28 June 2016

1957 Corvette: The ultimate sidecar for a ’57 H-D Sportster

The world is full of wonderful alchemy. For instance, there are some epic Sister Cities, like Boring, Oregon and Dull, Scotland (really!). Also animals that just naturally work together, such as, you know, meat ants and caterpillars. And if you still have an appetite after envisioning that, there’s always tortilla chips and salsa! So why not classic cars and bikes too? I’ve owned plenty of both over the years, but never paid any particular attention to acquiring, to use a poker term, pairs. One great coupling might be a little 1961 Triumph TR3A and a 1961 Triumph T20 Tiger Cub. A Maserati Quattrovalvole and a Ducati Desmoquattro. Or a 1957 Chevy Corvette and a 1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster.

This latter pairing is beautifully and ruggedly American. In ‘57 the Corvette’s new 283-ci (4,637-cc) iron V-8 got optional fuel injection for the first time, setting a performance benchmark previously found only on products like Mercedes-Benz’s sophisticated 300 SL. Marrying a fairly standard Chevy steel box frame with a sporty fiberglass body produced a lightweight, high-performance two-seater with standout good looks and street cred. And owing to its truck-like underpinnings, the Corvettes were tough as nails.

Also enjoying a breakout year in 1957 was Harley’s new Sportster. Its 54-ci (883-cc) V-twin engine, made of steel, iron and aluminum, was a burly beast at a time when imported bikes maxed out at 650cc. The engine featured, like Corvette, overhead valves and pushrods, and brutish muscle. Likewise, the Sportster name described the bike’s intended use – stripped-down, sporty performance. And also like the base ’57 Corvette, it featured a single carburetor (if not optioned as a fuelie or with twin four-barrels) and a four-speed manual gearbox (standard on the Harley, optional on the Corvette) – just the essentials. In “bang for the buck,” at $1,103 the Sportster had a power-to-weight ratio of 12.4 lbs. per horsepower, while the $3,661 base Corvette Fuelie offered a slightly better 11.4 lbs. per horsepower.

Software engineer and racer Fred Yeakel owned a ’57 Corvette for some 42 years. “I bought it in 1965 for $500 and sold it in 2007 at auction for $105,000 – not a bad investment!” he laughs. Originally a carbureted model, Yeakel acquired it to race and eventually converted it to fuel injection. “I had been road racing a ’59 but thought the ‘57s were better looking and lighter,” he says. A dozen or so drag- and road-race appearances through 1966 brought good success, including an AHRA ¼-mile class record and a Cal Club B Production win. Still competing decades later, the car twice won at the Monterey Historic Races.

Yeakel considered our theory of certain cars and bikes being fraternal twins. “I almost bought a Sportster in 1970,” he recalls. “I thought they were cool and a lot of fun, but after racing Detroit V8s I didn’t think of a Harley V-twin as a big hulking motor. So I bought a house instead!”

Restorer and broker Glenn Bator has owned dozens of Sportsters over the years, including 10 or more 1957 models. “Whereas Harley’s big 1,200cc models were cruisers – ‘go-across-the-country’ bikes – the Sportster was the crotch rocket of the lineup,” he notes. “Basically, in ’57 the Sportster was a Hail Mary pass to compete with the British invasion of lighter, quicker postwar bikes. And it worked – if you were cool, you owned a Sportster.” Collector Mike Taggart has owned both Corvettes and Sportsters, and his perception is more finely nuanced. “The real hardcore Harley guys thought the Sportster was a ‘girls’’ bike,” he suggests. But then he agrees, “If you had a sports-car mentality, it was definitely the one you wanted.”

Not coincidentally, we suppose, both vehicles were built in hard-working, knuckle-busting Midwestern factory towns (St. Louis for the Corvette and Milwaukee for the Sportster). Both machines were long on brute force and short on creature comforts, and about as diplomatic as a ballpeen hammer. And that suits their owners just fine. As such, whether it’s on the road, at cars and coffee or in your garage, today the ’57 Corvette and ’57 Sportster clearly still belong together. As an added bit of interest, the Corvette and Sportster nameplates are now 63 and 59 years old, respectively – among the longest-running, continually produced models in American history. Along with their other similarities, this makes them not an odd couple at all, but the perfect pair.

