was first launched way
back in 1957, and I hasten to add before I was even born!
Over the years approximately 787,000 Sportsters have been
produced in an array of styles and specifications. Some years
ago I actually owned a Sportster, an 883 Hugger from 1988,
it was then that I vowed never to have another! The Sportster
range has undergone many changes since it was first introduced,
on average every four to five years something was changed
or re-designed. All these little things make up to what had
become a better bike, and the Sportster accounted for nearly
20% of all Harleys sold. So this year, in Harleys 101st year
they have made even more changes to the Sportster range, firstly
by cutting down the number of variants and secondly by giving
it a total make-over and a major redesign.
It was with anticipation that I picked up
the new Sportster 1200C from Silverstone Harley-Davidson,
but it was a shame that during most of the test time it decided
to either rain, sleet or hail for the next week or so. Never
afraid of riding in bad weather I set off on my first ride,
the only thing on my mind was cleaning all that chrome when
I got back!
About 75 percent of Sportsters are
sold to first time Harley-Davidson riders, and about
95% of them end up buying another Harley in the future, so
it better be a good introduction to Harley ownership. So in
Harley-Davidsons eyes it makes complete sense to design and
build a better Sportster. With a better bike and better reviews
Harley are keen to bring more people to the brand and keep
them there, after all they have a fantastic choice of next
stage bikes to move up to.
previous experiences with Sportsters were not at all good,
in fact I would go so far as to say that the 883 Hugger I
owned was possibly one of the worst bikes I ever had! Vibration,
lack of power, bit's falling off due to the vibration, and
it suffered from built-in rust for most of the relatively
short time I owned it. But the little Sportster did surprise
me with it reliability, every time I pressed that starter
button it went, never failing to get me where i wanted to
go. OK so maybe I had to stop and fix something or find it
back up the road, but I could always bolt it back on, it never
actually broke! Also when I came to sell it I didn't loose
any money on it, unlike the majority of other bikes on the
market, that just showed the dedicated following Harleys have.
Now I'm not saying that the 2003 or any of
the earlier models were bad bikes, quite the contrary, there
are no really bad bikes, anything with two wheels is fun whatever
it is, but the earlier Sportsters did have some drawbacks.
The biggest of all was the vibration, this transmitted itself
via the solid mounted engine right through the frame and controls
and up to the rider, not at all comfortable or relaxing for
any sort of distance. But for 2004 the first thing I actually
noticed was the near total lack of vibration when I rode the
new bike. The latest re-design still maintains its traditional
narrow feel of the stripped down Harley, a skinny 21"
front wheel and the lowered look at the rear on the 1200C
carrys on the tradition into the next generation of Sportsters.
So what's changed, why is
it now so nice to ride and nothing like my old 883 Hugger?
Well the two major changes to this bike, and the other Sportsters
are the new motor and the totally re-designed frame. The new
frame was designed to carry the Buell 1200 V-Twin, so Harley
did just that and matched it with the 1200 from Buell to give
the Sportster more power and a smoother delivery for better
riding, and all day cruising capability. Basically the motor
is identical to the Buell, just a few minor exceptions for
torque and ridability, but in essence they are the same.
other major departure from all the previous Sportsters is
that the new Buell derived engine an the transmission are
now rubber-mounted to the frame. Harley have rubber mounted
most things over the years, so the technology and experience
they have gained from doing the other bikes was utilised on
the 2004 Sportster. The designers have come up with a system
using rubber isolator blocks with differing degrees of stiffness,
this gives just the right combination of vibration damping
for both comfort and handling. There are, in addition to the
isolator rubbers, three further stabiliser link bars with
rubber mounts which have been designed to let the engine move
fore and aft but still keep the sideways movement to a minimum.
Without the vibration you can now ride this
bike all day and not feel a thing, in fact you can push it
so much further than any of the previous Sportsters. Riding
the new bike is now a total pleasure, gone are the nasty vibes
and lack of power, what you have now is a bike that is bang
up to date and will attract a whole host of new Harley riders.
These numerous improvements incorporated into the new engine
really help it keep up with the demands of the rider, changes
such as piston oiling jets, increased oil capacity, and larger
cooling fins all work together to keep the operating temperatures
within their limits. Other modifications to the engine include
lighter pistons and con-rods, a new crankshaft speed sensor
managing engine timing, new ported cylinder heads, re-designed
camshafts, new two-piece rocker box covers and a 9.7:1 compression
ratio. Put all these changes together and what you have as
a result is 79 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm, and 70 bhp at
the 6,000 rpm redline, a huge difference from Sportsters of
To look at the 1200C is quite stunning, the
new engine looks great with its black powder coated cases,
cylinders and heads, they highlight the polished fins and
all that chrome I had to clean about 4 times! On another front
the traditional Sportster balance pipe has at last been moved.
