This Harley-Davidson Sportster Sporting Life

Mal’s Ironhead Sporty is an ironclad investment in ‘real steel’ riding pleasure, and an open and shut case of ‘This sporting life’.

THE KINK in the rear exhaust pipe is a dead giveaway. Mal Traeger’s cherry Ironhead Sportster is a 1979 model. That kink is there so that the pipe clears the master cylinder for the rear brake. The master cylinder was moved for subsequent models, and the distinctive exhaust kink disappeared.

This standard 61-cubic incher, or 1000 cc for the metrically inclined, is a shining example of what can be done with a little imagination, some wisely invested cash, loads of elbow grease and about the same amount of patience.

“Owning Harley does not have to be expensive,” Mal contends. “You can get in the saddle for much less than ten grand if you want to… I’ve spent way less than that on this bike.”

Ironhead Sporties can offer a viable and economical customising alternative. They certainly do in the United States where customised Ironhead Sporties have taken on a cult-like status, often featuring in non-mainstream bike magazines like The Horse, Backstreet Choppers and Iron Horse, as well as those abroad like Greasy Kulture and Dice. Their equally non-mainstream owners often accompany the bikes. And many of them would not have been born when this beauty rolled off the assembly line. ‘Not even a twinkle in the old man’s eye,’ as the saying goes.

There are now quite a few custom bike shops in the USA offering parts, including rigid frames, or hard-tail conversions, to resurrect the venerable Ironhead, sometimes now referred to as a Shovel Sporty. To drop a few names, companies like Led Sled, Plymouth Cycle & Speed, Flyrite, and Bare Knuckle Choppers are keen supporters of the older Sporties.

The Ironhead’s popularity as the basis for a custom job is helped in no small measure because they can be had relatively cheap. Also, parts remain plentiful and they have a certain charm that their later Evolution counterparts lack in the eyes of a growing subculture that has turned it back on the later offerings of the Motor Company. Don’t get me wrong, Evo Sportsters are also finding a home with customisers, again helped by the fact that they can be found on eBay cheaply, but Ironheads are a bit like Shovels or Pans—they are a ‘real steel’ Sporty.

Mal is certainly happy with his, and likes the fact that it is, these days, a rarity on the road or at a show. He does have a late-model big-twin in the shed too, but says of the Ironhead, “It’s more comfortable than it looks… and nothing beats getting out on the Sporty on a nice day.”

Since the bike came into his hands, Mal has restored it to somewhere near original, but allowed himself some mild custom touches to suit his tastes, and to make it a better day-to-day proposition. Those upgrades include the iconic western bars; and the custom, strategically padded and flame-stitched seat. He thanks an upholsterer mate for that. “Both the bars and the seat,” he says, “have gone a long way to improving the comfort of the machine.”

He has also filled the gearbox with Andrews cogs. It is now a smooth shifter, and a damn sight easier to live with than the original. That, he described, as “a real dog.”

Mal also raised the fuel tank about 25 mm at the front. “It looks better,” he says of the modified aesthetic, saying the same of the lay-down style number plate bracket.

The period-correct 1970s RamFlo aircleaner was an under-the-counter find from Mildura’s Trinne Performance Motorcycles. Another Trinne (Matt’s father Roger) supplied the equally period-correct ’70s Bendix carby. It originally supplied the go-juice for a 1200 cc Shovelhead, but after a little tinkering and TLC has the Sporty purring like the proverbial kitten.

There’s no doubt the little red and cream bike draws a crowd wherever it’s parked, and Mal continues to be surprised by the number of people who approach to tell him, “I don’t like Harley-Davidsons as a rule, but I like this one!” Of course, there have also been a lot of Harley lovers who have also commented positively on the bike.

Mal reckons a lot of the bike’s appeal is the paint. “It stands out in a crowd,” he says modestly. 

Respected Mildura-based painter Kevin Browne did “a great job” of a colour scheme Mal had seen in a magazine. And for the record, those ‘decals’ on the tank aren’t decals. They’ve been painstakingly rendered by hand. Another Kevin Browne touch Mal is thrilled with. “He even went to the trouble of fading the paint a little so they look a little older, in keeping with the bike’s age.”

One of the reasons this was a relatively straightforward resto/customising job was that engine was in good knick when Mal got the bike. “Once I sorted some electrical gremlins, the engine has run strongly ever since.”

He is great believer in the old adage: If I ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. “It was,” he says, “one of my easier projects, mainly because so many OEM parts are still so readily available or, if they aren’t, there is a decent aftermarket equivalent that will do the job. The Internet is a great invention when you’re on the hard for an elusive OEM part or a decent repo equivalent. The front guard is a case in point. It is a reproduction of the original, and so too are the Cycle Shack exhaust pipes… but they both look like they could have came out of the factory.”

Those older riders amongst our readers will have no doubt spotted the AMF emblazoned on the sides of this motorcycle. “That really gets to some people,” Mal says. “That’s probably why I did it.” Yes, even after all these years, the AMF stink is as strong as ever for some.

Despite its pedigree or, as Mal acknowledges, some riders would argue, a lack of it, the bike is a keeper. But, then again, he has said that before. He and his brother get a buzz out of restoring bikes that have been neglected, the pair working side by side to breathe new life into old metal. He certainly succeeded in the case of this stunning Ironhead.

 Long may she run!

Harley-Davidson Ironed Sportster

story by Grunt; photos by Skulls

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