I admit it – I have a short attention span. And as Rosa will attest, if I won the lottery I’d probably buy at least one example of almost every bike ever made. I’d fill a giant warehouse with them, clean them and fettle them, and take far, far too many photos of them.
And then I’d ride the hell out of them at every opportunity.
I love motorcycles for the engineering, the experience, the sounds, the mechanical feel of barely contained explosive power just centimetres away from you, with nothing but a pair of wheels and a seat holding it all together. And I won’t lie – ever since I started riding I’ve wanted a Harley.
The problems are threefold. One, I hate chrome. At least in the amounts that are usually festooned to the traditional American cruiser. Two, I like to ride fast, and I like to corner – even on little 50cc scooters – not something traditionally associated with half a tonne of Milwaukee steel. And finally, I haven’t robbed a bank recently, or been left a staggering amount of money by an elderly relative (seriously guys – don’t you dare leave me anything in that will – spend it all and have a blast!). And big choppers = big money.
But maybe there’s an exception to the rule. Harley Davidson’s Sportster range has been in the lineup since its inception in the 1950s. It’s not changed very much since then – styles have come and gone, carbs eventually gave way to fuel injection but even the famous Evolution engine itself has only undergone minor changes since 1986. That’s right folks, that brand-new modern-day bike of yours is running an engine almost as old as yours truly…
Contrary to the name, the Sportster is not a sports bike. You can buy one in either 883cc or 1200cc flavours, but neither will break speed records. Harley don’t even quote power figures for their bikes, stating that the experience is all about the torque – and with good reason. I found 49bhp to be the internet consensus, which is certainly nothing to scare your GSXR-riding friends. And at 256kg ready-to-ride it’s no alloy-framed race replica.
But many variations of the iconic “small” Harley are standard with what in the cruiser world are known as “mid controls” – you sit on the thing just like any upright naked bike, no feet forward, no metre-high handlebars. It’s a surprisingly natural riding position, and the weight is invisible even at low speed, possibly because of where it lies in the long, low chassis. I found the Iron an absolute doddle to ride – and came away with some interesting observations. But more on that later.
The 883 Iron, part of Harley’s ‘Dark Custom’ marketing, is the bike for me just on looks. I’m allergic to spoked wheels (they take too long to clean) and the iron comes with fantastic-looking cast alloys. The only chrome to be found is on the exhausts, and few owners leave the dealership without replacing those with some pipes that haven’t been stuffed with loft insulation to get that delicious 45-degree twin sound. And as you might have guessed from my Bandit, I like black bikes.
So chrome problem? Tick. But speed? And handling? Eh…half and half. There’s a hell of a lot more ground clearance than on a traditional cruiser, because Harley have opted for pegs instead of footboards. I’m sure I’d touch down before a Fireblade would, but few things wouldn’t. And although there’s no top end to the motor, I suspect your neck and arm muscles would be the limit on speed in this case. And the torque from that engine is…yes. More of that please, with a side order of extra noise. You find yourself slowing down to open up gaps in traffic, just so you can crack the throttle wide open, hear that thudding twin take a deep gurgling breath and launch you forwards with surprising force. It’s addictive, that’s for sure – and although it’s even more exciting on the 1200, the 883 is fine for what it is.
Which brings us to point three – the price. If you start your journey through Harley’s flashy website by looking at the more traditional bikes, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’d been a typo on the 883 Iron’s pricing page. You’d even be likely to double-check it if you’d been comparing stickers on almost any bike bigger than a 250 commuter, because at a shade under £7,000 the Iron is very, very reasonable. Now don’t get me wrong – you’ll never get out of the showroom for that, unless you’re much, much stronger than I am. Harley’s showrooms are temples to the art of motorcycle customisation, and for someone like me who loves to tinker, it’s potentially ruinous.
But wait a second, you say. There’s got to be a reason it’s that cheap. Aren’t all Harleys poorly made, badly-engineered and over-priced pieces of fair-weather junk?
In the past a lot of that was true. Harley went through some very rough patches, particularly in the late 70s when it was owned by AMF and almost imploded. But although the technology (air cooled, push rod, steel frame) may sound archaic by today’s standards, the design has advantages. The aforementioned low cost is a bonus, and hydraulic lifters instead of bucket-over-shim or screw/locknut adjustment means no valve checks. Belt final drive means no oiling or adjusting chains, and air cooling means no messing around with coolant or radiators. And that giant lumpy twin means the whole bike shakes and throbs like an angry piece of earth-moving equipment. High-tech? No. Fun, engaging and cathartic? Definitely.
What’s more, there are lots of impressive little details. I’ve often complained about the cheap switchgear tacked onto £10k+ Japanese bikes (and someone tell Honda and the rest that cable-ties are not an acceptable way to build a bike at the factory). The Iron hides its cables in the frame wherever possible, vacuum forms the tanks rather than stamping and welding them, and tell me where outside of four wheels you can get self-cancelling indicators? Go have a look at one and tell me the attention to detail isn’t impressive.
And how does 55mpg plus sound? Big cylinders moving slowly means impressive fuel economy, and the under-stressed nature of the engine means that there is an unrivalled supply of tuning and modifying options, including the Harley-supplied 1200cc upgrade kit. As well as, you know, a million bolt-on pieces, luggage, screens, t-shirts and leather vests. To each their own.
So yeah, I want one. I also want a set of Öhlins or similar replacement shocks to fix a ride that otherwise might as well have come from a 1930s hardtail. But hey – hardly anything below £10k has even passable suspension from the factory. I’m not sure I want a leather wardrobe and tattoos where my arms should be, but how much of the cruiser image you buy into is up to you. Personally I’d whack a set of matte-black exhausts on there, sort the suspension and ride the wheels off it…