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Avid motorcyclist & freelance writer, specializing in motorcycles & motorcycle related topics, with a healthy dose of good humor, good vibes & general advice on simply being a good person.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Are the new Sportsters “real” Harleys?

The new Harley-Davidson Sportster S and Nightster models are a dramatic departure from the Sportsters of old and with that departure comes heavy criticism from the peanut gallery. I’ve read a lot of comments online about the new models being “too metric” and “not being real Harleys” and I’d like to offer my 2 cents on the matter.

To understand this newest iteration of the Sportster and fairly dissect it though, it's important to explore the lineage of Harley-Davidson's biggest little bike. So without further ado, let's take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

1952 Model K

Many of you may know that the Sportster debuted in 1957, but did you know that the Sportster's predecessor was the 1952 Model K? 
It's important to understand that one of the things that makes the Sportster unique from the rest of the Harley-Davidson lineup is the engine. The Sportster has always had, what is referred to as, a "unit" engine, meaning that the engine, transmission and gearcase are a one-piece unit, whereas the bigger bikes have what's called the "big twin" set-up... a separate engine, transmission and primary gear case. In the case of the K Model, the engine was a 45 cubic inch flathead, an extremely reliable, but not terribly efficient, nor terribly powerful, mill. But, for the size and overall weight of the bike, around 400 pounds, the little engine made plenty of power- 30 horsepower at around 5,200 rpm giving it a top speed of close to 80 mph- not exactly fast by today's standards, but that was a pretty impressive speed in 1952. Harley-Davidson ran the K Model from 1952 until 1956, when they decided to give the lightweight bike an upgrade.

The Sportster is born

In 1957, the K-Model was discontinued and the Sportster was born. The new motorcycle, with the "XL" model designation came with an all-new 53.8 cubic inch (883cc) overhead valve engine, dubbed the "Ironhead" (named for it's iron cylinder heads) that increased the horsepower output by 10, to 40 hp at 5,500 rpm, which increased the top speed to 95 mph. The Ironhead engine was so popular, that the Sportster used this mill for nearly three decades, with only minor changes. For example, the original Sportsters had a right-side shift configuration, much like the British imports of the same era- after all, this was the Sportster's main competition back then. In 1976, however, Harley-Davidson decided to move the gearbox control to the left side to match their Big-Twin bikes, but since the Ironhead engine was a one-piece unit, this would require a re-design, so in '76, the MoCo simply moved the controls with the use of a crossover linkage set-up, and in 1977, the redesigned left side shift was introduced.

Over the years, the Ironhead continued to evolve slightly, with the most notable changes being the eventual loss of the kickstarter in 1968-69, the addition of the XR750cc made famous by the one and only Evel Kneivel, and a larger 1000cc engine in 1972 and, of course, more tweaks to improve overall performance. The Ironhead engine remained as the powerplant of the Sportster for another decade, finally ending it's lineage in 1985 with an output of 71 hp at 5,600 rpm and a top speed of 105 mph. 

The Evolution

In 1984, the boys in Wisconsin introduced an all-new engine for the Big Twins, dubbed the "Evolution", or "Evo" for short and in 1986, The Sportster got it's own version of the new mill. The Evo Sportster powerplant remained as a one-piece unit and it was offered in two displacements- 883cc and 1100cc. In the mid eighties, there was a huge environmental push to limit emissions, so it was no real surprise to see the Sportster choked down to decreased performance ratings. The 883 produced a measly 46 hp at 6000 rpm and top speed of 92 mph, while the 1100 produced a, slightly better, 60 hp at 6000 rpm and top speed of 104 mph. Regardless of this slight power decrease, the new Evo Sportster was just as popular as ever and the bikes continued to be a staple of the Harley-Davidson lineup as both a "starter bike" and as a platform for customization and racing. The Evo Sportster has been upgraded several times throughout it's, unprecedented, 36 year lifetime also. The 1100 Evo got bumped up to 1200cc in 1988, in 1991 the Sportster got a 5 speed gearbox added, and in 2004 our beloved Sporty got a frame change. In 2007, the Evolution engine got fuel injection, which helped the 883 maintain a sweet 50 hp at 6000 rpm with a top speed of 105 mph and the 1200 was able to produce 68 hp at 5700 rpm with a top speed of 118 mph. While those numbers may not seem all that impressive... remember that the Evo motor also gets over 50 mpg and the bikes still weigh a slight 560 pounds. Given the overall performance of the engine in a significantly improved frame, the absolutely limitless customization options and the nimble handling of the bike, the Evo Sportster is still just as popular as it ever was and for good reason- they are simply fun motorcycles to personalize and ride.

