Seems I have a knack for finding modes of transport that for some folks are usually associated with the female gender. My first sportscar was a “Fairlady”, so I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. The little Harley you see above, (ironically in front of the Miata that replaced it) is a 2003 Sportster 883.
I bought it new because I’d always wanted a Sportster. One of my parent’s neighbors owned one when I was in kindergarten, a blue 1957 model. At the time, it was rumored to be the “fastest thing in town”, which it might have actually been. It was loud, always covered with a light mixture of oil and grime, and my parents hated it. From the eyes of a five year old that was enough to make it an intense object of attention.
The Harley was an odd choice in may ways: it was the last in a succession of bikes that heretofore had been faster than the last one: Honda FT500, BMW R80, Honda Nighthawk 700S, and Honda VFR.
The Sportster was just a tick faster than the little single cylinder Honda, and had a design that had only been updated once since 1957. What had been a fire breathing monster for “experts only” in 1957 was now reduced to being “My First Harley” for newby “Harletts”. The Sporty was now one of the slowest motorcycles you could buy.
Now, I could have bought the 1200 CC version, that would have been a little faster, but I really wanted the classic 883 displacement and since the Sportster still had a soldly mounted motor my experience with the larger motor was mainly one of increased vibration and tingly hands on every ride. (I worked selling Harleys, Hondas, and Yamahas in the mid 90’s in Bend, Oregon)
I did endeavor to give it a little more performance, and installed a free flowing intake and re-jetted the carb so the bike wasn’t running so lean. The exhaust was a little more of a problem as I wanted one that flowed a little more freely, but wouldn’t make the bike quite so loud. I found some genuine Harley-Davidson ones (which means they are made in the same factory in China as the original ones) called “torque mufflers”, that were barely louder than the stock ones, but sounded WAY better. Kind of like a stock Sportster in 1970.
The bike was a blast to ride, with the flattest torque curve in all of motorcycling. I lacked that “hyper-drive” sensation that the typical crotch rocket has, but I had discovered that was something that had lost some of it’s thrill for me with time. The bike would still accelerate harder than most cars, at least up to 40 or 50 mph. About as fast as your typical 60’s muscle car. In any case, the bike weighed about 500 pounds, which is about my limit . Anything much heavier than that gives me the “monkey riding on an elephant” sensation, and I might just as well be in a car.
My typical ride would be 50 to 60 miles, and I would head straight for winding mountain roads. At the time, I lived in El Cajon, and could be out of the urban environment in less than 5 minutes. The little Harley would lean over as far as I was willing to take it, and I only touched the foot-pegs to the ground a couple times in the 6 years that I owned it. It perfectly suited my riding style, which was brisk, but not at racing speeds, just fast enough to be fun. Just riding it was fun, very similar to the feeling I got as a kid, riding my little Honda. You didn’t have to go fast to have fun, which I think is the major appeal to most Harley riders. 90 MPH on the VFR was boring. 90 on the little Hog was “racing with the wind”, to steal a line from Mars Bonfire.
It was not a great device to use for transportation on freeways. The ancient suspension didn’t have much travel and the ride over concrete freeways would get punishing fairly quickly along with the vibration from the motor. Going faster than about 75 on the unfaired Sportster was like being strapped to a paint shaker in a hurricane.
I once rode the bike at night from Van Nuys to El Cajon and that was by far the longest ride I ever took on the bike. By the time I got home, I was beat up, bruised, cold, nearly exhausted with feet and hands numb from the vibration. I’d ridden my BMW 500 miles, and got off as refreshed as if I’d driven a car. Riding 120 miles on the Sportster was like operating a jackhammer for a couple of hours. The bike as a toy with a very specific purpose.
So why did I sell it? The short answer would be: “I got married”. But that wouldn’t be totally correct. Heather and I now live in San Diego. If I stayed off the freeway, It took me over 30 minutes to get to any road that was fun to ride on. I just wasn’t riding the bike enough to justify owning it. Heather liked to ride on the back, but the Sportster is not comfortable for two people for long, an hour is about the limit for most female derrieres.
Unless you ride regularly, it’s hard to keep up your motorcycling skills: they need to be habits. I noticed I would be a little rusty every time I took the bike out: making little mistakes like misjudging cornering speeds, or maybe running a little wide in corners. I’d spent a decade in the 80’s riding the freeways of Los Angeles and I can recall may close calls where I managed to save my ass by being alert, costantly monitoring the movements of cars around me. Several times I’d managed to avoid cars that turned left in front of me by being aware that they might actually not see me, and riding in traffic with my right hand already in position on the brake lever. It was time to sell.