1999 H-D Sportster XLH Tribute
One of John Denver’s big hits had a line that said, “Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.”
That line could well say “Country roads are home and the place this bike belongs…” if you’re talking about the 1999 Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster XLH.
Now 20 years old as 2019 dawns, and one of my favorite long-term rides, this black Sporty has proven to be about as reliable and user-friendly as a motorcycle can be; contrary to the pre-conceived notions some may have. Indeed, for years, I had those prejudices myself.
The first Sportster I ever took a test drive on was a brand new one back in 1973. It shook worse than I ever thought a bike could, cost more than I ever thought anybody would pay for it and it just was, well, kind of a let-down from what I expected.
But by the time I could actually afford to get a Sportster, a lot of things had changed. Indeed, by the time I got this Sportster back in 2006—the first I’d ever owned—I liked it so much I did a feature article about it in the column I wrote at the time for Motor Cycle Monthly in the U.K.
Here’s part of what I said back then: “There are some who say technology and the times have passed the Sportster by; that even with fuel injection, belt drive and countless other upgrades, the pushrod V-twin is just plain old hat.
I don’t know. Harley-Davidson can sell every one they build—and then some.” It’s pretty much still true today, keeping in mind that no bike is perfect for every rider. So, is this Sportster a great or even a good motorcycle? I guess any motorcycle that does what its owner wants it to is a good motorcycle, no matter what critics may say.
I’ve owned this bike for thirteen of its 20 years now and, with the exception of replacing a broken drive belt and a battery ground cable, haven’t had any major mechanical failures. That belt was original from what I can determine, so it lasted 18 years! (For more on that, see: https://ultimatemotorcycling.com/2018/05/21/spring-break-a-case-against-preventive-motorcycle-maintenance/ ).
That is not to say this Sporty is completely without its foibles. Being a ’99 model, it predates multiport sequential electronic fuel injection that came on Sportster models built after 2005. The carburetor and Screamin’ Eagle Stage II kit on the bike work fine in the heat of summer but starting in temperatures below 30 degrees F in the winter is another matter—especially if the bike has been sitting in my unheated garage for a couple weeks untouched. On the other hand, who wants to ride when it’s below 30 degrees out anyway? So, when it turns cold, I hook it up to the battery tender and hope for an early spring.
I am fortunate to own a second Sportster, an 883R that is about half as old as this XLH and it has quite a few refinements that the 1999 doesn’t. Much as I like the 883R, the good ol’ ’99 Sporty, plain as it is, just still has that fun factor that makes me want to keep it around.
This old Sportster isn’t particularly fast, doesn’t come off the line like a rocket, does the “Harley hula” if you push it too hard in the corners and does its share of shaking at idle and at passing velocity.
It doesn’t have the compliant suspension I enjoy on some other bikes; the pull of the clutch is full-fisted and I hate the mess created by doing oil changes with the side-lying spin-on oil filter. In short, it is about as far from the luxury, power and sophistication of a Gold Wing as a bike can get. Still, there’s just something about this thing.
The simple fact is, riding this Sporty is relaxing and unhurried. Its switchgear is uncluttered and there aren’t 35 whiz-bang electronic features that beckon to be activated, inactivated, multi-moded or what-not. On the lane-and-a half wide blacktop country roads I’m drawn to, the pace is perfect.
Loping along at 45 to 50 mph, the bike is at its smoothest and the handling is spot on for the curves and hills. In that environment, it is at home. At speeds above 70 mph, I am reminded that this bike predates the rubber-mount engine and the motor has no counter-balancer as the vibration in the pegs, seat and grips signals that there’s no hurry; slow down and enjoy the view.
Along the roads I have in mind, the ride is like traveling back in time. These roads wind through the steep, intimate valleys of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area farm country and the soaring uplands where every place from there is downhill. The family farms are old, some in operation since before the Civil War.
Sometimes it seems there must not have been a building permit issued for a new house along those back roads since about 1957; the year the Sportster was born. The houses are mostly well-kept despite their age, but some are looking worn and the outbuildings are decrepit.
Along the road, folks hear the Sportster coming. They smile and wave from the shade of their broad, white-railed verandas as we roll by. Sometimes I wonder if they’re waving at me or at the Sportster. Farmers transiting the blacktop on their old tractors wave, too.