 Vehicle   Original price   Current value   Value gain, 1957-2016
 1957 Chevrolet Corvette (base Fuelie)  $3,661  $72,600  1,883%
 1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster  $1,103  $18,000  1,532%

9 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Tom Ohio June 29, 2016 at 18:50
    I think the following claim about the corvette might be a mistake" among the longest-running, continually produced models in American history." If memory serves me correct. There were no corvettes sold in 1983 due to quality issues.
  • 2
    Don Hilston Lighthouse Point, Fl. June 29, 2016 at 21:08
    I kind of like my pair of rides. A 66' Jag E-type and a 79 Triumph Bonneville 750. Both go quite well and have enough old style class, as well as being a hoot to drive/ride. I've had a couple of TR3's and a Harley 1000 cc Sportster, the Jag is much better than the TR3 and the Bonne has it all over the old Hog.
  • 3
    Eric G. WA June 29, 2016 at 22:33
    I'm restoring a 1965 XLCH and my dad still has his 1957 Corvette he bought in the late '60's. I agree with the article. Triumphs and BSA twins are built much lighter-duty than the ironhead sportster. There is nothing comparable to the low-end torque of a 60's ironhead, except maybe a later model Norton Commando. The early Sportsters don't handle as well as the Brit bikes, but nothing compares to the feeling you get when you roll on the throttle!
  • 4
    Craig Scottsdale June 30, 2016 at 14:07
    Actually, there were 43 Corvettes made in 1983. They were not released until January of 1983 and were to be badged 1984. Quality was not the issue, it was the ever changing California emission standards that caused them to withheld until 1/83. All but one of the 1983 cars were destroyed. The remaining 1983 Corvette is in the National Corvette Museum.
  • 5
    Darryl MI June 30, 2016 at 18:19
    Re. comment from Tom (Ohio), actually, I think there was no "1983" Corvette because it was a delay in getting the new Corvette out (C4), not due to quality issues. Actually about 40 were made and then CA emissions regulations changed and to meet regulations the C4 came out in Jan. 1983 as an "84" model. See http://www.corvetteblog.com/2007/02/corvette-museum-the-missing-1983-corvette/.
  • 6
    Jimmy Williams Raleigh, NC June 30, 2016 at 10:15
    How about a dark green '71 280sl and a sea foam blue '48 Indian Chief or a metallic grey Touareg and a smoke grey R 100 RS or an arctic white 560 sec and a wine red Triumph Bonneville? I have all three pairs, and I don't know which is my favorite!
  • 7
    Keith B. Rochester, NY July 2, 2016 at 09:26
    My first cycle was a 1958 all aluminum 500 cc in a 52 ridged frame Triumph. Quick as lightning to 95. Beat up quite a few Sportsters and 650's from Triumph and BSA. Ate up a new Honda 450 - 4 cylinder the first year they were made. 1973 or 74? I'm now restoring my 1964 GTO. It was a dragster from Niagra International Speedway and undefeated. Wish I still had my old Triumph 500.
  • 8
    Pete R. Woodbridge, VA July 8, 2016 at 14:03
    I have a fuel injected '57 Corvette (insured by Hagerty) in Venitian Red and Shoreline Beige, as well as an '09 Harley Sportster Nightster 1200 in orange and black. The Harley bears an uncanny resemblance to a '57 Sportster. I certainly agree that they make a great pair.
  • 9
    Frank Sifford Charlotte, N.C. July 15, 2016 at 11:53
    I have a '65 Porsche 356 coupe and a '76 BMW R90S. German, air-cooled boxer engines, both iconic classics, both all original, both priceless (to me). Nice pair.

Join the Discussion