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In 1952, the predecessor to the Sportster was the first Harley-Davidson to utilize a hand clutch, foot-pedal gear shift and rear suspension. The Harley-Davidson K model also featured the company’s first unit construction engine (engine cases and transmission cases cast as one piece). The 45-cubic-inch engine, however, was still a side-valve design and couldn’t compete with the lighter and faster British imports. In 1953 Harley increased displacement to 54 cu. in. (883cc) to create the KH model, then in 1955 H-D included a Speed Kit comprised of hotter cams, polished ports and a roller-bearing bottom end. The K models never set any speed records but they were lighter, flashier and faster than Harley’s big Twins and laid the groundwork for one of the longest running models in American motorcycle history.

The Harley-Davidson Sportster arrived in 1957 with its now traditional 883cc motor, only at the time it was the Shovelhead engine. The Shovelhead had the same displacement as the Flathead engine in use on the KHK model, but the Shovelhead utilized overhead valves and, along with its bigger bore and shorter stroke, gave the Harley-Davidson Sportster more horsepower. Like the Silent Grey Fellow model from earlier in the century, the name, Sportster, was cast into the gear case cover. For the next 50-plus years the Harley-Davidson Sportster would undergo changes and upgrades, but Harley’s model line-up would never once omit the Sportster model.

For 1958 H-D launched four Sportster models: XL, XLH, XLC and XLCH. The H stood for high-compression while the C denoted competition. Both the XLC and XLCH were off-road models stripped of all street-legal requirements (but made street-legal the next year). In 1972, the Harley-Davidson Sportster would receive a bump in engine displacement to 1000cc. Up until 1975, Harley-Davidson Sportster models came with a four-speed gearbox shifted with the right foot. For that year the Department of Transportation mandated that all motorcycles come standardized with a left-foot shifter.

2011 Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200X

In 1977 Harley-Davidson launched the sportbike-themed XLCR (café racer). The XLCR featured a modified frame with longer frame rails to reposition the rear shocks for better handling, while its bikini fairing, gas tank and tail section were constructed of fiberglass. Traditional Harley riders didn’t understand it, and it sold poorly.

In 1978 Harley-Davidson celebrated its 75th anniversary, and the Sportster Anniversary edition featured midnight black paint, gold trim and limited-edition graphics. The year 1979 marked the last year of the XLCH and the introduction of the XLS, which is the Harley-Davidson Sportster version of the FXS Low Rider and featured a siamese exhaust system.

For 1986 the Harley-Davidson Sportster received Harley’s new Evolution engine in both 883cc and 1100cc sizes, with the 1100 being bumped to 1200cc in ’88. In 1991 the four-speed transmission gave way to a five-speed gearbox, and by ’92 all Harley-Davidson Sportsters were using a belt final-drive instead of chain.

In 2004, the Harley-Davidson Sportster got a stronger but heavier new frame that placed the engine in rubber mounts to suppress the earlier model’s omnipresent vibration. Fuel injection replaced carburetion in 2007. In 2009 Harley-Davidson launched the dirt-track-inspired Harley-Davidson XR1200 Sportster, and in 2010 the American Motorcycle Association introduced a spec racing series for modified Harley-Davidson XR1200s.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Reviews

2012 Harley-Davidson Seventy-Two Review

Since Harley-Davidson’s done a lot of the heavy lifting by keeping styling tight and simple, the Seventy-Two strikes us as a blank sheet waiting for a rider to personalize it into a one-off modern-day chopper.

2012 Harley-Davidson Sportster SuperLow Review

Along with its 26.8-inch seat height, the SuperLow, powered by the venerable 883cc air-cooled Harley-Davidson V-Twin, holds the honor of possessing the lightest claimed dry weight in Harley’s stable in 2012.

2011 Harley-Davidson Sportster SuperLow

Harley-Davidson’s top-selling entry-level bike, the XL883L Low, just got better. Harley gave the Sportster SuperLow a complete makeover for 2011 to improve its suspension for a softer, more compliant ride while maintaining its low seat height.

2011 Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200X Review

The Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200X - an up-spec version of the XR1200 - first seen in Europe last year makes its way back home to the U.S. as a 2011 model. The most notable change is Showa’s fully adjustable Big Piston Fork.

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Harley-Davidson Sportster Comparisons

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2012 Harley-Davidson Sportster SuperLow vs. Triumph America [Video]

If you’re eager to have a user-friendly cruiser that won’t break the bank and yet still offers reputable performance and is welcoming of new and/or returning riders, then gaze upon the Harley-Davidson Sportster SuperLow and Triumph America.

Ducati Monster 1100 vs Harley-Davidson XR1200 Review

We compare the Harley-Davidson XR1200 and the Ducati Monster 1100, two machines that are literally half a world apart in origin, and probably a galaxy apart in styling philosophy, as America takes on Italy in an air-cooled V-Twin streetfighter shootout.

Smackdown in Chi-Town

For that buyer, we took a bullet for you and sent three MOrons all the way to Peoria -- Peoria, for the love of God! -- to try out three representatives of H-D's 2006 lineup

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Looking for a specific make, model or year of Harley-Davidson Sportster, and how it compares to the competition? Looking to design your own Harley-Davidson Sportster? Use our Motorcycle Finder, below, to get everything you need on 2004 to present Harley-Davidson Sportsters.
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