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Motorhead Memo: XLR: When form follows function

By Kip Woodring

A long, long time ago a very impressionable young man went looking for his third motorcycle. The first two had been two-strokes, of 80cc and 250cc respectively. This time it had to be a “real” motorcycle, a big bike of at least 500cc and for sure… a four stroke. He was open-minded about it. Sure, he read Cycle World and had most of the “stats” on likely candidates committed to memory. He was definitely on a budget… a tight one… so no new machine was on the radar. In those days, to find a used motorcycle to buy, you went to a dealer or read the classified ads in the newspaper. Calling around would lead to… well… leads. Then you trucked all over town and tried hard to arrive on time to check it out. Point is, as often as not that led to a purchasing decision after three, maybe four episodes of this tiresome type of tire kicking. Haggling, then as now, was part of the art, but a novice had to learn the hard way: A) if the price dropped too much too easily walking away was the best outcome, because chances were good the P.O. was tipping off a problem that made him want to sell in the first place; or B) he wouldn’t budge, so you probably couldn’t really afford the bike. Thus it was for our young man. The first and second he looked at were piles… worn, leaky, squeaky and ugly… yet still came close to his financial limit after all was said and done. The third motorcycle was different… the one that mattered. He and his father showed up at the guy’s house mid-morning on a sunny Sunday. Right on time. The owner was a dour soul and tended toward monosyllabic responses to questions. Good enough fella, but you knew he was talking down to your level… idiot level… truth be told. The young man was, after all, a frisky puppy chasing cars, with no idea what to do with one if he caught it. The seller knew this, his father knew this.

street tracker, flathead racer,

Harley and Indian raced similar machines in the 30’s and 40’s… tank shifters and all. That came to an end with the KR… the last flathead racer. H-D kept the engine competitive until its last hurrah, beating modern machines (in road-racing form) at Daytona in 1969. It’s the dirt track version that reverberates in our psyche, though! A bare bones racer if ever there was one and the template for every dirt tracker (and many a street tracker) ever since!

After the obligatory “Howdy, how’s it goin’?” father and son were escorted to the back of the house where they found not a yard, nor a garage but rather a huge building… like a low-roofed barn! Looked like you could keep eight or 10 cars in it. The owner unlocked the padlock, swung open the creaky door and everyone stepped into a dusky cavern of smells and smooth concrete floors. The windows on the far side admitted a bit of natural light and the three green-shaded lights on the ceiling did for the rest… poorly. But damn… what an impression! Because aside from a massive tool box next to a long bench on one wall, there was nothing in this Aladdin’s cave but a bright yellow Harley-Davidson, backlit and shimmering in the gloom, right in the middle of the spotless floor. We’ve all had moments when things go silent, time stops, vision tunnels in, and all that’s getting through to the brain is the object that caused The Moment. To a 17-year-old motorcycle freak it was a total mind bender. Later on, he could never recall what else was going on around him—his father and the owner chatting, the dog barking in the distance… whatever it might have been it was obliterated by his lust for this motorcycle. Never before had he seen anything so Spartan, so immaculate, so purposeful. This thing was all business! No frills, no filigree, no fat… lean and mean! As the limerick used to phrase it… “room for your ass and a gallon of gas”… period! He couldn’t stop looking at it and never looked at any motorcycle in the same way ever again! Could’ve been 10 seconds or 10 minutes before he finally heard the owner’s voice breaking through the fog… “Hey, kid, do you want to hear it run?”

XR750, Harley-Davidson XR750,

When the old AMA rules died, the day of the overhead valve Harley dirt tracker dawned. At first iron and full of issues (mostly heat related), they were instantly obsolete once the alloy, all-conquering, XR750 showed up two years later. But a far-sighted fan, brilliant magazine scribe, editor, author and historian extraordinaire named Allan Girdler figured an old racer would make a nifty street bike and—Bang!—the modern street tracker! Thanks, Allan!

The affirmative had him striding over to the machine, then standing beside it and fiddling with a few things on it… but not turning a key. Next second, he grabbed it by the bars, almost like he was afraid it would bite, flipped out the kickstarter with his foot and booted it… exactly twice. Words can never describe the feel of this high-strung engine booming to life through straight pipes, echo and reverb provided by a low-roofed barn! You felt it alright… as much or more than you heard it. Hell, the floor shook! For the young man it was a new experience… fresh, fearsome and entrancing! “Real” motorcycles had dimensions to their being he had never dreamed of until this moment. True objects of desire! The owner was trying to explain the finer points of his creation… horsepower, special parts, how the lights worked, neat treatments which abounded on the bike… a lot more. This was emphatically not a normal motorcycle! The young man’s lack of knowledge and experience meant a great deal of what he was told was water on stone—insights over his head—to put it politely. Then… when the owner started talking money… his spaced-out euphoria crashed back to earth. No way he could afford this thing! Which made him want it all the more. It also eliminated the possibility of a test ride. The moment had passed… yet it would last the rest of his life.

XR street tracker

Flattery and imitation… not to mention progress… implies alloy XR street trackers like this one. After all, how can you argue with the champ? Even if you can find one… it’s a lot of work and you might even have to detune the engine to make it work on the street. Kinda defeats the purpose… eh?

