The Motor Company’s Lackluster But Lusted-After Cafe’ Racer
The first time I ever beheld a Harley-Davidson XLCR Cafe’ Racer, I was awestruck. A high school classmate had stowed a motorcycle magazine (don’t remember which one) in his book satchel, and during class had it opened inside his class textbook, acting like he was paying attention to the teacher. I sat behind and just to the left of him, sneaking peeks occasionally as he silently perused the pages. When he fell on a full-page, center-mag advertisement of the XLCR, my eyes widened. I poked him in the shoulder, keeping an eye on the teacher, and motioned for him to let me see the ad. He slipped me the magazine, which I tucked underneath my desk, then inched it into my lap to have a better look. The two-page spread was a visual feast to my youthful eyes. Wow. I’d never seen a motorcycle so cool, so mean, so utterly bad-@$$ looking. I was in love. “If ever I get to buy a street bike, I want that one,” I quietly mused to myself.
I’ve owned many a motorcycle over the years, but the XLCR has always eluded me. They are collectors items now, fetching top dollar at auctions and in private sales, so the chances of my ever owning one are as far away as when I was a gobsmacked 17 year old. But every time I see one, in print, on the web, or in person, I stop and stare. If I ever had a “unicorn” as Ted calls it, the XLCR would be that bike.
The very ad that did me in. I remember this like it was yesterday. I’m still stricken by it.
The original Harley-Davidson XLCR Cafe’ Racer was the brainchild of the great Willie G Davidson, allegedly built from an XLCH Sportster for his personal use. Yet the production version was actually designed by a small brain trust- Bob Modero, an engineer at H-D, Jim Haubert of Haubert Engineering brought in as an independent “Skunkworks” contractor, Dean Wixom who designed the unique fuel tank, and Willie G. Considered by many to be Harley’s first and last true “cafe’ racer” motorcycle, the “Excelsior” as it was dubbed, was built more for image than true performance.
Based on a Sportster front end matched with rear tubes and a box section steel rear swing-arm based on the XR750 race bike, the frame housed a 998cc Sportster-derived 45 degree OHV V-twin that made 61 hp to the rear wheel. The bike topped out at around 120 mph, not impressive compared to its Japanese and Euro competitors of the time. The XLCR was largely panned by the motorcycle mags in its day, who wrote of it, “a narcoleptic turner” due to its long wheelbase and cruiser-style steering geometry, a “lethargic performer”, and predicted it would be “famously a sales flop” for the Motor Company.
I recall these ads as well. The spec sheet didn’t mean much to me back then, but those girls in the ad had me wanting that bike. And that jacket. And, well, those girls.
Yet the styling cues were spot-on, for the time and by modern tastes. Sporting what H-D called a “bikini fairing”, a slim front fender, aggressive-looking fuel tank, a solo seat atop a chopped rear fender, and that 2-into-2 “siamesed” and blacked out exhaust, the bike was, and still is, a head-turner. No other motorbike matches its look. Cycle World magazine wrote of it in 1977, “As a motorcycle, the XLCR has not much merit. As an adventure, the XLCR has no equal.”
Our friends at the Throttlestop Museum in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin have a pristine example of this now-iconic motorcycle in their collection. These bikes have fetched upwards of $20K USD or more at auctions in recent years, and are highly prized by their current owners. While the bikes weren’t power and handling beasts, of their time and certainly not by modern standards, there’s something compelling about the XLCR, something magnetic, that grabs and holds attention. Everyone I’ve spoken with about the bike has quipped about how incredible they still look. Even my wife, a non-rider, spoke of it when I showed her a photo, “Wow, that is a cool-looking bike! I can see you riding one like that.” Oh geez. Don’t get me started.
Throttlestop’s fine example.
To check out more photos of the XLCR at Throttlestop, as well as the other amazing machines in their collection, two-wheeled and four, click on this link below. They’ll send you a code via email to give you entrance to the virtual museum, and it is thoroughly worth it. Go have a look-
*photos by Throttlestop and the Harley-Davidson Archives.