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Harley-Davidson Sportster History 1970-2013

Haynes Manual Harley-Davidson 1970-2013

Some people dismiss Harley-Davidson for not keeping up with the latest and greatest thing, but their very traditional nature and long production periods are part of why the people who love them don't want to ride anything else. The Motor Company, as many fans call them, typically doesn't change anything unless they have a very good reason for it. With all of the recent updates to the Big Twin lineup, the Sportster is now the most traditional bike Harley offers, and it isn't just a styling exercise either. 

The current Haynes Manual for the Harley-Davidson Sportster covers recently produced models from 2013, but goes back all the way to 1970! For 43 years, there is enough in common that we did not feel the need to create a whole new book. However, in 2014 Harley gave the bike a substantial update, changing how it was wired, how the fuel injection worked, the design on the brakes, and a whole new computer that incorporated security, antilock brakes, and self-diagnostics. You can expect our new 2014 and up manual to be released at some point in 2018.

The long-serving Sportster first appeared with that name in 1957 with overhead valves, but that bike was an evolution of the flathead powered Model K from 1952. The roots of the K stretch back even further to the Model W series from 1937 and includes the WWII military bikes and the utilitarian Servi-Car, both with 45 cubic inch flathead motors. These bikes were designed to be lighter and easier to maneuver than the larger Harley touring machines. When American servicemen came back from Europe wanting a more nimble ride, like the Triumphs and Nortons in England, it was the logical starting place.

1970 - The Little Bike That Could

1971 Harley-Davidson Sportster Magazine Ad

The Sportster had already been in production for a dozen years by then, but in 1970 it achieved a real milestone: Outselling the big Electra Glide touring bike by nearly 1,000 units (though still only 8,650) and becoming their best seller. They did this through years of evolutionary changes and improvements. 1967 was the first year Harley-Davidson introduced a bike with an electric starter, and that bike was the Sporty, which meant stretching the frame and swingarm for a bigger battery, resulting for more seat room for you and your passenger. Another reason for the uptick in sales were front fork improvements for more travel and a better ride in 1968. 1969 saw better engine breathing and more power through bigger intake valves and updated cast iron heads. Some of the 1970 Sportster models available were the basic XL, the XLH with a higher compression motor, and the kickstart only XLCH; the fastest/quickest bike Harley-Davidson made at the time. Estimates are that a good running XLCH in 1970 could do the quarter mile in about 13 seconds, thanks to the nearly 60 horsepower it put out. It should also be mentioned that this was the year the XR-750 race bike began its very long running dominance on the track.

1971 - Updated Cases, Easier Starting

In 1971 the Sportster got some of the most substantial changes since the 1950s, with new cases introduced that moved the distributor into the engine cases and incorporated an automatic spark advance which resulted in easier starting. The factory also took the opportunity to incorporate a quieter wet clutch set up, like their Japanese competition used. Stylistically, this is also the last year that the oddball "boat tail" seat, seen on the Superglide and Sportster, was an option.

the 1970 Harley-Davidson full lineup magazine ad
1972 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1000 Magazine Ad

1972 - The 1000cc Sportster is Here

The Sportster had been competitive with the Norton and Triumph twins and triples before, but the Honda CB750 four cylinder which came out in 1969 had it beat. Out came the boring bar and the Sportster motor grew 3/16" to a full 1000cc (997.3cc to be exact) thanks to new 3.187"/81mm pistons. To further improve performance and rideability, a Bendix carb was fitted and an air cleaner that left more room for your knees. Power was now claimed to be 61 horses, and magazines of the day were able to turn the quarter mile in less than 13 seconds (once they ditched the quiet stock mufflers). All of these updates combined to sell almost 18,000 Sportys that year for new owners AMF.

1973 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1000 Magazine Ad

1973 - Modern Forks and Brakes

The year 1973 marked the beginning of Sportster production where they are still made, at the factory in York, Pennsylvania. AFM also updated the front fork, buying the same unit the Japanese competition had been using, a 35mm diameter by Kayaba. The march toward modernity also brought the XL bikes a disc brake this year too. There were minor frame updates to make production easier, and turn signals became standard thanks to government mandate.

1975 - Shifter Switches Sides

There were not many changes in 1974, though the throttle did finally get a return spring, and sales topped 20,000 for the first time. However, in 1975, there were changes across the motorcycle industry, as the United States Department of Transportation had mandated that all motorcycles have the shifter on the left, rear brake on the right, and clutch on the left handlebar grip. Since the Sportster had emulated European bikes, this meant moving the brake pedal and shifter peg, with a linkage behind the motor. AMF was trying to update the Harley lineup, but at the same time increase production and decrease costs, so quality started to suffer. With the 900cc Kawasaki Z1 now the top bike for those who wanted to go fast, Sporty sales dropped to less than 6,000 a year.