The burly baritone of my Harley harmonizes with the laboring sound of their old Fords, Fergusons, John Deeres and the occasional Farmall, Massey-Harris, Oliver or Case lugging loads of hay or gravity boxes of corn.
Amish buggies populate some of the roads, especially on Sundays. They appreciate it when I slow way down and slip past them with the engine just above idle in an effort to prevent spooking their horses. The kids in the buggies wave, and most often the adults do, too.
In tiny hamlets like Bloom City, Boaz, Rockton, Yuba, La Rue, Sabin, Star Valley, Twin Bluffs, Hill Point, Bear Valley and others that don’t even show up on most state-wide roadmaps, if it weren’t for late-model cars, trucks and tractors parked in the yards, they’d look much as they did in the forties or fifties.
When I make a stop in those places, the Sportster will sometimes attract curious kids about the same as one might have done back in ’57. It’s a cool, nostalgic experience, evoking a memory of a time I didn’t actually experience—but can well imagine—much the way a Norman Rockwell painting does.
Sometimes I encounter clots of sportbikes veering along those curvy back roads, riders leathered up and letting it all hang out; Valentino Rossi wannabes. The focus for them has to be on the road just to stay on the road. They don’t know what they’re missing by not just getting up off their gas tanks, slowing down and soaking in the view.
In this hyperbolic age of “my hyperbike is faster than your hyperbike” nonsense, it’s reassuring to know that I don’t have anything to prove. I know your bike is faster than this one—with few exceptions—and I’m fine with that.
Oh, I might be able to outrun a Royal Enfield 350 Bullet in a push, but what would be the point? I’d rather stop in front of one of the few remaining countryside general feed and seed stores and get to know who’s riding that Enfield and give it a look. The public roads aren’t race tracks and this machine never lets me forget that. Track days? Not a chance. It’s a good thing; it assures proper perspective.
The 292mm twin piston single disc brakes front and single piston rear are excellent with a very predictable, progressive power. I’ve never been able to figure out the criticisms I’ve heard about Harley’s brakes.
These won’t cause trouble by being hypersensitive at the worst possible time; indeed, they really don’t tend to lock, but they effectively scrub off speed and stop the bike in a straight line. That’s a fact proven by more than one hard stop made to avoid fresh venison on the hoof making for my front tire. What more could you want? Who needs those new-fangled anti-lock brakes, anyway? Well, ok, ABS is a great advancement for bike brakes, but this old Sporty does fine without.
Some of the other details of this twenty-year-old Sporty are decidedly low-tech. For example, the cap with integral dipstick for the oil tank is a plug-type rubber stopper, not a threaded cap. Crude, maybe, but it has never vibrated out of place.
Even the upgrade I added is still only a minor move up; it is a new dipstick rubber stopper but instead of the H-D bar and shield logo residing in the cap, I now have an oil temperature gauge. It’s like having a turkey thermometer for your oil supply.
It’s neither safe nor easy to read the temp it displays while underway, but waiting to check it at the next fuel stop is a minor concession to modernity. The same is true of the high-tech drive belt that replaced metallic chain final drive on Sportsters back in 1993, cast wheels, self-cancelling turn signals and the LCD odometer, with trip meter that I use as an alternative to a real fuel gauge.
That brings up the subject of fuel economy and cost-to-own. Fueled via a single 40mm Keihin CV carburetor, this Sportster belies the old legend of lousy fuel economy. Even with the Stage II kit, at the most recent fuel economy check, it covered 99 miles on 1.8 gallons of fuel: 55 mpg.
Other than that, the bike has only required the aforementioned drive belt and negative battery cable and routine oil and filter changes, spark plug changes, air filters, tires, primary drive oil changes and such. Come to think of it, I have yet to have to even change a light bulb in the time I’ve owned it. Oil leaks marking the Sporty’s territory? Nope, not a drop.
Another low-tech feature is the thumb-screw cruise control under the right hand-grip. I use it fairly often, but only on those open stretches of road where the view is good and the need to quickly cancel the cruise by unscrewing the cruise screw seems unlikely.
There is no tachometer, either. Having grown up riding Hondas that included a tach on even a little 200cc twin, at first the idea of not knowing how fast the engine was turning seemed penny-wise and pound-foolish.
But after riding the Sporty for a few miles, I realized you really don’t need a tach; the shake-o-meter that engages your hands, feet and butt tells you when the revs are too high for comfort. It’s all very intuitive. There is no rev-limiter, either, unless you count the phenomenon of a con-rod coming through the block.
