Love it or hate it, the Harley Sportster has been an American motorcycling icon since 1957. Around 50,000 are built every year, taking up a fifth of the Milwaukee factory’s production capacity.
Not surprisingly, quite a few XLs—to use the official designation—have found their way into custom shops. They’ve been turned into choppers, bobbers, café racers and trackers. And although most Sportster owners use their bikes for cruising and bar hopping these days, there’s a solid racing history behind the name, grounded in the US dirt track scene.
Setting the choppers aside for the moment, we’ve picked out the best recent customs from well-established builders in the USA. As always, it’s a purely personal selection. But if you’ve got a Sportster in your garage and an itch to take it apart, let your inspiration start right here.
Mule Motorcycles ‘Web Surfer’ If anyone can turn a Harley Sportster into a fire-breathing high-performance machine, it’s Richard Pollock of Mule Motorcycles. He builds classy, beautifully balanced customs with everything in proportion—from the looks to the high-grade components. Pollock’s background as a surfer probably has something to do with this: ‘Web Surfer’ is a nod to the waves, with a painstakingly crafted balsa wood seat base. The bike is running a modified Sportster frame, Ducati 900SS/SP forks and Kawasaki wheels, and starred in one of the first Bike EXIF calendars, way back in 2011.
Roland Sands for Technics A commission to build a concept bike for a DJ equipment maker sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Roland Sands pulled it off in spectacular fashion. He chose a 2010-model XL883 Iron Sportster as the base, and installed a new seat and tail unit and clip-on bars. The 19” wheels, designed to evoke the Technics SL-1200 turntables found in every techno club, are custom fabricated. It’s Mad Max meetsMetropolis, and we love it. [More about this bike]
Biltwell ‘EZXL’ Sportster This is one of the cleanest, classiest Sportsters I’ve ever seen, with subtle paint and a perfect stance. It’s the work of Bill Bryant, the driving force behind Biltwell Inc—but despite being a parts showcase, this Sportster 1200 is no trailer queen. Bill raced it at the Hell on Wheels rally, surviving a lowside crash, and used it for bombing down his local fire roads. Unfortunately, ‘EZXL’ was written off in a crash after this photoshoot, but a resurrection is underway. [More about this bike]
Hazan Motorworks Ironhead Max Hazan came out of nowhere in 2013, and is now one of the hottest names to watch on the custom scene. This is his fourth build, and it’s crafted around a 1981 Ironhead motor—virtually the only part on the bike that has not been handmade. It’s a delicate-looking machine, but those looks are deceptive: the wheels are 30″ at the front and 31″ at the back, and the bike is over eight feet long. [More about this bike]