Gleam Machine: Rodsmith’s Ironhead Sportster cafe racer

A clean frame, a mechanical aesthetic, a distinct absence of plastic and a lot of polished metal. This Harley-Davidson Ironhead Sportster cafe racer must be from Craig Rodsmith. Based just north of Chicago, the Australian expat’s mastery of the dark art of metal shaping is evident in everything he builds.

A few years ago Craig was approached by a customer, Reto, who loved one of his previous Harley builds so much he wanted a replica. Craig was understandably hesitant to copy another bike, but he had no qualms about taking inspiration from it and adapting it to the new owner. This turned out to be a good decision, as Reto is 6’6″.

Harley Ironhead Sportster cafe racer by Rodsmith
I don’t know how many Sportster cafe racers you’ve been around, but I can assure you that most of the time they’re pretty low-slung. So with Reto’s size in mind, it all started with a 1973 Sportster frame. Once all the unnecessary brackets were removed using an angle grinder, the steering stem was modified and a new set of 35mm forks was installed.

For the wheels, Craig started with the front hub from an old Moto Guzzi and the rear hub from an old Sportster. Then, in typical Rodsmith style, he tweaked the dual-head front shoe brake, adding a vent to the leading edge. Both hubs were laced with stainless steel spokes to new 18-inch Borrani wheels and wrapped in Avon Roadrunner tires.

Harley Ironhead Sportster cafe racer by Rodsmith
The engine is from a 1979 XLCH Sportster and is relatively stock. It has split rocker arms and nickel-plated cylinders and heads. A Dynatek ignition ensures a strong spark while an S&S Super E carburetor feeds clean fuel to the freshly rebuilt engine.

Not one to shy away from a little noise, Craig built a special exhaust for the Sportster. “I made a two-in-one stainless steel exhaust that exits on the left instead of the usual right side,” he says. “I’ve been told this is one of the sweetest sounding Harleys!”

Harley Ironhead Sportster cafe racer by Rodsmith
One of the things I love about Rodsmith builds is that you can instantly tell it was all done by hand. On this project, Craig fabricated the front fender, fuel tank, seat and rear subframe. The juxtaposition of polished metal against the fuel tank pads and the anthracite leather saddle is particularly elegant.

Dane Utech at plzbeseed in Chicago handled the padding. The main part of the frame was powder coated in a dark denim blue, perfectly highlighted by the matching stripes from Jim Brando, also in Chicago.

Harley Ironhead Sportster cafe racer by Rodsmith
The battery is hidden under the tank while the oil tank is integrated into the rear subframe, which has been nickel plated to match the engine. There’s a new set of rear shocks that hold everything down, spec’d longer than stock to accommodate Reto’s height.

The front carries clips fitted with new grips, custom knobs and a single bar end mirror (not shown). The headlight is crowned by the Sportster’s distinctive fascia, which also houses a pair of LED warning lights. At the rear, the taillight has been integrated into the seat hump.

Harley Ironhead Sportster cafe racer by Rodsmith
For such a stripped down cafe racer, there really is a lot to do. You could spend hours poring over every little detail, just like Craig spent hours crafting them.

“Reto turned out to be a great guy,” he says, “because he found out that I was also building a few other bikes commissioned for my friend, Bobby Haas, and the Haas Moto Museum. So he reassured me that he was in no hurry.

Harley Ironhead Sportster cafe racer by Rodsmith
“After finishing my last build for Bobby Haas, I decided it was time to take care of Reto and his Harley. Unfortunately, shortly after that we lost Bobby, which obviously was a bit of a pain. hard blow for me and slowed down progress even more.

“Reto was always very understanding. That being said, I felt he deserved something a little more special, so I took this build a step further than we originally agreed.

Harley Ironhead Sportster cafe racer by Rodsmith
The results of Craig’s commitment speak for themselves. Being able to perfectly maintain the proportions of a classic cafe racer, while giving Reto the ergonomics he needed, is further proof that Rodsmith bikes are the work of a true master.

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Harley Ironhead Sportster cafe racer by Rodsmith

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