▲ 1991 74 cubic inch (1200cc) Sportster. Sportys were great at the beginning, and they're still great. But the early Evo models are especially good value for a prime cut of entry-level Yankee beef.
XL Ironhead to Evo
Evo Sportster engine
Sportster economy, gears and clutch
Sportster parts upgradability
Value for money
Evolution 883cc Sportster History 1986-1991
Keeping a Sportster on the road
XLCR Sportster cafe racer
2014 Sportster Iron
1986 883cc Evolution Sportster
Engine: Air cooled, four stroke, 45-degreee
V-Twin, OHV, 2 valves per cylinder.
Bore x stroke: 76.2mm x 98.8 mm
Compression Ratio: 9.0:1
Carburettor: 34mm Keihin butterfly carb
Max Power: n/a
Max torque: 53 ft-lb (6.3 kg-m) @2500 rpm
Top speed: 105mph
Primary transmission: Chain
Final drive: Chain
Frame: Duplex cradle, all-welded
Front fork: 35mm Showa telescopic
Rear suspension: Dual shocks with adjustable damping.
Front Brakes: Single 292mm disc 1 piston caliper
Rear Brakes: Single 292mm disc 1 piston caliper
Front Tyre: 90/90-19
Rear Tyre: 90/90-16
Dry-Weight: 486lb (221kg)
Fuel Capacity: 1.8 gallons (8.5 litres)
What to look out for
Gearbox. Four-speed Evo boxes occasionally try to select second and third simultaneously due to a badly design detent. Major repair costs approx £300-£400.
Brakes/discs. Stainless steel discs are prone to plough lines. Change pads sooner rather than later to prevent this.
Alternator. The charging magnets are attached to the clutch drum. The clutch drum is held on a spline and secured by a circlip. Wear results in a loose drum which in turn can result in damage to the magnets. Repair is likely to cost several hundred pounds. A flickering charging light is a tell-tale inidcator of this problem.
Barrels. Evolution barrels have through-studs instead of bolted barrels (as fitted to the XL Ironheads). Superior torsional rigidity is the benefit, but some weepage at the barrel to crankcase joint is common. Usually a new base gasket is all that’s needed. Allow three to four hours to sort it out.
Rocker boxes. These are also occasionally prone to leakage. Minor job. One hour or so. Check when buying, and let the motor warm thoroughly, then let it sit for a while. If anything leaks, it will let you know within a few minutes.
Fork legs/Engine cases. If water has got under the lacquer it peels and discolours. The solution is to strip the lacquer and polish. It looks good and is easy to maintain.
Frame. The paint here isn’t as good as the paint on the petrol tanks. It’s prone to falling off. So check for poor touch-ups, especially below the frame rails and swinging arm.
Battery earth lead. These can fracture internally leading to high electrical resistance and therefore heat. Run the engine for a while and feel the earth lead. If it gets warm replace it.
Oil tank. These are known to crack, largely due to the weight of the battery on the other side. Check, repair or bodge.
Battery. Evos need plenty of cranking power. So a good quality battery such as a Yuasa or Varta is essential. Factor it in to the asking price.
Mileage. Engines rarely reach 75,000 miles without needing a major rebuild. But plenty of Sportsters never see daylight unless it’s dry and warm. Consequently, there are plenty of clean, low mileage examples available.
Upgrades: The 883cc barrels can be bored to 1200cc. The combination of big bore and relatively small valves gives perky performance but with minimal top end gain. Tip: remember to bore cylinders only with the use of professional boring plates to avoid distortion. Alternately, just buy a big-bore kit. But it might not make financial sense to change. So run some numbers on the back of an envelope before you pry open your wallet.
Foot controls. Make sure that you're happy with the foot control arrangements on the bike you're interested in. Some are forward controls. Some are "traditional" (mid-mounted). Yes, you can modify. But it can be tricky between 4-speed and 5-speed bikes. It might also involve changing pipes and silencers.
Transmission. Pre-2003 Evo Sportsters were manufactured with the old-style "trapdoor" transmission. This "cassette" type gearbox allowed quick and easy access to the cogs without splitting the engine or major engine work. Sportster transmissions are generally pretty good, but the trapdoor feature is one that we wish Harley-Davidson had kept.
