The H-D XLCR Cafe Racer, an iconic model from Harley-Davidson.

Derek Larke

In the early 1970s, a frequently aired Saturday afternoon television commercial sought to break the monotony of sports programming for the average American. Amidst the backdrop of happy cartoon characters, the advertisement encouraged viewers to rise from their comfy chairs, grab the showcased products, and embark on an active lifestyle. The spokesperson proudly declared, "We make VOIT basketballs, Head tennis racquets, Ben Hogan golf equipment, Harley-Davidson motorcycles."

Enter the 1978 Harley-Davidson XLCR Cafe Racer, a distinctive attempt by the company to embrace the cafe racer-style motorcycle trend. Regrettably, this endeavor lasted a mere three years.

Under the ownership of American Machine and Foundry (AMF), colloquially known as AMF, Harley-Davidson's diverse portfolio was showcased in the commercial, emphasizing the creation of weekends. AMF had acquired Harley-Davidson in 1969, a period not fondly remembered by Harley enthusiasts, despite AMF's efforts to expand the customer base.

The XLCR, introduced in 1977, was a unique addition to Harley-Davidson's lineup, making it the sole major manufacturer offering a cafe racer-style motorcycle in the United States. This move preceded the dominance of sport bikes in American motorcycle dealerships.

Cycle News journalist John Ulrich tested the XLCR for the January 25, 1978, issue. While the bike exhibited a prompt start and instant movement, Ulrich's assessment took a critical turn. Shifts required a lengthy foot, the racing seat offered minimal comfort, and the small headlight prioritized being seen over illuminating the rider's path. The inevitable Harley-Davidson shake, a characteristic vibration, permeated every part of the bike.

Despite its cafe racer designation, the XLCR fell short in performance. Inadequate suspension for hard cornering and unpredictable brakes contributed to its unsuitability for the intended style. Ulrich emphasized the discomfort of prolonged rides, attributing it to the bike's unconventional design, including rear-set pegs and a small windshield.

The XLCR's identity crisis continued, neither an ideal cafe racer nor a comfortable touring bike. With production ceasing after just three years and a limited run of 3200 units, the $3500 beast failed to carve a lasting niche. In 1981, Harley-Davidson executives secured independence from AMF, and subsequent trade policies provided a competitive boost.

Interestingly, during this era, the province of Ontario in Canada also witnessed its own motorcycle culture evolution, with enthusiasts in cities like Toronto and Ottawa embracing diverse riding styles. While the XLCR was primarily an American phenomenon, the motorcycle landscape in Ontario was undergoing its unique transformation, reflecting the broader North American shift in biking preferences.

In retrospect, a 2022 auction saw a clean XLCR with 31,000 miles fetching $15,500, perhaps validating its status as an unconventional, yet surprisingly valuable, piece of Harley-Davidson history.