At 580 lb. ready to roll, the XLH isn’t really all that light, but compared to the full-dress, portly, pokey touring bikes out there, it’s a lightweight. The low saddle puts my hip pockets only about 26 inches off the blacktop, a commanding position when it comes time to put my boots flat on the ground.
With its low saddle and lower center of gravity, the thing is a breeze to handle at any speed—from feet-down parking spot maneuvering to navigating a curving uphill pea-gravel-on-blacktop mess. The 60-inch wheelbase and 30.1° fork angle give the bike a nimble feel while providing a solid, planted tack on rutted old blacktop.
The low, resonant thrum of the 53.9 ci (883cc) V-twin at cruising speed is mellow to the point of being relaxing. The Sportster’s 52 lb-ft. torque at 4,300 RPM allows me to be a little lazy with the gearbox coming out of the corners, not having to downshift very often.
Instead, I just let that twin get down and lug like the old John Deere Model D twin-cylinder tractor one of our neighbors had when I was a kid. Both can slow down till you think they’d have to stall, but instead, they just bull their way back up in RPMs and take off. Of course, that John Deere had a massive flywheel sticking out the side to keep things moving between those widely spaced power strokes.
The basic design of the air-cooled 45° OHV pushrod V-twin goes back to the origins of the model in 1957. It has had loads of refinements since those days, of course, now following the Evolution engine format, but the spirit of the mill is much the same. Basic, brawny, cool.
I favor the buckhorn bars that put my hands in the same position they’d be in if I was a gunfighter in the old west with a drawn Colt Peacemaker in each hand. The large diameter grips are comfy all day and the only thing I have to remember about the minimalist switchgear is that there is a turn signal button on both sides, unlike my non-Harley rides. Instrumentation is rudimentary compared to some bikes that have a cockpit that looks like the space shuttle. Simplicity is its own reward.
It occurred to me as I wrote this that a lot of what I like about this old Sportster probably makes it what some riders would call a “geezer bike.” Slow, mellow, easy to handle and all that. Then it occurred to me that makes sense because if I’m not already in the geezer class, I’m dangerously close to it.
The Sportster has jokingly been called “the best dirt bike Harley ever made.” Well, it’s only a little in jest; the fact of the matter is over the years the Sportster engine has proven to be a versatile platform for drag bikes, flat trackers, hill-climbers, road racers and even desert racers.
Its XR750 cousin was a dominant force in flat track since its inception in 1972 and the Denis Manning-designed streamliner Cal Rayborn took to a world land speed record in 1970 was powered by a Sportster engine built 40 miles from my house in Viola, WI. See more about the Sportster’s illustrious history here: https://ultimatemotorcycling.com/harley-davidson-sportster-history-reaching-every-niche/.
My Sportster is fitted out with rigid leather saddlebags salvaged dust-covered at a yard sale, a luggage rack topped with a barrel bag on the tail, and usually with a short quick-detach H-D windshield.
Would I ride this Sporty about 1,800 miles to California from here? I could, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for a trip like that. Day trips are a joy, but if I had to cover a lot of miles at a whack, over several days in a row, or days on end, this machine wouldn’t be the weapon of choice for reasons already stated.
Despite its many shortcomings, the Sportster retains a kind of mystique it has carried since the first one hit the highway back in 1957. Maybe it’s the wasp-like profile the longitudinally-mounted V-twin enables when paired with the tapered, smallish tank. It is narrow, and despite the ham-can air cleaner cover that came into use in 1959 that juts out from the right side of the engine, it has a lithe, athletic look and feel.
Just as it has from day one, that engine, whether chromed-up or blacked out dominates the side view of the bike. The staggered shotgun pipes on this bike give it both the look and feel of a jaunty “let’s get outta town” roadster.
True, this little old Sportster has a lot of shortcomings compared to the current crop of road bikes—as it did compared to the bikes built in its day, for that matter. I have Hondas in my garage built 15 years before my Sporty that are more technologically advanced in nearly every aspect of design.
Still, there’s no escaping it; the Sportster has those intangibles that draw riders to it. The look, the sound, the feel, the history, the mystique, nostalgia—or is it something else or is it all of it? No matter; having reached 20 years old my Sportster now qualifies for Wisconsin’s cool never-need-to-renew blue Collector license plates!