The History of Harley-Davidson Sportster Motorcycles

The History of Harley-Davidson Sportster Motorcycles

The Roots of the Sportster Family

Model K 

In 1952, the first K Model was born. During this time, many smaller, sportier motorcycles were being imported into the United States. The majority of these motorcycles came in from Great Britain.

In order to compete, Harley-Davidson® created the K Model series. This lineup was a combination of a new look, a new build and new technology. 

The first model in the K series was the 1952 Model K. The Harley-Davidson Field Guide: All American Bikes 1903-2004, by Doug Mitchell, describes that the Model K had cylinder heads and pistons that were formed from an aluminum alloy. It also featured a side-valve configured engine, which was integrated with the transmission. 

Furthermore, the Model K featured a right-sided foot shifter and a hand clutch. This was unusual at the time and would require the riding community to adapt. However, it eventually became the norm for choosing gears. This was also the first time the four-speed gearbox was integrated into the engine case. 

The Model K marked the beginning of Harley-Davidson’s sportbike lineup. But, despite the new tech, it lacked the speed and power the riding community had desired and expected. Its horsepower was a mere 30. And, its top speed was only 80 mph. When compared to the recently released 1951 Hydra-Glide, with a maximum speed of 100 mph, you can imagine why Harley fans were left wanting more. 

The K Model series was the first Harley lineup to feature hydraulic suspension on both the rear and front of the frame. What the Model K lacked in power, Harley tried to make up for in handling and stability. But, according to Tod Rafferty, in his book The Complete Harley-Davidson: a Model by Model History, it still left a lot to be desired by Harley fans. 

Model KH 

The Model K was reintroduced as the Model KH in 1954. It was re-released with improvements, such as increased torque and a redesigned gearbox/crankcase. 

According to the Harley-Davidson Field Guide: All American Bikes 1903-2004, by Doug Mitchel, the gears on the KH were constructed with added durability. This provided increased rigidity. 

The Complete Harley-Davidson states that the KH’s stronger gears also prevented gear teeth shredding, which would have resulted from its increased torque. 

Moreover, the Model KH had a 55-cubic inch motor with internal modifications that gave it added power. Its larger valves also provided increased horsepower of 38 and a top speed of 95 mph. 

Model KHK 

The Model KHK was released in 1956. In comparison to the Model KH, it had more aggressive cams which increased performance. This was the last year the KH and KHK were sold. They were also the last to feature the Flathead motor, with the exception of the Servi-Car. There were approximately 700 KHK models manufactured in the final year. 

Despite the death of the K Model series, this was not the end of the sportbike lineup. Harley-Davidson had a new idea up their sleeve. Another rebirth was in the works. 

Model XL/The Sportster 

The Original

The Model XL was released to consumers in 1957. It replaced the K model series. Historically, many of Harley-Davidson’s new releases were a combination of older models. However, the Model XL was described as a new creation. 

The Model XL proved to be more successful than the Model K. Approximately 2,000 units were sold in its debut year. It featured a 55-cubic inch overhead valve engine and a chain final drive. The Harley-Davidson Field Guide 1903-2004 also details that the XL had aluminum pistons within its cast-iron cylinders and hemispherical heads that topped off the jugs.

In The Complete Harley-Davidson, Rafferty explains that many were surprised to see the Sportster with a cast iron heads rather than aluminum. Harley believed that cast iron was the safer choice, due to previous complications with the early Panhead engine. Cast iron was indeed heavier, but it was also more durable and accessible. 

The Complete Harley-Davidson also states that in comparison to the Model K, the Sportster “held a shorter-stroke engine that revved more quickly.” In the 1950s hot rodding, or illegal street racing, had become wildly popular. It was so popular that it became a national sport in 1955. The Model XL had a horsepower of 40 at 5,500 rpm and an increased compression ratio of 9:1, giving riders and street racers the added power they’d hoped for. 

The Rebirth 

According to the Harley-Davidson Buyer’s Guide, older models in this series were known for being incredibly uncomfortable, especially at high speeds and on long rides. The solid-mounted engines and lack of counterbalancers made rides annoyingly shaky. 