This use to hide a large part of the engine from view, now
this has been replaced by a new version similar to its big
brothers, now hidden behind the exhaust can. With this increase
in space Harley have taking advantage and redesigned the chrome
air cleaner adding a new Sportster 1200 badge. Harley have
also upgraded the brakes to Nissin 4 pot calipers, these do
a good job of hauling up the 1200C with surprisingly little
effort on the riders part.
The Sportster 1200C will appeal to
many riders, with a seat height of only 590mm shorter
riders will have no trouble. The seating and riding position
is comfortable even at fairly high cruising speeds, with the
oil tank now reshaped and fitted with a flush oil cap the
seating is even more comfortable that nefore due to the narrower
the new 1200C is now exciting, something I would never ever
have said about the past Sportsters! The overall handling
of the Custom is good considering the design, the 21"
spoked front wheel and the 16" disc rear. On ordinary
roads it takes everything in its stride, come the corners
and you have to do a little forward planning due to the lack
of ground clearance, but it holds a stable line through the
bends and has a great power delivery out of them. What am
I talking about, it's a cruiser, a custom bike, it's a Harley-Davidson,
this is not what it's all about. But it is with the new Sportster,
there are a lot of things you can now do with it, before you
would have to think twice, but now it's a whole new ball game!
The 1200C was ridden in bad weather and a
little good weather, and during the time we had it, it didn't
matter what we did or where we rode it, the Sportster 1200C
performed exceptionally well. The new engine gives you much
more power and torque than any of the earlier Sportsters once
it got warmed up, and the new stiffer frame with its rubber
mountings made a huge difference. Ride the new bike on any
road and you now get the feeling of contact with the surface
through the tyres, a feeling you could never say you had from
any older model. Gone are the vibrations and the unpredictable
handling, you now have a bike that is very capable, has great
styling, performs very well and is pretty good value for money.
Add to that the inherent resale value of Harley-Davidson motorcycles
and we are convinced that this bike will be a winner.
A second opinion on the latest Sportster
from Simon Bradley
This is getting to be something of
a habit. I get dragged onto a Harley, very much against
my will and usually because I need a bike in a hurry and it’s
the only thing available. I go potato-potatoing off down the
road and within a few minutes I’m grinning like an idiot
and wondering why I don’t do this more often. Harleys
have a direct line to the soul, it seems, and the Sportster
Custom is no exception.
First glance wasn’t
too promising. I mean sure, it’s nice enough looking
but the skinny front tyre, weedy little single disk and distinct
lack of instrumentation boded ill for an exciting ride. And
in fairness the ride wasn’t especially exciting. Just
the Harley up and it immediately stalls. Remember
to use some choke (this being a carburettor version) and it
settles into a lumpy but steady tickover. I have no idea what
sort of RPM it ticks over at because there is no tachometer.
But it’s slow. The riding position is all day comfortable
and everything falls to hand and foot in a surprisingly natural
way. The lack of footboards is certainly welcome, though the
pegs are still a long way further forward than one would normally
expect. Kick it into gear and find that the clutch is light
and progressive, and that the enormous engine has just the
sort of low down grunt you’d expect. So pulling away
is a smooth affair, made even smoother by the frankly astonishing
rubber engine mountings which do a magnificent job of leaving
your fillings in your mouth.
Once on the open road, the
Sportster is remarkably quick, holding a stable line through
corners, gathering speed quite respectably and generally behaving
in a way guaranteed to make the grin just get bigger and bigger.
The noise, while muted to meet EU requirements, is very satisfying
and the bike talks to you in a way that more modern machinery
just doesn’t. Getting into a corner takes a fair amount
of effort as befits something this long and solid, but once
leant over and back on the gas the whole plot settles down
and just glides around. There’s more ground clearance
than you’d expect, too.
The brakes, while adequate, are unlikely
to be breaking many records. But that’s OK – you’ll
find yourself being more progressive and riding smoother anyway,
and last minute braking will become a thing of the past while
you’re on the Sportster. The gearbox is fairly typical
Harley Davidson in that it goes into gear reliably every time
while managing to both feel and sound as though it won’t.
Ah, character. Don’t you just love it?
Coming back was an interesting
experience because it was dark. Style demands that the Harley
Sportster has a tiny little headlight. Function, and presumably
immense distances to be travelled in the American Midwest,
dictates that the headlight works better than it looks as
though it should. Like the rest of the bike, both form and
function are satisfied as that tiny little headlight does
a credible impersonation of a lighthouse on high beam while
dip provides an excellent spread spoiled only by a rather
sharp cutoff at the edges of the beam – a result, I
suspect, of the very effective lens design.
So by the time I brought it back I had added
a Harley Davidson Sportster Custom to my list of “Bikes
I’d have in the garage if money were no object.”
Along with every other Harley I’ve ridden in the past
few years. The thing is, though, with the Sportster coming
in at around £7000 it’s actually not a money no
object bike. It’s just an “if I could get away
with having more than one bike” bike.
For the price it’s
a fantastic bargain. A proper Harley Davidson with some nice
modern touches to go alongside the traditional things for
the same money as the imitations.
Need you ask which I’d recommend?