2019 Sportster lineup

The Evolution has been so popular, in fact, that the engine is still manufactured to this very day. In fact, the Evo mill Sportsters have been, and still are, so popular that, for now, Harley-Davidson has left them in the lineup alongside the newest Sportsters, which sport the new Revolution Max powerplant.

Evolution to Revolution

In 2021, the Motor Company released an all-new, completely redesigned Sportster, dubbed the Sportster S and this... this is the point of contention for so many people. 

Having seen one of these machines for the first time a few months ago at a local dealer, I must say, it is a pretty radical departure from a design standpoint. I'm not a huge fan of the "power cruiser" styling of the bike, but to be fair, I've never been a fan of the mashup of cruiser and sport bike. The machine itself, however, is something unique to behold. Gone are the fins of the air cooled V-twin and the oversized radiator cowl doesn't exactly get my adrenaline going. With that said though, when I first set eyes on this bike, I knew that the Milwaukee boys had something more planned. This bike was exactly what it was supposed to be- an example of extremes. The MoCo needed to showcase their ability to make an innovative, all new machine that really highlighted that new engine (just like they did with the Pan America). Let's be honest, I think we can agree that most people pretty much thought that the 119 year old company was only able to produce new motorcycles based on their old, tried and true formula. While that's been a great formula to use, let's not forget that throughout most of the Motor Company's  history, they have pursued innovation, performance and design improvements. While they have, for the most part, stayed true to their formula... the reason being is that formula has been very lucrative for them and it has, most likely, played a huge part in their success. While Indian motorcycles may have been "first" on the playground in 1901, they also shuttered the doors within the first 50 years and a lot of people seem to forget that. The Revolution Max 1250 powerplant of the Sportster S boasts a whopping 120 hp at 7500 rpm and a top speed of 121 mph. Now that is a significant power upgrade (cue Tim the Toolman Taylor's grunts of approval here ).

The Nightster

While the Sportster S may not have been my style, I won't say the same for the new Nightster. This is one sexy machine. Is it the same as previous Nightsters? No. That's the whole point. It's supposed to be different but familiar, and that it is. It looks like the kind of Harley-Davidson that I would ride. It's sporty, with it's Revolution Max 975cc engine producing 90 hp at 7500 rpm with a top speed of 112 mph, and it just plain looks cool. Plus it has a rear fender... how refreshing! With features like adjustable ride modes for maximum control, a liquid cooled engine and a plethora of customizing options, this bike is likely to be a huge success for Milwaukee and is certainly a toe-to-toe contender for the Indian Scout. Honestly, If the guys at the MoCo were to make a similar looking bike with the 1250cc engine... I could see myself visiting my local H-D shop to see if I could add one more scooter to the collection (hell, I might do it anyway). 

Final thoughts...

So, what are my final thoughts on the matter? Simple- these new Sportsters are every bit Harley-Davidson as every one of their predecessors. Look folks, it's simple- we have to evolve to survive and for those of you who say that the controls are "too metric"- I'll just say this- the overall motorcycle market has standardized the hand controls and Harley-Davidson has been the only company that hasn't followed suit. For comparison, the Brits used to use right side shift... until the vast majority of manufacturers moved to left side, now you'll be hard pressed to find a bike that still has it. That's called evolution and it has to happen in a consumer based market. We don't have to like it, but Harley-Davidson Motor Company is a profit-based company, meaning if they aren't making money, they can't continue making bikes. They have to change to meet market demands while still maintaining the look, feel, performance and, of course, the style of their brand. 

Personally, I think the new Rev Max powered Sportster S and Nightster are exciting machines for Harley-Davidson and most of all, for us, the end buyer. I'm excited to see Harley-Davidson be challenged by rival brands and respond to that challenge with aggressive, powerful and sporty motorcycles that carry with them the legacy of over 119 years of motorcycling greatness while they usher in new generations of future motorcyclists. 

For any of you that may be thinking that I'm on the Harley-Davidson payroll, I can assure you that, while I would certainly like to be, I most assuredly am not. I'm making no money at all with this, or any of my reviews, and as such, these opinions are mine and mine alone. Yours may differ and that's okay. Our differences are what make us cool and interesting. Ride safe, y'all.

Some of the photo credits in this post go to Mecum AuctionsMotorcycle ClassicsMotorBiscuit. Ultimate Motorcycling and of course, Harley-Davidson