Motorcycles | 27 June 2017The Ever-Changing Harley-Davidson Share article facebook twitter google pinterest By the mid 1970s, the Harley-Davidson Sportster was in transformation. The federal government mandated in 1975 that the gearshift lever be on the left, with first gear down, all others up, and neutral between first and second. The Sportster was the odd duck in the H-D lineup that wasn’t already compliant with that. In addition the Sportster had more parts than it carried ten years earlier. The kick starter was history, the exhaust note subdued, and the kick-butt championship had gone elsewhere. Even so, Cycle World and Cycle both tested Sportsters during this time period. Both weighted their machines at close to 500 pounds, and both returned quartermiles in the high thirteens. These were not slow motorcycles. In fact, they were easily the quickest Harleys, as always. Furthermore, the 1975 Sportsters outsold the newly-electric-legged Super Glide two to one, with the FLH way behind both, so the public was still voting for the model. Two interesting new Sportster incarnations emerged around this time as well. Harley-Davidson Sportster: Sixty Years gives you a look at the Cafe Racer XLCR model and the Hugger XLH model option. THE CAFÉ RACER And sometimes, as the saying goes, the bear eats you. In the 1960s, while American shade tree stylists were creating the chopper with the elements of the big twin TT racers from the 1940s and ‘50s, in Europe the same mindset was building street racers mimicking road race machines; rear-set footpegs, dropped handlebars, tiny fairings, huge brakes, and pipes as loud as the builder could get away with. The fashion was racing from hangout to hangout. And because the crowd gathered at coffee shops, some clever chap called these modified bikes Café Racers. They were all the fashion in Europe, and they had a small following in the U.S. (smaller than some folks thought, as we’ll note shortly). Willie G.’s name was still on the factory, but the families no longer owned the firm, so he had to rely on work and skill (from both himself and his partners). AMF’s policy was to make as many bricks with as little straw as possible, as in making new models with existing parts, witness the Super Glide. So Davidson, Jim Hubert, and Bob Moderow launched a major project using as many Sportster components as they could, loosely inspired by the café racer fad and named—as the reader will have already guessed—the XLCR (no prizes for what the letters stood for). The biggest change was the frame. The Sportster frame mounted the shock absorbers below the seat at the top, midway between the hub and the pivot at the swingarm. When the design appeared in 1952 on the K Model, it made sense. By 1972 or 1975, when the idea for the CR was hatched or the design begun, the XL’s frame was woefully out of date. So the junction became history. Aft of the backbone the CR had two smaller rails, extended back to above the rear hub, and triangulated with tubes to the rear engine mount. The shocks mounted directly above the hub. There was less flex, improved control and room to neatly mount the oil tank and battery that extruded, so to speak, with the original XL design. In general, this update of frame and suspension was patterned on the XR-750 frame, as the press release reported, although there were actually no shared parts. Next came the exhaust system, done in matte black and with both head pipes merged below the carb and then separated. The forward pipe swept back to the left and then to a muffler on the left, true duals and responsible—the factory claimed—for a boost to 68 bhp from the otherwise shared XL-1,000 engine. The fiberglass seat and rear fender sort of resembled the XR-750’s seat, while the seat pad itself used snaps, just like the XR’s. The flaw here was that to keep that license plate and taillight away from the rear tire, the fender had to adjust clumsily back, where the XR’s flowed gracefully. The gas tank also was inspired by the XR, except it was bigger, at 4.0 gallons, than either the XR or the XL’s peanut tank. In front was a small fairing, a bikini fairing as we said then, because it didn’t cover much. At speed, though, the fairing would keep some air pressure off the rider’s chest. The CR got cast wheels, more a modern than a café racer touch, and disc brakes front and rear. And at the same time the XL cases were reworked to allow the shift lever to emerge from the left side of the gearbox, the rear brake got a master cylinder, so there were no more crossings over. Willie G. and staff did the décor in shades of black, as in matte for the pipes, wrinkle for the covers, paint for the rest, with a bronzed bar-and-shield for the tank badges. The pegs and controls were rear-set, the handlebars were narrowed and the front fender was small and made of fiberglass, which did meet the café rules. Because this was supposed to perform, the gearing was changed, with one tooth taken off the engine sprocket. The CL turned more revs at any speed than the stock CH, which was supposed to be an aid to acceleration. Which it did, to the tune of an E.T. of 13.08 seconds. (Historical note: Harley’s press guy conned the test rider into revealing the test times before publication, which was against Cycle World’s rules. He then called CW’s editor and threatened legal action if the figures were