The Harley Davidson XL Sportster: Am I The Only One Who Misses Them?
By David Tong
It seems in this motorcycling age that the entire H-D lineup is about the lowest seat height, the most chrome or flat black paint and the wildest color scheme. Handling and overall performance be damned.
I’d like to vote for a bit calmer time, that is to say, circa 2008. This was the sad last year of the standard XL Sportster.
Offered in both 883cc and 1,200cc models, these bikes had rubber-mounted engines starting in 2004 and electronic fuel injection starting in 2007. The latter change was undoubtedly more emissions related than anything, but the EFI allowed for slightly better torque and less overly-lean warm-up.
As someone who was spoiled by working in the bike magazine world down in Los Angeles about a decade ago, I was rather used to the “Latest, Greatest, Trickest and Fastest” bikes from around the world, so why should I lament the bargain basement priced (for a Harley, anyway) bike that the Sportster had become?
Well, for one thing, these bikes had character that many modern bikes, in their car-like approach to NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) lack. While it may not be too long before the rest of the H-D lineup go the way of liquid cooled heads to better control running temperatures and possibly add longevity, as the company’s big touring bikes have done in 2014, the old air-cooled lumps are simpler, easier for an average Joe or Josie to comprehend in their garage and still have adequate performance.
More importantly to my little rant, however, is these standard Sportsters are the last with the longer forks and shocks. These provided much better wheel control, suspension travel over bumps and cornering clearance around turns.
The base 883 was truly that: BASE. It lacked a passenger seat or pegs, had only a speedometer and was only available in single colors. Engine cases were left as cast, with only the primary, timing, and pulley covers polished and clear-coated. To the speed possessed, it wouldn’t even register in their consciousness. The 1200 was just as basic, but with a lot more power and torque.
However, to someone having owned or sampled the “other way” for several decades, riding one of these standard bikes was illuminating. I’m talking about the sheer linearity of the way the thing just flat worked.
With no suspension adjustability besides rear shock spring preload, I just left it alone, hopped on and rode. While an 883 will never be a speedball by modern standards, the thing got up to 60 MPH quickly and when I asked it to go around my first right hand bend, just a reasonable shove on the right grip initiated and maintained my line around the turn, pretty as you please.
H-D by this time had also looked at the clutch and brake lever pull weights and reduced both by between 8-10%. Both worked just fine for the kind of riding one would do on a stock Sporty and it was also rather nice that everything felt so solid and smooth in operation.
It was a nice bike, in other words. Something one could see being kitted out with a small windshield, saddlebags, a more comfortable seat and travel with. Yes, even an 883.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that I’d prefer it over a dedicated touring bike for a long multi-state tour, ride mountain roads on it over a dedicated sport bike, or commute with it compared to some kind of nouveau scooter. However, it could do all these things creditably well, with little fuss. It might not be perfect for any of these specialized environs, but it wouldn’t embarrass itself, either. That's the beauty of a standard motorcycle.
Alas, today the Motor Company appears to cater only to the cruising crowd, a sort of biking universe akin to their four-wheeled, hot rodding cohorts. There’s nothing wrong with that and, of course, the Company sells its bikes just fine.
I just happen to be one of those contrarians who think that a motorcycle needn’t sacrifice function in the name of style and lament the passing of the standard Sportster, as well as the recent XR1200 sport model, as proof that perhaps no one who actually likes straightening corners need apply at their local H-D dealer. It really is a shame.
Copyright 2013, 2016 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.