Classic Motorcycle Build

1976 Sportster Project

Text and Pictures by Mark Trotta

When purchased, this 1976 Sportster XLH had a disassembled motor, a wiring harness cut in half, and the entire starter assembly was removed (motor, solenoid, pinion shaft and gear, and housing). Apparently, the previous owner started to fix the starter, then one problem led to another, and the bike sat abandoned for many years.

1976 Sportster project

1976 Sportster Production: 5,238 XLCH models, 12,884 XLH models

The Purchase

This Sportster was a 1976 "Liberty Edition" model, which featured alloy spoke wheels (19" front and 18" rear). Like most non-running bikes, the price was right. I could have parted the bike out and made more than my money back, but as I have learned from past projects, there is no better feeling than bringing a dead motorcycle back to life.

After buying the bike and getting it home, I went through all the parts boxes, and wrote out a project planning guide. This included a rough outline of what needed to be done, best order of assembly, time frame, and approximate cost. The plan was to get the bike together, remove unnecessary clutter, and shed unnecessary weight.

Ironhead Sportster Project

No, not a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, a 1,000cc jigsaw puzzle! I've tackled basket case projects before, and this one was a challenge.

Over the course of two years (my original projection was one year) I reassembled the motor, re-wired the complete electrical system, rebuilt the front disc brake, and got this old Sportster back on the road.

motorcycle lift stand

The electrical system on this Sportster needed complete rewiring. Most of the electrical on the bike had been removed, including the starter, solenoid, relay, and voltage regulator.

Ironhead Sportster Motorcycle left engine case

While I was rewiring the bike, I replaced the original Sportster buckhorn bars with drag bars. And since I was not going to re-use the bulky hand controls which came on the bike, wires for the start and stop buttons and turn-signal switches were no longer needed. They were tagged and removed. All wiring went inside the handlebars.

1976 Sportster Project
1976 Ironhead Sportster Project

Read: Ironhead Engine Build

Left-Side Shift

There were two years of Sportsters that had a crossover shaft to make them left-side shift (1975-1976). I've read that some people had issues with this set-up, but I had no problems at all shifting or braking my bike.

Read: Ironhead Sportster Transmission

Starting in 1977, Sportster engine cases were modified and all models thereafter would be left-side shift.

1976 Sportster project

Sportster Primary Chain

There are really only two reasons to remove a primary chain on a 1976 Sportster. You either need to get to your transmission, or you're replacing the starter Bendix gear.

Ironhead Sportster with clutch assembly reinstalled

Read: Remove and Install Primary Chain

Read: Remove and Install Ironhead Clutch

Read: Remove and Install Harley Bendix Gear

This Sportster project came with two different carburetors; the original 38mm Bendix and an S&S Super B. The B had come off a Harley Shovelhead, and the previous owner had de-jetted it down three sizes to run on the Sporty.

Super B carburetor

After the bike was assembled and running, the Super B carb revealed to have an off-idle bog. No matter how slow I rolled it, it would not help. Only after re-jetting the Super B several times, the bike run smoother and faster.

1976 Sportster project

Read: Replace Fork Seals

Harley-Davidson Sportster factory manual

I have three different service manuals for Ironhead Sportsters. I've found mistakes and misprints in two of them, so referencing back and forth from each is highly recommended.


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Ironhead Generator to Alternator Swap
Basic Motorcycle Wiring
1974-1977 Sportster Caliper Rebuild
Sportster Hitachi starter

Read: Electric Start Ironheads