Harley-Davidson has been using just two engines and four frames to make hundreds of different motorcycles over the last few decades. The big-boned Touring, Dyna and Softail bikes have rolled along under a succession of “big twin” engines, the latest launching this week with 4-valve heads and a pair massive 900cc pistons to push their ever-increasing bulk down the road. The Sportster line up has made do with just one frame and either a 1200cc or sleeved down 883cc variant of the same “Evo” powerplant for quite some time. With Milwaukee finally embracing upside-down forks on their (relatively) lightweight models, I figured it was time to see if these modern classic might work as practical motorcycles, rather than just garage art.
After re-familiarising myself with Harley’s Sportster lineup I quickly realised that the practical, sensible motorcycle likely lay somewhere between two current models: the fully-accessorised 1200T SuperLow, and the well-suspended 1200 Roadster. The former comes equipped with a nifty quick-release windshield, lockable leather-wrapped panniers and a comfy two-person seat, complete with back rest for the passenger. The latter eschews any practicality for performance, swapping in upgraded shocks and forks to match the twin-disk brakes, low bars and a smaller 12.5 litre fuel tank.
In an era when more and more manufacturers are returning to steel-tube cradle frames as the basis for their retro-styled motorcycles, Harley’s bikes don’t stand out anywhere near as much as they did ten years ago. The retro-revival means that things have come full-circle, and suddenly air-cooled and low-tech is cool again, and exposed-engine twins are the height of fashion.
You have to look closely to find the frames and swingarms on the Sportsters, however, as the Motor Company does a good job hiding what are actually bland and rather spindly-looking pieces of metal behind chunky exhaust headers and that imposing engine. This stylistic centrepiece instantly draws your eye no matter where you look, it’s clear that it’s here that Harley-Davidson’s design department spent their time and money.
It’s a shame that the engineering department couldn’t get more of a look in, to give the powerplant the go to match the show. Power outputs around 60bhp aren’t exactly breathtaking, especially for 1,200cc of displacement, but the generous area under the torque curve and five wide-spread gear ratios mean that you can be very lazy with gear selection. Low compression ratios mean almost zero juddering, even when you let revs drop well below idle; this bike is very easy in traffic, as long as the heat coming off the cylinders doesn’t cook you.
Despite being associated with low-end torque, the Sportster engine revs out happily past it’s redline, although you’d only know this on the Roadster. This more performance-oriented version uniquely features an analogue tachometer and digital speedometer combination, with all other variants making do with the exact opposite. Trying to discern where in the rev range you are from a LCD panel that lists engine speed as tiny numbers is impossible while moving.
Both units can display the current gear position, as well as a clock and various trip meters, but no fuel consumption information. The gear selector display also goes blank while the clutch is in, which is weird and annoying.
Despite the engines sounding slow, both Sportsters pick up speed deceptively quickly. You’re not going to suddenly find yourself breaking the sound barrier, but glancing down at your speedometer may still surprise you. What’s more, despite the appearance and reputation for stone-age technology, the gearbox feels surprisingly slick and smooth, although the shorter shift lever on the Roadster does make finding neutral a challenge.
Handling, cornering and braking is where the two different builds start to really show their differences. Surprisingly, the 1200T with it’s higher, wider bars steers much more easily, the additional leverage and lower centre of gravity making it ridiculously easy to flip from side to side. Unfortunately even a modest roundabout will find you reaching the limits of the truly minimal ground clearance, any semblance of cornering ability sacrificed in the pursuit of the lowest possible seat-height.
The riding position on the Roadster feels odd at first, because most bikes with low, flat bars tend to have more rear-set footpegs. After 45 minutes you’ll want to get off, the hunched-over position becoming very uncomfortable very quickly. With regards to cornering, I pushed about as hard as you’d want to on a 260kg wrought-iron motorcycle, and suspect that you’d have to be carving up alpine hairpins before you started scraping things. Suspension was surprisingly good, with quality damping taking the edges of bumps whilst providing reasonable feedback.
The 1200T however, is a different story. With just 2″ of suspension travel to work with, the rear shocks have no hope of absorbing any but the most minute imperfections in the tarmac. Hit anything bigger and you’ll be flung painfully out of your seat, and above 40mph the whole bike seems to skip and bounce around on its tyres, maintaining only the barest connection to the tarmac.
