The first Sportster laid rubber to
pavement in 1957. That first 883 is referred to by Harley-Davidson as the
"Father of the Superbikes." For those of us existing outside of the hallowed
halls of The Motor Company and benefiting from the perspective of the late
1990s, it seems more appropriate to dub the Sportster the "original hooligan."
Whatever laurels that bike picks up through history were well earned back in
'57 when it was the biggest, baddest piece of sporting machinery a rider could
set fanny to.
Forty-one years later the
Sportster is still in production, but its days of basking in the praises of
the performance junkies are long gone. In fact, many loyal Harley-Davidson
riders dismiss the Sportster as a toy, a beginner's bike, a "chick bike." The
XL1200S Sportster Sport model is Harley-Davidson's attempt to put a shine to
the Sportster's tarnished image. They have succeeded in this attempt. After
getting roasted on twisty country roads by a few women riding 1200S Sportsters,
some of those big boys on big twins may change their minds about Sportsters
and about "chicks."
Four decades of refinement have
made the Sportster a much better motorcycle than the 883 of 1957. The styling
has not changed much, and the performance has not stayed on the leading edge
of the sport bike world, but all the components of the bike change over every
so often. That is how Harley-Davidson works. The Motor Company is constantly
tinkering with its beloved bikes, making steady improvements each year&emdash;subtle,
efficient improvements that are hard to spot amidst the hoopla created by the
new-from-the-ground-up machines other manufacturers are releasing each season.
This leads one to expect that a new Harley-Davidson will be nearly the same as
a year or two old Harley-Davidson.
Not so with the 1200S. I fully
expected this bike to be a mildly improved 1200, an amusing but not thrilling
motorcycle. After ten minutes in the saddle the following word appeared in my
head: "Whoo-hooo, Rock and Roll." As what H-D has done with this bike became
apparent to me, there may also have been a, "Baby!" The folks in Incremental
Development at H-D have thrown caution to the wind and made a great leap
forward with the Sportster, bringing it to the doorstep of the hooligan class.
There it sits barking and snarling with only a thin wallkeeping it from doing
some serious damage to a few imports, or at least chewing up a couple
slippers. Yes, it could still use a little more power to the rear wheel, but
gains have been made. The performance improvements made in nearly every other
area of the bike are astonishing, especially when you consider that they are
not all that visibly obvious.
What you do notice right away are
the piggy-back gas-charged shocks out back and the dual floating disc brakes
up front. Once you take a closer look you may wonder why there are two cables
exiting each ignition coil on either side of the steering head. This forces
you to inspect the cylinder heads and find that they contain two spark plugs
each. When you sit on the bike you might notice the fork adjusters on top of
each fork leg.
These reveal the presence of the fully adjustable cartridge
forks. The rest of the hop-ups are out of sight, literally and figuratively.
The modified exhaust, new cams and "non-waste" spark ignition complete the
sport package. None of these changes were made for cosmetic reasons (we will
get to the cosmetics in a moment). They were made to improve the performance
of the motorcycle, and they all work.
The fully adjustable fork and
shocks significantly improve the comfort and handling of the Sportster. In
fact, the suspension of the 1200S fails to draw any complaints at all from
this rider. The Sport soaks up road irregularities like a sponge and never
gives up when the going gets tough...and leaned over. The difference between
this bike's suspension and that on the 883 we had along for the ride was
night-and-day. The brakes have a very nice feel at the lever and do a nice job
of hauling this 500 pound motorcycle to a stop.
The most satisfying improvements
in place on the Sportster Sport are those made to the engine. The "non-waste"
ignition fires each cylinder's dual plugs separately instead of firing
everything off at once with one of the pistons on its exhaust stroke, which is
standard H-D procedure. The combination of the new ignition and cylinder heads
coupled with the new exhaust make the Sport into one smooth-running,
relatively quiet Harley. If you are after vibration and noise, pass on this
bike and buy yourself an 883. The 1200S shakes less than the standard Sporty
at all RPMs, but it shockingly ceases to shake much at all between 2000 and
2800 RPMs. This means the Sport is silky smooth from 50 to 60 miles per hour
in top gear, just the ticket for some all-day trips along interesting county
highways. When the pace quickens the motor is adequate for the task if not
spectacular, but it is noticeably more powerful than the standard Sportster's.
The riding position can be
described as "standard." This is not a cruiser, and it is not what has become
to be known as a sport bike. Most riders will find the Sport to be comfortable
for nearly any kind of riding. The seat deserves extra credit for remaining
anonymous throughout the day, which means it must have been plenty
comfortable. The handle bar switch gear is well thought out, and, even though
it is non-standard, using it becomes intuitive rather quickly. The side-stand
works beautifully without putting the rider through a gymnastics routine at
every stop to put it down. After recently experiencing many recent
motorcycles, this is a feat very few manufacturers can manage.
The one knock against our test
bike is that after an hour it refused to shift into neutral. This may be due
to the fact that this particular bike had zero miles on the odometer when I
arrived to pick it up. (It was still in the crate!) Co-pilot Michael Kamrad
had some success shifting down into neutral from second gear, but I found
myself foiled time and again. I do not regard this as anything more than an
adjustment problem on a brand new bike. However, if other Sportster riders are
familiar with this problem, I would sure like to hear about it.
In the cosmetics department, what
we have here is basically a de-chromed Sportster. The 1200S comes wearing a
blacked-out and polished aluminum ensemble that drew a small crowd while we
took the photographs for this story. The Sportster has classic good lines that
are made more noticeable by the absence of chrome. The piggy-back shocks and
dual floating discs lend a menacing air to the bike that becomes deeply
satisfying after you've ridden it awhile. "Yeah, I've got the biggest, baddest
sporty on the block."
If the thought of owning
a Sportster has ever crossed your mind, this one is for you. If the thought of
owning a Sportster has never crossed your mind, take this one for a ride. That
thought will come.
by Troy Johnson
NOTE: Some of the photos on
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