Sporty days.

Twenty one years ago Harley Davidson re introduced the 883 ‘Sporster’.

It came at a time when only Harley die hards looked forward to the latest offerings from Milwaukee. Japan was well and truly King of the two wheel domain. Reliable four cylinder, fully faired, race replicas from the land of the rising sun had eclipsed all before them.

I was twenty one and in the market for my first new bike! I remember thumbing through catalogues and walking show room floors vainly trying to find something different.

Yes I wanted reliability and I wanted new but to me anything that incorporated more than three colours in a paint job was ‘trying to hard’. I spose, even at a tender age I had a sense of nostalgia.

Everything coming out of Japan at the time was galloping toward the future. Streamlined, turbo charged motorcycles with fuel gauges and LCD displays frightened me more than the prospect of a steady job. And yet I seemed doomed to own just such a bike purely out of lack of choice.

By the mid eighties Japan had dominated the motor cycle market so completely that all other manufacturers were relegated to boutique style dealerships known only to their loyal fans.

Harley City’s old show room on Sydney Road seemed to be heading that way too. Walking in I slipped on an oil stain on the lino where a bike had been. Inside were Harleys from the 40’s all the way through to the current range .

Against the back wall a 1978 café racer stood alone. Faded cardboard cut outs were plastered all through the place; old adverts that just didn’t seem to need replacing.

A nonchalant Dave Reidy said ‘Hello’ from behind a counter. Not long after a long haired, bearded bloke called ‘Pedro’ sidled up to me and handed me a can of ‘Bud’.

The strategically placed café racer had done its job. It had lured me deep into the shop and now the can of bud compelled me to stay. Pedro happily led me from bike to bike, stopping to talk over each one until finally we arrived at what seemed to me to be the best restored bike I had ever seen.

Here was something that I could relate too. A naked bike, uncluttered and raw with an engine that drew your eye so completely that its chrome and alloy finish seemed appropriate rather than pretentious. The bike I was seeing was in fact a brand new 1986 883 Sporster. It was unmistakably a Harley. The paint and chrome were exceptional.

At the time it seemed ‘retro’ but when seen alongside its earlier counterparts the Sporsters distinctive style was obviously linear rather than radical. Its classic lines were a progression of a design concept first muted by Harley Davidson in the late fifties.

In a world where motorcycle designers clambered for the next new thing, Harley Davidson had steadfastly adhered to its roots. The Sporty oozed defiance. Its solo seat, peanut tank, and sparse instrumentation polarised it from anything else on the market.

When all other bikes seemed hell bent on breaking the sound barrier the sporty was content to rumble quietly in the background. Rather than roar, the sporty made a simple, eloquent statement.

But then there was no bluff about the ‘sporty’! It came with an evolution engine that offered reliability previously unheard of in Harleys. The evolution engine was rapidly gaining respect in the industry.

Stories were beginning to circulate that the new Harley engines were capable of mileage only ever previously expected from BMW’s. I had no expectations that the 883 evolution engine would ever produce the power and performance of other bikes of similar capacity.

I had ridden and owned a series of large powerful bikes before and frankly the idea of exceeding 250k’s on the Nullarbor just didn’t interest me. By 1986 very few bikes had braking or cornering ability to match their engine performance.

Another can of ‘bud’, some paper work and yet another can of ‘bud’ and I was the official owner of a brand new ‘sporty’!

Riding the ‘sporty’ was a joy. It was just such an elemental machine. No fuss here. The bike was literally built around the engine. It had a single purpose. To propel the rider to where ever he was heading.

When riding it was impossible to ignore the thumping V twin beneath you. Stopped at the lights the front wheel bounced and the speedo blurred. Rubber mounts had not yet filtered down to the Sporster range. The vibration only stopped momentarily as you pulled away from the lights in first gear.

That was only for the brief period in which the engine seemed to hit a sweet spot before vibrating again to ensure that you made the next gear change. With each gear the sweet spot seemed to increase in duration.

In fourth it was quite possible to cruise at anything from 60kph to 130kph with very little vibration. Although not a true sports bike in the modern sense of the word, the Sporster did pack quite a punch!

It was a nimble bike that revelled in twisty hill climbs or tight twisting roads with short straights between the corners. Its low close ratio gearing from first to third easily put you ahead of traffic when pulling away from traffic lights. While its relatively high fourth gear combined with the engines ability to pull from low revs made cruising a pleasure. It could stop a bit.

The bike had an ability to draw a crowd where ever it was parked. By 1986 all the problems of previous models had made Harley Davidson’s quite rare on the streets. Sporsters had not sold in any great number through the seventies and as a result when people looked at the sporty they were often seeing one for the first time.

When parked alongside more contemporary bikes the Sporster stood out and many people believed they were looking at a much older machine. It appealed to old timers and boy racers alike. While it may not have been the choice of bike for many riders it was a hard bike to ignore.

At a time when most bikers remembered the movie “On Any Sunday” and empathised with Evil Knievel’s persistent refusals to abide by Newtons laws of gravity, the 883 Sporster was sure to find a market.

And so it did. The 883 Sporster was the bike that made conventional motorcyclists turn from the east and take a glimpse back toward the west. It did it so profoundly that Eastern manufacturers now produce myriads of v twin unit construction style cruisers. Perhaps imitation is the greatest form of flattery after all.

More importantly the little Harley’s credibility could not be ignored by even the staunchest sports bike fan. Although somewhat maligned by traditional hog riders the Sporster was the bike that bought a new generation of riders back into Harley show rooms.

Mark Arians

Reader's article

By Mark Arians