Classic Motorcycle Build

Early Sportster (1957-1965)

Fast, torquey, and fun, the Harley-Davidson Sportster was the American Super Bike of the late fifties and early sixties. These 900cc bikes, with right-side shift, drum brakes, and kickstart only, are the most valuable for collectors. Today, early Sportsters are hard to find in one piece, having very low production numbers. Most if not all were ridden hard. This article covers 1957-1965 Sportster XL, XLH, and XLCH models.

Early Sportster history

1957 Sportster XL

Major components of the 1957 Sportster were carried over from the Harley K-model, including frame, fenders, wheels, brakes, gas tank and suspension. The large headlight used on XL and XLH models in 1957 and 1958 was basically a pre-1960 Panhead unit with an oil and generator light added in the bucket.

The first-year Sportster saw many changes during the production year, and have several unique features. Early 1957 models didn't have cylinder head rocker bushings like later models did, and used tappet rollers with no needles. Intake valves were 1-11/16" for 1957 only. The passenger foot-mounts are also one-year only, as is the carburetor (Linkert DC-1).

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Aluminum is usually the preferred material for cylinder heads - not only is it lighter than cast-iron, it also dissipates heat better. Harley-Davidson had previously used aluminum heads on their Big-Twin Panhead motor, which helped reduce engine operating temperatures in warm weather. But early Panhead riders experienced top-end problems, so the Motor Company cautiously chose cast-iron for the Sportster heads. Concerns of engine overheating kept the compression ratio at a conservative 7.5:1. Later 900cc bikes had 9:1 compression ratio. Making 40 horsepower and weighing 495 pounds, the 1957 Sportster XL was not yet burning up roads.

Sportster XLH

In 1958, the XL received new fenders and headlight nacelle, and ignition switch mounted on the left fork. A second model, the XLH, was basically the same bike as the XL, but with the "H" denoting a higher compression engine with larger valves. Power increased significantly. The XL remained the standard model with a milder compression ratio. The "locomotive" style headlamp nacelle was introduced on the XLH in 1959 and was used until 1966. Saddlebags, available in either white or black, were optional on both the XL and XLH models.

Early Sportster history

Sportster XLCH

A third model, the XLCH, was also offered in 1958. Originally set up as an off-road bike, it was sold with no headlight or taillight and had twin straight exhaust pipes. A 5-3/4" headlamp with eyebrow was used, and would become an enduring Sportster feature. XLCH's had 1" more ground clearance than the other models.

Early Sportster history

A small 2.2 gallon gas tank, borrowed from the KR dirt track racer, would become the classic Sportster "peanut" tank. To save weight, the CH model had no battery or coil, and had a magneto ignition. A horseshoe-shaped oil tank was fitted in place of the battery. Both the CH and H engines used the same cams.

"The Sportster XLCH is not every man's cup of tea and we don't think it was intended as such." - Cycle World, October 1962

The XLCH model proved quite popular, and in 1959, lights, mufflers, and full fenders were fitted. The left-handgrip spark advance was still retained. For the first five years of production, the CH had no ignition key. In 1963, a key was fitted to the top of the magneto. A tachometer became a factory option on the CH starting in 1962.

Differences Between XL/XLH and XLCH Sportsters


Sportster XLR

Built to compete in TT scrambles, Harley-Davidson started production the race-only XLR in 1962. Differences between the XLR and the XLCH were mostly engine modifications. Different heads and cams were used, and ball-bearings were used at the crankshaft ends to reduce friction. Produced in limited quantities, the XLR weighed about 300 pounds and properly tuned, could put out 80-horsepower. The motor would power many race-bikes, including Cal Rayborn's record-setting streamliner in 1970.

