Harley-Davidson Sportster: Models & History

March 27, 2018

Harley-Davidson Sportster: Models & History

The Harley-Davidson Sportster bikes have been around since 1957. Made popular by its versatility, the series has gained fans over the years and continues to have loyal followers to this day. Incredible staying power, right? Its secret lies in staying relevant -- Harley-Davidson continues to release new models under the line each year. The most avid motorcycle collectors and bikers have witnessed the line’s incredible evolution over the years and can attest to why the bikes are celebrated.

Curious about the Sportster? Will it be your next dream bike? Let us take you for a ride down memory lane.

AKA the XL

The product code for the Sportster is XL which is why you might sometimes hear it referred to as this. Before the XL, engines for the Model K (K, KK, KH, and KHK) and Sport solo bikes had a flathead engine. The Sportster on the other hand, received a four-stroke 45° V-twin overhead valve engine with its “knife and fork” sharing a common crank pin. Apart from the engine, the Sportster still shares the same frame, fenders, gas tank and front suspenders as earlier models.

The Sportster’s journey

A year after its release, midsize bikes with flathead engines had to go and the K Model(s) were replaced with Sportsters XLH, XLC, and XLCH. The XLC, with its improved compression ratio, was designed for racing, while the XLHC was made for off-road rides.

In 1959 the “Competition Hot” XLCH with an 883cc engine and the XLH with high lift intake cams were neck and neck against Triumph’s 650cc Bonneville. Despite that, the Sportster had a 40% increase in sales in 1960.

Seven years later, their production of 2,675 motorcycles swelled to 4,500 and sold nearly as many as the top-of-the-line Electra-Glide.

Originally, the bikes had an OHV 883cc air-cooled engine, but as the sales soared, the push to give its engine a boost became stronger. And with a production of 23,830 bikes, the 883cc engine made way for 1000cc's in 1972.

The XR-750 however, still had a 750cc OHV engine alloy head up until 1985. One of its famous riders, Evel Knievel used an iron head version in his stunts from 1970 – 1977.

The Sportster would not be dubbed versatile if it hadn’t tried to cover every area. It put a spotlight on comfort and efficiency for long rides when it released the XLCR and the XLT that had padded seats, Electra-Glide saddlebags, high gear ratio and a 3.5-gallon tank, but these were only sold until 1979.

1985 was the last year for the iron head OHV engine and it made way for the 1,100cc four-speed transmission evolution engine with Keihin carburetors in 1986. Models with 883cc made a comeback in 1988 while other units were fitted with 1,200cc engines and a low seat called Hugger.

As the 90s approached, the bikes’ four-speed transmission was changed into five-speed in 1991, the first time since its release. After that, the Deluxe 883 and 1200 models got a belt drive and, in two years, it became a standard for all units under the Sportster.

It received a sharper look in 1994 when its electrical systems were sealed, its oil tank and battery tray were improved and it was fitted with a standard clutch. The XL1200C was added to the line in 1996 and two years later, the XL 1200S was fitted with dual spark plug heads and top-quality cams.

The 2000s

Over four decades since its first release, the Sportster line has enjoyed a long and good ride and continued to cruise into the 2000’s. The beginning of the millennium meant better power for the bikes, so it got four-piston brake calipers and sealed wheel bearings. It also said goodbye to its frame mounted Evolution engine in 2003.

In the following year, it got a new frame and a rubber-mounted engine that lessened its vibration. More of the bike’s engine was displayed because the exhaust balance pipe was hidden behind the silencers. Then, a smoother oil tank was placed on the right panel, while its enclosed battery sat on its left side. In 2005, the Sportster had improved stability when it got a larger rear axle. This would later be followed by the increase of the front axle in 2008.

Almost every year in the 2000s was dedicated to launching new improvements on the bike. 2006 marks the first time a Harley-Davidson motorcycle (XR1200) used Down Draft DDFII fuel injection. The company then replaced carburetion for all its models and used fuel injection in 2007.

Modifications are something almost all Harley-Davidson fans are familiar with, and since the placement of the Sportster’s ECU has gotten in the way of changing the seat of the bike, it was moved in 2010.

In 2014, the Sportster got a new electrical harness and bigger brakes with an anti lock (ABS) option. Keyless entry was possible and the bike had a new speedometer with a tachometer, increased engine compression ratio, and a catalytic converter.

2018 Sportsters

Five bikes will be released on the Sportster line this year. Two of those will have an 883cc engine while the other three get 1202cc engines. While all of these bikes wouldn't have any trouble cruising through urban areas, you might be able to take some of these on rough roads.


The Superlow comes in four colors with an 883cc, rubber mounted air-cooled Evolution engine with a torque of 69 Nm. This bike has a specially designed seat that makes maneuvering easy. Its emulsion rear shock can handle bumpy roads, making the ride more tolerable. Its efficient foundation brake system gives the rider a lot of control.

Iron 883

This model gets the same 883cc rubber mounted air-cooled Evolution engine. Though the Iron 883’s blacked out appearance is preferred by many for being low maintenance, the unit has five colours to choose from. It has a tuck and roll solo seat that complements the bike’s lowered front and rear suspension. Together, it makes avoiding potholes in the city a breeze.

1200 Custom

The Custom 1200 is set to give everyone a good ride with its 1202 cc V-twin engine with a torque of 96 Nm. The engine's cooling system is improved because it's made of lightweight aluminum. It also has a closed loop exhaust system that meets international emission standards. The bike has great style with its combination of black for its rockers, oval air cleaner cover, timer cover and chrome for its short dual exhaust.


Though the bike first came out in 1948, this year’s version is nowhere near old. It has a 1202cc air-cooled Evolution engine and a fat front tyre that gives it stable handling and a tough appearance. Rough roads become easier to manage with the help of its 49mm front fork, triple clamp, fork brace, and emulsion rear shock. You can also go for miles and miles with its 7.9 litre fuel tank that gives it a fuller look compared to most Sportster bikes that are lean.


Most of the bikes in the Sportster line have a black theme and the Roadster is no different. It has black mirrors, belt guard, and slotted black exhaust. The engine is an air-cooled Evolution with 1202cc and a torque of 96Nm. Riders get an imposing look with its slammed handlebars that are perfectly positioned to monitor the speedometer and tachometer. Its 43mm front suspension with inverted forks comes with cartridge damping so that on uneven pavements are easy to ride. Steering is easy with its 19-inch front wheel and 18-inch back wheel with a great power to weight ratio.

Own your dream bike

A high-powered, high-quality bike is both a great investment and reliable companion through the years. Pick the right financing option for purchasing your dream bike, and you’ll have absolutely nothing to regret.

Contact Money Centre and ask about their bike loans. Money Centre specialises in tailoring finance packages for borrowers so they get reasonable interest rates, affordable repayments and loan options.

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