Birth of the Harley-Davidson Sportster

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In 1957, the Russians launched the first earth orbiting satellite, named Sputnik, which heralded the start of the space race.  On the other side of the globe, Harley-Davidson launched a new motorcycle named the Sportster.

Maybe it was not quite the technological marvel that Sputnik was, but after 58 years of continuous production, the Sportster certainly has earned a place in history.

Five years prior to the release of the Sportster, Harley-Davidson developed a new line of lightweight V-twin motorcycles known as the K-model.  The K-model was powered by a 750cc flathead engine (except for the KH and KHK models) and unlike any previous Harleys, had an engine casting which also housed the transmission.  They were the first civilian Harleys to have both front and rear suspension, making them much more nimble than the heavier Panheads which still had rigid rear frames.

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When it came time to design the Sportster, Harley’s engineers borrowed heavily from the K-model.  In fact, the 1956 K-model and the 1957 Sportster are essentially the same motorcycle except for the drive train.  For the Sportster, the K-model’s flathead engine was upgraded to an overhead valve set up and the displacement was increased to 883ccs.  It still retained the same unit construction drive train and four separate cams, a layout which is still used on Sportsters today.

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Although the ’57 Sportster was not a big hit, Harley introduced two additional Sportster models for the ’58 model year and sales began to rise.  As the years went by, Harley continued producing different Sportster models to appeal to the ever changing tastes of motorcyclists.  Whether you like cafe racers, offroad scramblers, touring bikes or just around town cruisers, there has been a Sportster model to fit the bill.  That is even more true today as Harley has six different Sportster models to choose from for the 2015 model year alone.  With such a proven track record, it seems certain that Harley-Davidson will continue to produce Sportsters for many years to come.  I only wonder when they will update the powertrain?

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