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History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Blowing Away Big Twins Since 1957

In 1957, Elvis Presley released the hit song "All Shook Up", the first Frisbee was produced, and the Harley-Davidson Sportster model motorcycle was introduced. Known as the XL series, the Sportster is still being produced today, and it retains its status of being one of the world's most popular motorcycles.

Leo Payne drag racing the "Turnip Eater" Ironhead. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Leo Payne drag racing the "Turnip Eater" Ironhead.

The Sportster is a direct descendent of Harley's legendary but sometimes-overlooked Model K series. The middleweight K model was introduced in 1952, with a 45 cubic inch flathead engine, and a unit construction four-speed transmission that was contained inside the engine cases. Later models of the K series Harleys were equipped with 55 cubic-inch engines.

Harley-Davidson 1952 K Model. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Harley-Davidson 1952 K Model.

The K model Harleys were the first models to sport a hand-clutch and a foot-gear shifter. The design was opposite that of the Harley-Davidson Big-Twin models, with the foot-brake lever on the left side of the bike, and the gear-shifter on the right side.

One of the mechanical advances offered on the K models was the inclusion of hydraulic suspension systems on both wheels. The K models were the first civilian cycles made by Harley-Davidson that featured hydraulic front forks, and a swing-arm in the rear that contained two shock absorbers.

When the Sportster debuted, it closely resembled the K models in appearance, but the K model's 45 cubic-inch engine was replaced with a more powerful 54 cubic-inch, overhead-valve powerplant that was known as the ironhead motor because of the iron cylinder heads that were used. Ironhead motors were used to power Sportsters from 1957 through 1985.

In 1986 the ironhead engines were replaced with the new Evolution engine. The "Evo" motors were available in 883 cc and 1,100 cc sizes.

Harley-Davidson 1957 XL Sportster. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Harley-Davidson 1957 XL Sportster.

The dynamic new Sportster represented the start of a new era in American motorcycling. The model was created in part to provide some real competition to the British Triumphs, BSAs and Nortons that were becoming increasingly popular with American riders. The price of a brand new XL Sportster in 1957 was approximately $1,100.

With its fresh and dynamic appearance, the Sportster became appealing to motorcycle consumers almost immediately. Not only was this cycle as sleek and exciting as the British imports, but it was more powerful, and it was a Harley-Davidson!

By the time the 1958 XLCH models came out, the Sportster engines featured higher compression, with larger valves and domed pistons. The iconic peanut fuel tank also made its entrance that year.

Sportsters made from 1957 through 1990 were outfitted with four-speed transmissions, while models made since 1991 have five-speed gearboxes. The earlier models that had the gear-shift lever on the right side were inspired by Harley-Davidson's impressive flat track racing history.

With minimal parts, being a lot smaller and less weight then big twins, Ironheads made great choppers. Photo labeled Jul - 68. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs With minimal parts, being a lot smaller and less weight then big twins, Ironheads made great choppers. Photo labeled Jul - 68

By the mid-1960s, Sportsters had become very popular with the motorcycling public, and were often being customized. The Sportster's relatively light weight and clean lines made it an ideal cycle to transform into a chopper or bobber.

The basic image of motorcycling in those days was sometimes portrayed in a negative light, and Harley-Davidson consistently presented the Sportster in a clean and positive manner.

 A full color, multi-panel print advertisement for the 1967 Sportster shows a wholesome looking couple riding an XLH through the countryside, and a conservative-looking gentleman riding an XLCH through picturesque rural areas. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs A full color, multi-panel print advertisement for the 1967 Sportster shows a wholesome looking couple riding an XLH through the countryside, and a conservative-looking gentleman riding an XLCH through picturesque rural areas.

From 1969 to 1970, a major network TV show named "Then Came Bronson" was on the air. The program starred Michael Parks as a former newspaper reporter who traveled around on a 1969 XLH Sportster. The show can still be seen in reruns, and is available on DVD.

While the various Sportster models have generally been very well-received by the public through the years, a small percentage of people have claimed that they are too small and lightweight to be considered "real" Harleys. Somewhere along the way, somebody decided to call Sportsters "girl's" or "beginners" bikes.

Although the origin of Sportsters being called "girl's" or "beginners" bikes is unknown, it is sometimes attributed to disgruntled Big-Twin owners who were actually jealous of the faster, smaller bikes. Another theory is that the term was devised by an envious sidewalk commando/biker-poser. No matter where the ridiculous term originated, the Sportster suffers from no inadequacy issues, and the term is rarely used today.

During the years that the AMF corporation owned Harley-Davidson, from 1969 to 1981, the company produced a respectable lineup of Sportster models. There were detractors, however, who claimed that the overall quality of the AMF-era Harleys was less-than satisfactory.

