Classic Motorcycle Build

Best Carb For Ironhead

Article by Mark Trotta

There's a half dozen or so carburetors that will bolt onto your Ironhead and perform well, but which one suits your bike and your wallet best? Here's a review of the most common carburetors you'll find on 1957-1985 Sportsters.

best carburetor for Ironhead

First, a look at factory carburetors for 1957 through 1985 Sportsters:

Linkert Carb

Early Sportsters (1957-1965) were fitted with side-float Linkert DC carbs, which were simple units to diagnose and repair. For those of you who have an early 900cc Sportster, you know it's a rare bird and you'll probably want to keep it stock. If you have the original Linkert carb, leave it in place.

best carb for Ironhead

Read: Linkert DC Carburetor Rebuild

The Linkert DC was also found on several other Harley-Davidson models, including the 1957-1966 Servi-car, and one-year-only (1966) Shovelhead. But for those who have a later Ironhead, there's better carb choices.


Tillotson Carburetor

A switch to Tillotson was seen with the 1966 Harley Sportster. Unlike the Linkert it replaced, it had an accelerator pump and featured a hydraulically operated automatic "economizer" circuit.

Tillotson carburetor for Harley Ironhead

The Tillotson carb was complex and had many parts, and was not appreciated in its day. Lack of knowledge and poor parts availability tarnished their reputation, but when set up correctly, they are an excellent carburetor. The Tillotson Model HD was original equipment on Ironhead Sportsters from 1966 to 1971, and was replaced by the simpler Bendix unit.


Bendix Carburetor

Originally fitted on 1972 to early 1976 Sportsters (and some Big-Twins), the Bendix carb is a relatively simple unit that is easy to tune and cheap to buy. It is a popular choice for classic motorcycle builders and restorers who still ride their old scoots.

best carb for Ironhead

Read: Bendix Carb Rebuild

You'll find three styles of Bendix Carb for Harley V-twins; 38mm fixed main jet (factory style), 38mm adjustable main jet, and 40mm adjustable main jet.

best carburetor for Ironhead

The most common of the Bendix carbs is the 38mm fixed, non-adjustable main jet version. These are designed to replace Harley 27155-72B and use a single cable throttle assembly. Many riders feel they are the best factory carb for Ironhead Sportsters.


Keihin Carburetor

The Keihin carbs found on 1976-1985 Sportsters are fixed-venturi units, not to be confused with the later slide-type (CV) carbs found on 1988 and up Evo Sportsters.

The first two years of Keihin-equipped Sportsters had issues (early 1976-1977), but these were addressed and corrected by 1978. In 1979, venturi size went from 38mm to 34mm.


Dual-Carb Ironhead

In 1984, Harley-Davidson offered the XR-1000 Sportster, which featured a pair of 36mm Dell'Orto carburetors.

Dual Carb Sportster

The Harley XR-1000 had different intake manifolds, cylinders and heads from other Ironheads. With 70 factory horsepower, top speed was 125 mph.


Here's a few non-factory carbs for Ironheads:

Mikuni Carburetor

The Mikuni is a slide-type carburetor, also known as a CV (constant velocity) carburetor. On a stock or slightly-modified motor, a 38mm Mikuni is a good choice for a 1000cc Ironhead Sportster.

best carb for Ironhead

Read: Install Mikuni Carb on Sportster

Back in the day, I ran a 40mm Mikuni on my 1972 XLCH, which had slightly hotter cams and drag pipes. This bike went through a lot of changes during the 13 years I rode it, but it always had the Mikuni sticking out the right side.

install Mikuni VM38 carb on Sportster

NOTE: A Mikuni carb sticks out a little more than a stock Bendix, which may give a slight obstruction to your right knee.


S&S Super B vs Super E

When introduced in 1975, the S&S Super B was the carb to run. That was until the Super E came out in 1990, basically a Super B but with an accelerator pump. The Super E has an 1-7/8" bore, which allows greater air velocity.

Shop: S-S Cycle Super E Carb Only

Super E carb

Shop: S-S Cycle Super E Carb Kit

NOTE: The Super E carb requires the use of a dual cable throttle, one push and one pull.

Push-Pull Throttle Cable

Starting in 1981, Sportsters had a double (push-pull) accelerator cable. This was to help prevent accidental throttle sticking. If your bike is not equipped with one, a dual throttle cable is necessary to install the Super E.

best carb for Ironhead

S&S Super B

Although the Super E has gone on to become the best selling performance carburetor in the V-twin aftermarket, many riders still prefer the B over the E model, claiming it has better flow and more low end punch.

Super B carburetor on Ironhead Sportster

I ran a Super B carb on my old 1976 XLH, and the difference between the stock Bendix carb versus the Super B was amazing - but - because it isn't designed to run on a "small" V-twin, proper jetting is crucial. It will not be as forgiving to improper jetting as a Super E carb will be.

Read: Tuning The S&S Super B


SU Carb For V-Twin Harley

The SU was one of the first commonly available constant velocity "CV" carbs, and was a popular carb swap for Harley Panheads and Shovelheads in the sixties and seventies. These variable-venturi carbs were originally found on European cars, such as Triumph, MG, Volvo, and others.

best carburetor for Ironhead

Measured by bore size, common SU carbs are the HS2 (1.25"), HS4 (1.5"), and HS6 (1.75"). For a 1000cc Ironhead, look for one with a 1.25" bore.

Because many classic cars were fitted with SU carbs, air filters are still available. You could also modify existing air filters to fit the odd 4-bolt pattern on the SU carb. This involves measuring and drilling additional holes in the backing plate.


Two-Barrel Carburetor

There's not too much more impressive than a dual-throat Weber sticking off your bike, but these carburetors are very time-consuming to dial in, simply because there's so many variable factors, and one adjustment usually affects others.

best carb for Ironhead

The Mikuni-Solex pictured above is an automotive-type carburetor, but is gravity-fed like most motorcycle carbs. This one came off a 1972 Sportster with a modified engine.

Adjustable items on dual-throat carbs include main venturi size, main jet, idle jet, air corrector jet, accelerator pump jet, emulsion tube, fuel inlet valve, and air horns. A dual-throat carb on a Sportster may cause interference with the rider's right knee.


Notes and Misc

The carburetor on an Ironhead Sportster vibrates quite a bit while running, which may lead to cracked intake seals, vacuum leaks, and rough running.

Carburetor Bracket

A carburetor support bracket is a good idea on any Sportster motor.

Sportster carburetor support bracket

You can buy a carb bracket, but they're fairly easy to make if you have a good solid vice and a drill press. The one in the picture above and below was made from a metal shelf bracket.

Sportster carburetor support bracket

Replace the carb to intake seals if in any doubt. They're cheap.

carburetor intake seals for Ironhead Sportster

Pictured below, a cracked intake seal.

carburetor intake seals for Ironhead Sportster


For the money, a 38mm Mikuni is a good choice for 1000cc Ironheads that are stock or slightly modified. But if you have the cash, the S&S Super B or Super E will give you more performance, particularly on the top end.

SS carburetor on Ironhead Sportster


Related Articles:

Install Mikuni Carb on Sportster
Motorcycle Carburetor Problems
How To Adjust Ironhead Valves

Fuel System Maintenance

If you have to store your bike for any length of time, untreated fuel may go bad in as little as three months. Longer than that, fuel system draining or cleaning is recommended.

Read: Proper Motorcycle Storage