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Bike Review - Posted 10th April 2013
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Harley-Davidson "Evolution" Sportsters
A Brief Guide

Looking for a modern bike with a modicum of classic character? There is an alternative, argues Martin Gelder, provide you don't mind the taste of Marmite...

Harley-Davidson. What just popped into your mind when read those two words? If there's one motorcycle marquee that divides motorcyclists, it's the big H-D. There seems to be no middle ground between the "if you don't ride a Harley you ain't sh*t" righteous bros and those who look at Harleys and see over-priced tractors ridden by midlife crisis accountants with more money than sense.

Style says Alabama, patched road says A14... 2000 Sportser 1200 Sport

And that's a shame, because if you look behind the tassels and the chrome, beyond the ape-hangers and the open pipes, there are some good reasons for having a Sportster in the shed next to your real classic bikes. Here are just a few:

Classic Ride

The Sportster's frame and suspension are straight from the 1970s, with a tubular steel frame that's only vaguely triangulated, stiff short travel suspension and a rearward weight bias. The footpegs are well ahead of the nose of the seat, even in their rearmost position, the bars sit you up straight and there's plenty of room for a pillion. Think Triumph T140 with export tank and bars and you won't be far out.

Modern Reliability

The evolution of the 'Evo' models was all in the engine, so don't be fooled by the classic appearance of the Sportster's motor. Electric start, belt final drive, hydraulic tappets, electronic ignition, single throttle... All you have to do is change the oil every now and then and make sure a handful of cables and pivots are lubed as they should be. Older Harleys have a bit of a bad rep' for reliability, but by and large the Evolution bikes seem capable of seriously high mileages.

Olitight, if a little shiny for some tastes...

You Meet the Nicest People...

People talk to you when you ride a Harley. Or at least when you park one up. Admittedly, they mostly tend to be old men and young kids, but if you wanted to blend into the background you'd ride a BMW, right? And it's nice to feel you're doing your bit to spread the word about motorcycling. The other people that talk to you are other Harley riders, and the internet in particular is swarming with them. There's no end of technical advice out there, most of it in enough detail that you can find someone with the same model, built in the same year, who can answer your question. There's also a social scene to suit every kind of lifestyle, with owners' meets and rallies most weekends. Friendly lot, the Harley bunch.

Same chassis as 1200 pictured above... 2000 Sportster 883

Heavy Duty Hardware

The Sportster might be a modern bike, but it's made like an old one. Fasteners are big, castings are lustrous, steel tubes are thick-walled and brackets are forged rather than folded. It's all proper man-sized stuff, like a real bike ought to be. The downside is a very heavy machine that's high on durability but a big old lump to move round the garage.

Life in the Slow Lane?

Talking of weight brings us to performance. The 1200s aren't fast by modern standards, despite their hairy-chested image. 250kg (550lb) of American Iron being propelled by a low-revving, softly tuned, air-cooled motor is never going to give sprightly performance.

The 883s are the same weight with less power, and the rubber-mounted engine bikes are even heavier. The handling isn't what you'd call nimble either, although the brakes are better than their reputation suggests.

Where the Sportster excels though, is in being ridden at its own pace. Ease back a notch and it becomes a really effective A and B road mile eater. Try too hard and it'll fight back, but mellow a little, sit back and you'll enjoy the ride. They should have called it the Relaxster rather than the Sportster.

Sportsters on

Market Forces

It's hard to find a really cheap Harley-Davidson, and that applies as much to Sportsters as it does to the bigger models. Prices seem to start at around 3,000 for a bike that's not a project, with 1200s consistently a little more expensive than 883s. Some people seem to think their bikes won't have depreciated at all despite having been sat in the shed for five years, but there are good honest bikes out there for reasonable money if you're prepared to be patient. You can get a Sportster for less than a well used Hinckley Bonneville, less than a tidy Kawasaki W650, and less than a low mileage late-model Indian Enfield. There are enough out there that you can afford to bide your time and wait for the right model to come up at the right price, and you can be secure in the knowledge that you won't lose too much when it comes time to sell.

For a motorcycle based around just one frame and two engine sizes, there's a bewildering range of models available:

Sportster Models

Because of the modular nature of the range, there are lots of variations on the Sportster theme and several models were introduced in the states but never made it to the UK.

Twin discs for the R models... 2006 Sportster 883R - Rubber mounted engine but still fitted with a carburettor

The 883 and 1200 bikes share nearly all the same major components, apart from barrels, pistons and cylinder heads; converting a smaller bike to a larger engine is relatively simple. The 883s and 1200s share the same frames, wheels, brakes and suspension - depending on model - and so factors such as seat height and riding position depend more on the model variant than the engine size. The 883s have lower gearing to match their lower power output; they are the same weight as the 1200s.

'Custom' models generally have a 21" rather than the standard 19" front wheel, while the Iron and 48 models have a 16" front wheel. All variants have a 16" rear wheel. The Sportster Sport and "R" models came with twin discs. Hugger and Low models have lower seat heights, but this is achieved through different shock absorbers and different seat padding rather than a different frame.

Fat front tyres for the 48... 2011 Sportster 48 - Rubber mounted engine but now with fuel injection

And finally, there's a bewildering array of after-market seats, sissy bars, footpegs and handlebars to further confuse things. Official accessories are expensive, so if you're buying second hand try and find an example that's already fitted with the ape hangers and 36" sissy bar that you've set your heart on.

If you're considering buying, the biggest two decisions you'll need to make are probably 1) engine size, and 2) solid or rubber mounted engine. Your budget will almost certainly have an impact on choice as well; solid-mount 883 are a fair bit cheaper than rubber-mount 1200s, for example.

Sportster Timeline

1957 to 1985: The original 'Iron Head' Sportsters are not to be confused with the more modern Evolution models; they're not an alternative to a classic motorcycle, they *are* a classic motorcycle.

1986: The first 'Evolution' Sportsters are launched, designed as entry-level models to the Harley-Davidson range. They are available with engines of either 883cc or 1100cc, with chain final drive and a four speed gearbox.

1988: The capacity of the larger engined model is increased from 1100cc to 1200cc, and the original butterfly carburettor is replaced with a CV (constant velocity) version.

1991: A five speed transmission is introduced an all models, and Deluxe versions come with belt drive.

Loud exhausts don't add to a smooth ride... Belt drive adds to a smooth ride

1993: Belt drive is made standard on all models.

2000: Brakes are improved with four-piston callipers and wheels are fitted with sealed rather than taper-roller bearings.

They work better than you expect... Four piston brakes on post 1999 models, forks by Showa

2004: The engines on all models are rubber mounted, making the bikes much smoother but also significantly heavier.

2007: All models switch to fuel injection

2008: The XR1200 is announced. We've deliberately ignored this model because although it shares the same basic frame, its styling counts it out of the 'classic experience' in our view; it just looks too modern. Harley-Davidson's customers thought the same, and the model was discontinued in 2012

And Finally...

If your interest is even vaguely piqued, go and get a test ride. Most main dealers will be more than happy to oblige, and you might be surprised at what you find

Words: Martin Gelder Photos: Martin Gelder, Harley-Davidson

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  • Harley Davidson 1989 1200 Sportster: Jim Peace didn't think too much of Harleys...
  • Harley Davidson 1991 1200 Sportster: ...But his brother Gav loves his 88,000 miler...
  • Harley Davidson 2011 Forty-Eight: Martin Gelder wonders what all the fuss is about...
  • Harley Davidson 2012 Forty-Eight: Alan O'Newbie contemplates the alternative...


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