While the rest of the motorcycling world is strutting about, showing off their new-found ‘retro’ chic, the people at Harley Davidson must be looking at each other and wondering what all the fuss is about, telling themselves that they have been making ‘retro’ bikes since their inception in 1903!
Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the Sportster range. Introduced in 1957, as an update of the ‘K’ range of motorcycles by substituting overhead valves for the side-valve items, the ‘XL’ range has been in continuous production ever since and, if you were to put one of the first models alongside the latest, you’d be hard pressed to notice the difference.
It’s not even as if Harley has gone to town on updating the engineering in the intervening 60 years. In 1986, the original’s Iron Head overhead valve engine was changed for the Evolution version of the 45 degree V-Twin, but it took to 2003 to rubber mount it in the frame. In 1991, you got five speeds in the gearbox. And, er….that’s about it, apart, of course, from a change to disc brakes and, eventually, ABS.
So, while modern ‘retro’ bikes comprise classic styling with thoroughly modern mechanicals and electronics, the Harley Sportster is truly retro with classic styling and classic mechanicals. But is that necessarily a recipe for something good? With the current breed of modern classics, have we travelled too far from the bad old days of lumpy engineering, oil leaks, hinged frames and Prince of Darkness electrics to find any merit in a bike that staunchly retains them?
(OK, so oil leaks, dodgy electrics and hinged frames have, thankfully, by and large been consigned to the history books, but you get my point.)
There have always been variations on a theme in the Sportster catalogue. This particular version is called the Roadster and, far from having to look hard to find any positives, they are perfectly clear. It looks ace, with cool, flat-track style wide bars, it sounds great and, just as important to many, it is definitely a real Harley Davidson in that it has a lineage that can be traced back to the original.
Does surface glitter and heritage make a good motorcycle? Well, that’s a bit more complicated. Here we have to examine the typical Harley Davidson customer. Do they want cutting edge technology? No. Do they want ultimate performance? No. Do they want a sharp handling package? No. Do they want bags of style and that name on the tank? Yes and they don’t mind what they give up to get it.
So is it possible that a motorcycle that has been in production for 60 years and hasn’t really changed at all be all that bad or does it have some redeeming features?
The specifications are simple. An 1199cc v-twin engine producing around 60bhp and 100Nm of torque, 259kgs, ABS, keyless starting, self-cancelling indicators and that’s your lot. Performance can be generously described as ‘adequate’, the handling solid – as it should be with so much mass – the brakes fine and the riding position with these wide, low bars, really comfortable.
It’s as honest a motorcycle as you will find anywhere and that is one of its redeeming features; you really do get what it says on the tin and it’s not trying to pretend to be something it’s not.
Has age improved the Sportster? Have all the bad points have been ironed out and is what is left as good as can be? Has it been honed to perfection?
Some bikes, the longer you ride them, reveal more of their personalities; the more miles you put under the wheels, the more there is to discover and to fall in love with.
I’ve been riding this bike for the last two months and the strange thing is that on my very first ride, it revealed absolutely everything there was to know about it. In the last couple of thousand kilometres, it has taught me nothing new about itself; revealed no hidden depths; surprised me not one jot.
So, this bike has not taught me anything about itself that I didn’t get to know in the first few kilometers. Although, that’s not quite true; it has taught me quite a lot and, while it does tick some boxes in terms of aesthetics and exhaust note, unfortunately, it’s not all good.
As much as I like this bike, I really do have to baulk at its complete lack of mechanical progress in the last 60 years. There really is no excuse for its weight, its clunky gearbox, its dire power output and its old-fashioned dynamics. Surely Harley could update the Sportster as they have the larger engined models, with smoother, more powerful engines and improved chassis dynamics?
And then we get to the details and two elements in particular; the foot pegs and the pillion seat. Both give the impression that Harley stick things on a bike and completely fail to test them in the real world. ‘Oh, look, here are some foot pegs we can put on the bike…yeah, they look OK. That’ll do!’ But they won’t do. They stick out far too much and are guaranteed to crack your shins or calves whenever you put your feet down, unless you splay your legs to a ridiculous degree.
And then there is the issue of the pillion. It is possibly the most uncomfortable and downright dangerous pillion seat that has ever been conceived by man. It slopes backwards and, due to the forward positioning of the pillion foot pegs, you can’t brace yourself and constantly slide off the rear, unless you get very familiar with the rider. But still you are constantly fighting to stay on the seat. Rather don’t put a pillion seat on if it is going to be that dangerous.
At the end of the day, this is a Harley Davidson and that, for many, is enough. In fact, the biggest problem to the Sportster Roadster comes from within its own family. If you look at the Harley price list, you will see that the Street Bob is really not that much more expensive in its standard form than the Sportster Roadster and it is a much more up to date bike; bigger engine, better chassis, arguably better looks; even more of a true Harley.
But one has to look at the fact that, even after all these years and the lack of development, Harley can still sell the Sportster, warts and all. Whether that says something about the company or the customers, I’m not so sure.