1988 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLH 883


A 50's sport bike you can still buy new


Shortly after buying it, I had a valve spring failure. This is the first time I've had this kind of failure with a bike.

While I had the engine apart, I decided to make the conversion to 1200. It was the best thing I ever did. Normally modifying a bike's engine gives mixed results, but in this case it was all positive. I think that this engine was designed as a 1200 and then "converted down" to be an 883. So increasing the bore allowed it to be itself again.

Of course it leaks oil, but that's not a big deal.

The black box ignition module failed one day.

The front brake master cylinder leaked from the cover.

General Comments:

The Sportster family really holds its identity. It's probably the only 1950's sport motorcycle you can still buy new. It really feels vintage. It's loads of fun to ride short distances. Mine still has its 883 solo saddle and speedo only.

It had buckhorn bars when I got it, but I hated the feeling so I immediately switched to the factory speedster bars. It's the ultimate stripped-down standard.

The engine gives intoxicating torque from low revs on, and it just explodes into action when you open it up. It feels like a jackhammer on the loose.

But the vibration is the price you pay for having such large pistons. The engine is solid mounted so you feel each revolution! This is undoubtedly the hardest shaking motorcycle in modern existence.

That said, I don't like the kicked out steering head angle. It makes it feel way too long and slow when changing direction. It really is out of character to the rest of the bike. Sharper handling was what gave the Triumph Bonneville a big edge in the 60's heyday of the model.

Would you buy another motorcycle from this manufacturer? No

Review Date: 19th July, 2006

11th Oct 2006, 15:52

Actually, the vibration and shaking is the price to pay for no counterbalancing, not piston size.

In any case good review. The only bike I've had more complaints about is the Royal Enfield.

18th Dec 2006, 17:22

My 1988 XL883 is my third bike, the others a 650 Yamaha and a 650 BSA. I suspect that comments re extreme vibration are somehow politically motivated as I find the engine to be quite smooth until I exceed 60MPH.. but then was this designed to be a cruiser? I think not. Often consider the increase to

1200cc, but am afraid to mess with a fun to ride, reliable machine. Ride safe.

5th Nov 2008, 14:42

I currently own two older Sportsters (after 30 years of riding big Japanese and European motorcycles) both in excellent condition...

1). 1986 883 fitted with a 1200 kit - great torque and acceleration, but the vibration is horrendous at certain revs. Fantastic bike to ride short distances below 50mph!

2). 1988 883 with stock motor - quite smooth compared to the other one. And comfortable enough to ride all day at legal speeds.

Both have been reliable so far. And much easier to start from cold than some Japanese bikes I've owned.

Handling suffers if tyre pressures are a little low, but surprisingly good on decent tyres at the correct pressures!

1st Jul 2009, 15:16

1200 pistons are heavier than 883 pistons, so more vibration is to be expected. This can be offset with higher final gearing to slow the engine a little to reduce vibration and to take advantage of the 1200's additional torque. This also gives the 1200 a more relaxed pace on the highway. In the end, however, the 883 vibrates less than the 1200.