In 1982 Harley-Davidson found itself in one of those goods news/bad news situations. The good news was the company had bought its freedom from hidebound AMF the year before; the bad news was the buy-out left it hard up for cash in the middle of an industry-wide sales slump. Management decided the company needed something to fire the public’s imagination. So Dick O’Brien, director of Harley’s racing department, was approached with a radical idea—build a street-legal version of the legendary XR750 dirt-track racer.
The notion of building a racebike with lights sounds intriguing until you actually try it. Wholly unsuited for street riding, the XR750 was a highly developed tool designed for a single purpose—winning races—with no thought given to idling along in traffic, or being burdened with any of the equipment needed to make a motorcycle street-legal. The current crop of Big Twins seemed unlikely candidates for a high-performance makeover. Fortunately for Harley, the race-only XR750 was based on the Sportster. The task fell to O’Brien to combine aspects of both into a single machine—in 60 days.
Notions of simply bolting XR750 heads and cylinders to a Sportster bottom end were quickly dispelled. Although the bore of the XR750 (79.5mm) was close to that of the then-current 1,000cc Sportster (81mm), the XR’s stroke (75.5mm) was significantly shorter than the XL’s (96.8mm). No amount of combing through existing inventory could come up with a combination of parts to make the swap work, so the alloy XR heads sat atop all-new cylinders made of iron—not aluminum like the XR’s—with all-new rods connecting the pistons to the crankshaft.
The heads were assembled, ported, and polished by tuner Jerry Branch in California. The XR1000’s valves were 1mm larger than the XR750’s, and were set at an included angle of 68 degrees—as opposed to 90 degrees in the XL head—for a flatter combustion chamber less prone to detonation.
Like the XR750, the XR1000 had two carbureters, 36mm Dell’Ortos fitted with huge, unshrouded K&N air filters. The XR1000’s exhaust system was practically identical to the XR750’s except for the mufflers inside the end cones, and its transmission—transplanted from the Sportster—contained four speeds, just like the XR750’s.
The XR1000’s chassis differed little from the Sportster’s with the exception of new front brake calipers and bigger rotors. The small solo seat seemed evenly matched to the 2.2-gallon gas tank; the XR1000 was never meant to be a long-distance bike.
The XR1000 is a classic today, but judged by the standards of its time, it was at best a curiosity and at worst a disappointment, depending on who you asked. At $6,995 it cost the same as Harley’s own Super Glide Big Twin, and sometimes thousands more than the bikes from Japan it was ostensibly built to compete with. Although the XR1000 handled admirably according to period road tests, some riders complained about the high-mounted exhaust system roasting their left leg, and the oil-soaked K&Ns staining their jeans on the right. Some even complained the heavy exhaust system made the bike pull to the left.
Hard numbers did the XR1000 no favors, either. Rear-wheel horsepower from the 998cc twin was about 57. In its March 1983 issue, Cycle World ran a pre-production model through the quarter-mile in 12.88 seconds at 101.23 mph. While that made it the quickest Harley yet, there were still plenty of smaller-displacement Japanese bikes that could eat the XR’s lunch at the drag strip, and do it for thousands of dollars less. Dealers had a hard time selling the XR1000 for anything close to retail, and by the time it was discontinued in 1985, few were sad to see it go.