A Brief History Of The Harley Sportster
Bike SA|October 2021
The arrival of an all-new liquid-cooled Harley-Davidson Sportster this year is a truly significant event.
Phil West

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 over the years but has also has been the introduction for most buyers to the Harley brand and has 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 that was the basis for the legendary XR750 flat-tracker, famously the most ‘winningest race bike in history, and the one that was also the jump machine favoured by stunt legend Evel Knievel.

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

In other words, without the Sportster, modern Harley probably wouldn’t even exist… 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 the popular European twins of the 1950s such as the Triumph 500 Speed Twin. As such, the new Harley was based on a derivative of the ‘W 45’ side-valve, 750cc V-twin engine but came with a lightweight, minimalist chassis, a new, sporty, four-speed transmission and, for the first time on a Harley-Davidson, suspension both front and rear. A KR racing version was then introduced in 1953 while an enlarged, 888cc KH and KHK version came out in 1954.

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