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Bike Profile - Posted 11th October 2010

Harley Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight and Softail Deluxe
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If there's one make of bike guaranteed to divide opinion amongst classic motorcyclists, it's Harley Davidson. Martin Gelder went for a quick spin on a couple of Marmite Motorcycles to find out what all the fuss is about...

First of all, why are we featuring brand new motorcycles on a classic motorcycle website? Because we know that many of you ride modern bikes as well as classics, and if you're looking for a classic-styled modern motorcycle, you're probably going to be choosing between a Hinckley Triumph Bonneville, an Indian-made Royal Enfield or a Moto Guzzi V7. Or a Harley Davidson.

The problem is that there are no half measures when it comes to what people think of Harleys. They're either over-priced and under-performing lumps of pig iron, or they're the last of the Real Motorcycles. You've either always wanted one, or you wouldn't be seen dead on one.

So when an invitation to test ride the latest models at our local dealer's open day arrived at the RealClassic.co.uk data centre, it gave us the perfect opportunity to find out just what all the fuss is about.

Forty-Eight

The 1200cc Forty-Eight is a lowered and bobbed version of the Sportster. It's good looking in the flesh, cobby and stripped back; an elemental motorcycle. It might not appeal to the traditionalists, but it's definitely got the cool factor.

Less is More... Harley Davidson Forty-Eight

Although it looks as though all the superfluous components have been removed, it's still a heavy bike until it's rolling. The seat is very low, but this is combined with forward-set foot pegs that are too far away from the seat for my little legs, making changing up awkward. That's the price of cool. The engine is rubber mounted, making it much more civilised than the original Evolution Sportsters. This also left the bike feeling a little characterless, though; I can see why people fit louder pipes. You could say the same about all of the contemporary competition, in fact; they're all working to the same noise and emissions standards.

The Forty-Eight's performance is sprightly, with plenty of roll-on power, and it nipped up to about 80mph briskly enough, but in an un-threatening way. Harley Davidson don't quote power figures, but I'd guess that the Forty-Eight is on a par with my R80/7, but with the power delivered at lower revs giving a more relaxed and punchier delivery.

The five speed gearbox changed cleanly, but top gear felt too high at the sort of speeds where the riding position made sense, say around 60 to 70mph, and it was noticeably snatchy in top at fifty-ish. There's no tachometer on the Forty-Eight, but I was surprised at the engine's lack of top gear flexibility when 'cruising'. I'm told that this improves with mileage, and as the bike I rode was carrying a '60' plate it would probably benefit from getting some more distance under its belt. And talking of belts, the toothed belt final drive was perfect in that it was completely unobtrusive; quiet and snatch-free.

Morini waits outside with its nose pressed against the window. 'Why is he taking so long in there?'...
Sportsters on ...

When I made my notes after getting off the Sportster, I didn't write anything about the bike's handling or brakes. It handles, it stops. The short-travel suspension kicks over bigger bumps (the price of cool, again) and the steering was slow but predictable. Ground clearance in bends wasn't a problem, but might become one with familiarity. There are 'feelers' on the pegs so that you'll know when you're approaching the limit.

The finish and quality of the bike look good from a distance but it becomes a little 'bitty' close-up; there are plastic covers over odd bits of wiring, big chunky brackets, and so on. The air filter sticks into your right leg but the whole bike is narrow enough that this isn't a problem while riding. The handlebar grips were smooth and unusually fat, and the brake and clutch levers were very broad, making the bike feel "big" but also cumbersome.

I rode one of the first Evolution Sportsters about 20 years ago, and it felt uncannily like a late Triumph T140. The Forty-Eight felt like a proper, refined, modern bike. Unmistakeably different, but thoroughly civilised.

FLSTN Softail Deluxe

The Softail Deluxe is like a cross between a jukebox and a small ocean liner. Whitewall tyres, big squashy saddle, more lights on the front than the Quadrophenia Vespa, massive bars. It's Huge.