The double-disk braking setup on the Roadster is about as good as you’d expect from a pair of two-piston sliding calipers on semi-floating disks trying to slow this much weight. A good squeeze will slow you down reasonably quickly, albeit without providing too much feel. But this much braking power is rare for HD; the 1200T loses one whole half of this system, meaning a serious pull on the overly-chunky lever is required to bring the bike to a halt in a hurry.
Using the rear brake helps on both bikes, and is mandatory on the SuperLow. My recommendation is to plan your braking maneuvers far in advance, and keep nice big gap between you and the vehicle in front. The built-in ABS should stop you locking up the wheels in an emergency, but all that weight with that little braking power means long stopping distances no matter what.
The quick-release windshield on the SuperLow looks good in theory – just four clamps hold the unit on to the forks, allowing it to be removed without tools in seconds for a neater look. While the screen does a good job of keeping wind off your chest, it puts turbulence right at head-height, meaning I personally would either want a taller, or much shorter windshield on my bike. The forward-mounted controls, on the other hand, work really well, giving your legs a bit of room rather than scrunching them up underneath the extra-low seat.
Now, this is probably the point where many of you are screaming at me that I’m missing the point; cruisers aren’t meant to be dragging pegs around corners, or hurtling down the Autobahn at triple-digit speeds. It doesn’t matter that the exposed alloy and leather won’t survive a wet, salty winter, and that rev-counters aren’t necessary while trundling through the countryside. Weak brakes aren’t an issue at a more relaxed pace, and Harleys are better when rolling along smooth, straight roads rather than being wrestled through pockmarked country lanes.
And you know what, if you’re going to stick to dual carriageways and motorways, then the 1200T would probably work just fine. For a shorter rider the screen and low ride-height might be perfect, and if you want a fully-equipped touring cruiser for £10k, then honestly you’re not going to find a better deal anywhere else. Harley’s build quality is impressive, the paint deep and clear, welds invisible, wires and hoses tidy.
The problem is, if you want to trundle around in style, a Triumph Street Twin or Moto Guzzi V9 will do it all for less money. While the Roadster may be cheap and sporty compared to the rest of its stablemates, it weighs 80kg more and costs twice as much as Yamaha’s MT-07, a bike that will run rings around it everywhere except a photography studio.
The 1200T looks like light, nimble, and cheap compared to a Road King, but at that price point you could ride home on a fully-equipped BMW F800GT. No matter how you look at it, when you buy a Harley you’re compromising dramatically on everything for the sake of the the badge. Other manufacturers may not yet have figured out how to build a retro-styled machine that outperforms modern designs in everyday riding, but they’re getting very close.
It’s a shame, as Harley-Davidson has recently begun to show what it, and it’s bikes, could really be capable of if they put their mind to it. All the stuff that’s great about them, the maintenance-free hydraulic valves and belt-drive, the satisfying engine and comfortable riding positions, the impression of durability that comes with an eschewing of rider modes, electronic suspension and brittle plastics; it all makes for an attractive list for someone like me who will rack up 100,000 miles in just four years of riding.
The Roadster shows that Harley are finally admitting that a classic-looking, simple motorcycle doesn’t need to suffer from 1950’s suspension and brakes, that you can add modern features like digital speedometers without hurting their timeless style. Sure, the tech they’re embracing is still a decade old, and they’re inexplicably insisting on putting smaller and smaller fuel tanks on their Sportsters, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Harley’s paralysing fear of alienating their traditional audience of conservative, ageing baby-boomers has historically caused them to shy away from even the most innocuous concessions to modern technology, and their bikes suffer for it. Their advertising desperately tries to convince younger customers that old, low-tech and traditional is best, rather than working to persuade their shrinking pool of H.O.G. members that ABS and water-cooling really isn’t so scary.
The good news is that I think they’re finally relenting. LED headlights are now an optional extra, legislation means they’ve been forced to embrace ABS and even liquid cooling on some models, and the new Milwaukee Eight big-twin engines feature four-valve heads, ride-by-wire and super-smooth counterbalancers. Apparently newer customers coming to the brand don’t appreciate having their fillings shaken loose, and the engineering teams are taking note.
And so I’m holding out for a next-generation Sportster; one with liquid cooling, more power, less weight, all while maintaining the style, build quality and relative mechanical simplicity that existing customers love and future customers admire. Unfortunately for Harley, many of their competitors are already there…