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Motorhead Memo: Sportster 101; the early years

By Kip Woodring

My first Harley-Davidson was the first Sportster. Yup—a genuine 1957 XL with overhead valves, 7-to-1 compression, four-speed transmission shifted on the right, swingarm frame, a kickstarter, drum brakes… and not much else. Of course, mine wasn’t stock. It had a fixed Fairbanks-Morse magneto and a Tillotson carb, neither of which was exactly an improvement, but I remember liking the idea that no battery was required for the engine to run and that the carb (which had no float bowl) would “sputter” through it’s diaphragm exactly when you had to flip the petcock to reserve. Kind of a primitive, but effective, low-fuel warning system! Starting was so easy with that low compression, you could kick it over with moccasins on. It ran pretty well, too, primarily since it weighed 395 pounds ready to ride with two gallons of gas.

You can see plenty of pics of perfectly restored 1957 Sportsters on the Internet, in books or inside H-D’s museum, but you won’t see this one—it was mine… complete with Firebird tank decals (a sort of pseudo Screamin’ Eagle, before that existed)

You can see plenty of pics of perfectly restored 1957 Sportsters on the Internet, in books or inside H-D’s museum, but you won’t see this one—it was mine… complete with Firebird tank decals (a sort of pseudo Screamin’ Eagle, before that existed)

Truth is, I was always proud of the fact that my ’57 would consistently and easily outrun my buddy’s 1982 XLS in a roll-on, on the freeway. Since his rig had a higher-compression 64-inch engine (courtesy of S&S stroker flywheels) with PB-plus cams and a damn loud exhaust, his bike should have been quicker, but I secretly figured the 125 pounds of extra fat his bike had from the turn signals, electric starter, those heavy disc brakes, slip-prone wet clutch and all, made the difference. (And he might have won a straight-up from a dead-stop drag race, but we just never got around to that.) Even though the ’57 is long gone (to a Japanese collector) I still have the certified 100,000-mile award! (The Motor Company used to issue them to those who could prove they’d done the saddle time.) Other things that bike left with me are the memories, a few pictures, a pretty fair mechanical “tuition” and the certain knowledge that production of the very first Sportster was a mere 1,983 machines!

Mind you, the rose-colored glasses are not that tinted when it comes to the original XL and, in spite of its virtues, the drawbacks were sizable, as well. It had lousy, floppy, undamped suspension, no brakes worthy of the name, a flexi-frame made out of water pipe and spit, big-time vibration at freeway speeds and—yup—it “drooled” a little oil after any hard workout. But it was and remains memorable for what it taught me about machines, patience, persistence and much more. To appreciate the Sportster as conceived in the late ’50s, it helps to put things in context. Those aforementioned freeways were barely under construction. There were damn few motorcycles of any kind on the roads that existed at the time. The “competition,” almost without exception, was British, and even allowing that the hottest of them all had an honest 40 hp, none had the torque and effortless push that one could get from twisting the loud handle of a Sporty. Didn’t much matter about the shortcomings at the time, because none were abusive and the other machines on the market weren’t any better in the same categories. Hell, lots of Eurosleds didn’t even have swingarms; instead they kept fooling around with plungers and sprung hubs and other such nonsense. There was no Triumph Bonneville, and the Triumphs that were sold in the ’50s handled even worse than Sportsters. The fabled Vincent had been off the market for a couple years (and, sure enough, when they were right they were faster than the XL, but ask even the most dedicated owner just how often they were right enough and you’ll likely hear a lot of techno-babble, rather than a real assessment). Bottom line: The Sportster arrived at just the right time and with just the right advantages. All it really needed was more of the same—especially horsepower, which it got just one year later.

Note the chrome magneto body, swingarm and horseshoe oil tank. How about that spiffy kickstarter and (of course) the most important detail… the rocker boxes? No notches in the original 900 boxes (which came in with the 1000cc/61 c.i. Sportsters) and much better looking!

Note the chrome magneto body, swingarm and horseshoe oil tank. How about that spiffy kickstarter and (of course) the most important detail… the rocker boxes? No notches in the original 900 boxes (which came in with the 1000cc/61 c.i. Sportsters) and much better looking!