Rubber engine mounts. These are generally good and appeared on 2004 models onward. However, the bikes took on a lot of extra ballast. You do feel it, but you can live with it. The early first-of-type Evo Sportys are all solidly mounted and, arguably, lend themselves better to building specials.
General: Check the entire bike for vibration damage. Inspect plugs for weak mixture due to unsuitable custom exhausts. Expect to find the machine fitted with custom parts and accessories.
Telephone: 01923 468 981
611 Kings Road London SW6 2EL
Telephone: 0207 736 2934
16-20 Mottingham Road, London SE9 4QW Tel: 0208 857 9198
Black Bear Harley-Davidson
Black Bear Lane
Telephone: 01638 66 44 55
▲ Drive chain or belt final drive? Belts are smoother and quieter and easy to fit on a Sportster. But they can and do fail without notice on the road and potentially leave you stranded. But that rarely, if ever, happens with a well maintained drive chain that's replaced at sensible intervals. And for some riders, chains are simply more "classic". As for the extra maintenance that a chain requires, that's all part of the Sportster ownership deal. Primary drive belts are also available. But stick with the chain, we say. You'll be less likely to have trouble on the road.
▲ 883cc and 1100cc Sportster crankshaft. Harley-Davidson's favoured "knife and fork" conrod arrangement (as opposed to side by side conrods) helps keep these engines slim and very strong. But hundreds of upgrades are available for guys and girls who want more, and not just crank modifications, but pistons, valves, lifters, gears, clutches, carburettors and whatever. It's all available and tried and tested. And it's not particularly expensive.
▲ So how fast will an 883 Sportster go? Well, if you check the gearing and run some numbers, you should be looking at somewhere just over 100mph. Eventually. But try and get much more than that with stock gearing/stock set-up and the rev limiter will have something to say about it.
Cruising speed is around 60-65mph for a gentle lope, and 70-80mph if you need to get a move on. The 1100s won't go much faster at the top end (maybe 10mph extra), but you'll notice it off the lights and in the mid-range, or when riding two-up.
▲ Sportster shock absorbers ain't exactly famed for the firmest ride on the strip. Also, the travel, at around just three inches, is marginal (or worse) for heavyweight riders. Harley-Davidson could do something about that and fit longer shocks with more travel. But that would raise the saddle, and HD can never get their bikes low enough. To make matters worse, many riders feel that the front end springs and damping isn't good enough for spirited riding. And we agree. You can ride assertively on a Sportster. And even a little aggressively. But you'll always be in a tight performance and handling envelope unless and until you change pretty much everything.
The choice of upgrades is huge with firms such as Drag Specialties, Hagon, Wilbers, Progressive, Ohlins, Ikon, Custom Chrome, and numerous others.
With all these companies vying for your dosh and effectively telling you that your ride is rubbish, everyone will understand when you unbolt your stock shockers and pull a switcheroo.
But it's worth remembering that many, if not most, Harley riders will upgrade simply to upgrade, never mind that the improved handling or performance or braking isn't really that great (and sometimes barely noticeable in real world riding).
Our recommendation? Simple. Don't fix it until you're sure it's broken. Sportsters are already pretty good straight from the box. Change for change sake rarely satisfies.
The 883cc and 1100cc Evolution Sportsters were launched in 1986. These classic and enduring 45-degree, OHV, air-cooled V-twins were overdue replacements for the ageing 1000cc XL 'Ironhead' Sportster introduced in 1957. For Harley-Davidson, the Ironhead was an important entry-level motorcycle. It was developed from the broadly similar and highly desirable K-series sidevalves (1952-1956). In fact, without the Sportsters underpinning HD sales, it's unlikely Harley-Davidson would have made it through the 1970s let alone still be in the motorcycle business today.
Initially derided, the 1986 Evolution (Evo) engine represented a significant step in Sportster development being smoother, quieter, more reliable and generally more civilised than its predecessor.
The earlier XL Ironhead Sportster, by comparison, was a hotrod on two-wheels, a 40-45hp hunk of American blue-collar muscle purpose built to combat the British invasion of Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs that were hitting Harley where it hurt.
