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Harley-Davidson Sportster: the models, rivals and verdict

Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Iron

The Harley-Davidson Sportster is one of the most ubiquitous model ranges in motorcycling. Acting as smaller, cheaper and ‘sportier’ models in comparison to Harley’s big twins, the Sportster range has mostly acted as the entry level models to the Harley-Davidson brand.

What makes the Sportster so attractive is that they offer all the style and noise of a big Harley but at a much lower price point. Sporties, as trendy types called them, have been in continuous production since 1957 but the ones on sale today first went on sale in 1986.

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There’s been an almost dizzying array of models over the last 30 years but as of 2020, there are eight different models on sale with two engine sizes: 883cc and 1200cc.

Since 1986 all Sportsters have used a version of Harley-Davidson’s air-cooled, 2-valve evolution engine. Unlike in the big twins, which have a separate gearbox, Sportsters are all cast as one piece, which makes them both smaller and lighter.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 1987

Despite it not changing much visually since 1986, a lot has changed internally to modernise the bike.

Prior to 1990 Sportsters had four speed gearboxes, but they’ve been five speed ever since and they converted to belt drive around the same time.

The engines have also been rubber mounted in the frames since 2003, which greatly reduces vibrations passed through to the rider, and since 2007 the entire range has been fuel injected.

One of the biggest changes came in 2014 when the bikes went through the Project Rushmore program. After this the bikes received better brakes with ABS, improved suspension, increased compression ratio, keyless ignition plus a new speedo with integrated digital tacho.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200

As the Sportster name suggests, they’re meant to be sporty models and what do you do with sportsbikes? Go racing of course.

Most racing Sportsters have been privateer bikes, so people racing their own machines be that in Flat Track, on the drag strip or even in Norra 1000. In the UK there was a brief XR1200 series that ran as a support class in British Superbikes, however that collapsed when the bike was discontinued in 2011.

The XR750 race bike did well at flat track in the US and some are still campaigning now – the road going XR1000 was a short lived model and is expensive because of it.

Mechanically, Sportsters are pretty good. There’s been so many of them, with the same core components, that Harley ironed out the biggest problems a long time ago.

Harley-Davidson XR750 flat tracker

The only issue still left to deal with is the spring plate in the clutch, which is known to fail causing the whole thing to jam up.

It’s an easy and relatively cheap problem to sort in advance but a bit of a pain to fix. Servicing is fairly regular but it mostly amounts to oil, filters and spark plugs.

Tuning Sportsters is a relatively easy and well-trodden path. The first change most people make (and most used models will already have done) is a new exhaust – this makes them sound better and might even free up a few extra horses too.

After that the world is your oyster but the next step is usually a set of hot cams or for 883 models, a 1200cc conversion kit. As the bottom end is the same, the conversion is fairly simple and not particularly expensive.

Iron 883 & Iron 1200

Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Iron

The Iron 883 first appeared in 2009 as the entry level model in the Harley range. Unlike previous 883s, which were colourful, chromed and generally uncool the Iron was meant to be dark, brooding and badass.

Everything was blacked out, the suspension was slammed and it made all the right noises. With a decent sized tank, mid controls and a low seat it was an instant hit.

Apart from small styling changes and the wider changes listed above, the Iron 883 has continued pretty much as is for ten years. In 2018 Harley added the Iron 1200, which is pretty much what is says on the tin. The 1200 has a larger engine, different bars, cool paint finish and wee screen.

Nightster

Harley-Davidson Nightster

Introduced in 2007, the Nightster was basically the Iron 1200 before that model existed. The riding position and general styling were hugely popular, so it effectively inspired the Iron 883.

The big differences were the laced wheels, silver engine and smaller handlebars.

Forty-Eight & Forty-Eight Special

Harley-Davidson Forty Eight

In 2010 Harley introduced the Forty-Eight, which is styled to (you guessed it) look like a bike from 1948. Built on the same chassis as the Iron, the Forty-Eight is powered by the 1200 twin engine. It’s also got smaller wheels with fatter tyres for the Bobber look and forward controls as well as a tiny peanut tank (only really good for short distances).

In 2018 Harley introduced the Forty-Eight special, which is a similar formula but with mini-ape handlebars and a slightly different engine finish.

XR1200 & XR1200X

In 2008 Harley took the sports bit slightly more seriously and introduced the XR1200, which was a performance focused model aimed at us Euros. With a revised engine pumped up to 91bhp, new chassis with alloy swing arm, USD forks, twin brakes and 17” wheels, the XR1200 was basically Harley’s go at making a Ducati Monster.

The flat track styling was a bit ahead of its time (it would probably go down well now) and the performance wasn’t enough to make a difference. In 2010 H-D introduced the XR1200X, which had a black engine and fully adjustable suspension, but that couldn’t save the model and it went off sale in 2012.

Roadster

Harley-Davidson Roadster

Introduced towards the end of 2016, the Roadster was another performance focused Harley, although not to the same extent as the XR1200. It’s got low bars, 43mm USD forks with twin discs and blacked out styling. The truth is that it doesn’t go that much harder or faster than any other 1200 models in the range, so it mostly comes down to whether you like the styling.

Sportster 883R

Harley-Davidson Sportster 883R

Before the Sportsters picked up the trendy names, they went by letter codes like XL883R. A halfway house between an Iron and an XR1200, the 883R had a blacked out small displacement engine, full length fenders but twin-discs up front.

They’re a cool machine and generally quite well kept so they can make a great used buy. They’re also the perfect base machine for adding your own custom style.

Rivals

Kawasaki Vulcan S

There are plenty of brands that have tried to rival the Sportster over the years but no one has really come close. The nearest modern competitors would be the Indian Scout and Triumph Bobber but they’re both more high tech and expensive. The Honda CMX500 Rebel and Kawasaki Vulcan S are Japan’s current best attempts on the Milwaukee monster but neither really channel the cool appeal of the Sportster.

Most of the rivals fail on one of the biggest plus points of a Sporty, which is the resale value. Second hand sportsters are rarely seen before £3000 (£4000 for a nice one) whereas the Japanese rivals lose value quickly (plus you don’t get the bar and shield logo).

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