On the quiet ride home, his dad relayed his sympathies, suggested he set his sights a little lower, his pulse returned to normal, his thinking got rational again and the strangest thing of all… only then did he realize he was afraid of the monster he had just confronted. He knew he wasn’t ready to step into its league. He had to step up to it instead. He wound up buying a perfectly good BSA Spitfire… his first step. But he never forgot… and never knew, until many years later, that the Harley-Davidson he had so briefly dreamed of owning that fateful day was indeed no ordinary hog. In his youthful naivety, he thought he went to try and take possession of a hot-rodded Sportster. Instead he was possessed by something far more fierce and fantastic… a genuine XLRTT. A “street tracker” built from a real racer, long before the term even existed.

XR1000, Harley-Davidson XR1000

Not that Allan or anyone else in particular can take credit for inventing a form of motorcycle that you could race on Sunday and ride on Monday. But since it has existed, there sure have been a lot of XR-based “interpretations.” Not least of these, the ill-fated XR1000. Arguably the first, last and only factory-built street tracker, the 1000 was a not-the-hoped-for racing machine built for the street. Instead, it was more a street machine with a modified race bike top end. A high-dollar exotic compromise and a big flop!

XR1200,

As well engineered as it was… ditto for the XR1200! You cannot muddle up a pure concept and still make it work. Nice try all the same!In spite of (or because of) a massive upsurge in popularity, there’s lots of confusion out there about what the hell a street tracker is and why the factories won’t build them. That young man, as the old man he’s become, would like to offer his two cents! In a phrase, it comes down to form following function. That’s the first problem. No, make it the second! Factories today cannot build a true tracker. To satisfy the laws of the land, anything they try will be a watered-down, civilized, feature-laden flop. Won’t even look the part. Too many non-essential “essentials,” like turn signals, electric starters and fat-ass mufflers, air boxes and such. There have been recent attempts, some OK, some not, at the street-tracker style (most notably the Ducati Scrambler). But a street tracker (like a cafe racer), though stylish, is not a style! Brings us back to the “what is it?” Bear with me… cause I might not be able to articulate it, but I’m gonna take shot. And… like the line about pornography, even if I can’t define it, I know it when I see it!

Mule

On the other hand… you can build bespoke machines that speak clearly to the spirit of the thing if not the purity. Several outfits have… notably Lawwill, Mule (shown here), Storz and a couple of others. Though mostly on steroids, these musclebound examples at least make as few compromises as possible. The only problem is complexity and expense.

Yamaha XS650

Unless… you opt for one of the many non-Yank tanks… like this Yamaha XS650-based machine. This squeaks under the wire since they actually raced against XRs once upon a time. Didn’t win… but raced. Nice “trophy with tires” tribute toy… and a legit basis for a street tracker.Street trackers have their closest counterpart in the cafe racer. Though not the same at all, both types descend from the real McCoy. Cafe racers in the pure form are street machines that closely emulate the functionality of a real card-carrying road-race machine. In fact, their culmination was in the once-popular “production” class of road racing, With street trackers it was kind of reversed. Once the original Indian motorcycle company croaked in the early 50’s, Harley-Davidson was the last man standing in a form of racing so American it’s right up there with baseball and apple pie. Namely, dirt track racing! Not motocross, kids… I’m talking racing of full-sized motorcycles on flat (horse) tracks near every little burg in the nation. Mostly ridden sideways on the gas, and steered using a foot as an outrigger, these machines became virtually a Harley evolution in form… starting with the immortal KR. OK, a 40–50 horsepower racer may sound quaint in this day and age, but until you’ve ridden one in anger… don’t knock it! This is dirt we’re using and meager power levels could still find traction limits all too easily. The “function” therefore was to come up with a “form” that could maximize any advantage in that department. No blow-by-blow will be found in this article to explain how that came to be a refining process that continues to this day. The point is, once it was Harley versus small British bikes, the KR quickly became the most sophisticated “stone axe” ever raced. The dirt track racing that spawned the KR was, ironically, based on the Class C rules of the Depression, which specified (wait for it)… “production” machines. But, by the time of the KR and its successor the XR, these were pure racing machines. Racing machines tractable enough to hang a headlight and taillight on them and ride them on the street. Those were simpler times indeed!

Triumph Classic Motorcycles

As are bikes like these. They didn’t beat the Harleys either, but any Anglophile can appreciate what Triumph Classic Motorcycles in Costa Mesa can do with the street tracker concept. At this writing, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Indian, (maybe) Ducati, some unknown others (Honda?)… and inevitably Harley-Davidson are dirt track racing. Considering the history of the sport… it’s deja vu… all over again!

These days we’ve nearly come full circle. The new dirt trackers are of all makes and variations and based on street bikes! Finally displacing the last of the pure racing dirt trackers… the XR750. What makes that interesting is where it leaves the idea of a street tracker. You could style one, making an imitation, from almost any machine. But you can only come up with a real one if you pull the lights and take it around a dirt track with a chance of winning. Because superior function leads to proper form every time!

Harley-Davidson XLR

At the end of the day, however… ye faithful scribe still has a Jones for the brass ring he missed as a kid. For me, even now (and “him” in the day), it simply does not get any closer to the ultimate street tracker bullseye than the Harley-Davidson XLR! Doubt we’ll see the equivalent in showrooms (or anywhere else but a race track) ever again!

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