The History of the Sportster

POSTED: 18/11/2021

Let's take you back in Sportster® time...

Harley-Davidson® has produced millions of motorbikes, perhaps none as versatile or more popular as the Sportster® models. In 1957, the Harley-Davidson® Sportster® became known as one of the world’s first ever superbikes. If you read up on Harley® history, the name Sportster® returns numerous times over their decades of operation.

Keep scrolling down to find out about the history of the Sportster® and where we are today.

The 1950s - Contenders for the British

This motorcycle dynamo was in full effect, taking on competition from Great British Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs, which were all becoming increasingly popular. Harley-Davidson® released the XL Ironhead, (XL meaning extra lightweight), offering a sleek design and exciting engine capabilities. Inspired by Harley-Davidson® motorcycle's impressive flat track racing history, the earlier Sportster® models featured the gear-shifter on the right side, with the rear brake on the left.
Traditional XL Ironhead Sportster

Photo from Motorcycle Classics

The 1960s - Customisable by Nature

By the mid-60s, Sportster® models had become very popular in the motorcycling world and were almost always customised. The overall lightweight characteristic made these models ideal to transform them into a chopper or bobber style custom bikes. However motorcycling in the 60s was not always portrayed in a positive light, so during this time advertisements were consistently presenting the XLCH in a clean and positive manner.
The History of the Sportster

1970s - The King of the Pack

Kicking off the decade in 1970, a Sportster® motor sets a new land speed record, totalling a whopping 265mp/h. The Sportster® becomes known amongst hundreds of racing communities worldwide. This led to the Sportster® becoming king, the highest produced model from the Harley-Davidson® fleet in 1970. By 1972 the Sportster® was taking over. Harley® now ramped up the power when they upgraded its displacement from 883cc to 1000cc. 


Also, during the 70s, stunt rider Evil Knievel thrilled audiences around the world with his fantastic aerial motorbike launches over various objects. For many years the rider was using a XR-750, not perhaps first known as a Sportster®, however it was later re-introduced as a street-legal Sportster® called the XR-1000. 

1980s - Goodbye to the Kick-Starters

Kick-starters were replaced with electric starters on all Sportster® models from 1980, meaning you didn’t have to ruin your hairdo before riding off. The XLX61 model was introduced to the public in 1983 and to accommodate the larger battery and electric starter, the frame was kicked back just above the swingarm pivot - the swingarm was then extended accordingly. Harley-Davidson® side-mounted the oil tank on the left and this allowed room for the battery and starter.
The Sportster® Hugger then burst onto the scene in 1988. Its smaller size and weight was designed to attract beginners or female riders. Essentially it was the XLH 883 model with a lowered rear suspension, different seats, handlebars, and shocks.
The History of the Sportster

The 1990s - Taking it up a gear

Kicking off this decade the five-speed transmission arrives. Then in 1993, we say goodbye to the chain drive on Sportster® and hello to the belt drive. In addition to these changes, we see various electrical system upgrades on the Sportster® line too.
Harley-Davidson Sportster Nightster Model

Photo from Motorcycle Daily

The 2000s - Getting the cool factor

Entering the 21st century we see the immensely popular model, the XR1200 with its edgy exterior design and chrome work. With this model came many sub-models, generating huge appeal to different style riders and as the years rolled on so did the offerings: the 883, 1200, 48 and the roadster.

The Modern-Day, Sportster® S

The year 2021, marks the first of a new era for Harley-Davidson®. Approaching things differently entirely but keeping some of that Sportster® flavour the public strongly desire, like the tail section from the XR-750 and the fat front wheel from the Forty-Eight®. A new Sportster® book is now open with the release of the new Sportster® S model, offering the new Revolution Max motor and modern styling.


Low in height and fitted with high mount exhausts the Sportster® S stands out from the crowd. Equipped with technology ahead of its time, the Sportster® S incorporates corrosion-resistant metalwork and a 4” colour display with built-in satellite navigation and media software.

"Completely unlike any Sportster® you've ever ridden..."

The New Sportster® S

At a glance:

Revolution® Max 1250T

2-into-1-into-2; catalyst in muffler

Brembo brakes 

4 inch TFT colour display

Three ride modes: Road, Sport & Rain

Harley-Davidson Sportster S Colour Options

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