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Bike Profile - Posted 17th August 2009

1991 Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster
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There are those who argue that Harley's Sportster is the natural successor to the Norton Commando and thus ideally suits the classic rider. Jim Peace is intimately acquainted with a high-mileage 1200 which has proved to be perfect for one Britbike enthusiast...

"It all started innocently enough on a spring Saturday morning in 1991. My brother Gavin rang up, asking if he could have a go on my ancient Beemer. He had, it transpired, booked a test ride on a Harley-Davidson Sportster for the following day and was a bit concerned as he had only ridden a bike once in nearly 25 years and was definitely not used to a left foot gear shift. The bike he'd tried was a Yamaha RD400 on which he'd managed a couple of unintentional wheelies, and frightened himself silly, so he'd decided a bit more practice might be a good idea.

We repaired to Hankley Common, between Farnham and Hindhead, an old army training ground used by learner drivers and put in some practice runs. Gav had passed his test as a teenager and had, in fact, at various times owned a Norton International and a 500 Gold Star. In his youth he'd been a pretty good rider. To handle a Goldie in semi-racing trim you had to be. His black leather jacket had shrunk a bit in storage - ahem - but he squeezed into it and I lent him my spare crash helmet.

My well used R100 was a sluggish old lump and presented no real problems so the next morning I took him on the pillion to Surrey Harley-Davidson, who at that time were located in the old station yard at Dorking. Bro produced his licence and passport and was led to a rather smart 883 Sportster demo bike. I sat back with a cup of coffee. After some instruction from the salesman the bike fired up and Gav headed for the gate. Literally. At that time the yard had a double barrier, one half of which was open. Bro went for the closed half, but saved the day with a last minute swerve. As he rode off down the road the salesman turned to me:

'Your mate done a lot of riding, has he?'
'Expert', I lied.

Gav came back 20 minutes later grinning from ear to ear. He kicked down the prop stand in a most professional manner then nearly dropped the bike when it sprang back up again. He just about held everything upright, but judging by the look on his face he pulled a muscle or two in doing so.

'Old Yella' (And his Harley) 1991 Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster

I nursed a second cup of coffee as he decided on a 1200 model and discussed custom paint jobs and optional extras, including a larger petrol tank, with the salesman. At that time the standard Sportster tank had a range of 80 miles. I've never understood why the Americans have this thing about small tanks, you'd think it would be quite the opposite. Anyway, six weeks later, Gav became the proud owner of a brand new yellow and black Harley-Davidson. And while I've had at least a dozen bikes since then, 'Old Yella' is still around.

At the time a yellow and black 1200 Sportster was rare, if not unique, and the bike attracted a lot of attention. And it got used. Gav and his wife Di started going for long rides, to rallies and even on camping trips. They made a number of discoveries like the fact that Salisbury Plain in mid-winter can be very cold, especially in thin gloves, and that, conversely, Harley-Davidson rear cylinders get very hot in summer. They joined the local Region of the Harley Riders Club of Great Britain, and started going abroad to the Super Rallies, the first one being at Paris in 1992. Since then Bro has been to a further 10 Super rallies in various European countries plus a couple of runs to Faro and other foreign jaunts. Oh, and a trip to the Isle of Man for the TT. He also goes to at least a half a dozen British rallies every year. Now on his own he's a well known member of the club's Three County Borders Region.

Old Yella at Faro 1991 Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster

Mods to the bike have included a Screaming Eagle 'Hi-flow' air cleaner and Dyno-jet carb kit, aftermarket exhausts, and a headlight that can survive serious vibration and actually show the road and not just the front wheel. The brakes were upgraded with a Performance Machine four-pot caliper on the front, so the bike now actually stops. Over time he has also fitted a 'solid' Fat Boy rear wheel and swapped the front springs and rear shocks for new items from Progressive Suspension USA. Bro also bought a few chromy bits, a luggage rack and a small tinted windscreen.

He also felt obliged to fit a folding gear pedal that I bought for him at the Easyriders store in Ballwin, Missouri, as you do. Actually, I think he's taken that off now as it didn't work very well.

The bike also sports an aftermarket seat with little dimples which trap the rainwater and make your bum wet. Latest mod is a pair of mirror stem insulators which are black rubber sleeves that prevent the mirrors from icing up. Actually that's bollocks, even though some of his clubmates believed him. They're really a pair of brake and clutch lever covers that I ordered by mistake from Wemoto. Bro decided he'd like them and put them on his mirror arms. Harley-Davidson riders, of course, stop their mirrors from icing up by not riding in the winter…

Insert 'ancient ruin' joke here 1991 Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster

It would be nice to say that Old Yella has never broken down, and that the mechanics have never been touched, but neither would be true. A snapped drive belt caused by a small stone needed AA assistance to get home from Wales. Some years later Bro replaced this second belt when it shed some 'teeth' at a Harley Rally in Yorkshire, using just the tools he carries on the bike. This is a much easier job on a Sportster than on the bigger twins as the final drive is on the right and not behind the primary drive. He now carries a spare belt with his camping stuff.

An intermittent electrical fault was traced to a faulty main relay which failed when it got hot. The fact that it was tucked in behind the oil tank didn't help! The only other major problem was that 1991 Sportsters have the battery carrier welded to the back of the oil tank. Vibration, plus the weight of the battery would often cause the oil tank to crack, and leak slightly, and it did just this on 'Old Yella'. Gav fixed it by fitting a later model oil tank which involved changing the rear hydraulic brake pipe, the oil drain-off pipe and the battery leads.

Longer term the engine has been rebuilt twice and the gearbox once. The first engine rebuild at 47,000 miles stopped a lot of nasty noises and lasted for several years A second rebuild with a new and improved oil pump, a balanced crankshaft and a rebore bought the engine back to 'better than new' condition.

The bike has now done a further 26,000 miles, and is remarkably smooth, for a V-twin. At 88,000 Gav had the gearbox rebuilt by Riverside Motorcycles in Putney as it had occasionally jumped out of first or second almost from new. Eighty thousand odd miles is quite a long way to go on saying to yourself, 'I really must get that fixed sometime'.

Sportsters on

So what's it like to ride? Well, the controls are a bit heavy, as you'd expect, but the torque is terrific; it pulls strongly in every gear. There is very little vibration. The rebuilt gearbox is excellent, although the clutch drags a bit when cold as on most Harleys. The custom buckhorn bars are a matter of taste, I don't like them, but it's not my bike. I also don't like the indicator switches, but I suppose you get used to them. Having said that, it's a nice machine to ride, good for 100 mph plus (Autobahns only) and suitable for serious long-distance touring.

'Old Yella' got its nickname at a Harley Riders' Club Rally in the late nineties when it: a) Started to get old, and b) Stayed yellow. The fact that my brother, like me, is deaf in one ear and tends to talk a bit loudly, has, I'm assured, absolutely nothing to do with it! The bike has now done over 92,000 miles and Bro has every intention of taking it to the magic 100,000 before either of them gets past it. He will.


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