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Motorhead Memo: Past perfected

By Kip Woodring

It was baseball great Yogi Berra who put it this way: “If you come to a fork in the road—take it!” To my mind (what’s left of it) that “fork” loomed large for Sportsters in the fall of 1982. The chassis had been sorted pretty well the year before and everyone “knew” the four-speed iron engine was on its way out—at the end of its development, even though it was better than ever. There were signs, some obvious and some not, that a newly-resurgent Harley-Davidson was onto and up to something. The trick would be to guess which fork the factory would take in the search for competitive power for the Sportster line. Practically nobody guessed right. Including, as it turned out, the factory.

Motorhead Memo: Past perfected

Here’s the watershed machine in person. Not a great machine in its own right, but make no mistake, there is greatness indeed in the events and equipment it led to in the end. Made for only two model years and very collectible, the XR100,0 as delivered to the public, was hobbled by emissions and compromises in its execution, yet marketed as a race bike for the street… which it wasn’t.

Harley has this habit of dealing with development of their machines in a sort of “Let’s-do-the-motor-then-do-the-cycle-then-do-the-motor-then-do-the-cycle” continuous loop. This behavior is generally incremental, occasionally innovative, and once in a blue moon… unexpected.


Let’s do the motor—1983

For nearly a decade fans had been clamoring for a street-legal version of the all-conquering XR750, but to no avail. In 1983 they got it (sort of) in the form of the XR1000, a bike H-D had said they couldn’t make, then did, in about 90 days. Using an Iron Sporty bottom end and chassis, the factory grafted an XR-style top end onto the Sportster platform and voila! Well, maybe not. You see the XR1000 was a machine full of compromises and issues and never was as great as everyone had hoped. It was also damn near twice as expensive as the Sportster upon which it was closely based. Joe Average didn’t get it… why pay double for an extra carb? Enthusiasts who did get it, didn’t get much. The street XR was not a potent machine as delivered. Even those who knew about the fact that you had to buy cams, pipe and head flow work from Branch to get anything like this thing’s full potential were put off about the rest of the machine’s foibles. In short, the XR1000 was a flop! The motorcycle as is, anyway, but not the engine… as we’ll see.

Motorhead Memo: Past perfected

That same engine, unfettered and used for its intended purpose, was a winner. As a real racer, courtesy of Tilley, O’Brien and untold others, it dominated BOTT competition with an obsolete chassis and an assortment of go-faster tricks the wise old men of racing knew well.

About that time there was a freshly-minted race class known as the Battle of the Twins (BOTT) and old-time Harley fans were aching to lock horns with those dainty Italian things that were having it pretty much their own way in BOTT. Among those rabid race fans was none other than Dick O’Brien, factory race boss, (who, for the record, was against building the XR1000 “streeter” in the first place) and he had a plan. (O’Brien always had a plan!) First, he dug up an old road-race frame that had been in the corner of the shop for 10 years. In fact, it was all that was left of a race bike that had burst into flames under champion Mark Brelsford at Daytona in 1972! He got legendary Carroll Resweber to upgrade the suspension and brakes to handle slicks and a lot more horsepower. Mostly, though, he had the great sense to hand the engine-building chores over to a successful racer/dealer in South Carolina by the name of Don Tilley.

Motorhead Memo: Past perfected

But it was the smart kid who elevated the handling prowess and decreased the weight of the BOTT projectile. Very competitive as Lucifer’s Hammer II, the package was ultimately ‘streetified’ as the RR1000. When XR engines ran out, its immediate descendant, the Buell RR1200 streetbike, using a stock, legal Sportster engine would still go 150 mph… thanks to that streamlined bodywork.

The result was a mongrel mix of XR750, XR1000, Sportster and aftermarket bits like stoppers and suspension, which made 104 hp, handled bitchin’ and went 158 mph on a stock four-speed transmission! I suppose they could have called this beast of assorted bits something like “Frankenbike,” but O’Brien knew an old Irish legend about a cosmic “hammer” in the form of a comet sent by the devil to smash to smithereens a village full of foreigners so evil they made Lucifer himself jealous… so “Lucifer’s Hammer” it was… and did! LH handily trounced all comers, but that’s not the end of story.


