Cycle World Road Test
FOR MORE YEARS than most of us can remember, the name Harley-Davidson has been synonymous with motorcycle, and for a very good reason. In the fiftyplus years that have passed since the founding of the company, they have seen all of their competitors fall behind and fade away, while chez Harley-Davidson has survived wars, depressions, recessions, the waxing and waning of motorcycling as a sport and, most recently, an invasion of imports. Far from having a weakening influence, all of this adversity has made them stronger and today they still capture the big share of motorcycle dollars spent — due in no small part to the fact that they offer size and price in great variety. Most important, at the “big” end of the model line they offer performance — in the form of a big V-twin engined bike called the Sportster XLCH.
One’s first impression of the Sportster XLCH is apt to be that “there sure is a lot of it,” and that impression is essentially correct. It has a long wheelbase, big wheels and tires; and most of all, it has a big engine — which appears all the bigger, in profile, because of its V configuration. Actually, from straight ahead it is no larger than the average big single, but as viewed from the side it is certainly a lot of machinery.
Our test bike was the Sportster in its semi-go-tothe races form, with a bare minimum of lighting equipment, a small fuel tank, a tachometer, light-alloy wheelrims and a two-pipe exhaust system that exhibited swellings that could have been, but did not sound like, mufflers. The paint was a very businesslike and tidy black with white trim, and a nice paint job it was, too. There was some chrome here and there, but this version of Harley-Davidson’s Sportster does not leave the onlooker with much doubt but that it is either coming from, or going to, a race track somewhere. Of course, some of the finery was optional equipment, such as the buddy seat and footpegs, Smith tachometer and the dual mufflers.
On the other hand, between races it is a surprisingly good road machine. Knowing its fearsome reputation for sheer speed, we had rather assumed that it would be a bit fussy about around-town cruising; this assumption proved to be false. The saddle (wide, long and soft), control, handlebar and footpeg positioning — in combination with a firm but definitely not harsh ride — made this hottest Sportster quite an agreeable road machine. Of course, the rider will find it necessary to use some restraint in applying throttle. Otherwise, the exhaust noise begins to rattle windows and speed limits will take a frightful beating.
Out on the open road, the Sportster XLCH can be put to more natural use. The engine has bags of torque, and for virtually any highway situation only top gear will ever be required. Obviously, dropping down a cog gives a much reduced time out in the wrong lane when passing but for most occasions the rider can simply turn on the tap — which is one of the great charms of a bigengined motorcycle. The only criticism we have of the Sportster XLCH as a cruising machine is that its fuel tank is too small (the 214-gallon capacity will get you only about 100 miles) and there is no reserve. Obviously, changing over to the 334 -gallon tank used on the Sportster H would do a lot toward solving this problem.
The engine that propels the Sportster XLCH is an impressive thing. Like most of Harley-Davidson’s engines it is a V-twin, and with a 3.00-inch bore and 3.81-inch stroke it cannot be said that it is very modern in its basic dimensions. On the other hand, enough development time has gone into the design (it is a direct descendant of H-D’s famous 45 cubic-inch side-valve engine) to have long since worked out any bugs. Reliability is definitely one of the XLCH engine’s attributes: it has such important internal features as roller-type tappets and one of the strongest roller-bearing crankshafts ever devised. This is an engine that will take a flogging and show no sign of distress.
Power output is not far behind reliability. HarleyDavidson engineers have somehow found room in that narrow bore for very large valves, and the porting is good. The claimed output for the Sportster engine is 55 bhp, and the makers do not specify any peaking speed. Such an output gives — going by the advertised displacement and power — the magic figure of one brake horsepower per cubic inch, and that is rather remarkable for an engine having such a small bore and only a single carburetor to feed two cylinders. In point of fact, we are inclined to doubt the advertised figures. The displacement is, after all, not 55 cubic inches, but 53.9, and while we have not seen any dynamometer test sheets and cannot say much with absolute certainty, the performance indicates an output nearer 50 bph than the claimed 55. It may be significant too, that in England the Sportster is advertised as having 47 bhp at 5000 rpm, which seems a trifle conservative but somewhat nearer the truth. We would guess that our test bike had just about 50 bhp with a peaking speed of 5500 rpm.
Strictly speaking, we do not intend this comment on power output as a specific criticism of Harley-Davidson. Common practice today is to exaggerate, a little or a lot, actual power output and Harley-Davidson has, in our opinion, shown more restraint than most. And, with all due fairness, compared with all of the bikes we have tested, the Harley-Davidson’s claimed 55 bhp begins to sound very believable, for it is clearly the fastest mass-produced motorcycle we have had. Certainly, any bike with a higher claimed output that is slower (unless it is heavier or geared peculiarly) will be put in a bad light.
The XLCH engine drives through a smooth and powerful clutch, and into one of the best transmissions we have tried. It is in unit, with the crankcase casting — like all H-D’s derived from the K-model — and in addition to having well spaced ratios for the intermediate gears, it has a jem of a shifting mechanism. There is none of that internal flexing and bending that is so annoying; it feels as though you are pushing the gears directly into engagement with your toe — with no interconnecting linkage at all. Even that most elusive of gear positions, neutral, can be found in a moment. The shift is so slick and easy that one actually feels the gears release when the lever goes into the neutral position.
High praise also goes to the brakes — which have not always been H-D’s forte. The brakes on the Sportster have 8-inch drums, both front and rear (we do not know the lining width) and they gave powerful, even, and fade-free service through the duration of our test.
All of the several controls fell easily to the hand, or foot, and we would not have changed the position of a thing. Oddly enough, this was the opinion of the entire staff, and we run through a considerable range of sizes; everyone liked the feel of the Sportster. The one control that could be improved upon is the throttle: it is where it should be, and turns in the right direction and the right amount, but there was a noticeable amount of lash in the system. Following long-time H-D practice, there is no automatic return for the throttle; it stays where it is set (and there are many things to be said for and against this arrangement). The problem is that when cranking it up or down, several degrees of twist are needed before the free-play is taken up and the engine responds. This was something that everyone noticed, and we hope that it is not typical of all Sportsters, for it is one fly in what is otherwise a very attractive ointment.
In charging about doing the performance section of the Sportster test, we acquired a great deal of respect for this powerful machine. It is, as we have said, the fastest mass-produced motorcycle we have tested, but there is more here than just the bare test figures. We obtained the acceleration shown on the data by using 6800 rpm — at that point power dropped away sharply. The remarkable thing is that we could have gotten much the same results using 6000 rpm, or even 5000, and we could have out-performed many motorcycles even down at 4500. The broad range torque of the Sportster engine is a revelation.
Summing it all up, we would say that the Sportster XLCH is probably not every man’s cup of tea — and we don’t think it was intended as such. It is big, powerful, and goes in a manner that will make hair grow on your chest (if you’ve already got the hair, it will part it down the middle). It is, above all else, the fastest thing the expert rider is likely to find for sale, anywhere, and when that is said, anything more is superfluous.