Here’s how the Sportster saved Harley-Davidson

One of the most iconic motorcycle brands of all time is Harley-Davidson. Even people who don’t ride bikes recognize Harley-Davidson logo when they see it. While Harley-Davidson is known around the world, the motorcycle manufacturer almost ceased to exist after World War II. During the war, American servicemen had the opportunity to ride European-made bikes like Triumph, DKW, and NSU, among others. What made these European motorcycles different from those in the United States was that they were much lighter and faster.


After getting a taste of what it was like to ride a lighter bike in Europe, the service members wanted to replicate that feeling in the States. With changing consumer expectations and demands in the American motorcycling community in the 1950s, Harley-Davidson knew it had to start producing something that would match these changing consumer desires. This is where the Harley-Davidson Sportster comes into play. Read on to learn more about Harley-Davidson and how the Sportster ended up saving the number one motorcycle manufacturer in the United States.

RELATED: 10 Things Only Real Bikers Know About The Harley-Davidson Sportster


The origins of Harley Davidson

Founders_of_Harley-Davidson_The_North_Shore_Bulletin_Dec_1920
Harley and the Davidson brothers via Wikimedia Commons

Harley-Davidson’s origins trace their roots to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While most Harley enthusiasts know that the motorcycle manufacturer was founded in 1903, they may not be aware of some of the more intricate details of Harley-Davidson’s origins. Digging a little deeper into Harley-Davidson history, we find that William S. Harley began drawing up plans for a small engine with a displacement of 7.07 cubic inches and four-inch flywheels. designed to propel a motorized bicycle.

Shortly after working on his bike, Harley asked childhood friend Arthur Davidson to help perfect the design and engine. The two friends worked diligently on the project, with Davidson’s two brothers, William and Walter, soon joining the project. After a few years of building prototypes, Harley and the Davidson brothers finally had a bike on the market, and so Harley-Davidson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903.

RELATED: These Are The Coolest Mods For Your Harley-Davidson Sportster

Why Harley-Davidson Would Be Nothing Today Without The Sportster

Harley-Davidson_1973_Sportster(XLCH)_1
1973 Sportster via Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, Harley-Davidson found a way to thrive even during World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. However, when soldiers began returning to the United States after the end of World War II in September 1945, American bikers had different perceptions of what a motorcycle should be, depending on the European bikes they had ridden. during the war. The bikes the American servicemen had ridden in Europe were much lighter and faster than the traditional bikes produced by Harley-Davidson at the time.

In order to compete and meet market demands, Harley-Davidson knew it had to come up with something new. In 1952, Harley-Davidson launched the Model K, which would become the Sportster’s predecessor. The Model K brought new technology and design, marking the beginning of Harley-Davidson’s line of sportbikes. In 1957, Harley-Davidson introduced the XL model, better known as the Sportster, to replace the K model series. The introduction of the Sportster in the 1950s truly saved Harley-Davidson, allowing the company to meet the changing expectations of the motorcycling community.

RELATED: 10 Reasons The Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster Deserves More Respect

The evolution of the Harley-Davidson Sportster: from 1957 to forever

1976 Harley-Davidson Sportster Bobber Side Profile by Copper Chopper
via the copper chopper

While the Sportster has remained a staple in the Harley-Davidson lineup for over six decades, the Sportster has seen significant changes over the years. The first true Harley-Davidson Sportster was the XL Ironhead. This motorcycle introduced the overhead valve engine and gave Harley-Davidson a way to compete with the British Triumphs that were becoming popular among American riders.

While the XL Ironhead remained in production, the Sportster soon began to branch off in other directions. The XLCH Ironhead entered production in 1958 and earned the nickname “Competition Hot”. The XL and XLCH Ironhead Sportsters have become very popular in the motorcycle community. Additionally, these lightweight Sportsters served as a good starting point for riders who wanted to turn them into custom bobbers and choppers.

RELATED: Check Out This 1976 Harley-Davidson Sportster Transformed Into A Retro-Chic Bobber

Where is the Harley-Davidson Sportster today?

screenshot-2022-11-03-at-94045-PM-2
2022 Sportster S via Harley-Davidson

In 1986 Harley-Davidson introduced the XL Evolution, also known as the Evo Sportster. Evo Sportsters have 883cc and 1100cc Evo engines which have remained staples of motorcycles for almost 40 years of production. However, in October 2022, Harley-Davidson made the decision to discontinue all Evolution-powered Sportster XL models. This means that the Iron 883 and Forty-Eight models will roll off the line for the last time by the end of the year.

While the Evo Sportster may be on its last outing, the Harley-Davidson Sportster isn’t going anywhere just yet. In 2021, Harley-Davidson released the Sportster S. The 2022 Sportster S has an MSRP price of $15,499. The bike is available in three color options, including Vivid Black, Pearl White Sand, and Mineral Green Metallic. Additionally, this Sportster is powered by the all-new Revolution Max 1250T engine, which features a liquid-cooled powertrain with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing. So while the Sportster S may look a little different from the original XL Ironhead, the Harley-Davidson Sportster is still alive and well, and Harley-Davidson still has the Sportster to thank for its continued success today.

Wiley C. Thompson