Let’s do the cycle—1986

There were still some XR1000 engines lingering within the factory walls and a young fella named Erik Buell got a few. That old Brelsford RR chassis was a stopgap and to go faster in BOTT, a better one was needed. In case anyone missed the memo, Erik is arguably the best chassis designer breathing, and the task fell to him to build Lucifer’s Hammer II… which he promptly did. Lighter, stiffer, better and faster, LHII was for all intents and purposes the last pushrod weapon to hit a racetrack, but that wasn’t really the point; it was the setup, the foundation for a performance renaissance.

Motorhead Memo: Past perfected

Another performance fork in the road… the Buell S1 Lightning. While Sportsters were still offered with a 45-hp 55” and a 65-hp 74” displacement in a conventional (albeit adequate) chassis, this near 100-hp, 450-lb “cafe racer” (not sportbike, damn it!) showed the way forward for the Sportster of the 21st century. Ironically, now that we’re there, though Buell is gone, as is the XR1000 (and lamentably the XR1200), we are indebted to these machines for the powerful, smooth, beautiful result we see on the showroom floor today.

From the engine that was too good for its chassis, in the form of the XR1000, there came the chassis that was too good for the engine, in the form of the Buell RR1000. Wasn’t too long before the XR1000 engines dried up, and from 1988 on Erik had to use the 1200cc Sportster engine instead and that led to the need for more power from “regular” X-engines. Fortunately, that didn’t prove difficult because of the potential built into the new Evo Sportster. Once the engine got a five-speed transmission the stage was well and truly set for great things to come. Buells, even early ones, were potent runners. It didn’t take long for Harley and the buying public to notice. Harley liked what they saw so much they bought the company.


Let’s do the engine—1996

Time flies when you’re having fun, so it wasn’t really until the introduction of the S1 Lightning as a 1996 model that eyebrows began to bounce at the claimed horsepower of the Sportster-based 1200cc engine. Featuring special heads, Screamin’ Eagle bolt-in cams as standard, free-breathing Helmholtz resonator air cleaner and, perhaps most of all, a truly tuned exhaust system with ample volume added up to more power than anyone had ever seen from an “X” engine (including the XR1000) in a production bike with a warranty. Sporty fans, even those who couldn’t quite deal with a Buell and all it represented, sure did ferret out the mods that helped pump the engine up… at first mimicking cams, air cleaner and heads, but coming up short of Buell power, because you simply couldn’t fit an exhaust that worked as well on a Sportster chassis.


Let’s do the chassis—and the engine!—2004

Motorhead Memo: Past perfected

Ah… the XR1200! In this machine we find the DNA of XRs past, XB handling, and perhaps XLs of the future—a sportbike, American style! This street-tracker, with its patented airbox, oil-cooled heads, rigid chassis, stout alloy swingarm, massive brakes and a host of performance details, stands at the head of a line stretching back over half a century and shows what it can be and do, and why it’s still viable after all these years—how it’s become the very embodiment of the word “motorcycle.” From past examples, dating back to the XLR and culminating in the XR1200 we can only imagine (and hope for) more of these superb interpretations of the Sportster lineup over the next 50 years. “X”… marks the spot!

As the years passed, the Buell powerplant became less and less like the XL version and in defiance of the same time-honored manner (do-the-motor-then-do-the-cycle, and repeat) we got a new rubber-mount chassis for the Sportster in 2004 and a new (largely Buell-based) powerplant to go with it. Let’s not kid ourselves; this was the most extensive revamp of the Sportster platform since its inception in 1957, and with one notable caveat (that 50-some pound weight gain) and one personal peeve (loss of the transmission trapdoor) it amounts to a clear win/win for both the The Motor Company and us!

Then some young wizard at The Motor Company was put in charge of styling and, for the first time since the ’60s, all sorts of folks, young and old alike, are buying Sportsters for their own sake, not just as a stepping stone to Big Twins.

Point is, we are all indebted to the decision to go ahead with a hot-rod XR1000 Sportster 30 years ago. Without that fateful decision back then, complete with people and consequences that put us on the path to the present, the Sportster we have now might never have existed. The XR1000 was the first of many “evolutionary” dead ends since, such as the XR1200 and (sadly, in the end) the Buell line, but because someone was willing to push the boundaries, the bread-and-butter bikes have improved enormously since.

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