Classic Motorcycle Build

Sportster History (1980-1985)

Article by Mark Trotta

While the 1980's brought us high-revving, multi-cylinder motorcycles with 10,000 red-lines, the Harley-Davidson Sportster was still getting it done at 5,500 rpm. Accelerating anywhere above 2,000 rpm, down-shifting was not really necessary. A twist of the throttle and the 1000cc V-twin responded with all the torque you needed.

Sportster History

Electric Start Only

With the XLCH model discontinued in 1979, there were no more kickstart Sportsters. All models were now electric-start. This allowed room to move the rear master cylinder down and out of the way of the rear exhaust pipe.

1980 Sportster

For 1980, Sportsters continued using the triangulated frame introduced with the 1979 models. In a mid-year running change, Harley-Davidson improved the Sportster's intake manifolds and clamps. Cylinder heads were modified to help improve sealing and avoid vacuum leaks.

The Sportster XLS Roadster featured a Super-Glide gas tank. A 16" rear wheel replaced the XLH 18" wheel.

1980 Sportster Production: XLH (11,841) XLS (2,926)

1981 Sportster

A Nippodenso starter replaced the Prestolite starter, and would be fitted to all Sportster models through 2012. Crankcase castings were modified to accommodate it. There was now no provision to add a kickstarter. Although the new gear-reduction starter proved more efficient, it requires removal of the primary cover to service.

Evo Sportster starter

Shop: Sportster Starter (1981-1985)

The Sportster's electronic ignition was replaced by a Magnavox unit, which used an inductive pickup to send signals to a timing control module. Called the V-Fire II, this module is often referred to as the "black box."

To help prevent accidental throttle sticking, a double (push-pull) accelerator cable was added. Also new for 1981 was an electronic tachometer, replacing the old cable-driven unit.

1981 Sportster Production: XLH (8,442) XLS (1,660)

1982 Sportster

Among other changes, 1982 models were fitted with a stronger and lighter frame. This allowed the battery and oil tank to be repositioned. New handlebar controls were welcomed, along with better quality wiring.

Sportster History

Shop: 1979-1985 Sportster Forward Control Kit icon

To comply with federal emission regulations, engine compression was lowered from 9.0:1 to 8.8:1. This was achieved through use of slightly thicker head gaskets. The Ironhead would now run safely on lower octane gasoline, but it also decreased horsepower and top-end speed.

From 1982 to early 1984, the Sportster was equipped with a "65B" generator. It was Japanese-made and shared no parts with earlier generators. The early "65A" generators will fit on these later-year models.

25th Anniversary Sportster

Celebrating 25 years in production, the 1982 XLH and XLS Sportsters featured special anniversary trim in silver and black. A limited number of orange and black models were also offered.

1982 Sportster Production: XLH (5,015) XLS (1,261)

1983 Sportster

This year the Sportster got a new seat and less restrictive exhaust system. Buyers had an option of having the traditional "peanut" gas tank or a larger 3.3 gallon tank. Late 1983 saw the emergence of the V-Fire III ignition. It is often referred to as VOES, an acronym for "Vacuum Operated Electrical System".

Sportster XLX-61

Clearly one of Harley-Davidson's great marketing moves, the entry level, no-frills XLX61 Sportster was offered in 1983. This bare-bones machine came with a solo seat, peanut gas tank, and single (speedometer) gauge. Built to sell for $3,995, it was available in black only.

Sportster History XLX61

In its first year, 4,892 XLX61 models were sold, more than all of the other three Sportster models combined. The XLX is one of the best-selling models in Sportster history.

Sportster XR1000 (1983-1984)

As a tribute to the flat-track successes of the Harley-Davidson XR750, the Motor Company offered the limited-edition XR-1000 Sportster. The XR cylinder heads, specially prepared by Jerry Branch, were all-alloy and featured bigger valves than XL Sportsters. To accommodate the larger valves, intake ports were moved to the right side and exhaust ports were on the left. Because the XR cylinder heads were larger than the stock cast-iron heads, the cylinder barrels were shortened to fit into the Sportster frame. Other features included 9 spoke cast wheels and a 2.5 gallon gas tank.

Sportster History

A pair of 36mm Dell'Orto carbs brought power output to 70 horsepower, dipping quarter-mile times under thirteen seconds. Dual eleven-inch front brake rotors supplied the best stopping power yet. The XR-1000 weighed in at 490 pounds. Top speed was about 125 mph.

1983 Sportster Production: XLX-61 (4,892) XLH (2,230) XLS (1,616) XR-1000 (1,018)

1984 Sportster

In mid 1984, an alternator finally replaced the generator. Trouble was, it was placed behind the clutch, making it difficult to repair. This troublesome design was not corrected until the 1991 Evo Sportster.

1984 Sportster Production: XLX-61 (4,284) XLH (4,442) XLS (1,135) XR-1000 (759)

Last Year Ironhead Sportster

With production trimmed in anticipation of the new aluminum-head Evolution engine, less than 7,000 Sportsters were built in 1985. The Ironhead Sportster, arguably the loudest and meanest-sounding V-twin ever, enjoyed a 28-year production run. Long live the Ironhead!

1985 Sportster Production: XLX-61 (1,824) XLH (4,074) XLS (616)

Sportster History 1980-1985

Throughout the Sportster's 60+ year history, there were many minor changes, but the one major change was a reworked motor design for 1986.

Read: Evo Sportster History