Paul Smith created this poster to celebrate the four founding fathers of Harley-Davidson for the 1976 U.S. bicentennial. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Paul Smith created this poster to celebrate the four founding fathers of Harley-Davidson for the 1976 U.S. bicentennial.

Some motorcycle enthusiasts and collectors think that the Sportsters produced under AMF's ownership were the most attractive of all Sportster models. To this day, the gas tanks in particular from AMF-era Sportsters are highly sought after collector's items.

Among the AMF-era Sportster models that were produced were the Bicentennial Edition in 1976, and the Confederate model from 1977. Designed to honor America's 200th birthday, the Bicentennial Edition bikes were basically regular Sportsters that had special patriotic decals affixed to the gas and oil tanks.

The Confederate Edition Sportster was comprised of XLH, XLCH, and XLT models that featured metallic gray paint with decals that included the Confederate flag. Less than 400 of these largely unknown Sportster models were produced.

In 1972, the standard 900 cc engine was replaced with a 1,000 cc overhead-valve motor. 1975 brought about the government-mandated gear-shifter switch to the left side, and 1979 was the last year that the kickstart-only XLCH model was produced. From 1977 to 1979, Harley produced the 1,000 cc XLCR Cafe Racer, and from 1979-1982 they made the XLS Roadster, with its 2" fork extension, sissy bar and highway pegs.

Evel Kinevel on his XR-750. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Evel Kinevel on his XR-750.

During the 1970s, stunt rider Evel Knievel thrilled audiences around the world with his incredible aerial motorcycle jumps over various objects. The type of bike that Mr. Knievel used for many years was the Harley-Davidson XR-750. Stunt riders Bubba Blackwell and Doug Danger have also utilized the XR-750 in their motorcycle jumps.

A close cousin to the Sportster, the XR-750 has been produced since 1970, and has won more races than any other motorcycle in AMA racing history. Due to consumer demand, Harley-Davidson introduced a street-legal Sportster version of the XR-750 called the XR-1000 in 1983.

In addition to the large impact the Sportster has had on the world of recreational motorcycling, this legendary American bike has also made quite an impact on the world of motorcycle racing.

Leo Payne became the first person to reach over 200 mph with a non-streamliner in 1969 on his 1957 Ironhead called the "Turnip Eater". History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Leo Payne became the first person to reach over 200 mph with a non-streamliner in 1969 on his 1957 Ironhead called the "Turnip Eater".

One of the most famous motorcycle racers of all time was Leo Payne. In 1969, while riding his custom-built Sportster, Mr. Payne was the first person to reach a speed of over 200 mph on a non-streamliner motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Cal Rayborn hit a land speed record of 265.492 mph in this single Ironhead motor powered streamliner at Bonneville in 1970. Harley-Davidson held that record over 5 years. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Cal Rayborn hit a land speed record of 265.492 mph in this single Ironhead motor powered streamliner at Bonneville in 1970. Harley-Davidson held that record over 5 years.

In 1970, a racer named Cal Rayborn broke the world land speed record for a motorcycle, at the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. The streamliner motorcycle that Mr. Rayborn utilized attained speeds over 260 mph, and was powered by a single Sportster engine.

Kickstarters were replaced with electric starters on all Sportsters in 1980, and the stripped-down XLX61 model was introduced in 1983.

"Don't let the special low price confuse you, this is no foreign imitation." - Harley-Davidson ad for the release of the 1983 XLX-61. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs "Don't let the special low price confuse you, this is no foreign imitation." - Harley-Davidson ad for the release of the 1983 XLX-61.

The Sportster Hugger came on the scene in 1988, and its smaller size was designed to attract beginner, and female riders. This model was essentially an XLH 883 with a lowered rear suspension, different seat, handlebars, and shocks. The Hugger models are actually very similar to the modern "Low" models. Also in 1988, the 1,100 cc Sportster motor was replaced with a 1200 cc engine.

In 1993, the chain drive on Sportsters was replaced with a belt drive, and the following year the electrical systems on the Sportster line was upgraded. The XL 1200C Custom model Sportster arrived on the scene in 1996.

Changes to the Sportster in 2004 included an enclosed battery, the removal of the transmission access door, and a new frame that featured rubber engine mounts. All Sportster models began using fuel injection in place of carburetors in 2007.

2008 Harley-Davidson came out with the XR1200. It only lasted a 3 year stint on the market. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs 2008 Harley-Davidson came out with the XR1200. It only lasted a 3 year stint on the market.

In 2008, Harley-Davidson entered the modern sportbike market with the debut of the XR1200 Sportster. Somewhat inspired by the XR-750, this model was phased-out in 2011.

In recent years, Harley-Davidson has produced an assortment of factory model 'custom'-style Sportsters. For example, the XL1200V "Seventy-Two" model Sportster is a factory model custom that is inspired by 1970s chopper and bobber-style customs. Introduced in 2012, this stripped-down model features whitewall tires, a peanut fuel tank, pin-striping, high handlebars and metal flake paint.

