Hardtail Sportster Build

This article covers the five phases that my 1972 Harley Sportster went through over the 13 years I owned it. The bike went from stock, to several carnations in a hardtail frame, then back to stock again.

Hardtail Sportster build

1972 Sportster - Phase One

This was my first motorcycle, a 1972 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLCH, which I bought wrecked in 1981. It was the only way I could afford the bike I wanted, but six months and $500 later, I was riding.

Hardtail Ironhead Sportster, author Mark Trotta

Trying to fit better on the bike, I began by changing the handlebars and seat several times. I then added forward foot controls. After a couple riding seasons, I decided to build a ground-up custom bike starting with a hardtail frame.

1972 Sportster - Phase Two

The theme of my hardtail Sportster build was simple; a no frills, bare bones, minimalist motorcycle. Originally, all motorcycles were hardtails, and since there are no rear suspension components, a hardtail frame is much lighter and less complicated than a conventional swing-arm frame. The first carnation of my Ironhead hardtail was built during the Winter/Spring of 1983/1984.

After receiving good advice from Rolling Thunder Cycles, I ordered a custom hardtail frame from a company called C&J Cycles. They were located in New Jersey, but don't seem to be in business anymore. The fork rake was just three degrees over stock, but the back of the bike was stretched eight inches--this gave my lanky six-foot frame plenty of room to stretch out.

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When you buy a hardtail frame today, brackets are already welded on. But 30 years ago, that wasn't the norm, and I had to make my own. Frame parts that needed to be fabricated were the oil tank mounts, rear fender brackets, and fork-stop tabs. The rear brake stay tab was already on the frame when purchased.

Hardtail Sportster Build

For the rear fender, I opted for a six-inch-wide universal. These are still very popular, probably because they're cheap, easy to fit, and gives you that Old School vintage chopper look. The license plate/tail-light was mounted to the left side of the bike.

Hardtail Sportster Build

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Overall Stance

One of the hardest and most overlooked parts of a any hardtail build is how the bike will sit when done. The way to check overall stance is to trial-fit everything including the motor. The motor needs to be put on the frame to put weight on the front end, so you can get an accurate view of how the bike will sit.

After the oil tank mounts and fork-stop tabs were welded in place, I propped the frame up on a wooden box and did the first of several mock build-ups. I installed the front end to check the stance of the bike. The first front end I used was a 6"-over-stock hydraulic unit that came off an early seventies Super Glide.

As mentioned earlier, the motor was from a 1972 XLCH, the first year of the 1000cc Sportster, and kick-start only. The original Bendix carburetor had been replaced with a Mikuni, and slightly richer jetting was needed to run with the unbaffled drag pipes. Other than that, the motor was pretty much stock except for chromed rocker boxes.

Add Lightness

An essential part of building any sort of chopper, bobber, or cafe racer, is getting rid of unnecessary items. This includes bulky fenders and gas tanks, and trimming down unnecessary electrical parts, such as signals, gauges, relays and switches. The ignition key was moved under the seat for a clean look.

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Building a hardtail Sportster is simpler than building a hardtail Big-Twin Harley because there is no separate transmission that needs to be aligned. However, the rear-wheel chain sprocket needs to be lined up with the engine sprocket. The only way to do this is the trial and error method of adding/removing axle spacers on either side of the rear wheel.

Hardtail Sportster Build

After assembling and disassembling the bike several times, I made sure everything would fit before final painting. The frame, gas tank and rear fender were shot in solid gloss black.

1972 Sportster - Phase Three

After a couple of riding seasons in the hardtail frame, I decided to make a few changes. In the bike's first carnation, I had re-used existing (6" over) front forks. Now I wanted to change the front end to something with more visual appeal.

Ironhead Sportster with girder front forks

Although my first choice was a springer, I decided to go with something a little different for a new front end. I chose a 4" over P&P girder front end with a single shock. I also purchased a 19" mini-drum spoke rim and mounted an Avon Speedmaster tire. The gas tank and rear fender were re-painted metallic red.

Girder front forks were used on motorcycles for many years. Pound for pound, they will deflect less than other types of front suspensions. Properly designed and constructed, they will handle as good, if not better, than any other motorcycle front end.

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Ironhead Chopper

Soon after installing the girder front forks, I changed the handlebars from buckhorns to drag bars on 8" chrome risers.

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Hardtail Sportster - Phase Four

Ironhead Sportster with girder front forks

After a few more seasons of riding, an early-sixties solo seat was added, and a new bobbed rear-fender and Mustang tank were painted blue. Handlebars were now a set of solid-mounted mini-apes on short risers.

Hardtail Sportster - Phase Five

In 1994, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy a classic muscle car, a 1965 GTO Tri-power convertible that needed restoration.

1972 Harley-Davidson XLCH Sportster

The only way I could afford to buy the car was to sell my bike, but realizing hardtail Ironheads are not for everyone, I put the motor back in the stock frame so I could sell it easier.