big street bikes sold in America had both a kick starter and an electric starter. Yeah, let that soak in for a bit. For a scant few years, lots of motorcycles, including Harleys, came with both an electric and a kick starter! Every major manufacturer sold these hybrids for most of a decade. Some for less. Some for more. Harley for a bit longer that any of the rest. Partly, because motorcycle riders, then as now, are a conservative bunch and the new “button bikes” weren’t to be trusted. Partly, because not every machine so-equipped was originally designed to have electric starters… some were grafted on to existing engines… like Harleys. Partly, because (before cell phones) if the early-version electric starters failed, you still wanted to get home (without a tow truck or a long push) and kickers were the best backup system… tried and true! It was all a sort of stair-step progression to the day when electric starters (and electronic ignitions) relegated Bill’s kicker to the trash heap of history. But it didn’t… not totally, as we’ll see.
For instance, where Harleys are concerned, kick starters on Sportsters only lasted for seven years after the engine was enlarged to 1000cc. Big Sportys (any of ’em much larger than 883cc) are a bear to kick. Vast displacement and high-ish compression, and mechanical advance units with points ignitions, conspire against leg muscles. Meanwhile, improved e-starters were/are willing and able to take up the slack. Iron Sportys in particular never benefited from the so-called compound starters or electronic updates that Big Twins got in the late 80’s… so for them the end came in 1979. It was logical.
On the other hand, kick starters on Big Twins were a sales feature (gimmick?) right up to the end of the four-speed era and the beginning of the Evo era. Long after the reality of booting 80” engines was… well… mostly a fantasy! After all, it was flatly naive to believe that your 1986 Wide Glide could be prodded to life with your leg… if the battery couldn’t feed the electronic ignition its “threshold voltage”… something like 12.7 volts. (Some guys back then were serious about kicking and almost inevitably they switched back to points to use the kicker.) The point is, as time and technology marched on, there simply ceased to be a rational reason for kick starters on motorcycles. Sportsters from 1980–on and Big Twins with five-speed or six-speed transmissions do without. At least as far as the factory is concerned! No great loss to boomers and geezers who shudder at the prospect of “step” starting their engines. Lots of these people grew up and grew old kicking a motorcycle to life… many remember when you had to buy an electric “start kit” for hogs that only came with kicker! Been there, done that, got the scars. No more… please!
But… that demographic I mentioned at the beginning is not those people! Millennials, GenX types… hell anyone… young, strong and getting into Harleys… tends to wax nostalgic about booting a V-twin. The vast majority started out on bikes with electric starters. Crazy as it sounds, Bill Harley’s legacy is in the mental association of Harley Twins and kick starters, in the minds of these folks. They know who they are and they want to kick! Or at least add the kicker to their Harley. Kind of comes under the heading of “even if you never need it, it’s nice to know it’s there” at any cost! Besides, dang nab it… they look cool at the pub!
The ever-slavish aftermarket has been coming up with ways and means to get this done for decades. They don’t care why, but sure do address how… some better than others.
As mentioned, you can add a kicker to any Iron Sportster up to 1979 with any number of aftermarket offerings. Most are all inclusive, everything you need, including the all-important sprocket cover with… The Hole. Some prefer to pick and choose, not without justification, getting the best-quality pieces from whatever source offers them…including NOS stocks, surprisingly still to be found on occasion. While it’s theoretically possible even 1980 and later Iron Sportsters could have a kicker, the nosebleed levels of effort, dedication, machining and cash effectively rules it out completely. (It winds up, as my dad used to say, an exercise in “putting a $100 saddle on a $5 horse!”) Big Twin owners have it a lot easier, albeit a lot trickier. There are kicker add-ons available for four-speed, five-speed, and six-speed transmissions, as you would expect. (Although there’s no kit that works with the ’80–’86 five-speed end cover. That, along with the release mechanism, has to be changed to ’87-and-later configuration.) Most are foreign made and a bit of a “buyer beware” proposition in terms of quality and long-term reliability… presuming you actually intend to use it. All the same, at least one foreign company makes one of the best on the market. Muller in Germany has gone to the trouble of re-designing kicker innards to handle the loads of modern mega-motors, rather than using the same basic stuff Bill Harley came up with a century ago when engines weren’t quite so stout!
The go-to outfit here in the states has to be Baker Drivetrain… up to, including, and beyond… six-speeds in a four-speed box plus kicker… but bring your wallet! Quality is no object, but neither is cost. (Is this the right place for the old saying, “You get what you pay for?”)
Swap meets are also relatively rampant with NOS, and used genuine parts for four-speeds, but be apprised the factory never made kickers for five- and six-speed bikes. So for newer stuff it’s all aftermarket… all the way!
That kind of leaves the hot bed for cool kickers… for last. Namely, Evo Sportsters and among these, especially the rubber-mount (’04–on) models. These machines are what the new kicker-prone demographic typically has, yet these are the bikes hardest to add one to. While there’s not much hope for any XL from 1980–1989 (except the dim glimmer of opportunity we’ll get to), for five-speed bikes from 1991–2003 there’s a design originating with Led Sled Customs (and cheaper clones of it). Their kit includes: Andrews main shaft, raw alloy sprocket cover, kicker “guts” (springs, gears and hardware), and kicker arm, but no pedal. Since these bikes have trap doors on the trannies, the idea of changing the main shaft isn’t overwhelming. The rest of the installation is “bolt-on” with the exception of relocating the rear master cylinder. Not mid-control friendly, but forward controls are fine… as are stock pipes… so there!
Rubber-mount XLs are a definite challenge, not least because these machines do not have trap doors in their transmissions. Consequently, a functional mechanical “tribute” to Bill Harley is out of the question. But hey! This is the 21st century after all. What Bill did in 1916 can be replicated in a computer-age context with a nifty setup by a company called EMD (Esteves Motorcycle Design) in France. (Who, it must be added, makes the same type of kit for ’91–’03 XLs.) Available in raw aluminum for ’04–’17 XL models, it won’t work with stock exhausts or mid-controls, but it does work… like this: The kicker kit (with arm and pedal) replaces the stock sprocket cover, and once installed, stroking the arm through actuates a rugged 12V micro switch, easily custom wired into the main harness, located inside the cover, thus starting the motorcycle… albeit electrically! Nifty! Now… about that glimmer for ’80–’89 Sportys. Seems to me, with enough demand the good folks at EMD might be persuaded to come up with one of their “electro-kickers” for that application. Wouldn’t that be slick? I’ll even go one better. How about H-D adapting or adopting the concept in order to offer a kick starter (of sorts) on brand new models? Why not?