But for all its macho looks and appeal, the XL Ironhead vibrated brutally and was never much fun for anything but short blasts. It was hard to start, and very difficult to stop. Bikes wsith kickstarters needed an ultra careful boot-up technique to make the carburettor even cough never mind get those cylinders firing the way the manufacturer intended. Later bikes with electric starters demanded a strong battery and a patient thumb on the starter button, but stopping was no better
The Evo changed all that. Suddenly the bikes fired-up easily from cold, and they mostly stopped where you wanted them to stop. And the Evo engine gave the Sportster much-needed touring and commuting legs, and it was a whole lot more reliable.
And oil tight.
Supposedly, the new 883cc/1100cc Evolution architecture churned out around 53bhp/63bhp, but you'd be hard pressed to get Harley to confirm or deny this. The company is famously coy about bhp performance figures and draws the line at torque numbers, which in this instance are around 53lbs-ft @ 2500rpm for the 883, and around 63lbs-ft @ 4000rpm for the 1100 (numbers vary depending on who's quoting, and where the torque is measured; crank, rear wheel, etc).
But we've seen all kinds of torque numbers quoted, even from Harley-Davidson. By 1996, the factory was regularly claiming 44lbs-ft @ 2,500rpm (the 1100 was out of production then and had been replaced by the 1200). By 2001, H-D was quoting 49lbs-ft @ 4,400rpm for the 883. By 2015, H-D was quoting 53.8lbs-fit @ 3,750rpm. Certainly, the numbers sound about right, and you'd expect to see the torque figures rise over the years.
However, aside from the engineers, who the hell really cares about the raw numbers? The important thing is that these are torquey bikes with a relatively slow and macho pick-up, and you either like that feeling or you don't.
And we do.
▲ 1957. The original Sportster. It was really just a beach bike and took a while to come of age. But Harley steadily refined the blueprint and today, Sportsters are the first rung on the Harley ladder. But for a lot of guys, you needn't climb any higher. You're arrived, so take a seat.
Until 1986, XL Sportsters had iron barrels and iron heads (hence the Ironhead name). They were crude and, if you want the truth, even a little vulgar. You couldn’t take them anywhere worth going without watching them disgrace themselves with the aforementioned leaking oil, the aforementioned poor starting, the backfires, the dodgy electrical components—and the worst brakes since the Titanic hit the iceberg.
The new 883 was offered with a very similar looking solid-mounted engine, but it was a positive paragon in comparison with a redesigned power plant featuring alloy barrels and heads, revised valve-geometry, flat topped pistons and a more efficient combustion chamber. Moreover, Evo engine heads and barrels are secured by through-bolts; a major improvement over Ironhead barrels held only by base flange nuts (and had a habit or working loose).
At the heart (and soul?) of the new 45-degree V-twin, four-cam, air-cooled, pushrod engine was a 3-piece crankshaft, as opposed to 5-piece on the XL. And thanks to its simplified and lightened construction coupled with tighter all-over machining tolerances, the Sportster franchise now had its notorious vibrations under some kind of control. That's not to say that you won't feel every pulse and throb. But unlike the XL Ironhead, the seismic sensations are tolerable if not actually enjoyable. The worst vibes appears between 3,000 and 3,500rpm. You'll be travelling at around 50-60mph at those revs. So speed up, slow down, or gear up. Or just accept it. Complaining won't change a thing.
The hydraulic valve-lifters (hydraulics being new to the Sportster, but well-established on larger HDs) replaced the solid lifters and were carefully designed to keep the valve train both quiet and largely maintenance free whilst reducing top-end feedback losses.
The combustion chamber were heavily revised, and with the aluminium cylinder heads, the bikes ran much cooler.
Interestingly, the stroke on all Sportsters hasn't changed since their inception. It's 3-13/16 inches, or 96.8mm. The 883cc Sportsters have a bore of 76.2mm, while their larger capacity 1100cc bikes have a bore of 85.1mm. For the extra millimetres, you get around another 10bhp taking it up to maybe 63.
By 1998, the short life of the 1100cc engine came to and end, and Messrs H and D gave the world the 1200cc model (1200cc being 74 cubic inch, and that's one of Harley's iconic numbers).
▲ For the classic crowd, these 1960s Sportsters are a special vintage. But they're hard work, seriously vibratory, and sorta cool. Stay with the Evos if you're looking for an easy ride and clean inside legs.
