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The Sportster

  •  Starter bike, ladies ride, too small, too light.......hmmmmmm.

    There are always trade-offs in this world. The law of numbers and physics remind us, all too often, that for every luxury or advancement, there is a price.  What you get with the Sportster is a very high torque to weight ratio that translates into the hot-rod of the Harley Davidson line of products.....if properly tuned.  The trade off is comfort and range.  The other thing you get with the Sporty is affordability. 

    Case in point is my wife and I's two project bikes.  Both were purchased from craigslist advertisements for a combined total of $5,900.  Mine is an '88 4spd, chain drive 883, hers is a belt driven 5 spd '92 883. Both were in sound mechanical condition when purchased and we put a summers worth of riding on them before the tear-down this winter. This is where it gets good. Now, because of the ridiculously affordable purchase price, we have the money to strip these babies down and make them custom bikes. Since there is no lien on the titles and they were both older units that we won't cringe about removing pretty new chrome pieces from to truly customize the bikes, we are of a free conscience to do whatever we like. So why the Sportster?

    I'll start with my wife. Since I cannot speak from her soul for her, I'll just cover the practical aspects of her choice. She is 5'1” and the 1” is accomplished in torso length so getting her feet on the ground was the first challenge. We found her Sporty on craigslist and the owner was a female who was also challenged in the vertical dimension. The bike was pretty, the paint and chrome was good, engine sounded good. The rear shocks had lowering mount plates installed. Talked her down to $3000 from $3800 and the deal was done.

    The seat was stock and thick and the handlebars were fwd of where she'd like them to be. Setting fwd to reach the bars caused her nasty bruising from contact with the battery box on the inside of her thighs, setting back more helped this but caused her to have inadequate footing. One day we were rolling down a steep incline in a parking lot that leveled out only four or five feet from the road. When she was coming to a stop, she rolled her ankle and was unable to regain footing and dropped the bike. Just a few seconds of laying on it's side was enough to starve the oil splash on the cylinder walls and a piston skirt galled and started knocking. Well this started the chain of events that led to my wife getting the 1200 upgrade well in advance of when I thought we would do it.

    At first I was apprehensive about her getting on the 1200. After getting it back up and running, I pulled it out on the road and immediately noticed the increase in torque. Though we wouldn't know just how much more torque until after the break-in was complete, it was obvious this was not what she had originally learned to ride on.....and I was jealous! It turns out that the increase in power was just what my new biker lady needed. Before the upgrade she was still sluggish from a dead stop because of feathering the clutch. Now, with the increase in torque, her launches became smooth and consistent. Her shifting became less erratic with the torque to power through misjudgments in RPM shift points and it wasn't too long before she really started pushing into those turns and letting the rubber on the rims do it's job.

    We're mounting a HD Badlander low profile solo seat with all the upgrades this winter. That and a fork lowering kit, the 10” rear shocks and the raked back 5” risers for the bars should put her just in enough of a comfort zone to be disappointed when we have to stop every hour and a half for fuel.

    So, yeah, good starter bike, especially with the torque of a 1200. Good ladies bike because of the light weight. Range is limited because of the peanut tank, but is concurrent with needing a break to stretch it out a little. Horse power? Well, with the torque to weight ratio, there are few other V-twins that can stay with this little torque monster up to about 5500 RPM. But, that is registering between 105 – 110 MPH and that's well more than we need to be doing on a public road.


    For me, the Sportster is something that connects with my spirit. It's not extravagant in form or design, but is efficient and makes perfect sense for the job it was designed for. It was designed in the 1950's, an era that invokes an image in my head of guys like my grandfather, taking their experience from the war and infusing it into there life to provide for their families in a way that made them the “greatest generation”. Quietly figuring out how to get it done with what they had. The simplicity of the old Sportster made it the common man's bike. Like the regular Jo's, without a bunch of fluff, it would take you somewhere, anywhere, it's own way, like rigging an electric motor to make a homemade table saw or scribing a piece of steel for a cut to make a license plate bracket after a shift in the back of “Pappy” Lawless' filling station and garage.

    The smell of the oil in my clothes as I degrease the Sporty's frame for blasting, reminds me of the smell of the work clothes my granny would wash. By today's standard; simple times, simple design, simple days before cell phones, faxes, GPS, satellite this and that. When you cruised over to a friends house to talk instead of sending a text. When I would be sitting on an old ice cream maker, cranking 'till my 8 year old arm felt as though it would fall off and then hear the rumble of that engine as it sparked off and the 'gals' walking over from the house, smiling at the handiwork of their men. I can still see the gray work pants and blue jeans of my Dad, Granddad and Great Uncle. Held up with thick, plain leather belts, with a simple squared ring buckle. Soiled from smears of gasket sealant. Hands stained with grease and fingertips marked with spots from the leaky valve of the rattle can touch up paint from Rinks' hardware section.

    There were no billet trinkets or chrome boutique catalog pages. Yours was yours because you made what you couldn't buy. And, except for the dealer only parts, you bought from small town suppliers who didn't get their stock from mass produced warehouse distribution centers. It was unique to you and your area. You and your style. Your innovation. Your reckoning and SWAG's (scientific wild ass'd guess). Not looking over fitment guides to see if it applied to your model; looking at the old one to see if it looked like it would work.

    That's what I see and feel when I ride my Sportster. And, that's why I decided to make it a bobber. Not a show bobber that would look like it was a metro sexual Sportster with a Mr. T starter “kit” of chrome and billet illforlosery. But a greasy smiled, rag in the pocket, nose to the stone, high test, meet me under the bleachers punk, SPORTSTER.



  • RexTheRoadDog
    RexTheRoadDog This is a copy of my response to Stephs Blog on the same topic...
    It is wrong that the Sporty has been so labeled. What does that say for my 73 Bonneville? Smaller, lighter and less powerful that the Sporty. No one says that about them. It must be a carry...  more
    April 6, 2010
    DEFCON I'm sure that "compensation"plays a huge roll. I REALLY love to leave them "biggin's" in my draft from the stop light as they sit and rev the engine, makin' noise, waitin for the light. I think there is a different kind of nostalgia thing going for the...  more
    April 6, 2010
  • slacker
    slacker Both Tim and I are Sportster people. We've put a couple hundred miles a day on our. My seat may be funky but my butt never got numb. Found mine on Craigs list. His at a used car place. Affordable, you bet. Checked out your project photos... nice. ...  more
    April 25, 2010