2006 Harley-Davidson XL883 Sportster Standard
By David Tong
As nearly any biker knows, the Sportster has always been a bit of a raw-boned rogue of a motorcycle. When it debuted in 1957, it was the hottest thing on two wheels, other than rarities such as Vincent Black Shadows.
Throughout the 1960s, the 883 Sporty and the Triumph Bonneville 650 were the two bikes most notorious for their performance. It was, however, a clue that the much smaller displacement Bonnie was even in the same league.
This changed in 1969/1970 with the introduction of the 750cc Triumph Trident triple, BSA Rocket 3 triple and Honda CB750K inline four. Those bikes absolutely put the Sporty on the trailer . . . in a straight line at least.
Several decades ago, a good friend of mine at college had a 1980 Sportster 1000. He had turned it into a decent handler by fitting better shocks, low drag-style handlebars, higher spring rate fork springs and stickier tires. I spent quite a bit of time on that old four speed, chain drive bike and found it a fair bit smoother on the highway than the later Evolution models, because he had also geared it taller.
Nowadays, some of the Harley faithful look upon Sportsters as girl’s bikes, or beginner bikes. It has been a long time since they were considered hot wheels, even though a stock 1200 model is actually faster through the quarter mile than any of the Big Twins. The new XR1200X with its adjustable suspension, raised chassis and greater lean angle is a better bike for sport riding than any other Milwaukee model.
The Motor Company vastly updated the Sportster in the past decade. Mostly gone is the paint-shaker vibration due to a new (unfortunately heavier) frame with rubber engine mounts. Also, the mid-decade replacement of the old CV carburetor with electronic fuel injection meant more accurate mixture and better performance throughout the rev range.
After having owned or ridden a number of 80-125 hp motorcycles over the years, I have mostly grown out of stroking my ego and needing that brute speed. I do though like larger displacement, slower turning engines with loads of torque, much as I prefer V8 powered cars.
It was this in mind that I sampled the last of the standard height suspension XL883's at my local dealer, now sadly out of business due to the economy. I wondered whether the basic 883 still had enough cojones to put a grin on this jaded face.
The bike was a medium metallic blue, monochromatic simplicity. Engine cases were polished aluminum, not chromed, and clear coated. The sole instrument is a speedometer with idiot lights for turn signals, neutral and high beam.
The handlebar reminded me a lot of older BMW “S” units. Rather narrow and short, it places one in a slightly forward leaning crouch that makes highway riding much more pleasant than those high bars best suited for those who wish to pose, rather than ride.
Insert key in the ignition lock on the right side of the steering head, and push the starter. The classic H-D rumble from the shorty duals filled the air. A nice tone, without being too darn loud. I always did find riding with loud pipes to be tiring on all day excursions.
The seat is narrow, firm and lacks support. As the base bike from a company that commonly sells bikes in the $15,000+ range, it lacked a rear seat, rear footpegs, tachometer and any chrome save the turn signals.
Click into first gear, and ride off. What is impressive is the relative quietness of the drivetrain. Harley did do a good job taking an early 1980s engine design and making it mechanically quiet, more durable, more fuel efficient and slightly more powerful. Piston squirters direct oil to the underside of those nearly 4” slugs, to help keep them cool on this air-cooled engine. The pulse of the V-twin comes through the grips and pegs, but thankfully doesn’t sing your derriere to sleep any longer due to the rubber mounts. They work.
The transmission, while it could not compare with the clickety click of a Japanese engine, is typically better than the BMW twin I am used to riding. It offered relatively light engagement, reliable shifting without false neutrals and was far easier to find neutral from first at a stop than any previous Sporty I had ever ridden. Clutch action was also quite good; progressively engaging and a fairly light lever.
What about power? Well, that depends on what you are used to and how fast you want to go. At approximately 43 rear wheel horsepower, it’s certainly no speedball. Somehow though, it seems enough, at least for someone of smaller stature riding solo. Running it up through the gears until fifth, top cog. I didn’t take it anywhere near maximum speed, as it was a new bike, but ran it up to just a tad over 70mph no sweat. I would expect it would top out at about 90 or so, limited by power, aerodynamic drag, and gearing.
The upright riding position provides a fairly secure feel. The footpegs on the rubber bikes sit wider than the solid engine bikes, so the feel is less cramped. However, the extra width means a shade less ground clearance, so those with racer inclinations should look elsewhere, if 42hp isn’t indication enough.
For just be-bopping around town, short commutes, or the occasional ride to the coast, I actually thought it would be just fine. I’d probably change the seat, upgrade the suspension and add a passenger seat and pegs, the same stuff my buddy did 30 years ago. I might also fit a fork brace and stainless brake lines for better feel. (These accessories are available from your local H-D dealer. -Editor.)
The factory fuel injection means there’s less tuning options. There are some catalogued Screamin’ Eagle street legal mufflers, a high flow air filter and performance ignition module; most Sportster owners almost immediately avail themselves of these upgrades to unleash additional horses. The bike also runs better without the stock EPA restrictions. You can economically upgrade your 883cc motor to 1200cc, should the spirit move you, and turn your pussycat into a tiger. See your Harley dealer for details.
For longer excursions, fit up one of Harley’s excellent quick detachable Plexiglas windshields, like the one I fitted to my Wide Glide, and throw on some soft leather saddlebags and hit the road. With the 3.3 gallon standard tank, at 55-60mpg on the highway a usable range of 140 miles is possible before stopping for petrol.
The compelling thing about the Sportster is that with EFI, hydraulic valve lifters, reduced maintenance final belt drive and spin on oil filter, everything is easy to access. Performing routine inspection and maintenance is a breeze compared to the complexity of most modern bikes. This is not a trifling matter at nearly $100/hour shop rates. If you are at all handy with wrenches, a Sportster is an easy way to get into (or back into) motorcycling without flattening your wallet. At the price of far more mundane bikes, the five or so large for a clean used Sportster will provide you with many years of memories and smiles. I might look at a similar used Bonneville, but then again, I might not.
Sadly, the “standard” Sportster with mid-mount footpegs, tall suspension and seat, has gone out of production, in favor of XL883 “Low” and “Custom” pseudo-choppers. A pity, if you ask me.
To me, its just another example of a machine that’s been around so long most of us take it for granted, but it has evolved into something, well, nice. Bet that was the furthest thing from the mind of a 1960's XLCH owner with kick-start only and a magneto ignition!
Copyright 2011 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.