Older Sportster Issues & Ability to Modify.

Discussion in 'Sportster Models' started by bethdavenport, Dec 30, 2009.

  1. bethdavenport

    bethdavenport New Member

    I don't own a Sportster or a Harley yet. Never thought I would, but
    after reading an article on a British site


    a couple of weeks ago, the idea is appealing.
    I don't look at the Sportster as a cruiser so
    much as a basic motorcycle, basic in a pure
    sense, like old British singles or twins. Of course, you could
    argue that it is a cruiser and basic, but it is the basic part
    that appeals to me. Anyway.....

    I'm curious about a few general things. Maybe they have been
    answered somewhere on the site already? I guess I am not a
    gifted searcher as I usually hit more stuff I don't want to read
    than I do want to read. Feel free to just point me to other
    threads or even search tips.

    So one hears that older Harleys (like older British bikes) were
    unreliable. Is that all before the Evolution engine? (I only vaguely
    know that the Evolution engine started in the 80's (I think) and I'm
    guessing replaced at least some of the iron (heads?) with aluminum
    and that it became a lot more oil tight. Is that about right?

    So allow me to direct the rest of the questions toward Evolution or
    newer Sportster engines.

    Were there any model years with chronic starting issues? (I know
    of some models of Japanese dirt singles in the 80's and 90's that
    had starting issues, so large bore/stroke engines with two or
    fewer cylinders concern me. As an example, both my girlfriend
    and a male friend both bought used Suzuki DR250's. Hers was
    fine about starting. His would start fine sometimes and then,
    usually when warm, would not start no matter what. But just
    sometimes. And everything was checked on it. Other DR250
    owners complained about a similar problem. And I think one
    or more years of the Honda 500 or 600 had a similar problem.)
    So I mean chronic starting issue as something that can't be fixed.

    Any other reliability issues or is virtually everything related to
    owner neglect?

    When did hydraulic lifters on Sportsters start?
    How about the switch from chain drive to belt drive?

    Sportsters have fairly beefy rear subframes or frames, right?
    So I was wondering if there was a decent aftermarket support
    for mounting hard saddlebags (not leather/vinyl) on Sportsters?

    I read some brief history posting on here somewhere and it said
    Sportsters made between 40 and 50 horsepower. That is plenty
    for my purposes. I've had bikes with less and I like fairly quiet
    bikes so am not really interested in performance mods. What
    I am a bit concerned about is vibration. Is a Sportster fairly
    tolerable going down the super slab at 65mph?

    And finally, I have been browsing craigslist ads and was surprised
    and pleased to see several Sportsters in the $3K range. Is this
    just a recession thing or could they be found in that range prior to
    the recession.

    Thanks again for any enlightenment.
  2. 55pan

    55pan Member

    IMHO evo sportsters are great bikes, my drag bike is a sporty. Before evo's (1984) they were cast (ironhead) still good bike, not to my taste but they do have a bit of a cult following.

    Belt drive primary (and secondary) are from 91 and above. I think hydraulic lifters were 86 or so (mine has them, 87) They have rubber mounted motors from 04. This cuts the vibration quite a bit. If you are happy with 50-60HP and leave it alone (only stage one mods) it will be pretty reliable.

    The rear frame is sturdy and has beefy fender struts attached so saddle bags wont be a problem. It really depends on the bracket.

    $3K bikes will most likely be pre-evo and you should be prepared to get your tools greasy for that price.

    NEWHD74FAN Experienced Member Retired Moderators

    Bethdavenport welcome to HDTimeline and your 1st post...! There will be plenty of others who will weigh in to help you make your choice, but here is a little background on the history of Sportsters...which began in 1957 or so...


    and like British Twins had their "quirks, highs and lows. I can say, that I chose the 2004 XL-1200R based strictly on it's level of refinement, as it had electric starting, cast wheels, dual disc brakes, rubber mounted engine (less vibes), electronic ignition, and handling for mainly solo riding (and because I am only 5' 6" 130 lbs soaking wet), and at the same time NOT fuel injected ONLY because I like things relatively simple to upgrade performance as the pricing jumps by about $1-2k for the privilege of EFI (honestly, EFI came to this model in 2007, but HD had EFI versions 5 years before so it is very reliable right now. While I have added quite a bit to it...it is "functionally" stock with only Stage I (carb, pipes and air cleaner mods) and just plain works...