In 2004, the Sportster® was redesigned. This time with a new chassis. The newly designed Sporster had a rubber-mounted engine layout. Its new rubber mounting helped reduce unwanted vibrations. Motorcyclists could now use their Sportster for long-distance rides without discomfort. 

Recent Models 

Sportster 883

Harley-Davidson released the Sportster 883 in 2004. At the time, it was the most affordable motorcycle Harley-Davidson offered. It featured a single-seat, low-rise handlebars and a 3.3-gallon gas tank. 

Harley also offered a custom version of the 883. Its tire was narrower than the original. This provided better handling and improved turn-in. The Sportster 883 Custom also had handlebars that were closer to the rider and footpegs that were forward-mounted. This gave it that beloved classic, custom look.

The 883 Custom also had an increased fuel capacity of 36 percent (4.5 gallons). To further the custom look, the 883 also featured drag-style handlebars, a shortened rear fender and a side-mounted license plate. 

Harley also released the Sportster 883L which had a “slammed” design, or very low suspension. This made the 883L significantly stiffer than the original 883. In the Harley-Davidson Buyer’s Guide 1984-2011, Gantriis and Gingerelli argue that its low, stiff design negatively impacts ride quality. However, despite this setback, they agree that this bike is a considerable option for riders with “shorter inseams.” 

Iron 883

In 2010, Harley released the Iron 883. The Harley-Davidson Buyer’s Guide describes this as the “blacked out” version of the standard 883. Its engine case and spoke wheels had a black powder coat finish. And, the tank and fenders were painted with matte Black Denim and Silver Denim. 

The Sportster is often described as an entry-level motorcycle. At one point, Harley-Davidson offered a guaranteed trade-in value for the Sportster if it was traded in for a Big Twin within one year. However, Gantriis and Gingerelli believe the Sportster is a bike worthy of long term ownership, for both new and experienced riders.

The 1200 

Harley-Davidson released multiple versions of the 1200 in the 1990s. The 1996 1200C was the custom version. It was chromed out from its 21-inch front spoke wheel to its taillight. Harley designed the 1200C with a more narrow chassis. But despite its small frame, Harley managed to squeeze in a 4.5-gallon capacity fuel tank. 

Harley released the XL1200N Nightster in 2008. Harley dubbed it the Nightster due to its blacked-out fenders, rims, hubs, triple clamps and fork. Its 3.3-gallon fuel tank was dark, with a matte silver or black coat. The Nightster also had shortened front and rear fenders, a custom taillight and a side-mounted license plate. The classic style of early bobbers inspired its design.

In conclusion

The current 2020 Sportster lineup includes the Forty-Eight®, Iron 883, Iron 1200™ and Roadster. The Sportster lineup has remained an affordable series. In the 2020 lineup, the starting prices range from about $9,000 to $11,500. This is quite low when compared to touring models, which can range from about $20,000 to $50,000. 

The Sportster lineup had humble beginnings when Harley released the Model K series. Year by year, Harley improved the design and incorporated new technology. The Sportster is now known and loved for its record speed, engine power, great suspension and quick handling. 

What’s your favorite Sportster model? Let us know in the comments below! 


2019 Motorcycle Lineup: Harley-Davidson USA. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2020, from www.harley-davidson.com/us/en/motorcycles/index.html.

Conner, R. (1996). Harley-Davidson Data Book. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers.

Davidson History Timeline: Harley-Davidson USA. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2020, from www.harley-davidson.com/us/en/museum/explore/hd-timeline.html.

Gantriis, P., & Gingerelli, D. (2011). Harley-Davidson Buyer’s Guide: 1984-2011. Minneapolis,  MN: MBI Pub. Co. and Motorbooks.

Mitchel, D. (2005). Harley-Davidson Field Guide: All-American bikes 1903-2004. Iola, WI: Krause.

Rafferty, T. (2006). The Complete Harley-Davidson: A Model-by-Model History. St. Paul, MN: Crestline.

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