All models from 1957 through 1965 came with a Linkert DC carburetor. These were replaced by the Tillotson (diaphragm) carb in 1966.

read Linkert DC Carburetor Rebuild

Early Sportster Frames

Because only the XL and XLH models required a battery and coil, their frame had two mounting bosses on left seat post. The XLCH frame did not have these extra tabs. On the right seat post, the XLH has a ring bracket for the oil tank. The XLCH frame had different oil tank mounts until 1967.

Early Sportster project

1959 thru 1964 CH's had the same frame and the "horseshoe" oil tank. In 1965, the CH came with mounts under the seat for the 12V voltage regulator, and kept the horseshoe tank.

Up until 1969, the CH had an inch-shorter frame and swing-arm. Both the H and CH had the shorter swing-arm until 1968/69.

Early Sportster Casting Numbers

There are casting numbers all over Ironheads, including several on the frame and swing-arm. They do not represent the part number. You will see many early Sportster parts stamped with a suffix of '52' or 52A'. These were parts that were first designed and used on the K-Model dating back to 1952. This denotes the original design done in 1952 with the very first Harley K-Model. Parts stamped with -52A signify design changes that, while different, were not major changes.

Most, if not all, early XL and XLH frames will be stamped "47584-56" on the right side of the neck. An XLCH, not coming out until 1958, will have a -58 neck casting number on the neck. Note: It was common for the Motor Company to use a previous year's frame to build a present year bike, simply because they were already made.

read Ironhead Special Tools

Spark Control Grip

From 1957 to 1964, magneto-equipped Sportsters were advanced manually. This was done to aid cold starting, and done with the left-hand grip. The rider would twist the cable-activated grip outward to retard the ignition timing. After the bike was warmed up, the rider would twist it back before taking off. The left hand grip was referred to as the "spark control" grip. Since a spring held the mag unit in the advance position, riders could also lean over and physically move the unit back (clockwise) by hand.

6-Volt to 12-Volt Sportster

An automatic distributor advance first appeared on the 1965 XLH, the same year Sportys were converted from 6 to 12 volts. This was done in anticipation of upcoming electric starters. Two small 6-volt batteries in series were fitted in the same space as the previous single 6-volt battery.

In addition to being the first year of 12-volt electrics, 1965 was the last year of the "horseshoe" oil tank and also last year for the DC Linkert carb. The Tillotson carb that replaced it was more complicated, and not popular by amateur mechanics.

Sportster models through the early sixties remained basically unchanged, receiving small, yearly refinements. Popular options on early sixties Sportsters included turn signals, spotlights, and windscreens. The solo saddle seat, with dual posts, was available until a frame change in 1972/1973.

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Early Sportster Front Forks

From Harley K models up until 1973 models, Sportster fork tubes (and the first Super Glides) are a 33.4mm diameter (1 5/16"). The sliders were steel and used with drum brakes only. In 1968, Harley changed the internals which gave an additional one-inch of travel. Rubber fork boots ("gators") were seen on 1957 through 1970 Sportsters. All XL models from 1957 through 1963 had a small "half" front brake drum. A full-size brake drum was seen on 1964 through 1972 models.

Early Sportster Restoration

Whether you decide to restore or resto-ride yours, spend some time and get to know the correct (and not correct) parts. In my opinion, if you have good cases with matching numbers and the correct frame, a restoration is the best way to go. An early Sportster with matching cases still in it's original frame is a valuable machine.

Some of the most expensive parts for early XLH models are original headlight and bezel, tanks and fenders. Original seats in good shape are hard to find, as is the XLH tool box. Gas tank badges for early XLH models as of yet have not been reproduced. Early XLCH Sportster gas tanks had decals and for the most part are available.

The fifties and sixties Sportsters are truly classic bikes, but the motorcycle aftermarket does not support the early Sportys like they do Panheads or Shovelheads. You can still find original parts, just look on the internet. If you search long enough and are patient, you can even find them for a reasonable price.

"Ironhead Sportsters tend to get faster the longer you own them."

Ironhead Sportster Motorcycle Build

read Sportster History 1966-1979

read Sportster History 1980-1985