In 1957 Harley Davidson was not really in trouble compared to Indian. A few years before the Beatles arrived there was the original ‘British Invasion’. Soldiers had returned home from the war in Europe and were buying motorcycles. Triumph, BSA, Norton, AJS, Enfield, and others were all building light and fast motorcycles while Harley and Indian were still building big, heavy and slower bikes. Indian tried to compete with the Brit’s by building bikes powered by the Enfield twin and, Harley went to Italy looking for lightweights. None of that worked for the American builders.
Indian rode themselves into the sunset while Harley Davidson decided to go head on with the Brits with the technology and success they already had. “let’s take what we already know how to do just make it lighter and faster and give it a good name”. Enter the Sportster.
The 1957 Sportster had the new Overhead Valve Ironhead engine but was stuck into an older KH model chassis and truthfully, for all of Harley’s good intentions, it was not a sporty motorcycle and had no chance of competing with the motorbikes from across the pond. When dealers first saw it they were less than impressed and convinced Walter Davidson to build the KR race bike with the new Sportster engine, which he did, rather begrudgingly, and the Sportster is now the longest running, continuously made model in motorcycling history.
The Sportster was considered America’s first ‘Muscle Bike’. Over the years it was steadily changed, not necessarily improved, but changed. The 1958 model had the smaller 2 gallon ‘Peanut’ tank, bobbed fenders and straight pipes. This is what buyers wanted.
In 1972 AMF was building Harley Davidson’s and honestly, quality went right down the drain. That is not just my opinion but one widely held by everyone. In 1973 Cycle magazine did a six bike comparison and the Sportster came out dead last. Still, the Sporty continued to sell. It was even a TV star!
I am a fan of the Sportster. Yeah, I know, it’s called the ‘girls Harley’, or the ‘baby Harley’, or the ‘wanna be a Harley’ but I believe that the reason it stills sells well is because it works. The Sportster has gone from 883cc to 1000cc back to 883cc up to 1200cc’s and currently there are about a half dozen models of the Sporty at your local Harley dealer. In my humble opinion, the Sportster is Harley Davidson’s best motorcycle and I think Harley thinks the same way. Why? Because they are still building it more than fifty years later. Enough said.
I found a really nicely updated 1972 Sportster on ebay today. This one has been set up to look more like the XLR than the XLH it is. The owner has given the motor a good overhaul, nice new Borriani wheels, new seat and pillion pad, tires and sweet paint job. It is ready to ride home today. This would be a really fun bike to ride. It has the look it should and the upgrades it needs. Nice.
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