Harley-Davidson Sportster XL883 Cafe Project

So, I recently finished my Honda 919 build, and have been in the market for another project.  I’d like to get into building bikes for a living, so I’ve been cutting my teeth on Honda’s for the last few years – just trying to get the hang of non-bolt on customization and all that that entails – and it’s time for my first serious custom.

I have to admit (and just about everyone knows), I have never been a fan of Harley Davidson.  I always felt that they charged too much, offered too little, and their engineering was contemporarily behind industry standards set in the ‘70s; no one will ever accuse Harley of making a motorcyclist’s machine.  With this said, I wanted to build a proper café racer – a standout café racer that’s reasonably a runner – and I wanted it to be American.  That pretty much leaves one option.  So I set aside the bias, did some research, and traded the Honda 919 for a Sportster 883.

I’ve had the bike for a few weeks now, have put 1,500 miles on her, and I have to say (and I feel like an idiot doing it) that I love this bike more every time I get on it.  The way it delivers power (albeit limited power) is different than anything else I’ve ridden.  When you hit the throttle, the bike just feels like an animal.  It’s raw, it’s dirty, it’s unrefined, it’s heavy, it vibrates, it’s underpowered, the geometry is all wrong, it handles like a three-legged horse, but it is hands down the most fun bike I’ve driven, and I’m really growing into it.

Enough rambling, here’s the plan (or some of it)…

The XL 883 as bought…

A rough sketch of the plan. I’m going to keep the stock tank as the Harley “Peanut” tank is pretty iconic, and it gives the Sportster a really thin profile. I picked up another stock tank off of eBay, and will be using it as a base for a seat cap.

Bill Becker shot this for me. We were thinking about rearset and handlebar position. I ordered some Biltwell Clubmans, but am probably going to fabricate some rearsets.

This is a Vance & Hines Competition Series exhaust. I’m thinking this with black header wrap. I’m not 100% on it yet. I would really be into a nice “pea-shooter” 2:1 style, but I can’t find one. Supertrapp makes something similar, but I’m kind of not into the adjustable exhaust thing.

This is a Roland Sands Street Tracker/Café Sportster. I’m just putting it up here as a reference. I think it’s definitely a badass ride, but it’s not a classic café, and that’s what I’m into.

Another Sportster café example. I’m into this one a little more. I like that its a little rougher around the edges. Also, if I could find that exhaust, it’d be perfect. I’ve scoured the web and can’t find anything on it. This image was taken off of an eBay listing for this bike a few years ago. It’s been passed around all the XL Café forums, but the guy whose bike it is/was hasn’t posted anything about it. I fucking LOVE that exhaust though…

I’m dying to get this thing started, and a lot of parts are already on the way.  I want to be a little slower and more deliberate on this build though, I just want to get it right the first time.  More to follow…

9 responses to “Harley-Davidson Sportster XL883 Cafe Project”

  1. scott says:

    Good stuff…..it’ll be exciting to this this bike take form. I’m a big fan of the Vance & Hines ‘Blackout 2-into-1’, which looks similar to the exhaust in the last photo you posted. The Vance & Hines Competition Series exhaust may interfere on where your fabricated rearsets can be mounted and the exhaust might end up blowing on the bottom of your foot. Just my opinion, mind you, but I would think hard, before choosing that exhaust system.

  2. Justin says:

    @ Scott – I hear what you mean about the rearsets. This picture is actually of a Dyna and on the sportster the exhaust is well clear of the rearset mounting point. I did look at the blackout, but I’m not sure about the profile – it’s really low and straight, almost like it’s meant for a bagger. I’ve not decided yet which pipe to go with, but this one is leading the pack so far. I still have some more research to do.

  3. Adam says:

    Good stuff dude. This will be an interesting build.

    I think one of the key subtle looks that is ‘cafe’ is how the tank flows into the seat. Your Harley tank sits above the seat a little but if you could lower the mounts I think it’d allow you to flow its lines into the seat real nicely. Thoughts? Is there room to lower it?

    Also, can you run the exhaust one on each side? I wish I was setup to do bending, we could make you something really cool and put a dunstall style exhaust on it.

  4. Todd says:

    I totally sold you on the black header tape. How much did you end up getting your 1” bars for?

  5. Justin says:

    The 1″ bars were around $100. I couldn’t get a discount as the venders were either european or small machine shops in the US. I went with Biltwell’s in chrome as they get some really good reviews.

    By the way, I just ordered my cafe seat. I was planning on using another tank to fabricate the seat, but I came across one on eBay that was too sick to pass up. I’ll post more on it when I get it and can post some pictures. It’ll still need a little finesse in the fitting department, but I’m confident I can make it work and it’ll look sick.

  6. ed says:

    When you gettin those clubmans on there?
    I know you’re tryin to get down in those turns!

  7. Justin says:

    The clubmans should be waiting for me at Spare Parts tomorrow. Before I put them on, I have to wait for my grips (vintage GT style) and my braided brakeline (the factory line is too short). I should have them in the next couple of days. Hopefully I’ll be setup for this weekend to put them on.

  8. Gary Lee says:

    You’ll enjoy it once you get it shaped to your vision…
    Here’s two old school styled megaphone exhausts that seem to mimic you sketch….

    Good Luck.. I may be a few moths behind you… just looking for the right project…


    I think the bassani fits the bill???
    Every choice you make has an end result.
    — Zig Ziglar

  9. Al Mair says:

    I know it’s an old post and don’t know if you’re still looking for the exhaust, but if you are, it’s the RSD Tracker 2-into-1.

    Link: http://www.rolandsands.com/products/Tracker-2-into1-Exhuast-System

    Happy building.

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