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here are two ways to look at the Harley-Davidson Sportster: as a machine or as a cultural icon. The Harley-Davidson mythos is tied up with various impressions that can be a turnoff to non-Harley riders. There’s a reason many distinguish between “motorcyclists” and “Harley riders.” It’s a shame that there’s such a schism. It seems like Catholics and Protestants have more in common than a lot of Harley riders and everything-else riders. The Harley club is both its greatest asset and its greatest dilemma. Because Harleys are such a part of American culture, they represent many things to the general public. For some riders, the problem is they don’t want to be a part of the Harley club. They may want to ride a Sportster but not have it say anything about them. They’d prefer to be anonymous.

Fortunately, the Sportster’s long history means there are a lot of Sportsters that say different things. The original Sportster is a friendly pop-culture icon, wide-ranging customs prove the platform is as flexible as it is tried and true, and the modern version celebrates it all.

The Sportster is utterly American. It’s by no means a perfect motorcycle, but it’s a motorcycle that tells a story. It has a point of view, it has a history, it plays a significant role in the American motorcycling landscape. Above all else, it’s an enjoyable machine to ride.

The Sportster brings a lot of cultural baggage to the table, but at the end of the day it has such a strong identity as a machine that it practically sets the table anew every time you open the throttle.

The Machine is more important than the Culture. Defy the latter; ride the former.

Classic: Harley-Davidson Sportster

1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster
The 1957 Harley-Davidson SportsterMotorcyclist Archives

It's 1957 in America. Dwight D. Eisenhower is president. The Cold War rages. The civil rights movement is underway. Toyota exports its first car to America. Bridge on the River Kwai wins Best Picture. Harley-Davidson releases the XL Sportster.

Harley-Davidson history is American history.

The post-war American motorcyclist was an enthusiast. America was car crazy; the average cyclist wasn’t the average American. For the motorcyclist looking for performance, British imports of the day were the clear winners. Indian folded. Harley was behind the times. Excelsior who?

Looking to steal customers away from the British invasion, Harley-Davidson needed a bike that could compete. Compete or die. New engine, new frame, new everything.

Harley’s new Sportster sported unit construction and a 55ci overhead-valve motor that was a step forward from the side-valve K models. It would soon take over as the predominant H-D engine architecture. The Sportster was lighter and faster than other models in the lineup. It would be tuned and raced for generations to come. It would become as iconic as the glass coke bottle, as long-lived as few things are in a culture that values progress above all else.

Custom: LC Fabrications Dirtster

LCF Dirtster
The LCF Dirtster: a Sportster for when the pavement ends. Is this what you wanted the H-D ADV prototype to be? Comment below.Adam Scott

As is the case with many custom projects, the LC Fabrications Dirtster was never supposed to turn into such an extreme project.

“Honestly it wasn't intended to be a bike that would ever be seen,” Jeremy Cupp, owner of Virginia-based LC Fabrications, says. “I had a cheap Sportster in my shop, and wanted to throw some knobbies on it, beat on it for a summer, and then flip it on eBay.

“There are endless miles of fire roads in our area, and, man, was that thing fun. Unfortunately, responsibility got in the way and I had to sell it to pay for my daughter’s braces.”

Undeterred, Cupp looked around the shop for spare parts and realized he had the materials to build another one for himself. While other projects got in the way, Cupp kept coming back to the Sportster.

“Before I knew it, this wasn’t really a cheap flip at all,” Cupp says.

LC Fabrications Dirtster engine
Not a stock motorcycle.Adam Scott

The carbon-fiber bodywork, inspired by the Japanese enduro bikes he rode as a kid, is Cupp’s first stab at working with the material. The front loop of the frame is unmodified, but the subframe and swingarm are custom-made to accommodate the monoshock rear end. The engine is a bit of a Frankenstein, but started life as a 2001 XL883. Cupp hopped it up with various compatible parts he had lying around the shop: heads and flywheel from a Buell Thunderbolt, S&S 1250 cylinders, Andrews cams, and a factory CV carb. Electronics are controlled by a Motogadget m-unit and topped with a motoscope digital display.

“I’m not particularly a Harley fan,” Cupp admits, “but I always seem to wind up with one on the table. Regardless of your opinion about the bikes and the stigma that surrounds them, no one with any testosterone in their body can deny the look and sound of an American V-twin.”

LC Fabrications Dirtster
Looking for a new dual-sport? The Sportster isn’t the obvious choice, but the Dirtster makes you think twice.Adam Scott

The Dirtster retains the appeal of the Sportster’s raw-edged, bare-bones architecture but reinvents it. The head says an off-roader powered by an H-D twin is not a good idea, but the heart says, “Who cares?” The Dirtster makes the Sportster look like it was made for bombing around on fire roads in the first place.

Cupp says, “By the end of the journey, I’d realized a more important goal—to design something that Harley should; something that we’d go out and buy.”

"Cutting-Edge:" Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Special

2018 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Special
2018 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Special.Spenser Robert

When I rode the H-D Forty-Eight Special earlier this year, it got under my skin. It's not very fast, it's not very powerful, and it's about as cutting-edge as a tool shed. But that's hardly the point.

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The Sportster by rights should never change. Heck, throw a kickstarter on it and let it give the middle finger to progress. Whiskey’s supposed to burn on the way down. A 12-gauge shotgun’s supposed to have a kick. A bar fight’s supposed to end with a bloody nose and a night in the can. The Sportster is supposed to be a doesn’t-give-a-s—t knuckle dragger.

Modernizing or “improving” the Sportster would go against what makes it a Sportster. Harley is looking to the future, which it should, but the Sportster is the spirit of the brand and deserves to be left the hell alone.

Have a favorite Sportster model? Comment below.