published. When the editor told him CBS, the magazine’s owner at the time, kept a cage full of attorneys just waiting for such action, the PR guy settled for hiring his own rider. They tested at dawn when it’s cool and the air more dense, and used those times, in the high 12s, in the Café Racer’s ads.) It’s therefore highly ironic that the Café Racer was a commercial failure. The first batch sat in dealer showrooms until the prices went down. The next year they revised so there was space for a passenger, and after that the model left the catalog. Why the flop? Magazine comments of the day show the CR did perform well, easily on par with the other sporting twins if not the powerhouse fours from Japan’s Big Four. The CR did have a better frame, could cruise for more miles, had better brakes and extra power and the crouch plus fairing made it heaps more comfortable on the highway than the laidback slump of the cruiser, a fad just then hatched. But Conner’s figures show nearly 17,000 of the CH and H designation, virtually identical except for details like handlebars, out the door in 1977, against 1,923 XLCRs. In 1978, production slumped to 1,201. Now the irony flips over. In the long and practical run the CR’s frame was an improvement, likewise the cast wheels which can use tubeless, make that modern, tires. The work wasn’t wasted. The other factor that worked in its favor is the collector mentality, which likes to put itself above the crowd. So when the crowd turns something down, as happened to the CR, the collectors take interest and start bidding. And that’s what’s happened to the XLCR. The common XL from the 1960s is bought and sold as a motorcycle, while for café racers there’s an owners’ club and websites and a brisk trade in decals and original parts and exhaust systems and the like, for what Willie G. must have considered a bubble on his paint. THE HUGGER Folklore notwithstanding, women did not just last year fling away their corsets and discover motorcycles. Women have always ridden motorcycles, albeit they replaced skirts and corsets with bonnets, jodhpurs and caps and then jeans and helmets. However, about the time regular guys were willing to be seen on Harleys, it became something of, well, a fad, for women to ride solo. In the model year 1980, without ever actually saying so, Harley-Davidson made riding easier for the gentler gender. The model was—and still is—Hugger. It was an option. The Hugger had shorter shock absorbers and fork legs, and a thinner seat, all of which lowered the machine. Women in general are shorter and lighter than men, and have less strength, especially in the upper body. The lowered Sportster, with an official seat height of 26 inches that first year, and with minor changes since, was easier to throw a leg over, heave off the sidestand, balance in slow going and at rest, with feet planted on the ground. There are several states that require the rider to be able to put both feet down, an even better incentive. Sure, there were some drawbacks. The ride height and seat thickness hadn’t been picked without reason. The lower ride height meant stiffer springs and shocks to handle the bumps and potholes. The thinner seat meant more shocks got through to the rider. It didn’t matter. There were enough women—and surely some guys who were either short or liked the looks of the lowered XLH—to keep the model in production ever since. But just as the car people have learned, you can sell a young man’s car to an old man, and a man’s car to a woman, but neither works in reverse. So the Hugger has never been advertised as a woman’s motorcycle. Buy From an Online Retailer Go on a 60-year ride with Harley-Davidson’s Sportster Things got a little weird in the American motorcycle industry after World War II. People hungered for new motorcycles, buying just about everything manufacturers could build. But on rare occasions a manufacturer produced a machine that nobody wanted. Such was the case with the Harley-Davidson Model K. The Model K had most of the features buyers wanted in a modern machine, like hand-operated clutches, foot-operated shifters, and cool-running aluminum heads, but it lacked perhaps the most important technological upgrade: a modern overhead-valve valve-train design. The Model K retained the antiquated side-valve design because of arcane AMA racing rules written when Harley-Davidson and Indian competed head-to-head on American racetracks, but by 1952 Indian was on its last legs. This should have made the Model K a massive sales success. What nobody counted on was the British bike invasion. Thanks to their modern overhead-valve engines, the lightweight British bikes humiliated the side-valve Harleys on the track and on the street. Upgrades to the Model K didn’t help; Harley finally relented and introduced a new overhead-valve middleweight for the 1957 model year. Dubbed the Sportster, it was everything the Model K was not. More importantly, it was faster than the British competition. Thus began the Sportster’s sixty-year reign. Harley-Davidson Sportster: Sixty Years tells the complete Sportster story. Noted Sportster expert Allen Girdler covers all the bikes–the XLCH, Café Racer, XR1000, XLX, 883, Iron, Forty-Eight, Seventy-Two, and Nightster–that have made the Sportster one of the most iconic motorcycles on earth. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.