1975 Harley-Davidson magazine double page spread
1977 Harley-Davidson XLCR cafe racer brochure

1977 - Cafe Racer and Sporty Touring

There were not many changes for 1976, though there was a special edition in honor of the American Bicentennial celebration with a decal package designed by Peter Max. 1977, however, brought a bunch of changes and two very notable additions to the model lineup. Every Sportster got updated cases with a new oil pump and revised shift linkage to correct which side the shifter was on, plus a more accurate Keihin carburetor. The XLT Sportster was a new model that borrowed hard saddlebags from the big twins and added a windshield, larger tank, and more comfortable seating. Much more popular now than it ever was when new, the XLCR was the first factory attempt at a cafe racer from anybody, and the sportiest Sportster in a long time, with less weight, more power, better brakes, and a mean and sporty look.

1979 Harley-Davidson Sportster magazine ad

1978-79 - Modern Electronics, Goodbye Kickstart

Again there were not a lot of big changes, but the two into one into two exhaust first used on the Cafe Racer was fitted to other bikes in 1978, for better power with less noise. Solid state electronics made their way into the charging system for 1978, and by 1979 replaced the points with an electronic ignition system. There were also special 75th-anniversary edition models, in a sporty black paint with gold cast alloy wheels and gold trim, like the motorcycle equivalent of the Bandit's Trans-Am. More changes came for 1979 with a new lighter, stiffer, frame based on the one used on the XLCR. Brakes were improved as well, with the rear gaining disc and the front sporting dual discs. Also new for the 1979 model year was the XLS Roadster, with slightly extended forks, 16" rear wheel, and mini sissy bar with backrest; another attempt at a factory custom chopper by The Motor Company. 1979 was also the last year you could buy a kickstart only XLCH hot rod, though it was not all that different from the rest of the lineup by this time, and less than 150 of them were made.

1983 Harley-Davidson Full Line Brochure

1982 - It's a Frame Up

There was not a whole lot going on with the Sportster at the end of the 70s and start of the 1980s, but there was a big shake-up in the boardroom, with AMF out and a group of enthusiast investors now in charge in 1981. For 1982 the Sportster got another all-new frame, fully welded, which was stiffer and tucked the oil tank into its familiar location behind the motor and below your right thigh. Other small improvements were new switchgear, a push-pull throttle, a gear reduction starter (which required slight modification of the cases), and in 1984 an alternator instead of a generator. With all the smaller two-stroke dirt bikes and the 350cc Sprint gone, Harley introduced a stripped down version of the Sporty, called the XLX-61, to be the new low cost, entry-level bike in the showroom for just $3,995. There were also special 25th-anniversary Sportsters in 1982, with special silver/black or orange/black paint jobs. The old style iron head Sportster would last just a few more years and get replaced by the new Evolution motor version in 1986. The last hurrah for the iron head was the 1983-84 XR1000 street tracker, which mixed equal parts street Sportster and XR750 flat track bike, for a 70 horsepower, 500 lbs, plaything.

1986 Harley-Davidson XLH1100 Sportster

1986 - Evolution of the Sporty

The Harley-Davidson big twin had gotten an all-new, aluminum alloy, top end starting in 1984, but it wasn't until 1986 that updated cylinder heads and barrels came to the Sportster. The Evolution v-twin was aluminum with cast iron cylinder liners, so weight was down, and a slightly bigger bore for 1100cc, and more importantly cooling was improved. The new cylinder heads were also redesigned with more modern combustion chambers and a smaller angle between the valves, which meant more power, more compression with lighter pistons, and lower emissions thanks to more consistent combustion. Claimed power was back up over 60 horses again, after taking a dip when the iron head had been forced into smog compliance, dry weight was just 494 lbs, and performance was back up to where it had been in the days of the first fire-breathing iron head 1000s of 1972. Introduced at the same time as the new 1100 Evo was a low cost entry-level 883cc version, which took the place of the XLS-61 in the lineup. There was also a limited Liberty Edition, celebrating the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty, with a portion of each sale going to the restoration fund.

1988 Harley-Davidson XL883 Sportster

1988 - Bigger is Better

The year 1988 will always be remembered as the year the Sporty got 1200cc, the biggest it had ever been, but at the bottom of the lineup, Harley also introduced the 883 Hugger, specifically for smaller riders. Unfortunately, the extra 100cc of displacement only brought an extra 5 more horsepower, but torque was up and that's always welcome. Carburators on both sizes were now by Keihin, for better or worse; certainly for better smog control. The low priced 883, priced just under $4,000, could now be traded in within two years for full new retail value against a bigger bike, and that moved a lot of metal.