▲ 1986 4-speed Evo Sportster. Four camshafts in a line makes for a bulky and heavy engine, and that's partly why these 45-degree V-twins weigh-in at close to 500lbs. They're manageable, but a diet wouldn't hurt.
▲ The world's prettiest primary side? Maybe. It's certainly a contender. You can upgrade an 883 motor to a 1200cc, but the bigger engine is a little harsher. Regardless, you'll enjoy the extra power. Eminently tunable.
Not all Harley fans were, however, keen on the sanitised motor. But improved quality control and design integrity soon began attracting fresh customers to the Harley V-twin fold.
Out on the road, the budget 883 Evo is economical to run. Breathing through a single 34mm Keihin carb it can typically return 60mpg—and even more if you’re Scottish or on the dole.
We've owned two Sportsters (a 1000cc Ironhead and an 883cc Evo), and both bikes returned impressive mpg (55mpg - 60mpg on average). And we've heard of Sportsters returning over 70mpg. In fact, we once recorded 72mpg on an Ironhead. That was many years back as part of a homebrewed economy trial, but we're sure of our numbers.
Unsurprisingly, the 1200 Sportsters are a little less economical. But there's really not much in it. Meanwhile, aftermarket performance parts generally make for a more efficient engine, but because of that, you often just ride a little harder. So the economy falls away. Factor that in if mpg is important to you. For our money, these bikes could always use a little extra zip, and to help with the atmosphere.
The clutch is firm, but not armbreakingly firm. The action is usually smooth and ... well, manly (whatever that means to you). We've never experienced any slippage problems with Sportsters, and we've hammered them from time to time.
The four-speed gearbox spreads the power exactly how it ought to be spread on a bike like this, with top gear (theoretically) viable at little more than 20mph and all the way up to the modest 100mph top-end (if you think you’re hard enough to try it).
The cogs clonk occasionally. But that's always been the way, and it's nothing to get excited about. The 'boxes are simply a little agricultural with solid/noisy engaging dogs, but they're tough. And if you work at it a little, you'll soon be changing up and down in relative silence. You can buy all kinds of revised ratios if you want to fool around. But for everyday cruising, H-D got it about right. You'd be better advised to spend your money on more beer/music/clothing/holidays/food/whatever.
Historically, nobody ever raved about Sportster handling. Or suspension. Or equipment. Or ride comfort. And certainly not the stopping power. But the Evo made giant inroads in terms of ergonomics and general usability, and even the revamped brakes were something that the MOT tester could (reluctantly) tick off the list as ‘passed’.
With these bikes, everything is infinitely upgradable (tip:start with the brakes) and every problem has a good and often cheapish solution. Parts are available from a wide network of official and independent dealers, which makes this motorcycle an ongoing rolling success. Everyone should at least once in their life own one of these oft-maligned Harley starter classics.
The ‘big’ Milwaukee twins can wait another day.
We've never counted them, but we figure there are a few dozen firms out there making pistons for Sportsters. There are a similar number making barrels, cylinder heads, cranks, con-rods and everything else. Power can be hiked to huge numbers if you want to go that way. And some guys reckon you can reliably double the power largely using the stock platform.
But we doubt that. Nevertheless, you can reliably add around 30 - 40 percent more horsepower and still keep the bike reasonably docile and tractable.
The 1100 is, as you'd expect, a little rougher than the 883. And you can upgrade these motors too if the urge grabs you. But they're much rarer beasts, so it might be worth keeping them fairly standard. So many Sportsters have been modified, or upgraded, or just mucked around with. The genuine and original stuff is now very thin on the ground.
Consider that before you reach for your spanners.
▲ S&S Sportster engine. Smith and Smith have been building replacement engines for Harleys since forever. This 100 cubic incher (1638cc) has a 4-inch bore and stroke. Fit this, and you'll have to upgrade pretty much everything else. Included your nerve.
The price was nailed to the floor when these were launched. In the UK, you were looking at £3,999, on-the-road, for an 883cc model (around $4,200). It compares to the 1980 sales tag of a new 1000cc Ironhead at around £3,600. For years HD kept the price pegged way low, and only slowly did it rise when the firm's accountants warned that the company was in danger of giving them away (some argue that Harley was certainly selling them below cost); you can believe whatever you want).
