Looking Past the Past: Greg Hageman’s Harley-Davidson XLR Tribute

Bike builder extraordinaire Greg Hageman turns a Sportster into a tribute to the Harley XLR.

| May/June 2017

Let’s play the “what if” game: What if we could go back in time, but take with us the conveniences and amenities that we enjoy today?

In terms of vintage and classic motorcycles, what if we could go back in time to create a bike that commands the nostalgia and charisma normally associated with old iron, yet engineer it in such a way that we benefit from today’s technology?

Bike-builder Greg Hageman pondered that concept and came up with a plan. Although he knows that there’s no way to really jump back in time, he figured he’d create a motorcycle that gave a worthy salute to yesteryear anyway, bringing with it the convenience of modern components. Things like disc brakes, electronic ignition, self-adjusting hydraulic valves — even a carburetor that doesn’t require a gentle tickle to initiate proper gas flow — found their way into the build.

XLR tribute

People who’ve religiously been thumbing through the pages of Motorcycle Classics magazine for more than a few years might recognize Hageman’s name. MC has featured two Hageman-built bikes in past issues; his Yamaha Virago 920 café racer was chronicled in the May/June 2012 issue, and a time-honoring Yamaha Seca 900 café racer borne by his shop, Hageman Cycles, is forever part of MC’s May/June 2015 edition. Now we give you his tribute to Harley-Davidson’s vaunted XLR, an early Sportster model crafted for one primary purpose, and that was to win TT races.

To appreciate Hageman’s tribute bike, based on a 2003 XL883, it’s best to have an understanding about the original XLR. To do that we need to travel back to 1958, one year after Harley launched the first-ever XL that replaced the aging K model flathead in the lineup. Interestingly, there’s little or no evidence of XLR models listed in period marketing or sales literature, although according to Allan Girdler’s book, Harley Racers: Machines and Men From Flat Track, Hillclimb, Speedway and Road Racing, an XLR developed at the time sported a rigid frame and no brakes, a design clearly intended to conform to the flat track trends of that era.

According to Girdler, Clyde Denzer, H-D racing department head Dick O’Brien’s right hand man from 1959-1983 before becoming H-D’s racing team manager following O’Brien’s retirement, said that “to the best of his knowledge that rigid XLR was the only one built. None were offered to the public, he says, and no rigid XLRs were ever sold.”

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