Harley Davidson Sportster – An American Legend

Harley Davidson Sportster – An American Legend

The phrases “balanced”, “flexible” and “do it all” are thrown around a bit too much when it comes to vehicles, in our opinion. But in some cases, those words do apply to motorcycles or vehicles that have both stood the test of time, and are truly good in a balanced way. Built and sold beginning 1953 – even through to today — the Sportster became known as a fast, fun bike that also happens to be good at climbing hills, drag racing, road racing, or flat racing – with an engine used by Cal Rayborn to set a speed record in 1970.

Development and history

Like many motorbikes, the roots of the Harley-Davidson Sportster go back to the end of World War II. Soldiers returning home after the war had developed some new interests and hobbies they acquired during their time abroad. These led to some changing tastes, and one of these was for fast, lean British motorbikes. They were soon buying imports instead of more classic, affordable – and just a little old — Harley-Davidson's like the ‘45 Flathead. While the side valve Harley-Davidson certainly had their appeal, they lacked the speed that made traveling by motorcycle especially easy and fun.

Harley-Davidson attempted to upgrade existing bike engines to get more power out of them while maintaining the side valve approach. This did the trick for some, but not all. Soon enough, by about 1957, Harley-Davidson had an overhead valve bike on the road in the form of the Sportster. A unique cast iron cylinder head was chosen for the bike because of lessons learned with leaky engines before caused by overly flexible alloys.

The Sportster XL was soon able to outrun the competitive British bikes. While the bike initially was built with 883cc, it was gradually moved to 1000cc in part due to customer demand.


The Sportster XL got its power from the same motor for 28 years. The OHV “Ironhead” motor had 883cc powerplants and a 1000cc powerplant with the transmission in the same case – all attached right to the frame. While the Sportster started with a 4-speed gearbox, it would eventually upgrade to a 5-speed by 1991. In more recent decades, drivers expressed discontent about engine vibration, prompting Harley-Davidson to include a rubber mount for a smoother ride.

In 2007, Harley introduced fuel injection into the Sporster but did plenty of testing to ensure that the bike would retain the pipe sounds it was known so well for. The bike is also renowned for its peanut shaped gas tank.

The Sporster is overall still credited with being a reasonably inexpensive bike with a relatively fast engine. As a cheaper bike, it was the first bike for many, who would be gradually introduced to extra comfortable high-handled choppers when they no longer wanted all the speed.


The Sporster is known for its responsiveness and tight, fun turning abilities. The hydraulic suspension helped make a smooth ride. The bike stayed cool and breathed well with air cooling.

Harley-Davidson would eventually replace their timing chain with the D-belt drive, which most owners liked because it eliminated the need for a meticulously timed maintenance schedule and rhythm.

Overall, the Sporster is still well known for being a smooth sports bike, capable of racing on pavement or just about any other surface with its good suspension and decent brakes.

Impact on motorcycle culture

The Sportster was one of America's first real sport bikes. The powerful engine blended comfort and speed quite well – to the point that Harley didn't need to change it for quite a while.

Soon after World War II, American streets had more Triumphs and BSA bikes flying around because they were engineered more for high speed and tight turning.

Some reviewers and historians dislike the Sporter’s designation as a women's bike. The Sporsters was and still is a lightweight and fun bike that certainly does appeal to women, though that doesn’t mean it’s not a blast to ride. Let's give credit to Harley-Davidson for successfully developing a bike that makes people think of so many strengths — from a smooth ride to a dirt bike — to a bike purchased more often than normal by women.

The Sportsters 1960's clean line also made it a popular bike to modify into a chopper, further pushing a whole era of American motorcycles into existence.

Later models of the Sportster were owned by Elvis Presley – though he did own more than a few motorcycles. Even Knievel was also well known for making his jumps and stunts on HD Sportsters.

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