Harley Sportster

January 2, 2009

Harley Davidson Sportster Motorcycle – Brief History

The Harley Sportster is considered by many to be America’s first Musclebike. Light and fast the Sportster was America’s answer to the narrow and lithe British sportbikes of the time. Available now as Sportster 1200 and Sportster 883 rubber mounted models, the Harley Sporster was launched in 1957 as the replacement for Harley K flathead motorcycle. The 1957 Harley Sportster featured a solid mount 55 cubic inch Ironhead engine.

1957 Harley Sportster XL Motorcycle

1957 Harley Sportster XL Motorcycle

The Sportster is a line of motorcycles produced continuously since 1957 by the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Harley Sportster models are designated in More on Harley Davidson Sportster Motorcycle – Brief History

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September 25, 2008

Why I’m a Sportster Guy

On a brilliant Saturday in June of 1969, two weeks shy of my seventeenth birthday, I bought my first Harley Davidson, a 1961 Sportster XLH. It was hi-fi blue and birch white with fiberglass saddlebags, a Zodiac metal-flake seat cover, front and rear crash bars, and the big windshield. I promised my dad I wouldn’t ride it until I got insurance, but the temptation was too great. Later that day, throttle wicked, I passed him going the other direction on Sheridan Road. I think he saw me, but I don’t know for sure.  He never said anything, and I never asked.

I wasn’t looking for a Sportster, not in particular—I just wanted a Harley. For the past year, my best friend Tom Deem and I had spent most of our free time hanging out at George DeMello’s garage, watching him work on motorcycles and soaking up lore. George was the motorcycle mechanic for the local police department, and the garage behind his house was closest thing in town to a Harley shop.

A couple weeks before I bought the Sportster, I’d lost my chance at a 1955 Harley FL Hydra Glide. If we’d left the house a half hour earlier that day, I might be telling you now why I’m a Panhead guy, but as it turned out, my dad was busy in his shop, and it was past noon before I finally shook him loose to look at the bike. We arrived just in time to watch a grungy biker type load my Panhead (along with several baskets of extra parts) into the back of a beat-up Ford pickup truck.

I didn’t speak to my dad for the rest of the week. The asking price for the Panhead had been three-hundred dollars, and I believed I’d never again in my life see such a deal (probably true). My dad actually seemed a little sheepish. He didn’t care much about motorcycles, but it was money I’d earned myself, and even he could recognize a bargain.  Whatever he felt, two weeks later, after the ad for the 1961 XLH ran in the evening paper, he was ready to go at nine.

The bike was on Bainbridge Island, about twenty miles from our house. This time, though, because I‘d prepared myself for disappointment, I wasn’t surprised to find the Sportster already surrounded by a crowd of young men. My dad and I might have driven off right then if the old woman hadn’t come out. She said her husband, a forest ranger, had been called out to fight a fire and wouldn’t be back until late that evening. It was all right, though, if any of us wanted to take the motorcycle out for a ride.

For the next fifteen minutes, my dad and I watched from the front seat of the station wagon as, one after another, the prospective buyers wore themselves out trying to start the bike, none of them getting more than an occasional chuff.  After they gave up, I slipped out of the car.  Half expecting someone to stop me and afraid to look at any of their faces, I climbed on the bike, primed it twice, turned the key, twisted the spark retard, and kicked it again, knowing for certain it was going to start.

I will always love the smell of old Harley motors.

After I returned from a short ride, the ranger’s wife came out with a pen and notepad and took down our names and numbers in the order we’d arrived. I was number nine on the list. The odd thing was, after I’d returned, none of the other guys had taken the bike out for a ride. My dad and I talked about it on the drive home.

Sometime that evening my mom called me to the phone. When I answered, the first thing the caller said was, “Do you have six hundred dollars?” I knew instantly who it was, and my heart sank. Finally I stammered, “No sir, I only have five.” There was a long pause at the other end of the line. I turned and saw both of my parents watching me. I thought I heard the ranger sigh. A few moments later, he told me if I brought the money in the morning the Sportster was mine.

As it turned out, he hadn’t called anyone else on the list. The day before, while everyone was looking at the bike, he’d arrived home through a back entrance but was too exhausted to come outside. He’d stood at the kitchen window, though, and watched me start the bike and take off down the road, and I think he must have felt my joy. He said he’d wanted a Harley all his life, but when he finally got one, he was too damn old to enjoy it.

Over the last thirty-eight years, I’ve owned more than a dozen Harley motorcycles, including a Knucklehead and several Panheads, but I could never bring myself to let that Sportster go. In fact, it’s sitting about fifteen feet away from me as I type. I don’t think the old ranger would recognize it, though. I grew up on the West Coast, after all, and with the advent of “Easyrider” in the early seventies, like most riders then, I felt the need to tear the old Ironhead Sportster down and remake it in the fashion of the times.

The ‘61 is the only Sportster that gets to stay in the house, but out in the shop a ’62 Sportster, a ’65 Sportster, and a ’68 Sportster all wait their turn. The motor for the ’65 is almost done, I’ve got the wheels laced up, and I’ve started bolting parts to the frame. If all goes according to plan, the bike will be ready for the early spring run. Meantime, a week from Friday, I’ll head across the water to Seattle to pick up the last of the parts from the painter, parts that include a hi-fi blue and birch-white turtle tank.


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September 5, 2008

Boat-tail Harley Big Twin FX & Harley Sportster XL

Anyone remember actually seeing a Boat-Tail Harley motorcycle on the road that looked like this? It’s interesting to note these were considered one of the early factory Harley customs due to the narrow Sportster style front end mated up to the Big Twin FX frame and “leading edge” (at the time) style.

These classic Boat-Tail motorcycle seats were available on Big Twins and on Sportsters for a short period of time, but few exist today as most people pulled off these seats and tossed them away as soon as they got home. I guess that was one good way to build the replacement Harley parts business.

The 1971 Harley-Davidson XLH Sportster wasn’t a particularly innovative or successful offering from Harley. But it certainly had a unique look thanks to this limited edition Harley seat design.

The 1971 Harley Sportster XLH was
offered in colors such as Sparkling Turquoise.

1971 harley-davidson xlh sportster motorcycle side view

Harley Sportster Motorcycle With Boat-Tail Seat

The boat-tail rear fender design that graced the Super Glide for 1971 originated on the 1970 Sportster. It didn’t enjoy universal appeal, but it was offered again for the 1971 Sportster as a $60 option.

This Harley Sportster boat-tail rear fender was never popular with Harley buyers when new.

1971 harley-davidson xlh sportster motorcycle fender

Rear Section of Harley Sportster Boat-Tail Seat

Also Harley factory color options were the red, white, and blue Sparkling America paint scheme, along with colors such as the Sparkling Turquoise shown in this Sportster. None proved popular enough to warrant a return engagement for 1972.

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