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GOING THE DISTANCE
"HARLEY SPORTSTER: THE TERMINATOR?"
ONE RIGHTEOUS SPORTY:Genghis' '68 XLCH in the early '70s
ENGLISHMAN AT THE SEEDY X-BAR & GRILL:
"....After all we've written about them over the years, the guys over at Harley Davidson corporate came out and admitted to us that they read the magazine often, and do take styling cues from the bikes we feature. Not only that, they actually asked if we would do reviews of some of their current line up. I was floored! But hey, I went over to Milwaukee, got the big tour, and they let me take a brand new Sportster 883 "Iron" with only one mile on the clock for a review. We put about 1800 miles on it, and I have to say I liked it a lot. Yeah, it's too quiet, the mirrors aren't much use, but there's lots of room for minor improvements to make it potentially a great bike. For one thing, you can hold 80 MPH without it flying apart, and the rubber mounted engine is smooth as glass at that speed. I won't be trading my Shovelhead or Triumph in for one anytime soon, but it will be on my list of recommendations for the rider who is mechanically inept, or too busy to work on his/her own stuff....."
The eerie keening behind me on my '68 Sportster puzzled me, until I realized what the source of this sound was. It was my 16 year old nephew Perry, who I took for a ride on "Sally The Bitch," my fiercely cantankerous Sportster XLCH, as I popped a wheelie in second gear. My bike blasted down 32nd Avenue in Jackson Heights in Queens, her front 19 two feet off the blacktop. Sally's front end came down and I shifted into third, her motor screaming like a banshee, seemingly to keep in time with my nephew's squeals. After the ride, my nephew said he never got so scared before. This is the same nephew who would take up skydiving as an adult, "just for fun....,"and to as he later admitted, "Get over a fear of heights." I'll tell ya what. Skydiving is something you'd never catch me doing....give me two wheels and terra firma, any day. This memory of Sally, like many I frequently experience of her, make me miss her terribly. I don't think one ever gets over his first love. Something else I miss these days, is the mythic aura surrounding the Harley Sportster. Back in the CH day, Sportsters were ridden and revered by truly hardcore bikers.
The contemporary Sportster that Englishman rode, is sure a lot different than my 1968 XLCH was. It's not only different in substance, but also in the way that it's perceived, compared to the way that '60s XLCHs were seen in the public's mind's eye.
My old Sporty "Sally The Bitch" and her XLCH sisters from The Firm, were pure litmus tests for bikers. Man, they were raw, as were the bikers who rode 'em.
If you rode one of these bikes, you were a biker.
These pure race bikes slightly tamed for the streets, were as hardcore as they came in 1968. Kick-only, race cam, and no bullshit. That, was Sally The Bitch. Hey man, she shredded my right knee when I was a young 'un of 21. My knee hasn't been the same since. These bikes had the reputation of being the baddest asses on the street at that time. Britbikes couldn't keep up, and Nipponese sportbikes were but a gleam in Soichiro Honda's eyes at that point in time. I could pull wheelies at will on Sally in second gear. The acceleration for the time, was frightening to witness, and even more exhilirating to experience from the pilot's perspective. Comfy? I don't think so, man. Every ride became a test. Every stoplight turned into an opportunity to fry the clutch. That metallic Sporty sound, so different and distinguishable from the thumping exhaust note of the Big Twin, put fear into the hearts of Trumpet riders. BSA Lightnings? Ha! Don't make me laugh, man. Lightning riders hid behind their Beezers' skirts, when an XLCH came blasting down the street.
Younger bikers of today, don't have a clue about how fearfully regarded the Sportsters of 40 years were. Since the days of magneto-equipped, kick-only Sportsters, the image of the Sportster model has undergone a revision of its manly genetic makeup in its public image. Previously, the Sporty had the macho one X and one Y chromosome. Today, the Sportster's genetic signature has morphed into two X chromosomes, a more effete image for sure. This is because of the way that bikers in the culture, have treated this once proud warrior of a Harley. The Sporty has been relegated to the steerage, seen now as a stepping stone to perhaps "something better." The transitional nature of the Sportster's image, is similar to the way that Britbikes were perceived decades ago. Back in the day, Britbikes were seen by many as a stopgap measure, before moving up to a Harley-Davidson (which they should be, by the way). Elements in the biker subculture have a habit of savaging the image of certain motorcycles. I believe that the demonizing of some models of bikes in the culture, is a purely political act, done for self-aggrandizement. Look at what the so-called "hardcores" did to the poor Softail in the '90s. The Softail suffered the unfortunate rep of being a Yuppie Cycle. Similarly, since the days of the tough XLCHs of the 1960s, the Harley Sportster has suffered ignominous put downs within the culture.
You've heard 'em all, haven't you?
To this day, the Sportster has worn these labels unfairly, and inaccurately. Like the Softail, the Sportster is a perfectly good motorcycle, with the ability to fulfill any rider's basic needs. In the real world, there has to be a distinction made between image and reality. The image of the Sportster as the hellbent hardcore cycle of the '60s, that was ridden by real men has been flipped by six decades of disparagement. To listen to some of the Sportster's detractors, you'd think we were rappin' about a moped. Far from it. The Sportster is fine motorcycle. It is hard to imagine, based on the Sportster's image that has been fostered for the last forty years, how the same Harley model was perceived in the '60s. In the 1960s. the Sportster was seen as the no-nonsense, hair on the back-of-the-hands bully of the Harley-Davidson family. It's accolades were sung long and loudly, in publications like Cycle World, where this bike was trumpeted as Charles Atlas kicking sand in the faces of other unfortunate weak sisters on two wheels of the road. The Sportster back then in the public's mind, was viewed as a combination of Paul Bunyan and The Terminator. This Terminator of a motorcycle, was as raw as they came. Man, how times and perceptions have changed.
I will say this about contemporary Sportsters, and this is admittedly a subjective and emotional observation on my part: Aesthetically, the newer Sportsters leave me cold. This has nothing to do with the sheer performance numbers, because these parameters are fine. It has to do with the styling of the newer Sporties, specifically the FXR-like oil tank area. The chassis of the old CHs had such class, as they had a true familial resemblance to the 1958-1985 Big Twin four speed swingarm frames, particularly in the seat post area, which positioned the rear shock bottom-mounts near the middle of the swingarm, instead of at the end of the swingarm as with the newer models. To my eye, it just looks just plain weird to have the shocks attached to the end of the swingarm. There may be an engineering reason for this configuration, but I can't dig it. Even the round swingarms of the CHs (like the round swingarms of the older four speed swingarm frames), have more class than the contemporary square tubing of the newer Sportsters' swingrams. I consider the look of these round swingarms, to be visually, a familial link to the Harley rigid frames of the '30s, '40s and '50s, which make 'em desirable. Tradition counts, man. This old styling, is classic. I also relate more to the way the old XLCHs were so very uncivilized, with their lack of rubber engine mounts, and other "niceties" common to modern motorcycles. Something else that keeps me from embracing newer Sportsters is, I'm allergic to aluminum. Iron motors forever! Hey man, we doan need no stinkin' civilized bikes, ya know what I'm sayin'? Yeah, no doubt about it. In the Sportster World, the old XLCHs rule. Later.