The Sportster is America’s first superbike — full stop. Sports cars of the early ‘50s showcased how a lightweight, dynamic chassis could create effortless speed; Harley-Davidson did this for motorcycles with the original Sportster. Thanks to its contribution to the allied forces in World War I, Harley-Davidson became a household name. By the time the Second World War had ended, motorcycling had firmly rooted its presence in American culture — but Harley-Davidson was no longer leading the charge.
At around the same time that John and Paul were learning their G chords, a British invasion of an entirely different sort was taking place on American streets. Lightweight, fast and manoeuvrable bikes from the likes of Triumph, Norton and BSA were cropping up everywhere, leaving the Bar and Shield’s current K-series offerings in the dust, literally. So popular were those British marques that 1953’s motorcycle movie classic The Wild One featured its star, Marlon Brando, and his entire gang astride English twins — with their logos in full view for the first time in movie history. Harley took notice and quickly went to work to reclaim its middleweight crown. Debuting in 1957, the new Sportster XL was born and Harley was back on top.
With almost sixty years under its chain and belt, one might expect a constant barrage of sweeping changes and innovations to maintain relevance. While the newest line of Sportsters do boast their fair share of technical advances including ABS, Harley’s staid approach to aging has most fostered the bike’s success and appeal.
The Sportster has remained great in spite of some sufferings. A position at the entry level of the H-D catalogue has often earned it the label of a beginner bike, or worse yet, the title of “bitch” bike. That’s wrong. Sure, its lower price point and ease of operation makes the Sportster a popular choiice, but it also means that its signature sound and responsive ride can be had without any of the tortures of bigger bikes. Few motorcycles capture an audience as attentively as those of Harley-Davidson. The Sportster is the most distilled representation of Harley-Davidson’s original DNA, and that’s why it’s an Icon.