COAL: Cycles Of A Lifetime – ’77 Harley-Davidson XLCR – With Apologies to Willie G.

I couldn’t believe that HD would build this!


I went from a chopper to a Cafe Racer. It wasn’t that surprising since I had made a few improvements to my earlier chopper to make it more roadworthy.

Willie G. Davidson was the son of one of the founders of Harley-Davidson. He became very involved with the company as an adult. In the ’70s he was the head of HD styling. He became the “Cool Uncle” guy of the company and guided its direction into the youth market. The factory custom models were the result of his leadership.

The XLCR was the best performing motorcycle that Harley had made up to this point. This motorcycle was based upon an engine that had been introduced twenty years earlier; the XL Sporster. The engine had gone through a lot of evolutionary improvements over those twenty years. A unique Siamese twin dual exhaust system was used for the first time. This was the most powerful 1,000 cc. Sportster in history. Which wasn’t saying much, as the Japanese competition were selling four cylinders road rockets which outperformed the poor HD.

It looked as good in my folk’s driveway as it did in the ad! photo by author.


While it was no longer the King of sport bikes, it could cover the 1/4 miles in 12.77 seconds and hit a top speed of almost 120 mph. It was certainly fast enough.

Checking something under the bike. You can see the double seat. Photo by author.


Some of the biggest improvements were made to the frame and chassis. This was the first triangulated tubular frame that used a rectangular section swing arm, similar to the XR750 racing bikes. The wheels were genuine Morris Mags with dual disc brakes up front and a single disc in the rear.

Styling was handled by Willie G. Davidson and borrowed quite a few elements from HD’s successful racing flat tracker, the XR750. The tank was an enlarged version of this design. Likewise the seat, oil tank, and front and rear fenders. A small headlight fairing completed the look, and black paint, lots of black paint! As you can see from the pictures, this bike looked awesome!

If it only handled, performed, and rode as good as it looked! But I was a Harley fan, and though it was a disappointment as an actual Cafe Racer, it was still the best Sportster ever made.

I decided that I would modify it to make it my perfect bike. Initially, I just made some modifications using factory accessories.

On the Redwood Run. Photo by author.


I added a set of low-rider setback handlebar risers to move the bars into a more comfortable position and then added the factory double seat and a set of passenger pegs. This gave me a spot to tie things down behind me, but the pegs were awful. A new rear axle sprouted foot pegs off each end. This meant that the pegs would move up and down with the swing arms movement. That’s always a disconcerting feeling. It didn’t really matter, since I seldom carried a passenger.

One of the main problems with the bike was that it was never very comfortable to begin with. The biggest problem was that the rear tank mount was a big circular fitting that was located under the front of the seat cushion. If I scrunched up to the front of the seat, I could definitely feel it!

The bike fit through there easily! Photo by author.


The bike still looked great, and I rode it a lot. I even participated in the Harley Dealer’s Redwood Run.  However, I found that I just couldn’t get over some of its inadequacies. I anticipated making some long trips around the country and I knew that I would have to modify the bike to make it work.

I liked the large 3.5 gallon gas tank and wanted to keep it. I knew that I would need a better seat, as well as something to carry luggage, and a sissy bar.

I took the bike to another well-known Bay Area builder, Bay Area Custom Cycles in Hayward, to have them perform the major portions of the modifications.

A funky mish-mosh, but I rode it anyway. However, it developed a problem. Photo by author.


When I went to pick up the bike I was satisfied with the quality of the work. They had cut the rear frame section off and modified it with chrome fender struts similar to an older model. This was done to accommodate the later addition of saddlebags. I will admit that my design looked quite amateurish, a mish-mosh of stock, Cafe Racer, custom, and touring elements.

It would take a bunch of fabricated parts to complete the design. I didn’t know where to source them or who could build them. The bike looked pretty funky, but I rode it anyway while I figured out what to do.

Rick and I went to Yellowstone anyway! Photo by author.


Rick and I had decided to take a tour of the Southwest and as far east as Yellowstone Park. Right after we left I started having problems with the bike running rough. We returned home and my brother lent me his new Honda 750 to continue with our plans. We were once again a pair of 750 riders.

Another huge surprise from HD!


I bought the XLCR in 1978, as it had taken almost a year for it to become available. The answer to my prayers came from an unlikely source. Harley-Davidson themselves had decided to base the new ’79 Sportster on the Cafe Racer chassis. 1978 was the last year of the older forged frame components and big shock absorber design.

All the parts I needed were now OEM. Photo from web.


For 1977 the rider foot pegs had been moved to the crankcase and primary cover. For 1979 the master cylinder for the rear disc brake would be mounted to the sprocket cover and would be actuated by a hidden linkage. Everything that I needed to adapt the foot pegs, shifter and brake pedal would be available from the dealer.

There have been quite a few companies that catered to the HD crowd, building both custom and replacement parts. Drag Specialties was one of them.  I found many of the components I needed to complete my build in their catalog. A new custom gas tank, dubbed the “King Sportster” was now available. It looked the same in profile but was wider and held 3.5 gallons of gas. Harley introduced a custom version of the Sportster, similar to the LowRider; the XLS. It featured a two piece stepped seat, as well as forward mount highway pegs.

I took the big tank, a new repro rear fender and tail light, a new stock style front fender, and a new XLS seat, to Harry Bear’s custom shop in Fremont. He adapted the tank, fender and seat to the frame and painted them black. He added Harley’s new antique lettered logo and a white pinstripe under the clear coat.

Drag Specialties also introduced a set of custom one piece staggered dual exhaust pipes for the new ’79 model. These would fit my bike with a small adaptation. I removed the closed air cleaner base with an older style open design for better breathing and added an electronic pointless ignition. I don’t know if it added any extra horsepower, but it couldn’t hurt.

A set of HD Sportster buckhorn handlebars completed the controls. Blending and adapting all these parts together resulted in my version of the ultimate Harley Sportster.

This was the final form of my first restyle.


Oddly enough, after I was done, my Cafe Racer looked almost exactly like a new stock ’79 Sportster! There were some differences, but it would take a discerning eye to detect them. The funny thing was that it was never my intention to mimic the stock bike. I had made every change to make it the best highway machine that it could be.

There were still a couple of minor additions made from the HD parts bin; I added a remote oil cooler with thermostatic control and a removable cover, which were originally designed for the low-rider. A new motor mount oil filter setup, combined with these changes added another quart of oil capacity allowing the engine to run cooler.

All of these modifications were to make my bike perfect for my third Eric ride; a month long trip around the country.