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Harley Davidson XLCH 1000 Sportster
Road Test Cycle Guide 1972
Back in 1957 Harley-Davidson launched the CH model commonly referred to as the Sportster. Its displacement then, and until this year, was 900 cc's. Its reception in '57 (Buddy Holly, I Like Ike, little T-Birds with the spare on the back and Lew Burdette winning three games in the Series) certainly was eager and even idolatrous. At least among Harley fans it was. As one publication in the early 60's noted, "On the motorway one could drive one handed in the 90's while nonchalantly blowing one's nose with the other sitting bolt upright while the opposition were spread-eagled all over their bikes." While we don't admit to being aficionados of nonchalant nose blowing, whether on or off a moving Harley, such statements do give a picture of the praise and applause heaped upon this forebear of the current Sportster. How about "its shattering acceleration almost beggars belief'' or -take a fistful of throttle at 90 and the acceleration hits you in the back—take another fistful at 110 and there's still more to come.- Uh huh.
This only serves to illustrate the tremendous goodwill that the Milwaukee manufacturer has built up over the years since Mr. Harley and Messrs. Davidson got together back in 1901. Owner devotion can be almost maniacal in steadfast faithfulness to the product. This no doubt enabled H-D to weather the adversities all other American manufacturers could not.
Twenty years ago Harley discontinued production of their 61-inch model. The Sportster displacement increase to 1000cc's this year in effect has created a new "61" for Harley. It is a third larger in engine displacement than the six other machines (all 750's) selected for inclusion in our comparative analysis of the big bore tourers and street scorchers.
Its styling, deceptively slim yet simultaneously massive, lends much credence to the suggestion of labeling the Sportster the ultimate muscle machine. It is distinctively masculine. Its tank, seat, handlebars and pipes make it readily noticeable and identifiable. The buckhorn-shaped bars are higher than those on other bikes (with the exception of the '73 Trident). The adjustment to the vertically canted hand grips for a rider new to the Harley presents no problem at all. There's not much you can say about the eye appeal of the Sportster gas tank that hasn't already been waxed prosaic. It is the stock tank for customizing and jumping off point for ultra-stylistic one-of-a-kind designers. The tank's aesthetic requirements limit capacity to two and a quarter gallons. Capacities of other bikes range from Suzuki's and Honda's 4.5 gallons to the Norton's 2 3/4 gallons. The cobra styled seat is another only one of its kind treat for the eyes if not the posterior. The lightly padded seat is poor for long distance riding and highly unsuitable for two up motoring. A passenger, even a slim female type, can just fairly fit on with no room to spare at all. But it sure does look good sloping along the contour of the bike permitting the rider to sit in rather than on his mount. Another visual point of distinctive manner is the routing of both exhaust pipes along the right side of the bike. While some other machines may have two pipes on one side, they do have at least one offsetting or two balancing pipes on the other side. Whatever styling pleasure may be lent the viewer is offset by the rapid and extensive discoloration of the "California special"' pipe fitted to meet the state's tough exhaust noise requirements. We don't know if this discoloration is as pronounced on pipes used on out of state machines.
Harleys have been around for a long time. They are the basic (in fact only) American tourers available. Longevity implants preconceived concepts in the mind of the public. This public consciousness is a desired trait but can be a handicap when an unfavorable image has developed in one or more areas. If improvements are made, those inside the industry may be aware of them, but it often takes longer for word of mouth to circulate and penetrate the psychological barriers built by bad words. The Sportster has an image as a big brutish powerhouse that costs a lot, doesn't have the greatest handling in the world, and minimal inclination toward stopping without literally throwing out the anchor. The opportunity to compare seven different machines in the span of one day verified the validity of some of these preconceptions and altered our views regarding others.
First, it is not so big and heavy after all. We received the kickstarting version of the Sportster, which weighed in at 475 lbs. fully fueled. Although we had already tested the electric starter model, which hit the scales for 525 lbs. dry, we suspect acceleration and handling considerations prompted the distributor to supply the lighter version. At 4 75 lbs. the Sportster was lighter than the Trident, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki. The electric starter model probably would have just edged out the water-cooled Oriental as heaviest bike.
It is true the H-D costs more than any other comparable bike. It is also true the brakes aren't too hot. Harley brake performance was just opposite of that of the binders on the Norton. The H-D was very easy to control during the panic stop. It just didn't seem all that concerned about the urgency of the situation and took its own time. Full stopping power of the English twin couldn't be utilized since it made the bike very tricky to keep straight.
The non-electric Sportster turned in a 13.35 quarter mile acceleration performance and broke a ton with .44 mph to spare. This slotted the Harley in 4th place for the quarter. Since the 1000cc machine had all others by a third again as much size in engine displacement and ranked as third lightest machine, it is easy to understand why the stock Sportster doesn't have a real hot stoplight steeplechase reputation. The Sportster was the easiest bike off the line at Orange County International Raceway without a doubt. Starting procedure was merely to wind it up and dump the clutch with a smooth powerful take off unmarred by loss of rear end traction or front wheel rear up. The Harley was seven tenths of a second slower than the Kawasaki, which while it was the quickest, was also the trickiest to handle during the quarter mile testing.
The power range of the Sportster is all that could be asked for. In most instances the pilot just dials in more without having to change gears. The torque produces low end tractor-like power from little, more than idle up to 5500 or six grand. This power, coupled with the low center of gravity profile of the big V-twin, makes it quite stable at low speeds. It certainly is an unusual experience to be tooling around town at no more than two grand without the slightest hint of bogging down.