  4. 55pan

    55pan Member

    There ya go, thats what I get for never owning a new bike. My friends cut stuff up so fast, it's hard to tell what's stock. I know that mine is chain drive. The chain primary makes sense now that I think about it -- it's a wet primary. Thanks for straightening me out. The push rod alignment and the one piece motor/trans is the main reason I like them for building track bikes.
  5. fin_676

    fin_676 Experienced Member Staff Member Moderator Contributor

    I like my sportster feels a bit like my 75 bonnie but without all the hard times
    it is solid mount evo engine it does vibrate not as much as the old british twins but when looking in the mirror i only get a vague ide of whats behind me
    93 was the first year that belt final drive and 5 speed gearbox were fitted to the 883 it was slightly erlier for the 1200
    94 was a revamp model with a lot of changes to catch up with problems found on the erlier evo models stayed pretty much the same till 2003 with added changes every year
    electronic speedo revised switches and control levers fatter exhaust from 96 make thoes parts esier to find upgrades for
    have taken my sportster from north scotland to germany a few times didnt plan more than 300 miles in a day and went well

  6. nakkers

    nakkers Junior Member

    Prices for used have dropped in general this year. At least in North America. Not sure of the market in the UK.

    $3k? I can't say if that price point will allow you to obtain a good example or not. Regardless, owning a Harley or any used bike will cost you additional money to keep her going. Harley's are pretty simple machines so, as long as you find a good example, it should provide some good trouble free riding for a long time.

    That being said, some older, low mileage examples have been reported to leak oil from their top end head gaskets. I've read some posts the gaskets fail due to not running the bike often enough. Didn't find anything to clarifiy what is riding enough to avoid the condition. If you're not that mechanically inclinded, that can be a chore. Ask the seller if they have a shop manual and if not, make sure you obtain one.

    Bottom line, the last 10 yers has been pretty good to sportys with several updates (EFI, rubber mount) while keeping the basics the same and you should be able to find a good example at a reasonable price point. I'm just not sure if $3k is reasonable enough.

    I found my 2001 Sportster 1200 near the end of the season for $5k and found that to be a pretty good deal. It's performed very well before I had to park for the winter. Can't wait for spring!

    Good luck and please report back on what you decided and detail the experience to help others out.

    Good luck!!!
  7. bethdavenport

    bethdavenport New Member

    Thanks for all of the good information, folks.

    I read that rough Sportster history and it appears Harley
    has a gift for making newer models attractive. Evo, belt-drive,
    five-speed, rubber mounting the engine. It doesn't appear
    they make some manufacturer's mistake of making a newer
    model actually worse.

    In the past, I've lusted after certain bikes for a long time,
    not planned to purchase for a year or more, but then suddenly
    leaped. I'm not sure when I will buy right now, but I think
    a Sportster is definitely in my future. Wait until my brother
    finds out! :)

    Thanks again. You folks are just like they say, super helpful
    when somebody needs it.
  8. fin_676

    fin_676 Experienced Member Staff Member Moderator Contributor

    If you find a bike that you think is right before committing may be an idea to ask the forum on anything to look out for on that particular year and model when you are fully informed sometimes makes the final decision easier
    Having said that i usually buy a bike on impulse and find out the pi falls later

  9. Crocker

    Crocker Active Member

    Good advice and history of the sportster here from all who posted , The early xlch sporsters pre 79 did have stater problems ,there were 2 diffrent starters one was made by prestolite the other Hitache,but the problems were with the bendix drive (engaugement) also the 4 spd trans box were tall and slim , so they could be a problem if abused ,and yes better material was used on later sportsters like the Evo ,So no leaks and better fittment of moving internal parts, the frames on all sportster years have had little problems , the early evo sportster was the begining of a really good trouble free nimble machine , Sportster were not built and are not considered a crusier , they were built to keep up with the popularity on the small quicker english bikes of the early 1950s it was considerd a sporting middlweight bike performance was the main basis, As far as vibration as someone stated in 2004 they introuduced the rubber mounted evo , So if you are looking for a everyday rider ,I would go with somthing 2004 and up, but if you are just looking for somthing to scoot around on weekends any early year sporster that was well maintained and not abused will give you many trouble free miles ,but will require a little more maintance , over the years I have always had a sporster in my garage ,I have had a couple of Evo styles and late and early Ironheads (long frame/Short frame .I dont have one rite now but I have a K model witch was the platform bike that the sporster evolved from. there are pleanty of nice sportster to be had on the market and you should have no problem finding the on e for you at a reasonable price ,Good Luck and welcome to the forum.