RealClassic.co.uk Home

Bikes | Features | Events | Books | Tech | Magazine | About | Messages | Classified | Links

more bike profiles...

Bike Review - Posted 17th January 2014
Home -> Bikes -> Road Tests and Profiles ->

A year with a Harley-Davidson Sportster

Skulls and flames, Torx fasteners and perished rubber. Martin Gelder reflects on twelve months of XL1200S Sportster Sport ownership...

It's been almost exactly twelve months since I bought a Harley-Davidson Sportster as an alternative to using a 37 year old airhead BMW as my regular ride. What I was looking for was a bike that would give some of the 'classic' riding experience without too much of the 'classic' kneeling in a puddle by the side of the road experience. What I found was some of that, and a bit of something else as well.

Harley Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport Harley-Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport

The Sportster is a great bike to ride. It's not fast and it doesn't handle particularly well, but it's involving and rewarding. I'm writing this on a crisp and sunny January morning, and the Sportster is calling to me from the shed. "Ride me now, write that stuff later," it's saying. Damn, this job is tough sometimes. The Harley is sitting in the shed between a Morini and the BMW. The Morini is huddled under its winter cover, keeping a low profile and avoiding eye contact in case I drag it out onto the cold and salted roads. The BMW is ready to go if I want it to, but if I don't it'll continue to wait until it's needed, exuding an air of calm efficiency not quite matched by its slack bearings and crackly ignition. The Sportster, though, wants me to ride it. It's that sort of bike.

It's not very practical, though. The riding position is hard work into stiff headwinds and for such a physically big bike it can be hard to find luggage room for a long weekend away. On the plus side, it's economical enough that the small tank (13.5 litres, about 3 imperial gallons, and I get about 50 to 60mpg) isn't an issue and if you can keep your cruising speed on the legal side of seventy it eats the miles in an engaging way. It bimbles better than it blasts.

Harley Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport 216 Ride - 800 miles in a long weekend - It's a tourer!

The 'Sport' suspension on my model is remarkably good, with enough adjustability to give a plush but controlled ride. The brakes are well up to standard and the gearbox isn't the clunky and agricultural abomination that received wisdom suggests. The rider gets rubber mounted footrests, but the pillion has to put up with solidly mounted vibra-sticks that move up and down slightly with the swinging arm in a pure seventies retro stylee. The handlebar grips are irritatingly chunky, the indicators just irritating, but roll the throttle open out of a medium speed bend and all the niggles are swept away in a wave of sensation. You feel the bike working and you know you're alive.

The Harley's biggest issue is its image problem. People see you on a Sportster, they make assumptions. Mid-life crisis. Wannabe Hells Angel. Born again biker. Saving up for a proper Harley.

The aftermarket and official dealers don't help, either. Why does every accessory have to have either skulls, flames, or skulls *and* flames embossed, painted or engraved on it? It's a shame, because the dealer network is really good; everything I've needed for the Harley over the last twelve months has either been available over the counter at my local franchised dealer, or just a mouse click away via an independent. Everything, that is, apart from a tee shirt that's not covered in skulls and flames.

I said at the start that I was looking for the classic riding experience without the classic 'reliability' experience. The last twelve months have seen lots of riding, but I've also done my fair share of the 'kneeling in a puddle by the side of the road' bit. It's my own fault for buying a second-hand bike that'd done very few miles over the last couple of years; perished pipes, leaky seals, tired electrics and worn out consumables characterise my Harley year.

Harley Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport Slimline saddle adds extra style

What follows is quite a long list of failures, but nothing has been insurmountable and I've found that there's a wealth of knowledge out there being freely shared between fellow Sportster owners. So take a deep breath and join me on a journey through the Harley-Davidson parts book:

Within a couple of weeks of the bike arriving, the speedo sensor failed. The speedometer is an electronic device with an analogue display fed its information by a sensor mounted on top of the gearbox; easily diagnosed, fiddly to swap, but the replacement part was an updated version that is apparently much more reliable.

Shortly after that the main lead connecting the battery's positive terminal to the rest of the electrics came loose; at some point the suspect standard item had been replaced with an aftermarket part that required a short connecting strip, and one of the fasteners had come loose. Fixed with washers and loctite.

New rear brake pads and an engine and gearbox oil change were next, which meant buying some Torx drivers and a stand to hold the bike horizontal and with a wheel in the air; with the right tools, the work itself was easy.

After a weekend away in the Peak District, one of the fork seals started leaking, a common problem with any bike that's been stood from some time. While the forks were out I fitted a set of gaiters; ones for a Hinckley Triumph Bonneville were the perfect size.

Harley Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport Hinckley Triumph Bonneville gaiters fit perfectly. Note stand under frame tubes.
Sportsters on on Now...

The only truly puzzling issue was the sudden and total failure of the battery. It was fine one evening, and then the next morning it was dead. It failed so suddenly that I was convinced that some fiendish electrical gremlin had sneaked into the Sportster's system of sensors and switches, so I set about the bike with spanners and a multi-meter, determined to trace the faulty component.

Eventually I tried fitting a spare battery, and that fixed all of the complex electronic problems that I'd been worrying about. Within 18 hours of ordering, a new battery from Tayna.co.uk was filling the gap left by the disgraced Lucas unit, and all was well with the world.

Or so I thought, until the float-valve started sticking and the carb flooded; I wouldn't mind, but I was on the way to a Harley-Davidson Riders Club meeting at the time. I can't be sure, but I suspect I'd got some muck in the petrol pipe when I'd had the tank off while chasing out none-existent electrical gremlins. Removing and cleaning the carb also revealed a perished vacuum fuel tap pipe (delivered by mail order within a day) and some decided dodgy HT leads and plug caps.

The HT leads were splitting where they entered the plug caps, and two out of the four plug caps (mine's the Sportster Sport model with two plugs per head) were barely holding onto their sparkplugs. I could have replaced these with standard parts, but choose aftermarket parts which seemed to be better quality; one of the revelations of Harley ownership has been the breadth and quality of the alternative parts available.

Harley Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport Moroso HT leads and plug caps - Much better than the standard H-D parts

The new HT leads had to be ordered but arrived within a couple of days. Fitting them, along with a new set of NGK plugs, was a revelation; I think it might have been the first time that the bike was running on all four plugs, and combined with the newly cleaned fuel system the motor was suddenly significantly smoother and crisper, and also strangely a little quieter. More complete combustion with all the plugs firing perhaps?

Over the year I've also replaced the handlebar grips with a slightly slimmer set, and the massive king-and-queen saddle has gone in favour of a neater solo seat from Sick Saddles; it was cheaper to order a new, custom-made saddle from America and then pay the import duties than buy a second-hand unit from a well known auction site in the UK.

I could go on, but there's a bike in the shed that's calling to me...

Harley Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport Friday, January 17th 2014 - a 45 mile ride to have a Full English for lunch

Words and Photos: Martin Gelder

A great official Dealer: www.blackbear.co.uk
A great unofficial Dealer: www.jerseyh-d.com


Like this page? Share it with these buttons:

Home

Random Harley-Davidsons on Right Now...

Bikes | Features | Events | Books | Tech | Magazine | About | Messages | Classified | Links

More Bike Profiles...


RedLeg Interactive Media

2002 The Cosmic Motorcycle Co. Ltd / Redleg Interactive Media

You may download pages from this site for your private use. No other reproduction, re-publication, re-transmission or other re-distribution of any part of this site in any medium is permitted except with the written consent of the copyright owner or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.