The Harley-Davidson Sportster 1000

Under the radar

| March/April 2010

Harley-Davidson Sportster 1000
Years produced:
Claimed power: 61hp @ 6,200rpm (1972)
Top speed: 116mph (1972 test)
Engine type: 998cc air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin
Transmission: 4-speed
Weight: 492lb (wet)
MPG: 40-50
Price then: $2,136 (1972)
Price now: $2,000-$5,000

With an unbroken production run of 53 years, the overhead valve Harley-Davidson Sportster has outlived all of its early rivals, and is still able to raise its middle finger to the vagaries of the motorcycle marketplace. Riding a 2010 model instantly channels the first Sportster of 1957, even though the characteristic engine vibes have now been softened by rubber mountings.

The Sportster was an instant hit in 1957, but by the Seventies it was showing its age. Imports easily outperformed and outsold it. In a Cycle magazine seven-bike shootout in 1973, the XL Sportster ranked dead last overall and propped up the other six bikes in almost every performance category. Even so, reviewers liked its torquey, long-legged highway running and easy in-town traffic manners. They also liked its conservative styling and offbeat engine sound.

The Sportster’s future was being written, not as a competitor to the all-conquering four-across-the-frame Universal Japanese Motorcycle, but as a bastion of American durability and timeless style. So why would you want one now?

Conception and birth

The story goes that after WWII, American GIs in Europe became enamored of the sporty, lightweight parallel twins then coming out of British factories and brought some home. BSA, Triumph and Norton, among others, began shipping 500cc twins and singles to the U.S., but it was the new crop of 650cc twins (especially Triumph’s 1950 Thunderbird) that demanded a response from Milwaukee and Springfield. Indian’s parallel twins bombed in the marketplace (and all over the pavement, too), but rather than copy the parallel twin, Harley-Davidson stuck with what it knew: 45-degree, single crankpin V-twins.

Introduced in 1952, the model K was essentially a WL bottom end in unit construction cases with a dry clutch and 4-speed transmission. On the top end were new alloy, side-valve heads. Cylinders were iron, and displacement was 45ci. The engine featured a right-side foot shifter — a first for H-D — and a new frame with a swingarm rear end. For 1954, the stroke was lengthened to a whopping 4.56 inches (from 3.81 inches) for 887cc, or 54ci, and the new model designated KH. A high performance KHK with hot cams and polished ports came in 1955.

But flathead engines were limited in power, and a change was needed to keep up with the Brits. The 1957 XL Sportster got overhead valve heads while the crank used the model K’s shorter stroke with a larger 3-inch bore for 883cc (54ci). Power was around 40hp at the crank (Triumph’s 1957 Tiger 110 made a claimed 42hp), which propelled the 460-pound machine to over 90mph. Finally, here was an American motorcycle that could compete with the Limeys.

Barry Hartman
6/12/2013 2:10:27 AM

Opps I left out two Buells and a few dirt bikes.

Barry Hartman
6/12/2013 2:06:45 AM

I've owned almost everything except BMW cycles but the Sportster was and is still my favorite. I've had 25 so far and I'm 67 this year. I've had the Kaw H1 500cc and H2 750cc triples, Triumphs, BSA, many Hondas and three Harleys. I now still ride a 1974 Sportster and love it. Barry Hartman

3/11/2010 11:33:22 PM

I never understood the attraction to an engine which hasn't made sense in over 80 years. I only had to ride a Sportster once. Lots of low-end torque, handles like a drunken whore. What's the big deal?

bike on highway

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