Long ago and far away, someone was tinkering with the very concepts that now make Harley-Davidson’s XR1200 the best handling, most performance oriented Sportster yet. The results may have been rough-hewn, but the essentials were there.
Crude But Special
Until very recently, if you wanted a performance Harley-Davidson that handled well, you had to build it yourself. Harley had dipped its toe into the sportbike pool before—first in 1977 with the XLCR Café Racer. But the CR ultimately failed because it was too “café” for traditional Harley riders and too “Harley” for sportbike enthusiasts. Only 3,100 were made before being discontinued the following year.
In 1983, Harley took another stab at the non-cruiser crowd with the XR1000. While the Café Racer emphasized styling, the XR made a major performance statement with heads, unique tapered intake manifolds, twin Dell’Orto carbs (complete with large, protruding air filters) and upswept exhausts from the XR750 flat track racing engines. It fared no better than the XLCR and quietly faded into the Harley sunset.
In the late 1980s, Dennis Stemp, Editor/Publisher of IronWorks Magazine, a hardcore Harley publication, had a dream that would not be denied. He located an XLCR with a lunched motor and mated the sporting chassis with a firebreathing XR1000 motor. His end goal? A 400-pound, 100-horsepower Sportster with above average handling.
Sadly, Stemp passed away several years ago at the too-young age of 49, and Bar Hodgson, producer of January’s International Motorcycle Supershow in Toronto, now owns the XLCR-XR Special.
Late last fall, Hodgson offered me the opportunity to ride this unique motorcycle. Naturally the first temptation was to compare the Special to Harley-Davidson’s new XR1200 Sportster—a production motorcycle that captures the essence of what Stemp was trying to create. As the only person on the entire Third Planet from the Sun who has ridden both, I’d say that no one is better qualified to make the following statement: the only real common denominator between the two bikes lies in an ethereal realm. That is to say, while the spiritual essence is the same, the technical deliveries are, obviously, generations apart. It took Harley-Davidson almost 20 years but the XR1200 is the motorcycle that Stemp was trying to build—the best handling, most performance oriented Sportster yet.
The New and Old XR Comparison
To start the Special requires fishing around behind the huge Lectron flatslide carburetors and engaging the individual enricheners. The starter motor is audibly strained pushing the high-compression pistons and heavy oil but after two or three turns, the engine reluctantly stutters into life. At idle, the radical cams, huge ports and almost total lack of silencing make the Special sound like a breathed-on, lumpy American V-8 muscle car.
Dyno charts have the Special peaking at 95 hp at 6,750 rpm with 80 ft/lbs. torque. It feels a bit flat off the bottom but comes alive at 5,000 rpm and pulls surprisingly hard right to the 7,000 rpm redline—which must be strictly respected lest a large noise with resultant internal carnage occurs. But where Stemp spent a lot of money to realize that loud, peaky 95 hp, the XR pumps out a tractable 90 with little fanfare or stress.
Riding the XLCR-XR is quite an experience. Your legs are splayed way out—the right to clear the giant air filter pods and the left so the exhaust won’t charbroil your leg. An interesting aside here is that even with the ambient temperature a pleasant 20C, in traffic I noticed a fair bit of heat coming from the XR1200’s exhaust header on the right and the oil cooler on the left. So the new Sportster is likely a bit uncomfortable on those hot summer days.
The vibration coming off the Special’s solid-mount motor is fierce and after 10 minutes or so, my hands went numb. The chassis is vintage 1978 and there’s only so much upgraded shocks and springs can do. The ride is harsh, the steering is very slow and feels somewhat vague. The motorcycle feels very top-heavy and does not react well to mid-corner changes.
In direct comparison, the XR is tractable, comfortable and handles like a dream. The long wheelbase and conservative steering geometry mean it’s not exactly flickable, but the initial turn-in is good and the XR is very stable and confidence-inspiring mid-corner. The exception lies in the underdamped shocks that offer a meagre 89mm of travel. Good-quality aftermarket shocks would probably fix the somewhat weak hind end.
But what I don’t understand is why the XR1200 is so porky, weighing in at 580 lbs. with a sump full of oil and a full tank of fuel. A 1970 Sportster checks in a full 100 lbs. lighter. Stemp’s bike though requires you to play “make a wish” with your legs, and the fuel tank mounting bolt is directly under the front of the thinly padded seat, right where certain tender parts of the anatomy reside.In contrast the XR is surprisingly comfortable, even after a full day in the saddle. Mind you, the XR’s 13.2-litre tank translates to a relatively short cruising range and makes Harley’s optional attractive soft luggage a bit redundant. Stemp’s Special actually has better instrumentation (other than a fuel warning light) than the XR which arrives with only an analogue tachometer flanked by a small digital speedo. But when it comes to controls, the XR is clearly superior.
Pulling the Special’s clutch is akin to setting a bear trap, the throttle return spring is exceedingly stiff and the brake lever almost requires two hands to generate any stopping power at all. A short ride is like an hour’s worth of upper body work at the gym. Meanwhile, the XR’s new four-pot Nissin calipers squeezing twin 292mm discs provide excellent stopping power and are fade-free, even when getting worked hard. The pull at the non-adjustable lever is firm with a good initial bite and above average feel and feedback.
I must also confess a preference for the XR’s styling, primarily because it’s based on Harley’s XR750 flat tracker, the most successful racing motorcycle of all time. And I have to agree with Stemp, who wrote that if the XLCR-XR was the only motorcycle available to him, it would have been “utterly unbearable.” Still, summed up, it may be crude but it’s exciting.
– Steve Bond, July 2009 (issue #253)