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A Closer Look at The 1981 Harley-Davidson Sportster

1981 Harley-Davidson Sportster

The 1980’s provided the public with many improvements as far as motorcycles were concerned. Motorcycles with a higher rev threshold and multi-cylinders were introduced in order to give rider the power and speed they had so long desired. But at the same time, Harley-Davidson’s Sportster continued to give all of that with a consistent 5,500 rpms. While other bikes required the gratuitous downshift, the Sporty only needed a tweak of the throttle and it would give you what you wanted.

There were, of course, some minor problems with the 1981 Sportster edition, but those things were easily rectified by Harley. Since the beginning, the company had remained steadfast and dependable when it came to righting the wrongs that consumers brought to them regarding their bikes, and that particular year was no different. Here, we will take a closer look at the 1981 Harley Sportster by touching briefly on its history, going over its specs, observing its assets, and scrutinizing its issues. We will also discuss the public’s reception of this bike, and talk about why the Sportster has remained so popular after more than fifty years of production. The ’81 Sportster is definitely a bike worth casting a closer eyeball on, and that is exactly what we are going to do.

The Harley-Davidson Sportster: A Brief History

While many of you are aware that the first official Sportster motorcycle was released in 1957, most don’t know that the bike’s predecessor and the dictator of what would become the Sportster was manufactured in 1952. Keep in mind, however, that between 1919 and 1923 the small-twin Model W was truly the first bike to get the Sportster ball rolling, whether Harley knew it or not at the time. Over the years, until 1981, countless changes and improvements were made, eventually giving us what we now call the Sportster. Until 1979 they were kick start-only bikes that needed improved clamps and intake manifolds, among other things. 1980 saw these improvements, along with altered cylinder heads which minimized vacuum leaks and did a better job of sealing things up properly. The motorcycle company has always been on their game, and the past was no exception.

The Birth of the 1981 Sportster

For now, we will focus on both the 1981 XLH 1000 and the XLS 1000 Roadster because those were the models that came out that year. We will talk about the differences between the two, changes that were made on the Sportster from 1980 to ’81, and which seemed to be the most popular, sold the most, and the reasons for both. Knowing the differences is very important to anyone who either currently owns one of these bikes, or one who is considering the purchase of one. As we know, it is always best to know your bike inside and out if you want to love and care for it properly.

As we discussed earlier, 1980 saw many changes in the Sportster, but 1981 saw more. The boasted electronic ignition was switched out for an instrument called a Magnavox unit, or magnetic pickup sensor. This unit communicated with the bike’s timing control module by use of signals. Officially named the ‘V-Fire II’, the unit is referred to often as the bikes ‘black box’. One of the biggest concerns addressed by the company, however, was reducing the chances of riders experiencing the sticking of their throttle. When this occurs and the throttle is open, it can result in fast acceleration that is unresponsive to the use of breaks. Frightening and dangerous, throttle sticking was something that Harley wanted to lower the odds of on this year’s Sportster. Their idea for easing the chances of a throttle sticking was to install a push-pull (double) accelerator cable, and it helped. Finally, they got rid of the old cable powered tachometer unit and swapped it out for an electronic one; they also new electric starters and drives as final touches.

Below we’ll go a bit deeper into our look at the two Sportster models from the year 1981. Let’s check out each bike’s features and specs, and see how they measure up to one another. After that, we’ll compare what the general public thought of each bike…and all of us might be surprised.

1981 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLH 1000 and XLS 1000 – Specs & Features

  • Current Motorcycle Category: Classic
  • Engine: V2 Four-Stroke
  • Transmission Type: Chain
  • Displacement: 997.00 ccm (60.84 cubic inches)
  • Gearbox: Four-speed
  • Power: 55.0 HP (40.1 kW) @ 5800 RPM
  • Cooling System: Air
  • Top Speed: 180.0 km/h (111.8 mph)
  • Fuel Control System: Overhead Valves (OVH)
  • Compression: 9.0:1
  • Valves per Cylinder: 2
  • Bore x Stroke: 81.0 x 96.8 mm (3.2 x 3.8 inches)
  • Single Disc Rear Brakes
  • Dual Disc Front Brakes
  • Fuel Capacity: 9 Liters (2.38 gallons)
  • Total Bike Weight (with gas and oil): 240 kg (529.1 lbs.)

(XLH 1000 Information Courtesy of

The 1981 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLS 1000 Roadster

  • Current Motorcycle Category: Classic
  • Engine: V2, four-stroke
  • Transmission Type: Chain
  • Displacement: 997.00 ccm (60.84 CU Inches)
  • Gearbox: 4-speed
  • Power: 55.00 HP (40.1 kW))@ 5800rpm
  • Cooling System: Air
  • Top Speed: 170.0 km/h (105.6 mph)
  • Fuel Control System: Overhead Valves (OHV)
  • Compression: 9.0:1
  • Valves per Cylinder: 2
  • Bore x Stroke: 81.0 x 96.8 mm (3.2 x 3.8 inches)
  • Single Disc Rear Brakes
  • Dual Disc Front Brakes
  • Fuel Capacity: 13.50 liters (3.57 gallons)
  • Total Bike Weight (with gas and oil): 245.0 kg (540.1 pounds)

(XLS 1000 Information Courtesy of

It takes a very small amount of study to see that the only real differences between the two bikes is the fuel capacity and total bike weight. According to the all the bikes’ parts can be interchanged. Basically, in a nutshell, there are no true differences. So why, then, is the XLS 1000 also tagged with the ending moniker ‘Roadster’? The fact is that the Roadster had a sissy bar (backrest), forks which were extended just a bit more, and a 16” rear wheel. Otherwise, these are two bikes that are basically brothers, with the only real differences being aesthetic alone in nature.

So, there you are; a pretty complete breakdown of the 1981 Harley-Davidson Sportster models for that year. As you know, Sportsters have proven to be great bikes for anyone, and they have stood the test of time generation after generation. If you’re looking to buy one of these two, well, you only have small things to help choose between the two, but either way, you are getting a classic Harley that you’ll likely love and cherish.
Happy riding!

Benjamin Smith

Written by Benjamin Smith

Benjamin Smith is one of the managing editors of Moneyinc. Ben's been focusing on the auto and motorcycle sector since 2005. He's written over 1000 articles in the space and continues to learn about it each day. His favorite car is "any Bugatti" and he's a die hard Harley Davidson fan.

Read more posts by Benjamin Smith

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