Then & Now: Harley-Davidson XR1200 vs. XLCR Café Racer

Pirates' Rides

Yes Penelope, in the early '70s the Harley-Davidson Sportster was considered a superbike. That's because at 1000cc, it was 33 percent larger than the 750cc British, Japanese and European machines that were considered the "big bikes" of the day. In response to the popular café racer design evolution of the period, Harley added the XLCR Café Racer to the XLCH Sportster lineup in '77. This short-lived special used the Sportster engine and chassis cloaked in wicked black bodywork, low bars and an aggressive black exhaust system.

Cook Neilson owned an earlier XLCH, gradually evolving it from streetbike to dragster to Bonneville racer. "I was impressed with the basic heart of my Sportster as being pretty stout," he explains. "I'd make 20, 30 or even 40 runs a day at the drag strip and never had a problem with the crankshaft or transmission." Later, at Bonneville, he made over 75 runs and set two records on gas, still without major problems. "But when we started to run it hard on nitro it would fold up connecting rods," he admits. "It would have a bit of a sneeze and suddenly the rod was like half its normal length!"

A cool cat nicknamed Pirate Louie found this original low-mileage XLCR online and snapped it up earlier this year, attending to a few glitches before offering it up for our test. Louie Lambie is actually a real pirate, sort of, because he played one in Pirates of the Caribbean-and Lord knows this bike suits a pirate. It's raw-edged and brutal, with few concessions made to comfort and a premium placed on badness.

The Ironhead engine drives through a unit-construction four-speed gearbox and a chain final drive, which lasted until the belt-drive Evolution machines took over in '86. The XLCR is basically a period Sportster at heart, which is to say a rough-hewn stepchild of Harley's troubled AMF marriage. Like a loud-mouthed brute in the church choir, it confronts and offends on every level-which, of course, is the point. Grab the hard plastic grips, thumb the big, black start button, and a giant starter motor bolted atop the engine cases churns like an ancient Warn winch. The Café Racer awakens with a shout, filling the air with a raucous explosion of noise and then settling into that characteristic potato-potato idle.

And then comes the surprise: Onboard, you discover that while the engine cases are lard-ass wide, the tank is slender and the throttle pull is light. Though long, the gear-change effort is also light and the clutch pull modest, and the bike accelerates with seething abandon. Like the other original superbikes in this group, the XLCR is a narcoleptic turner, a function of the more relaxed steering geometry, longer wheelbases and larger wheels of the day. But overall, despite the sodden, horrid brakes, it's a captivating ride that left nearly everybody who tried it smiling. At least until it blew up.

The XR1200 isn't Harley's answer to the XLCR exactly, but it's what the Sportster might have become had it steered toward the light all these years instead of slinking toward a dark, cruiser role. The Motor Company made a good effort to squeeze its 1200cc V-twin engine into the mold of a naked bike, with reasonable ergonomics and overall dynamics useful for daily commuting as well as casual sport riding. Like the rest of the modern bikes in this review, the XR1200 has a snappy engine character. With less flywheel than the older XLCR, it spins up quickly when you snap the throttle, and it's happy to run right up to its rev limiter with quiet confidence.

Compared to any other motorcycle here save the BMW, the XR1200 is still an odd beast, but that's the price of entry for a two-wheeler from Milwaukee. For instance, the 3.5-gallon gas tank is poorly integrated with the rest of the machine; seated high atop the frame backbone, it invites the rider's knees to grip not the tank but the pulsating rear cylinder head. As well, the dogleg clutch and brake levers are way too close to the grips, and the zinc-plated Grade 5 bolt atop the steering stem is flat-out cheesy looking. These faults aside, the XR1200 is a pretty decent motorcycle. It makes plenty of torque at low rpm and also loves to rev-the hallmarks of a good all-around engine. Vibration is not bothersome and the contemporary chassis geometry makes the bike fun to ride.

Like a raging bull, the XLCR Café Racer is memorable for its rawness and singularity of purpose. In contrast, the XR1200-civilized by digital fuel injection and a vastly superior chassis-has lost that edge. But the refinement and usability of the new bike still make it an exponentially better ride.

Which is why, for overall riding comfort, we'll take the XR1200. For a balls-on-fire blast up the pass, the XLCR still rules.

Price new $3595 $10,799
Dry weight 530 lbs. 565 lbs.
Horsepower 57.0 bhp @ 6000 rpm 77.1 bhp @ 6750 rpm
**1/4-mile ** 13.1 sec. @ 99.9 mph 12.28 sec. @ 107.8 mph
Tire size 3.75-19 front, 4.25-18 rear 120/70-18 front, 180/55-17 rear
Brakes Triple discs Triple discs
Wheelbase 58.5 in. 59.6 in.

Milwaukee's most potent Sportster is all about torque. There's a prodigious 67.9 lb.-ft. of the stuff on call at 3750 rpm, and although things fall steadily after that peak the long-stroke twin maintains 60 lb.-ft. most of the way to redline.

The H-D's bolt-upright riding position is typical of the breed, but less restrictive than you might think. A low, 29.2-inch seat height makes the XR accessible to a wider range of riders and that wide bar puts you in a good position to resist a headwind.

Harley-Davidson Xr1200 | Price $10,799

Tech Spec
Engine type: a-c 45-deg. V-twin Frame: Steel double-cradle with aluminum swingarm Rake/trail: 27.8º/5.1 in.
Valve train: OHV, 4v Front suspension: Showa 43mm inverted fork Seat height: 29.2 in.
**Displacement: **1200cc **Rear suspension: ** Twin Showa shocks with adjustable spring preload Wheelbase: 59.6 in.
**Bore x stroke: **88.9 x 96.8mm Front brake: Dual Nissin four-piston calipers, 292mm discs Fuel capacity: 3.5 gal.
Compression: 10.0:1 Rear brake: Nissin single-piston caliper, 260mm disc Weight (tank full/empty): 586/565 lbs.
Fuel system: EFI Front tire: 120/70ZR-18 Dunlop D209 Qualifier Colors: Vivid Black, Brilliant Silver, Mirage Orange Peel
**Clutch: **Wet, multi-plate Rear tire:180/55ZR-17 Dunlop D209 Qualifier Availability: Now
**Transmission: **5-speed Warranty: 24 mo., unlimited mi.
Measured horsepower:77.1 bhp @ 6750 rpm
Measured torque: 67.9 lb.-ft. @ 3750 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 12.28 sec. @ 107.8 mph
**Top-gear roll-on: **3.87 sec.
**Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): **43/36/41 mpg
Then & Now: Harley-Davidson XR1200 VS. XLCR Café Racer
Better late than never: Massive kudos to The Motor Company for finally producing a motorcycle that coulda, shoulda seen daylight decades ago. The XR1200 is snappy, quiet and fun to ride.
AMF-owned Harley-Davidson cut one of the worst corners possible when they sourced cheap plastic instruments that their customers would see on every ride. Lesson learned-or not?
Ancient even by '70s standards, the 1000cc Ironhead engine was Old Milwaukee at its best. Black crinkle finish and black Siamese exhaust headers were unique to the XLCR model.