Octane Icon: Harley-Davidson Sportster
Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.
Until now, the vehicles featured in our Octane Icons series have been but singular iterations of automotive excellence — standout models, limited runs and one-offs that have bucked trends, pumped blood and turned heads. We celebrate them, not only because of their undeniable importance to the automotive world, but because they welcome even the most casual automotive observer into the enthusiasts’ world. They tease, tantalize and torture us in their pursuit, always on our radar, yet mostly just out of reach. The first motorcycle to be honored in this series defines most of that very criteria. And yet, it is readily available and remains relatively inexpensive: this is the Harley-Davidson XL or, as its more commonly known, the Sportster.
MORE OCTANE ICONS The 50 Most Iconic Motorcycles | Porsche 917 | BMW E30 M3 | Jaguar D-Type
What It’s All About
The Sportster is America’s first superbike — full stop. Before you start writing that angry email, consider this: sports cars of the early ‘50s showcased how a lightweight, dynamic chassis could create effortless speed; Harley-Davidson did for motorcycles with the original Sportster. It was conceived with racing in mind and designed to deliver results on the track as well as the street. That their original recipe has changed very little — and continues to grace showroom floors some 57 years later — is living proof of its importance in the automotive pantheon. In fact, the Harley-Davidson Sportster is the best-selling bike to bear Milwaukee’s celebrated Bar and Shield. How that came to be is an interesting story.
Thanks to its contribution to the allied forces in World War I, Harley-Davidson enjoyed a stranglehold on domestic motorcycle success in the 1920s. H-D’s only real homegrown rival, Indian Motorcycles, was chugging to be sure, but at a much slower pace. Harley’s WL platform used in the front lines found favor with many a returning soldier and civilian alike, resulting in the rise of “biker” culture as we’ve come to know it today. But riders quickly wanted increasingly lighter, faster and more nimble machines. By the time the second World War had ended, motorcycling had firmly rooted its presence in American culture — but Harley-Davidson was no longer leading the charge.
At around the same time that John and Paul were learning their G chords, a British invasion of an entirely different sort was taking place on American streets. Lightweight, fast and maneuverable bikes from the likes of Triumph, Norton and BSA were cropping up everywhere, leaving the Bar and Shield’s current K-series offerings in the dust, literally. So popular were those British marques that 1953’s motorcycle movie classic The Wild One featured its star, Marlon Brando, and his entire gang astride English twins — with their logos in full view for the first time in movie history. Harley took notice and quickly went to work to reclaim its middleweight crown. Debuting in 1957, the new Sportster XL combined the telescopic front-end and hydraulic rear swingarm suspension of its predecessor, with an all new overhead valve engine. Dubbed the Ironhead, HD’s new motor was freer breathing, higher revving and quicker than anything the company had produced before. The lessons learned in chassis technology from its predecessor meant the new bike could juke and jive, too. More importantly though, it meant that Harley-Davidson could again compete with, and beat, those plucky Brits.
The first time I rode a motorcycle — I’m not talking about the first gear, parking lot pylon parade that passes for training but actual open throttle, wind-in-your-face riding — was on a Harley-Davidson Sportster. It was a ’97 1200cc Custom, black with silver insets and dripping with chrome. At idle, the front wheel would pulse as the vibrations from the engine sought to escape, and the exhaust would belch its tune, so lopey it could never find rhythm. Just standing in its presence made me want to grow a beard, get tattooed, and smoke. Every time I hit the starter I wanted to strap a duffle to the back seat, throw my leg over and keep the throttle locked on thunder until I found that place that nobody can find. I’ve had other bikes since, and continue to keep at least one in the stable, but that Sportster was, for me, where dreams became reality and the road finally opened.
– Matt Neundorf
With almost sixty years under its chain and belt, one might expect a constant barrage of sweeping changes and innovations to maintain relevance. While the newest line of Sportsters do boast their fair share of technical advances including ABS, Harley’s staid approach to aging has most fostered the bike’s success and appeal.
The 45-degree, 40-horsepower Ironhead motor that introduced Harley owners to high-performance overhead-valve V-Twin engines would remain a staple of the XL lineup for some 28 years. Designed using cast-iron cylinder heads to quell the leaking issues associated with the lighter, cooler-running alloy heads in other engines, the 883cc and 1000cc powerplants were a one-piece design, incorporating the transmission directly into the crank case casting. This unit was bolted directly to the frame to create the signature responsive trait of the Sportster.
This method would continue until 2004, when Harley decided to soften the inherent vibrations associated with all twin cylinder motors by rubber mounting its powerplants. The motor and transmission unit used in the Sportster changed in 1986 with the introduction of the Evolution line. Much like its big-twin stablemates, the Evo-powered Sporty boasted lighter aluminum cylinders and heads and would eventually feature a 5-speed gearbox and the now-ubiquitous H-D belt-drive (1991). This design also showcases an entirely unique valve train configuration that employs one cam per overhead valve, resulting in four individual, single-lobe, gear-driven camshafts — an attractive engineering consequence of its continued unit construction. Fuel injection was introduced in 2007, after much experimentation to ensure that Harley’s patented signature sound would remain instantly recognizable.
Similar to the engines that motivated it, the overall shape of the Sportster has also remained constant despite countless variations on its theme. Much like the iconic Porsche 911, a Sportster of any ilk can be spotted from well beyond a twenty-yard stare. Thanks to its prominent “peanut” gas tank, low-rider stance and outboard rear suspension, the Sportster continues to exude an overall aesthetic that conveys an authentic ride better than most of Milwaukee’s finest.
Why It Matters
The Sportster has remained great in spite of some sufferings. A position at the entry level of the H-D catalogue has often earned it the label of a beginner bike, or worse yet, the title of “bitch” bike. That’s wrong. Sure, its low price point and ease of operation makes the Sportster a natural starting point, but it also means that its signature sound and responsive ride can be had without any of the tortures of bigger bikes. Few motorcycles capture an audience as attentively as those of Harley-Davidson. The Sportster is the most distilled representation of Harley-Davidson’s original DNA, and that’s why it’s an Octane Icon.