More is More?... Harley Davidson FLSTN Softail Deluxe

It's got a seat that feels even lower than the Forty-Eight's, and the bike itself feels even heavier. Countering the weight is a bigger engine (1584cc) with much more bottom end grunt, but the low speed steering is like working the tiller on a barge or a wheelbarrow. In comparison to the Forty Eight there's a feeling of unflappability once up to speed; it's quite reassuring as it shuffles along at motorway speeds, and the motor feels utterly un-stressed.

There's a lot of shunt to the engine regardless of which gear you're using. A little green '6' lights up on the speedometer to show that you're in top, so perhaps it's meant to be an overdrive but - in comparison to the Sportster - the Softail is happy in top at much lower speeds. There's plenty of mid-range responsiveness for overtaking swiftly and safely; it picks up its skirts and goes when you want it to, but I bet it's geared for about 110mph at the most.

The Softail has footboards rather than the Forty-Eight's forward controls, but with a heel and toe gear-change there's only one place you can put your left foot, which kind of defeats the object of having footboards in the first place. That said, the riding position was arm-chair comfortable for the brief time I rode the bike. The handling was as slow as you'd expect for a motorcycle this long (1760mm, or a good foot longer than most bikes) and this heavy (313kg, or two T140s), but that weight also gives good ride quality; the Softail flattened the bumps that the Forty-Eight rattles over. You wouldn't want to do too many u-turns on the bigger bike, mind.

The Softail drawfs other bikes, people, buildings, etc... Harley Davidson FLSTN Softail Deluxe

The brakes were, to be honest, a bit poor. I later found that the Softail had ABS fitted but I don't think the brakes - on the front at least - would be strong enough to lock the wheels in the dry on a decent road surface. This is probably due to the weight of the bike as much as anything, but I found myself using both brakes with some effort just in normal riding, and approaching a couple of roundabouts I had to re-calibrate the amount of brake effort I was using in comparison to the amount of speed I was losing (if that makes sense) just to slow down enough in the distance left. You'd get used to it, but in comparison to other modern bikes I expected stronger stoppers.

If you could live with the Softail's size - weight, length, turning circle, etc. - it'd make a great long distance cruiser. It's got road presence by the bucketful and would shrug off the weight of a pillion passenger and a week's worth of luggage with ease.

Conclusion

The Forty Eight and Softail Deluxe are thoroughly modern motorcycles, defined by their looks and riding positions rather than by their engines or their build quality. If you're considering a Harley Davidson as a modern stable-mate for your old classics, you should try one. I'd previously pigeonholed Harleys as 'Form over Function' but - for the right kind of riding - either of these bikes would be a pleasure to own. And they look like proper motorbikes; just two wheels, a big engine, a petrol tank and a seat.

The Forty-Eight is ideal for bar-hopping and bimbling, the Softail for longer distances, and either will turn heads as you cruise through town. Both are well equipped with all the stuff you expect of a modern bike; decent lights, easy starting, slick controls, clear clocks (the Softail has a time clock as well as 'range remaining' and so on; not sure about the Forty Eight), right down to self cancelling indicators and useable mirrors.

Which brings us to the price. 8,000 for the Forty-Eight; 15,000 for the Softail. Ouch. Bear in mind, though, that the cheapest new Sportster is only a few hundred quid more than the most expensive new Royal Enfield, with the Triumphs and Moto Guzzis mentioned at the start of this story priced at a similar level.

Personally, while both bikes were better than I'd expected in terms of their modernity, both were lacking a rawness which I'd expected they'd have and which would arguably add to their character. My immediate impressions were that with a few changes, they'd be really good; different pegs and a fruitier pipe on the Forty-Eight, better brakes or a 100kg weight loss on the Softail. No wonder there are over 6,000 accessories in the Harley catalogue...

Downtown Newmarket, yesterday... Thanks to Black Bear Harley Davidson in Newmarket for the test rides


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