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The 10 Best Harley Davidson Sportster Models of All-Time


The introduction of the Harley Davidson Sportster into the American market in 1957 was more of a strategy to counter the increasingly successful British motorcycles being sold in the U.S. The Sportster was one of the first Harley Davidson models to include a rear suspension and a high performance, overhead valve engine.

The design was conspicuously reminiscent of the dominating British motorcycles of the 1950's, particularly the Triumph Thunderbird. This approach turned out to be gold. The lineup was received by the US motorcycle market affectionately. Here are our picks for the top 10 Harley Davidson Sportster models ever (in no particular order).

1. 1957 Harley XL Sportster Ironhead

1957 Harley XL Sportster Ironhead

The Sportster legend began with the 1957 Harley XL Ironhead, featuring a new overhead valve motor that worked with a 3.81-inch stroke and a 3-inch bore to produce 883cc displacement. One crank pin was used for both connecting rods, and was called a "knife & fork" design.

Individual valves were controlled by a separate cam to simplify the valve train geometry, while both the front and back cylinders were fed by a single carburetor.

Integrated within the back of the engine cases was a "unit" 4-speed transmission while the motor, which was almost hidden perfectly behind the gas tank, featured twin cylinder jugs separated by about 45 degrees.

2. 1967 Harley Sportster XLH

1967 Harley Sportster XLH

Before the 1967 XLH, all the previous models were kick-start only. The new model came with revised engine cases to incorporate electric start. Between 1967 and 1969, two cases were made for the Sportster: one for the electric start bikes and the other for the kick-start models.

In 1970, all the XL models were fitted with the same engine cases. The XLH kicked back the frame just above the arm pivot to support electric start as well as the new battery box. With the long frame, the seat post tubes were set 1 1/2 inches towards the back.

3. 1969 Harley Sportster XLH

1969 Harley Sportster XLH

The northwest Utah-based Bonneville Salt Flats have always been known for high speed competition. It is here, in 1970, that a Sportster-operated streamliner motorbike smashed the world speed record.

The streamliner featured a 15'-long aluminum body, with just 23 inches cross section. There was a small cockpit inside with a customized XLR motor, stroked and bored to 1480cc. The engine was fueled by 70% nitro-methane and the pilot was renowned Harley Davidson rider Cal Rayborn, whose 265mph record speed lasted for 15 years!

4. 1971 Harley Sportster

1971 Harley Sportster

1971 was a special year for Sportsters, marking a transition from the 900cc to new engine cases. The lineup transferred the distributor to the interior of the gear case, now using an automatic advance mechanism to help with the starting.

The tail section and fiberglass seat, nicknamed "the boat-tail" was introduced for the 2nd and last year. The Sportsters were transformed into a wet-clutch setup which, as the name implies, sits in oil while a dry one does not. They are also quieter than dry clutches, but are a more difficult pull at the lever.

5. 1978 Harley Sportster

1978 Harley Sportster

The 1978 Sportster borrowed cast aluminum wheels and dual-disc front brakes from the Cafe Racer, in addition to the siamesed exhaust pipes that enhanced both the mid-range horsepower and torque.

Longer stroke rear shocks were significant in increasing passenger and rider comfort. By this time, all XL motorbikes had a stable voltage regulator and electric ignition, which required less maintenance and provided easier starting.

To celebrate 75 years of production, Harley Davidson offered a special edition Sportster, featuring limited edition anniversary graphics, gold cast aluminum wheels, and dark black paint highlighted by gold trim.

The company brochure dubbed the 1978 Sportster the fastest, most powerful, and most agile motorbike of its time. 17,000 units were sold that year, marking the highest Ironhead Sportster sales in history.

6. 1980-1981 Harley Sportster

1981 Harley Sportster

In 1980, Harley Davidson unleashed the 1980 Sportster with dual discs and triangulated frame and discs and discontinued the 1979 kickstarter models.

All the XL models now came as electric start only, making space for the back master cylinder to be relocated below and out of the way of the back exhaust pipe.

The electronic ignition was eliminated for a Magnavox unit that relayed signals to a calculating control module via an inductive pickup. This module is popularly known as the "black box."

The Sportster used a new drive and electric starter, and introduced a double accelerator cable. The cable-driven unit was replaced by an electronic tachometer.

While the 80's came with high-revving, multi-cylinder engine bikes, the Sportster maintained its 5,500rpm. With an acceleration of more than 2,000rpm, the motorcycles did not require down-shifting - the 1,000cc V twin provided all the torque that was needed. In addition to several minor adjustments, the early 80's Sportsters were integrated with a lighter and stronger frame.

7. 1983 Harley Sportster XLX61

1983 Harley Sportster XLX61

Clearly one of the greatest marketing moves in Harley Davidson's history, the XLX61 was introduced in 1983 with no frills. The bare boned machine featured nothing more than a single gauge, peanut gas tank, and a solo seat.

It came in black version only and was designed to sell at $3,995. During its debut year, 4,892 units were sold. Combine all the other 3 XL models and they still wouldn't come close to this numbers. The XLX is still one of the best selling Sportster models in the history of the lineup.

8. 2005 Harley-Davidson Sportster

2005 Harley-Davidson Sportster

In 2004, the Sportster received one of its biggest makeovers since it was established. All the remarkable new improvements featured by the 2004 models were carried over to 2005, and it was apparent that Harley Davidson was making a conscious effort to avail its line of motorcycles to all economic levels in the society.

Probably the most impressive turnaround to the new version of Sportsters was the reduction in vibration.

Those who have had the pleasure of riding the old models are probably aware that the shimmy on Harley Davidson's compact bore bad-boy was the stuff of legends.

But the rattle, shake, and roll of ancient had gone with the new model thanks to an air-cooled, rubber-mounted 45 degree V twin engine that could cough 883cc.

The interior specifications did not change, boating a 8.9:1 compression ratio and a bore & stroke of 96.8 X 76.6mm. The small power-plant was enhanced by new cylinders & heads with bigger fins, subsequently improving cooling. The pistons, on the other hand, came with oil jets drenching their underbellies for a more reliable experience.

9. 2010 Harley CRD XR 1200

Harley XR1200 Launch

The 2010 Harley Davidson XR 1200 is one of the most unique motorcycles produced by Harley Davidson to date. Launched only in Europe, the bike had a distinctive flat track body style while still maintaining the iconic American design.

The highlight is the wide, dramatically sculptured aluminum tank that was born from a collaboration between Carlos Delgado and Pablo of the Valtoron foundry. It had a cool logo reminiscent of the 70's and its heavyset tail unit was binned, taken over by a Manx-like one piece leather seat and a compact sub-frame.

10. 2014 Harley XL 883N IRON 883

2014 Harley XL 883N IRON 883

The 2014 Iron 883 was given a midnight black look on the exterior covers, hand & foot controls, belt guard, cast aluminum wheels, black powder coated engine, and Michelin tires among others.

It came with an 883cc Evolution engine with dual staggered exhaust and 5-speed transmission. As if not this was not enough, the bikewas fitted with a 3.3-gallon fuel tank, disc brakes, and the familiar Sportster solo seat.

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Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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