Harley-Davidson Sportster 1978-1985
Introduced 21 years before, the Ironhead Sportster, arguably the loudest and meanest-sounding V-twin ever, was still going strong. Sales increased nearly every year, along with improvements in power, handling, and reliability. The factory brochure proclaimed the 1978 model as the "quickest, most powerful, most agile yet."
All Sportster models were upgraded to a new, stronger frame and swingarm, derived from the XLCR , which was in it's second and final year of full production. Also borrowed from the Cafe Racer were dual-disc front brakes and cast aluminum wheels, as well as siamesed exhaust pipes, which boosted both torque and mid-range horsepower. Longer stroke rear shocks helped increase rider and passenger comfort. All models now had electronic ignition and a solid-state voltage regulator, which provided easier starting and required less maintenance.
To commemorate Harley-Davidson's 75th year in production, a special-edition Sportster was offered, featuring midnight-black paint highlighted by gold trim, gold cast-aluminum wheels, and limited-edition anniversary graphics. Sportster sales for 1978 topped 17,000 units.
In 1979, the Sportster's rear drum brake was upgraded to a hydraulic disc brake, and the breaker-points ignition was replaced with a Prestolite breakerless electronic type. Valve guides were changed to cast iron to provide better lubrication to the valve stems. This would be the last year of the kick-start XLCH.
Using the XLCR's frame, the 1979 XLS had cast wheels, extended front forks, 2-into-1 exhaust pipes and a 16" rear wheel. With a large, dual rear seat and sissy bar, the XLS was decidedly un-Sportster like, and curiously named the "Roadster".
Looking back over the decade, the Sportster had come a long way. It was still a great looking, powerful street-bike, now more reliable than ever. At 500 pounds and sporting a fifty-nine inch wheelbase, cornering was not its strong suit, but a low center of gravity made the bike easy to manage, even when cruising slow. The softly sprung suspension gave a firm but comfortable ride at highway speeds.
The ignition system from last year was replaced by a Magnavox system, which used an inductive pickup to send signals to a timing control module. This module is often referred to as the "black box." A new electric starter and drive were used, as was a double (push-pull) accelerator cable. An electronic tachometer replaced the cable-driven unit,
In 1981, members of the Davidson family, several executives from AMF, and several others bought the Harley-Davidson Motor Company back from AMF. Once that was done, they put themselves on the stock market, sold shares of the Company to the public, and pulled themselves out of a large debt.
While the Eighties brought us high-revving, multi-cylinder motorcycles with ten-grand redlines, the Sportster was still getting it done at 5,500 rpm. Accelerating anywhere above 2,000 rpm, down-shifting was not necessary - a twist of the throttle and the 1,000cc V-twin responded with all the torque you needed.
Now 25 years-old, 1982 XLH and XLS Sportsters featured special anniversary trim in silver and black. To comply with federal regulations, engine compression was lowered to 8:1 CR, which lowered both horsepower and top-end speed. Early Eighties Sportsters were fitted with a stronger and lighter frame.
1983 Sportster XLX61
In one of Harley-Davidson's greatest marketing moves, the entry level, no-frills XLX61 was offered in 1983. This bare-boned Sportster came with nothing but a solo seat, peanut gas tank, and single (speedometer) gauge. Built to sell for $3,995, it was available in black only. In its first year, 4,892 examples were sold, more than all of the other three XL models combined. The XLX helped the Sportster become one of the best-selling motorcycles of the 1980s.
1983-1984 XR1000 Sportster
As a tribute to the flat-track successes of the XR750, Harley-Davidson offered the limited-edition XR-1000 Sportster. The XR cylinder heads, specially prepared by Jerry Branch, were all-alloy and featured bigger valves than XL Sportsters. To accommodate the larger valves, intake ports were moved to the right side and exhaust ports were on the left. Because the XR cylinder heads were larger than the stock cast-iron heads, the cylinder barrels had to be shortened to fit in the Sportster frame.
A pair of 36mm Dell'Orto carbs brought power output to 70 horsepower, dipping quarter-mile times under thirteen seconds. Dual eleven-inch front brake rotors supplied the best stopping power yet. Approximately 1,000 examples of the XR1000 were built in 1983, and about 750 produced in 1984.
With production trimmed in anticipation of the new aluminum-head Evolution engine, less than 7,000 Sportsters were built in 1985, the last year of the XL Ironhead engine.