In the late 1950s, as British and Japanese motorcycles began to flood the U.S. market, engineers at The Harley-Davidson Motor Company revised the side-valve engine that had been standard on its K- and KH-model motorcycles since 1952, giving it overhead valves and calling it the Ironhead. The resulting motorcycle was the Sportster, a model crediting with saving Harley-Davidson during the era after World War II. In 1986, Harley-Davidson introduced new engines, the Evolution series, which were available on Sportsters with displacement of 883 cubic centimeters or 1,100 cubic centimeters. Two years later, Harley dropped the 1,100cc engine in favor of a 1,200cc engine, still an Evolution engine. In 2011, Sportsters were still being delivered as either 883s or 1200s.
Early Sportster Models
The first Sportster, the 1957 XL, sported a 55-cubic-inch engine and four-speed transmission. By 1958 the Sportster was being called the first of the “Superbikes”. Harley-Davidson introduced the XLH Sportster in 1958, with larger valves and higher compression. Harley continued to revise the Sportster through the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, in 1967 the Sportster models got electric starters. The Sportster engine was beefed up for the 1972 model year with the introduction of the 1,000cc (61-cubic-nch) XLH. In 1977 three more models were added to the Sportster lineup, the FXS Low Rider, the XLCR Sportster Cafe Racer and the XLT touring version of the Sportster.
The 1986 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883
Harley-Davidson had introduced a new engine, the Evolution, in 1984. For the 1986 model year Harley added the Evolution engine to the Sportster line, introducing the Sportster 883 and XLH 1100 models. The 1986 Sporster 883 came with a solo seat, cast aluminum wheels and optional special paint and trim. That first Sportster 883 had the 883cc air-cooled Evolution engine and generated a reported 46 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Top speed was 92.6 mph. The Sportster had chain final drive and a four-speed transmission.
The 1988 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200
Harley-Davidson introduced the Sportster 1200, dropping the Sportster 1100, in 1988. The 1988 XLH Sportster 1200 was equipped with a 1,198cc air-cooled Evolution engine. It generated 58 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and had a four-speed transmission with a chain final drive.
Since the introduction of the Sportster 1200 in 1988, Harley-Davidson has offered Sportster models with two engine sizes, 883cc and 1200cc. Through the years, though, the Sportsters have undergone a number of revisions and improvements. In 1991 all Sportster models got belt final drive and five-speed transmissions. Harley-Davidson upgraded the frame on Sportster models and rubber-mounted the engines in 2004. A number of Sportster models with specific features have been marketed, including the 883 Custom, the 883 Hugger and the 883L Low. Fuel injection replaced carburetors on all Harley-Davidson models, including the Sportsters, in 2007. And that same year the XL 1200N Nightster debuted featuring black rims and fork gaiters. Another model was added to the Sportster family in 2010, the Sportster Forty-Eight XL1200X. The Forty-Eight takes it name from its classic peanut fuel tank that was featured on Harleys in 1948.
The 883 Vs. the 1200
The Sportster is Harley-Davidson’s longest continuously produced model. The Sportster 883 is known as an entry-level motorcycle or a bike for smaller riders. Its midsize engine and low sticker price make it an ideal bike for a beginning rider eager to own a Harley-Davidson. The Sportster 1200 models provide more power with a slightly higher sticker price. Both models maintain their value for years. For 2011 Harley-Davidson offered seven versions of Sportster: two 883 models — the 883 SuperLow and the Iron 883 — and five 1200 models, the 1200 Low, the Custom, the Nighster, the Forty-Eight and the XR1200X. Both 883 base models had a suggested retail price of $7,999. Suggested prices for the 1200 base models ranged from $9,899 for the 1200 Low to $11,799 for the XR1200X. All of the Sportster models except the 1200 Low were listed on the Harley-Davidson website for the 2012 model year.