Other factory model custom-style Sportsters made by Harley-Davidson include the 883 cc and 1200 cc SuperLow, the XL 1200X Forty-Eight, the Iron 883, and the blackened-out Nightster.

Harley-Davidson 2015 XL1200V "Seventy-Two" model Sportster. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Harley-Davidson 2015 XL1200V "Seventy-Two" model Sportster.

As the Sportster has evolved through the years, Harley-Davidson has added technological improvements, but the vibrant and exciting bike that debuted in 1957 has stayed true to its roots.

It's hard to believe that the Sportster is now 60 years old. With the variety of advances that the model has experienced, the Sportster has become a classic American machine that requires very little maintenance.

Now an iconic part of American culture, the lean and mean Harley-Davidson Sportster is as relevant as it ever was. The model has settled comfortably into the 2000s, and continues to attract new generations of enthusiasts.

Over the past 10 years, Sportsters have experienced another surge in popularity with riders of all ages. Being a fast, attractive, and inexpensive bike that also happens to be a Harley-Davidson makes the Sportster a very appealing vehicle.

Lowbrow Customs Sportster built by The Gasbox. Tons of Lowbrow parts including our Shotgun Pipes, Tsunami fender, Fork Shrouds, and Tapered Fork lowers. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Lowbrow Customs Sportster built by The Gasbox. Tons of Lowbrow parts including our Shotgun Pipes, Tsunami fender, Fork Shrouds, and Tapered Fork lowers.

Even though the various models are just fine in their natural stock form, Sportsters are great bikes to customize.

Lots of Sportster owners like to individualize their bikes by adding custom gas tanks, exhausts, fenders, handlebars and other parts. Whether it be a bobber, chopper, cafe racer, tracker, or roadster-style custom, the Sportster always looks good.

With more than a half-century of production under its belt now, the Harley-Davidson Sportster is still one of the world's most popular motorcycles. It will be interesting to see which direction this classic American motorcycle takes in the future.

Jay Cagney's '78 Ironhead chopper on our cross country trip in 2016. It did over 3600 miles and rand like a champ. History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Lowbrow Customs Jay Cagney's '78 Ironhead chopper on our cross country trip in 2016. It did over 3600 miles and rand like a champ.

8 thoughts on “History of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: Blowing Away Big Twins Since 1957”

  • Nice article. A 1966 XLCH was the first bike I ever lusted after. Light(-ish), fast and affordable with great lines.

    Reply
  • great article! i started out at age 12, on big twins, moving to the front seat at age 13. i had a 1950 rigid frame pan and a 1978 low rider, both customized to fit my small frame. the only experience on sportys i had was as an occasional passenger, until i graduated *up* to them in 2009, when a friend gifted me piglet, his 2002 XL883R (with a 1200 conversion, and some other high performance work). in 2014, i added a 2009 XL1200N (a nightster named imp) to my collection, and currently am eyeballing an XL1200T. you can never have too many bikes- different types of riding require different bikes.

    fell in love with sportys, as they are perfect for the type of riding i do- some highway (which i don't like, even in a cage), local roads, and back roads (the twistier, the better!); city, town, and country environs; and short, medium, and long distance rides. in other words, every kind of riding that can be done. if it can be done, you can bet that someone, somewhere, has set up a sporty to do it.

    some day, i may once again add a big twin to the stable (softail convertible, softail slim, or a springer softail, but definitely a member of the softail family, as i love the hardtail look, but appreciate the comfort of a sprung frame) but i will *never* give up my sportys!!!

    Reply
  • Chris Stewart March 7, 2017 at 2:12 am

    I was able to finish my 1975 Ironhead this past summer with lots of help and parts from Lowbrow. Very nice article. Now its time to start my 87 883!

    Reply
  • Can't beat my 94 xlh

    Great article!

    Reply
  • I like my 57, just can't kick it anymore (bad knees). Guess I'll have to slow down and stick to my softail. Anyone want to buy a girls bike.

    Reply
    • I have had ALOT of fun on Sportsters over the years. Including Ice Racing (with a sidehack), Hilclimbs, Drag Race, Dirt Drags, and now with my son riding Landspeed Racing on my '77 XLCR at Bonneville. All aboard Ironhead XL's :-)

      Reply
  • ernest sanchez April 12, 2017 at 8:47 am

    sportsters go fast, am still working on my 2011 sportster 48, adding this taking off that , lowbrow customs are my dudes , oh yeah good article

    Reply
  • I have had ALOT of fun over the years on Sportsters. Ice Racing (with a sidehack), Hillclimbing, Drag Race, Dirt Drags, and with son riding my '77 XLCR at Bonneville. All on board Ironhead XL's. :-)

    Reply
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