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Harley-Davidson XR750 : Lean and Give Me 50

The iconic XR750 celebrates 50 years and an astounding run of success that extends well beyond the bike’s domination on the flat track.

If ever you ask, which is THE iconic Harley-Davidson model, there will be many differing opinions: FL Duo-Glide, Road King, original Softail, Electra Glide Ultra Classic, Ironhead Sportster or even, on its current 30th anniversary, the Fat Boy. It will become obvious that makes a bike “iconic” is open to debate. 

Styling, influence on the motorcycle landscape, the numbers sold: these are all criteria, but longevity must also be a key consideration when it comes to a model symbolizing the very spirit of a brand. The Fat Boy is definitely the most iconic Softail but does it represent the essence of Harley-Davidson? Perhaps the 1990s essence…

Harley Davidson classic xr750 side shot

It could be argued the Harley-Davidson XR750 ticks all the “iconic” boxes despite very few having ever ridden or experienced the limited production race-bred bike. Though it’s rare as a complete factory product, this seems to matter little to the bike’s enduring legend as the XR750 celebrates 50 years in 2020. 

In its most recognizable iteration, the XR750 is the most successful platform in AMA racing history and spans a near incomprehensible period of racing domination. The original  XR750 replaced the KR750, which was itself a dominant force in flat track racing, back in 1970. That first XR750 was a stopgap measure in response to changes in the AMA rules allowing British bikes to claim several titles after a lengthy era of H-D success.

As the rush was on, the XR750 was built from existing parts to begin life powered by a de-stroked Sportster 1000 mill with cast iron heads and cylinders. The expedited design proved effective but the engine had limitations: the primary one being excessive heat. The bike could win a race but lacked longevity due to the stresses placed on the engine. Short races in cold weather were the bike’s forte, reverse those conditions and the bike suffered from overheating. 

A short two years later in 1972, a new design resulted in an engine built on an aluminum platform and after that the XR750 was on a long roll. By 2008, the XR had won 28 Grand National championships leading to it being named “the most successful race bike of all time.”

The XR750 as a complete race bike package wasn’t sold for long. By the mid-1980s, a racer could purchase the engine from Harley-Davidson but the rest of the components could be had only from aftermarket suppliers. And yet the XR750 continued to live on as a symbol of Harley-Davidson domination in flat track racing despite the origin of the peripheral parts.

The longevity of the XR750 in the face of much newer engines and technology has been astounding. While Harley-Davidson has recently transitioned its flat track team to XG750 bikes complete with liquid cooling and high tech design, the XR750 still dominated races as recently as 2016 when XR750 machines placed 1, 2, and 3 at the X Games flat track event in Austin, Texas. The bike could still get the job done. It could be argued that without the current surge in flat track popularity, the XR750 would still be the dominant machine as its torquey twin nature was perfectly matched to the requirements of racing even as the years quietly passed before other manufacturers finally got wind of the flat track rebirth. 

Harley Davidson classic xr750 exhaust and side cover shot

Yamaha, Triumph and Ducati edged onto the scene but it wasn’t until Indian Motorcycles arrived with a modern race specific motor and bundles of cash to throw at flat track, did things have to change for the XR750. Time had finally caught up and a new solution to the challenge was sought. Whether that solution has been found is debatable.

The flat track wasn’t the only stage upon which the XR750 garnered acclaim through the years. Due to its relatively light 300-pound dry weight and predictable handling characteristics, it became a favourite of stunt riders in the 1970s with the king of them all, Evel Knievel, riding one from the early to mid seventies. 

Whereever there were lines of cars or buses to hurdle, Evel thought the XR750 up to the task even when gravity and physics all too often disagreed. His last jump was on a XR750 in 1977 and his record attempts led to a series of other XR750-mounted daredevils attempting similar stunts in the decades to come. 

In 1998, Bubba Blackwell broke Knievel’s record for car jumping at 20 and, later in 1999, buses at 15. Almost 10 years later in 2008, Blackwell took on the record for stacked cars, still aboard an XR750, at 52 piled junkers. 

If there is any lingering doubt about the longevity of the XR750, take this as a final example. Attempting to break a record of 22 cars, aptly named stunt rider Doug Danger accomplished the task at Sturgis in 2015. It was close but he stuck the landing while managing to miss a bar full of spectators. That in itself is impressive as crazed stunts go. However the most amazing aspect of the jump was that Danger did it on a 43-year-old XR750 motorcycle, the very one ridden by Evel Knievel back in 1972 (we assume with fresh gas and an oil change).

Through the years the XR750 spawned countless interpretations. One trend saw the style of the XR750 applied to the street in the “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra. Harley-Davidson first did it in-house with the XR1000, which was first produced in 1983. It seemd like a slam dunk but the bike remained in the lineup for only a couple years. The short-lived XR1000 was a high performance, high piped and high dollar version of the Sportster. Sadly, it wasn’t a success, possibly due to its spendy sticker, which was double that of a standard Sportster, even if it was the fastest Harley in the lineup. 

Looking back now, the XR1000 seems more Sportster than XR750 flat tracker, which may also explain the reception. But as mentioned, the speed was there. The bike was so fast in fact that a race-prepped model was sent to Daytona for the Battle of the Twins and earned the name, “Lucifer’s Hammer.” The bike won the race for three consecutive years and provided a motorcycle variation of the Ford versus Ferrari Lemans moment when Ducati factory riders congratulated rider Gene Church on his 170-mph lap.

The production XR1000 was capable of 125 mph from its 71-hp motor but Harley-Davidson’s own brochure claimed that with available accessories that number could rise above 90.  The bike is a rare find today and an unaltered example can fetch nice dollars in the collector market. 

It took Harley-Davidson 20 years before it revisited the XR-style but again the resulting bike received only a lukewarm reception. Harley knew the sport oriented XR1200 would be a more challenging sell in North America than in Europe so the XR1200 launched a year earlier across the pond. What was there not to like about the XR1200, aside from the fact it arrived during the peak years of the cruiser boom and it was most definitely not a cruiser?  

The bike was a 90-hp beast with great looks and respectable handling due to a dramatically upgraded suspension. The market was seemingly primed for it with various iterations previously available only through custom and one-off applications. But what people “say” they want isn’t always what they end up buying. Cruisers were still king.

In another iteration of the venerable XR750, Lou Gerencer Sr of Elkhart, Indiana used a XR750 powered machine in 1989 to win a national hillclimbing title. In addition to the requisite extended swingarm, Gerencer added fuel injection and methane power to make 150 hp during those vertical climbs. Reportedly the engine’s lifespan was about one run before requiring a rebuild. But what the heck, he won the championship. His son Lou Jr, would follow up the success a few years later on another XR750-powered machine.

Harley Davidson classic xr750 engine shot

Harley-Davidson’s current flat tracker based on the Street 750 likely won’t see the same type of adoration as the XR750, a bike so linked to the company’s identity these past many years. Time and trends move faster than they did 50 years ago. As noted last issue, American Flat Track has moved the top Super Twins class into rarified territory where only the big boys with the big money can play. 

But then again, Harley now offers a race prepped XG750 for sale to competitors who still believe the spirit of the XR750 lives on beyond its classic iteration. Fifty years of history are hard to forget.

by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #247

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