Harley Dirtster Project: Planning

Way back in the days of Lola the Speedmaster, my buddy Jeff told me that he wanted to convert a Harley Davidson Sportster into a dirt bike. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving not yet been bit by the off-road bug, and being the (arguably) anti-Harley guy I was, my reaction was an overwhelming, “Why the hell would you do that?” A much more seasoned rider than myself, he asked me how many Harley Dealerships were in Ohio, the United States, moreover around the world. It turns out, there are actually 40 dealerships in Ohio. While I don’t know the actual world number, it’s pretty safe to say that Harley Davidson has a massive presence all over planet. That revelation was impressive, but I still wasn’t putting two and two together.

“Think about it…” he said, “If you truly wanted to tour around the world on a motorcycle, what better bike than a Harley? They’re easy to work on, and parts (Should be) readily available.” It was a novel concept, and if nothing else, it did have the looks of all those custom scramblers I kept seeing on the internet, but the idea still needed to fester for a bit longer.
Years went by; I bought a Scrambler and I dipped my toe in the “adventure” scene. Riding in the dirt proved to be more exciting than I could have imagined; it opened my eyes to the possibilities of motorcycles. The Scrambler turned out to be surprisingly capable, but there’s no question that it’s still a bit lacking, especially at higher speeds.Harley Scrambler Black Dragon MotoADVR At the same time, while I have a lot of experience working on the 865 engine, unfortunately it still involves routinely poking around in the valve train. Even before I laid down 1,000 miles in one day, I had dreams of an Alaskan adventure; while routine maintenance can be planned as part of that trip, not having to stop to wrench on a bike is a lot better. The ease of maintenance and simplicity of the Harley Evolution engine is its hallmark, if nothing else. Suddenly the idea of a scrambled Harley took root.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast summer my buddy Jeff tagged along for Red River Scramble and then the Dragon Raid. Needless to say, some beers were involved, and under the cover of cigar smoke, there was a lot of discussion about building a bike. Jeff mentioned he had a line on used Sportster, a bike he’d previously turned wrenches on; it was merely a matter of agreeing on a price. Before I knew it, the “Dirtster” project was born.


Short Term Goals

Turn a Harley into a 500-pound dirt bike… seems simple enough right? In the end, the engine is the most important part of the equation, keep the torquey, push-rod, v-twin intact, spare the frame if at all possible, and upgrade the rest of the bike until it’s a proper dirt machine. This endeavor will unquestionably call for upgraded suspension; “adventure” appropriate wheels, considering the 16-inch rear rim makes no sense in the world of knobby tires; suitable handle bars, some sort of skid plate, and ideally repositioning of the pegs. A properly routed exhaust has potential to present somewhat of a challenge; however, with the frequency in which Harley pipes are replaced, I suspect someone on the aftermarket has us covered.
Having spent countless hours looking over suspension options for the Scrambler, I want to be certain to get the springs tuned-in right out of the gate. The scrambler has a lot of unique challenges because of its existing geometry and height. Hugo Scrambler in MudFortunately, the Sportster swing-arm is already at a negative attitude in relation to the frame, adding longer springs to the Sporty to gain that much needed rear travel should be relatively easy. On the flip-side, it will be a matter of what to do with the front. Considering the Sportster has been in its current form since about the mid-eighties, lots of folks have toyed around with the front suspension. I’m under the impression that certain dirt bike front ends are simple bolt-on affairs with the Sportster frame; albeit I’m not sure if we want to get that crazy… yet.


Enter Hugo Moto

I mentioned just days ago that Harley is missing something specific from their line up; it’s almost like Hugo Moto was reading my mind.Hugo Moto Turquoister In actuality, I caught wind of Hugo Moto’s Sportster kit early last year. The idea of building a Dirtster was still a bit of a pipe dream at that point, but when it came time to talk turkey, it seems that Hugo has figured out the solution to most of the challenges ahead. With the stock engine and frame intact, Hugo Moto has already sorted out how to get 7 inches of suspension travel out of the front forks (with some slick cartridge inserts), pinned down a supplier for custom long-travel rear springs, a set of 18 and 21 inch wheels, a beefy skid plate, off-road pegs, and pretty much everything else from stage one of the “to-do” list. At this point, I think it’s merely a matter of getting my hands on the hardware.


Long-term Goals

With the Hugo Moto “World Tour Kit” I expect the Sportster can successfully be converted to “Dirtster” over a long weekend, which will cover all the off-road basics and then some. That said, Jeff and I want to shave weight off this “hog” so it can be shamelessly loaded down for the long-haul; Hugo Moto Kitsliterally living off the bike in third world countries. Like the Scrambler, long-term the 5-inch headlight isn’t going to cut mustard; an LED replacement and/or auxiliary lights are a must, especially for venturing outside Harley’s home turf. Fenders are another topic of discussion; while Sportster “tins” are easily attained and easily modified, something less ferrous may be in order if we want to shed more “el-bees”. I’m debating if it makes the most sense to rob a high fender off a dirt bike for the front end, whilst taking a cutting wheel to the rear skirt. That said, I’d really like to find a complete plastic replacement for the rear; while plastic on a Harley may be a bit sacrilegious… lighter is faster y’all. Luggage will also present another challenge; while I’ve seen some nice Giant Loop luggage strapped over the high-pipes of the Hugo kit, Jeff and I have discussed a suitable luggage rack for the rear; something that will keep the bike narrow, but also provide good tie down points when packed for the long-ride. Fuel is also a big concern; generous fuel tanks are not something that Sportsters are known for, this donor bike is no exception. Putting more fuel on the bike is likely to be one of the greatest challenges; there are a lot of aftermarket tanks for the Sportster, unfortunately, most of those tanks assume that the rider will always be seated on the bike.
As crazy as it sounds, I actually think this dream is easier than “adventurizing” a Triumph Scrambler. I have a feeling that idea will be tested sooner rather than later. Now the question is… what are we going to name this bike?


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9 Responses to Harley Dirtster Project: Planning

  1. MIke says:

    Sounds like fun. Check this one out:


  2. John Ogden says:

    It’s a fun build and is very surprising how capable it can be. That sportster motor hooks up off road and gets great mileage. I built a dirtster and it was amazing fun and very capable. Took me from Arkansas to Inuvik and over to dead horse and back with zero trouble. I think it’s a great build and now that Moto has come along it’s easy to do as well. Here is mine is rtw mode


    And in enduro mode



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  4. Pingback: Triumph Scrambler Project: Stage 3 Upgrades · Moto AdventurerMoto Adventurer

  5. Gerry Mandering says:

    I’m pretty sure you could have called this piece “The Dirty Hipster Project’ and no-one would have objected!


    • MotoADVR says:

      LOL… listen to you… I wish it was done, I would have taken it to PA last weekend and dominated… still needs some fine-tuning.


  6. John Ogden says:

    I built a fuel cell on mine that sits between the fender struts and took the place of the fender. The top f the cell was a rack and was used to mount a top box. The result was 7.5 usable gallons of gas. It came in handy on the inuvik run and the dead horse run. Its fairly simple build and was mounted using rubber isolation puck for heavy machines sitting on concrete. Anyway just a thought.


    • MotoADVR says:

      Good info John! I’ll be sure to look that up as Jeff and I get deeper in the weeds on this bike. We’re finishing up the first stage now. I hope to get that info published ASAP.


  7. Pingback: Harley Dirtster Project: Stage 1 | Moto Adventurer

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