Top speed indicated on the speedometer was 110 mph. While the Harley's speedo was quite accurate at 60 mph (it understated true speed by an average of only 1.4%), it was close to 8% off at 80 mph. Actual speed was again understated with the Sportster measured electronically at an average actual speed of 86 mph. Only the Norton was as accurate at 60 mph, being not quite 1.5% optimistic. The Norton, however, maintained its credibility at 80 also and was less than 1.2% off actual speed.
The handling performance of the Sportster surprised us. High speed roadability drew a rating of good with minimal effort necessary through the curves and esses of the racing course. There was no unexpected clearance problem leaning into the turns, and the riding position was quite satisfactory. The absence of a return spring on the throttle did necessitate extra concentration during high speed cornering. The forks and shocks produce only fair suspension. Rear shocks are not adjustable. We noted no change with a passenger perched over the rear fender. We didn't expect the H-D to handle like a road racer, and it didn't. It does an admirable job for what it was designed to do. It is very stable and confidence inspiring.
Harley's new 61, while massively impressive in profile, is easily the slimmest looking super bike because of the 45 degree placement of the vertically twin cylinders. The offbeat rhythm of the cylinder firings give the Sportster a very distinctive sound, an urgency of power greater than normal equally spaced power pulses. The pulses occur at 405 and then 315 degrees for every two revolutions, giving something like a "'shuffle'' blues beat to the big thumper.
There is nothing to fault on the operation of the four-speed gear box, shift lever or the clutch. The H-D has so much torque that the rider doesn't have to be at all fussy about gear selection. Neutral is easy to find at red lights, and the clutch can be engaged with minimal hand pressure on the hand lever.
The Sportster requires five or six good healthy kicks to get it going cold. It warmed up within two minutes, and generally one kick when hot was all that was necessary. If you get tired of kicking, an electric starter model is available. There were no noticeable traces of leakage and no problem regarding the chain. Throttle response was without delay and fairly smooth. The absence of a return spring on the throttle may be convenience for touring but safety-wise it is a detriment since letting off on the right hand grip or removing the hand does not reduce the throttle setting. One other safety consideration is the front headlight. It could be much brighter. There are no turn signals and no kill switch.
The engine was surprisingly quiet considering its size. Other than a good clunk when shifting from 3rd to 4th we noticed nothing out of the ordinary acoustically. As the red line is reached (7000), the engine does sound noticeably different as though things are starting to float.
We were quite surprised over Harley's much publicized hassle regarding noise after listening to their biggie and then some of the other bikes. Our test machine had the special California pipe installed to satisfy the strict decibel meter reading law enforced by the Golden State. The Harley representative claimed that this was the very same bike that squeaked through at the maximum allowable Db(A) reading of 88. To our ears it produced a subdued, almost mellow note and even when wicked up during the decibel meter testing procedure didn't seem offensive. By both "seat of the pants" reckoning and our Db meter is was quieter than several of the machines. Honda edged out Yamaha and Suzuki as the quietest.
As could be expected, the irregular firing sequence that produces that thumpety-thump sound does contribute to additional vibration which is felt in all rider contact points—the handlebars, seat and footpegs. But considering that we didn't expect the Sportster to be a real smoothy, it surprised us a bit. We would not rate the vibration as excessive considering the machine for what it is.
We discovered that the Sportster's dubious braking reputation is justifiably deserved. In previous testing we didn't fault performance for around town driving but noted marginal capabilities at freeway speeds or higher. In the 35 to 0 panic stop braking test the H-D barely avoided bottom rung on the ladder just edging the Suzuki, which is some 60 pounds heavier than the Milwaukee twin. The two traded places for the freeway speed panic stop from 65. These two bikes were the only tested that were not equipped with front disc brakes. Optional disc brakes will be available with the '73 model. The back binder actually was judged better than the front, which is not all that exciting when you consider the old 30 to 70 braking ratio. After the first panic stop there was considerable drop in performance. All bikes, tested dropped off after the first 65 mph panic stop but not as noticeably as the Harley. The Sportster wasn't difficult to halt to a stop. There was no rear end hop or front end nose diving or rear end coming around probably because there just wasn't enough stopping power there to activate such reacting.
The Harley has long had a reputation genuinely earned as being nearly tank like regarding its indestructability. It is a durable package. It pulls like a tractor and endures like an armored military vehicle. It is readily accessible as far as performing maintenance, and we deem it quite suitable for the purpose it was designed to fulfill.
Priced at $2,120 (suggested retail), Los Angeles, it is a big bundle justifying a large outlay. As long as the public keeps demanding this last American produced, high speed performance machine, why should or even, how can, the price come down faced with current economic conditions? The cheapest bike in the comparison test was the Kawasaki at $1,386. An often little considered item by many purchasers is resale value. A long existing demand for Milwaukee's finest keeps second sale pricing of these units at a premium.
In a way, at least to a certain portion of the populace, the grandiose and massive image of the Harley is as American as the proverbial apple pie or Mom and the flag. It certainly is at least second echelon behind this celebrated trio. Viewing the current demand for the big road burner, prodigious parent of the chopper, it appears it will be with us as long as those persistent old standbys—death and taxes.
Source Cycle Guide 1972