The Great British bike invasion landed on American soil in the early 1950’s, but instead of people running for the hills, they welcomed the invaders with open arms.
The twin cylinder mid-sized Triumphs, BSA’s, and Royal Enfield’s were light, fast and made the Panheads and few remaining Indians look like overdressed chubsters.
This situation could not go unanswered, and with only one manufacturer to defend USA shores, it was up to Harley Davidson to step up.
And step up they did, but only in their own sweet time. When eventually the return shot was fired in 1957 with the introduction of the Sportster, it almost came too late.
By then, the Wild One had been causing box office mayhem for nearly three years and coast-to-coast, a million baby Brando’s were getting their ‘Johnny’ on. And what bike was Brando riding? I’ll give you a clue; it rolled out of Birmingham, not Milwaukee.
Yup, Harley had missed the boat on one of the best free publicity platforms of the decade, and the Brits had got a big fat foot in the door. Ironically, HD had introduced a lightweight 750cc unit construction bike with hydraulic suspension and the factory’s first-hand clutch and foot gearchange, back in 1952.
However, they then dropped the ball by naming it the Model K, consigning it to the footnotes of motorcycle history. In the battle of the names, it was no match for the Venom, Bonneville, Meteor and Black Prince. The devil may have had all the good music, but the Brits had all the best names.
Back to ’57, the all-new Sportster, was a pleasant enough looking bike, but it had Harley’s trademark fork top shroud, big headlamp, and rounded tank, making it look like a mini Glide. It wasn’t until 1958 that the Harley Davidson Sportster kicked the saloon doors open.
It had a new iron cylinder head, a Brit kicking 900cc engine, a small headlamp staggered drag pipes, and that iconic gas tank that became a design classic in its own right.
The Ironhead Sporty lasted right up until 1985 when the Evo engine took over, and six years later it finally got a much-needed 5-speed box. The Sportster may have been late on the scene, but when it gained momentum, there was no stopping it.
In 1969, famous bike racer Leo Payne ran a 57’ Ironhead at Bonneville flats and broke the 200mph barrier. One year later Cal Rayborn took a single engine Ironhead Sportster in streamliner bodywork to a staggering 265mph.
Then in the early 70’s Harley got payback for the Wild One, when the world’s most famous daredevil swapped his Triumph stunt bike for a souped up XR Sporty. The rest is history.
The 2017 Sportster features two engine sizes of 883cc and 1200cc, all are rubber mounted and fuel injected. There are six models in the line-up, the fully blacked-out Iron 883, the 883 Superlow, and 1200T Superlow, for the vertically challenged who enjoy touring. Tonka like Forty-Eight, the beefy looking 1200 Custom and new for this year, the Roadster.
Five out of the six are variations on previous themes or have been jazzed up by in-house designers. But the Roadster appears to have taken a slight detour and is heading towards the nearest café.
The last time a Harley Davidson dared to go down the café racer route was 40 years ago. Admittedly, the 1977 XLCR took a more radical stance. However, there is a reason why the motor factory appears to be insinuating at the style rather than nailing their colors fully to the mast.
And that reason was the flat track styled 2007 XR1200. It had top-shelf suspension, radical (for Harley) styling, and a tuned engine. The Brits loved it, but it was as popular as a bottle of warm beer in the States. Consequently, two years later it was dropped.
So it was probably with that in mind and a slow-down in bike sales in 2016 that the Roadster talks the talk rather than walks it. This fact is frustrating as it was almost there. Let me explain, at first glance, the Roadster appears to have it all.
At the front end, we have some seriously beefed up cartridge type 43mm upside-down forks, the same size as those used on the V-Rod Muscle.
The rear suspension also gets upgraded with adjustable dual-rate springs.
Harley also highlights the fact that it has new steering geometry. Technically it does, but the difference between the rake of the Roadster and the 48, is a fraction over one degree. This percentage may give the feeling of quickening the steering, but keeping the same wheelbase as its cruising cousin, kind of buys it back.
It scores in the ground clearance department though, which let’s face it is a good thing. From the side, I thought for a moment that HD had, at last, grabbed the bull by the horns and fitted ace bars, but no. On closer inspection, they’re just conventional handlebars with droopy ends.
As for the engine, it uses a 45-degree 1200cc; a fuel-injected, rubber-mounted, unit with a 5-speed box. It has got excellent low-end torque, and the fueling is smooth and progressive. There’s not a damn thing wrong with it, except for one thing, it’s the same engine as the cruiser models and even the same gearbox ratios as the Superlow Tourer.
I’ve been a Harley rider and indeed a Sportster fan for almost 30 years, but when a bike’s sporty pretensions aren’t even skin-deep, it ultimately doesn’t do itself any favors.
Even more frustrating when you look at HD’s official accessories for the Roadster, which include rear sets, single-seat unit, and clip-on bars. The addition of which on the original bike would have made the world of difference.
I know Harley is in the business of selling units to make a profit for their shareholders.
However, when bean counters triumph over designers the result is a bike completely robbed of its potential, and that’s a shame.