1993 Harley-Davidson XLH883 Sportster

1991 - Five Speeds and a Belt

There were big changes to the Sportster line for 1991, with transmission finally growing a fifth gear like nearly every other motorcycle made since the 1970s. More gears allow a wider spread of ratios without any big gaps, which means plenty of acceleration from stoplights, but more relaxed cruising on the freeway. Also adding to the enjoyment of cruising your cruiser was a switch from chain drive to a rubber belt, which absorbed driveline shock and almost never needed adjustments. The lowest priced 883 had to wait until 1993, but all 1200cc models and the 883 Deluxe got the belt for 91. 

1994 Harley-Davidson XL883 Sportster

1994 - Evolutionary Refinements

When a bike has been around since the 1950s (for the most part), every few years you have to give it a once over and ask "do we still have to do things this way, or is there a more modern method that makes it a better bike, or easier to manufacture?" There was no big news for 1994, but there were a lot of little improvements. The electrical system was updated with the more modern, weather-proof connectors that all other manufacturers were using by that time. There were also refinements to the clutch, and the oil tank and battery box were changed slightly. The next year, 1995, the speedometer would lose its archaic mechanical cable attachment to the front wheel and a magnetic pickup and electronic unit would take its place.

1998 Harley-Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport

1996-98 - Sportster Lineup Gains New Models

With the introduction of the Evo Sportster in 1986, gone were the XR1000, XLCR Cafe Racer, XLT Sportster Touring, and XLS Roadster factory custom. For 1996, The Motor Company began to bring back some of that variety, starting with the XL1200C Custom model. The Sportster 1200 Custom was very much an update of the old Roadster formula, with added chrome and accessories and a more chopper style to it. In 1998 the Sportster borrowed some parts from Eric Buell's parts bin and came up with the Sportster Sport, or XL1200S. The motor of the Sporty Sport featured new dual spark plug heads, higher compression, more aggressive cams, and less restrictive mufflers, while the chassis got fully adjustable shocks and forks, plus a more sporting riding position.

2004 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883

2004 - 21st Century Bike

The Sportster was a little late to the 21st Century, not getting much in the way of improvements (except better brakes, and sealed wheel bearings in 2000) until the 2004 model year, but then came the most changes since the introduction of the Evo in 1986. The biggest change was an all-new frame with rubber engine mounting to lessen vibrations, designed using what Eric Buell had taught them with his Sportster powered sport bikes. With the new frame came a smoother oil tank, with the trick push and turn cap, and a battery hidden on the other side for a cleaner look. The air cleaner "ham can" was redesigned for better breathing, and the exhaust balance pipe was moved from underneath it, now being completely hidden near the mufflers. Finally, the cases were updated and the transmission "trap door" was removed, in the name of making them more rigid so the transmission would shift better.

2009 Harley-Davidson XR1200 Sportster

2007-09 - EFI and the XR Returns

The big news for 2006, though oddly enough not for the United States, was the wild Sportster XR1200, teased at the Intermot show in Germany, with deliveries starting in 2008. Sporting an air cleaner under the tank, downdraft electronic fuel injection, revised heads, and performance cams, it put out more than 80 horsepower. Styled like the old XR750 race bike, this sporty street bike featured increased ride height, sticky tires, better brakes, and serious suspension upgrades front and back, but only for Europe and Asia. The United States Sportster did see some upgrades, in the form of a revised transmission with helical gears for easier shifting, and in 2007, fuel injection across the whole lineup. Finally, in 2009 American buyers could enjoy the uniquely Harley sport bike, and an even better handling version in 2011 as the XR1200X.

After the introduction of fuel injection, there were not any major updates until the big 2014 update, with just different styling and custom treatments creating several unique variations. In 2007 the Nightster a stealthy, matte finish, factory custom came out as a 1200, followed by the Iron 883 with a similar treatment a few year later. The Forty-Eight is a retro throwback which came out in 2010, with old school fat tires and bobbed fenders. In 2012, the opposite camp got a sparkly, metal flake painted, factory traditional chopper, dubbed the Seventy-Two. Even after all these years, parts of the Sportster still harken back to those early flathead 45 cubic inch models from the 1950s, and some parts do fit everything from 1970 to 2013. How much longer can this perennial favorite remain in the Harley-Davidson lineup and still meet the needs of the market, and government environmental regulations? Only time will tell.

All images not the property of Haynes/Clymer are copyright Harley-Davidson from old factory press photos and advertisements.