In 1958, a few (mostly Left Coast) dealers were busily carping at Harley-Davidson management about exactly what they wanted in a Sportster. First of all, they opined, it should be faster, since the old 883cc flathead KHK models would romp on the XL. Second, desert sleds and dirt track were more important than pavement prowess back in the day, which meant they wanted something more suitable for that than the plain vanilla XL, which H-D fobbed-off on the public as a little version of a Big Twin. In other words, these dealers, most of whom in those dear, departed days were motorcycle people first and businessmen second, recognized the real purpose and potential of the X-engine way before the factory did. They got what they wanted—higher compression, bigger valves, hotter cams, less weight, smaller gas tank and some other niceties the public would soon find indispensable—and a legend was born! The XLCH did not have a happy birth. Mr. Davidson allegedly capitulated to this assembled group of visionaries by yelling something to the effect of, “If we build 100 of the damn things—you’d better sell every one of ’em!” Turns out, “they” managed to sell 286 XLCH Sportsters in 1958… and from then on, it was “game on!” But there’s a little more to it than that.

Any resemblance my bike bore to this early XLCH was purely intentional on my part. This is the essential, elemental motorcycle, and in its day was a jet!

Any resemblance my bike bore to this early XLCH was purely intentional on my part. This is the essential, elemental motorcycle, and in its day was a jet!

The marketing department at The Motor Company, then as now, has a lot to answer for. Ad men, who too often don’t know diddly, can say squat and folks believe it, as long as it’s repeated loud and often. Even the factory, which knows better, plays along if it helps sell the legend. A prime example is defining what the hallowed letters “CH” (when applied to an XL) actually means—and it ain’t “Competition Hot”—at least, not exactly. Sure enough, Harley has used the designation “C” to mean a machine intended for Competition, since before most of us were born. They’ve also used the letter “H” almost as long. The trouble is, since the factory has about three vowels and only seven consonants in their entire damnable alphabet, folks have come to know those repetitious letters as representing many things, because the company keeps using the same letters over and over for different meanings. For one thing, “C” can mean Custom rather than Competition and “H,” to most of us, has meant High Compression, although some see it as Highway or Heavy Duty. Besides which, it all got a lot more complex when the Feds mandated 17-digit VIN numbers, complete with encoded model designations. Remember, up until the ’70s Harleys were known only by their engine numbers, which was the VIN (and model info) back then!

Be that as it may, I submit that the H-D alphabet is only understandable when taken in context with the machine to which it applies, So, to get on with it, “X” stands for overhead valve unit construction small twin engine, “L” stands for Light Duty Suspension, “C” stands for Competition (in this case) and “H” stands for… wait for it… High Performance. Fine, but what might be lost in the mists of history is that H-D in addition to the XL and XLCH was simultaneously offering the XLH, XLC and XLR! Treating the “X” and “L” parts as a given from now on, the last letter breakdowns were: H = Highway, C = Competition (without the H that means standard performance engine) and finally R = Racer (since this was way before Rubber Mount). Got all that? If so, that brings us to (in the words of my friend Allan Girdler), “the best of the brawlers, the radical, rare and raunchy XLR!”

Motorhead Memo: November, 2012

If the XLCH was a jet, that made the XLR an ICBM! Its whole career was defined by blissful all-around big-inch blasting, whether in competition or on/off the road. If this thing were a human athlete, it would own pentathlons. The best part was it was built to live at high speeds, so one could abuse it with relative impunity compared to the Sportster and every other bike you were likely to encounter back when. Yup—the XLR and the XLCH were the founding fathers of a dynasty… yet their children and grandchildren have their own stories (and DNA) soon to be told.

For reasons I’m not sure anyone remembers, TT races back in the day had no engine displacement rules, unlike every other type of racing in this country at the time. Harley still had the 750cc flathead KR for all the others, so from the get-go the factory figured they could build a pretty good TT bike from the X-engine—all 883cc of it. They were right. There was a bonus in it for the cognoscenti as well, since they could simply get chummy with the dealers, order the right stuff and have what basically amounted to the dandiest street racer of its day into the bargain. See, the big deal was the XLR looked like a Sportster, but internally there wasn’t much that would interchange with the street engine. XLR’s got ball bearings where stockers got bushings, its own special flywheels and pistons, KR connecting rods, quarter-speed oil pump, racing clutch, hot cams, lightened valve train and, most of all, special heads with re-angled over-sized valves, deeper spark plug holes and good porting… all standard. A set of lights for this thing and you could go hunting for anything on the streets in the late ’50s. Pull the lights and you had a pretty good shot at a trophy in local hare and hound, or whatever. In other words, it was the hottest motorcycle of its day and for many days to come, yet almost unknown at the time. One of the greats in my book!

In that same book, for better or worse, I record that Sportsters in almost all their iterations were bitchin’ bikes all through the ’60s, as well. Then came the decision by AMF to make the 1000cc version in 1972… and the next part of the story, which without being a spoiler alert, deals with the fact that bigger ain’t always better. See ya then…

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