Throughout the nineties and into the noughties, secondhand prices stayed fairly steady with Sportsters hovering (on average) at around the £3,000 mark, and this was typically for bikes that had (to a greater or lesser degree) been upgraded in various respects (usually carb kits, brakes, seats and pipes).
Today (mid-2014) a reasonably decent 1986-1990 first-of-type, chain final drive Evolution Sportster can be bought for as little as £2200, with tax and MoT.
We found three without too much trouble, but they're certainly getting harder to run to ground. A belt final drive model might be slightly more.
Four speeders are, as expected, cheaper. The five speeders are just that little bit more desirable. But there's not much in it (certainly nothing that a little haggling won't sort out). Which is amazing when you consider what you’re buying into; the biggest, most flamboyant, and best-supported motorcycle lifestyle scene on the planet—assuming you want to roll down that particular highway.
What adds to the value is that there are a lot of secondhand Sportster spares on the market, and often as knockdown prices. Much of these spares are the aforementioned carburettors and exhaust systems (etc) that owners removed during upgrading. And much of it comes from the huge catalogue of aftermarket goodies floating around Harley heaven on Earth.
▲ The 1100cc Sportster. It was built for just a couple of years, and it's rare to see in the wilds. But basically, it's the same bike as the standard 883. Like Coca Cola and Porsche, Harley-Davidson didn't get big by fooling around too much with the basic formula.
1986: Introduction of the 883cc Evolution-engined Sportster. Aluminium head and barrels. Hydraulic valve lifters. 34mm fixed venturi Keihin carburettor. Cast alloy wheels. XLX Sportster frame. Indicators wired as running lights. Speedo. No rev counter. Powder coated frame. Special paint upgrade option.
1987: Evo ‘Hugger’ model appears with lower (28 inch) seat height made possible by shortened forks and revised rear shock-absorber angles. 30th Anniversary Sportster model unveiled.
1988: Fork tubes diameter increased to 39mm (previously 35mm).
1989. Sidestand position moved rearward. The old style butterfly throttle Keihin carburettor is changed to a constant velocity unit built to Harley-Davidson specifications (recommended upgrade for older Keihin-equipped Sportsters).
1990. Last of the four-speed gearbox/chain final-drive 883cc Sportsters. Belt final-drive introduced for 1991.
▲ Kickstarter kit for the 5-speed Sportsters built between 1991 - 2003. These kits require a fair amount of re-jigging, including replacing the gearbox mainshaft (shown) and relocating the pedals. The system works, but few riders actually want to go to that much trouble when they can just thumb a button in manly style.
Roger Stephenson, Fullbore Motorcycles
Classic and custom bike builder/restorer Roger Stephenson of Fullbore Motorcycles, Watford, modifies and services Evo Sportsters. He also sells a comprehensive range of spares and accessories.
“Evo Sportsters are easy to live with and simple to work on. With electronic ignition and hydraulic tappets, there’s little to do except change the oil regularly and ride them. They’re good value bikes and can be staged-tuned to suit all tastes. Some customers with later belt final-drive Sportsters actually change back to chain final-drive. Why? Because chains are cheaper. And also because belts can be damaged by stones, which never happens with a chain. We absolutely love Evo Sportsters of all ages. They’re just good fun.”
Rob Warr, Warr’s Harley-Davidson
“The 883cc Evo Sportster was a vast improvement over the Ironhead. As with every new engine, there was a lot of criticism when it was introduced, particular with regard to the looks. But customers soon adjusted to the new design and were quickly very happy with the product. The all-alloy engine was that much lighter and more reliable – and better value than ever. And even though they’re now over 20 years old, the early 883s are still great bikes, provided you keep an eye on them in the way you would with any classic.”
Steve Loxton, Black Bear Harley-Davidson
“The early four-speed gearbox was a very slick and smooth unit. And because of the good spread of power, it didn’t really need more than four gears. But there were issues with the detent lever. If you had any mechanical empathy it wasn’t a serious problem and fairly easily rectified. But if you weren’t careful, you could eventually stamp through two-gears at once with disastrous results. That said, compared to the Ironhead, the Evos were far more polished and refined. The Sportster has always been a gradual Evolution of a good idea, and modern Sportsters are better than ever. Try one and see.”