Harley-Davidson Sportster S | A brief history of Harley's modern trailblazer

Why the latest generation Harley-Davidson Sportster S is just the latest trailblazer in a lineage of flat-track inspired models that pioneered a new age

H-D Sportster S Visordown video and review

The arrival of an all-new Harley-Davidson Sportster is a truly significant event for arguably motorcycling’s most storied brand. 

Although the Milwaukee marque’s ’Big Twins’ such as the ElectraGlide and Fat Boy are probably the most iconic and desirable of all ‘Hogs’, it’s the historic American brand’s smaller, more entry-level Sportster family which has not only been the most successful but has also has been the introduction for most buyers to the Harley brand and has also produced a series of historic models of its own– both on road AND track – which have proved truly legendary. 

After all, it was the Sportster which was basis for the legendary XR750 flat-tracker, famously the most ‘winningest’ race bike in history, and the model preferred by Evel Knievel to perfect his notorious jumps.

It was the Sportster motor, which, albeit heavily reworked, was used to power Cal Rayborn’s world land speed record-setting Harley streamliner of 1970.

And it was Sportster-derived bikes, namely the XR1000 and XR1200, which have been, until very recently, Harley’s most performance-orientated bikes.

Today - much like it's predecessors the Harley-Davidson Sportster S - check out our REVIEW HERE - has been created with one eye on the past while hauling the brand into the future

Simply, without the Sportster, modern Harley probably wouldn’t even exist.

Harley Davidson Sportster S - The beginnings

Although the very first Sportster wasn’t built until 1957, it owes much of its DNA to Harley’s preceding Model K, which was produced between 1952 and 1956. The Model K was intended as a more pared down, lightweight, sporty machine to rival European twins such as the Triumph 500 Speed Twin. 

It was based on a derivative of Harley’s ‘W 45’ side-valve, 750cc V-twin engine complete with new, sporty, four-speed transmission and, for the first time on a Harley, suspension both front and rear. A KR racing version was introduced in 1953 and an enlarged, 888cc KH and KHK version came out in 1954.

The success of these K-series bikes, and also intensifying competition from the Europe motorcycle manufacturers, led to a major update in 1957, whereby Harley’s 888cc ironhead engine was updated from a sidevalve to an overhead valve design with the result being redesignated as the ‘XL’ or, more commonly, ‘the Sportster’. 

The following year, in 1958, a high compression version, the ‘XLH’, was introduced, as was a further racing version, the ‘XLCH’ (for competition hot). 

The collective success of these bikes was the catalyst for a Harley dynasty which survives to this day. By 1967 Sportster production was second only to that of the ElectraGlide and by 1970 it was the top selling Harley of all.

Although always a smaller, lighter, ‘sportier’ Harley V-twin, the Sportster has also been at the forefront of the American brand’s technical innovations and also often the model used as the basis for branching out into new sectors. Sportster engines were always the ones used by Buell. 

The Sportster was at the heart of the radical 1977 XLCR café racer and equally ambitious 2006 XR1200. While, when Harley created its new XR750 flat track racer in 1970, it was basically a reduced capacity 900cc XLR Sportster, later further updated with an alloy head.

Bigger is better

The original 900cc road sportsters were enlarged to 1000cc in 1972, enough to produce around 61bhp. But the biggest change came in 1986 when, following the successful introduction of Harley’s all-alloy, 1340cc ‘Evolution’ big twin engine in 1984, with the first Softail, the American firm similarly updated its Sportsters with a new alloy Evolution engine, this time in both 883 and 1100cc sizes, the latter then enlarged to 1203cc in 1988.

The Sportster continued in this configuration right up to 2020, over a wide variety of models and with an almost continuous series of technical evolutions. Five-speed gearboxes replaced the old four-speeder in 1991, which also saw the first belt-drive Sportsters. A new, rubber-mounted frame came in 2004 while fuel-injection took over from carbs in 2007.

Sportster models since 1957 were incredibly diverse, too, including everything from the XLT1000 Tourer and XLCR1000 café racer, both in 1977 (although, admittedly, these weren’t a success), the XR750-derived XR1000 of 1983, the low seat XL883 Hugger, the XL53, XL883C and XL1200C Customs, the XR-styled XL883R and XL1200R, the XR1200 in 2006, which was the sportiest sportster yet with reworked engine, inverted forks and more. 

More recently, the pared back XL883N Iron and XL1200N Nightster and XL1200X ‘Forty-Eight’ have become style icons for a whole new hipster generation.

Flat track, soaring success

In racing the Sportster’s had a more than it’s fair share of success, too – especially for an American ‘cruiser’. The K-series were successful in the US in their own right in the ‘50s and ‘60s in KR750 flat track and KRTT road racing forms. 

The succeeding XR750 of 1970, which was basically a reduced capacity, tuned Sportster 900, won 29 of the 37 AMA flat track championships from 1972 to 2008 inclusive, making it the most successful race bike in history. 

While the XR’s road racing variant, the XR-TT, was successfully campaigned most famously by Cal Rayborn when he won three of the six races at the 1972 Transatlantic Trophy at British circuits he’d never seen before.

Ultimately, of course, it all had to come to an end. With the air-cooled V-twin unable to meet 2001’s new Euro5 regulations the old Evolution-engined Sportsters were discontinued in Europe at the end of 2020.

But in their place we now have the first of an all-new family of Harley Sportsters. The liquid-cooled, ‘Revolution’-engined Sportster S is not only the first Sportster to receive an all-new engine since 1986, it’s the first of an all-new dynasty of Harley Sportsters boasting over 100bhp, the latest electronics and more. We can’t wait to see what Sportsters they’ll come up with next. The king is dead, as they say. Long live the, er, Sportster…