It was a perfect fall day . . . not a cloud in the sky, with the temperature around 70 degrees. The colors of the trees were just reaching their peak, and the red maples wore their crimson red leaves with pride, and the full palette of fall was on display. And to make, matters even better, there was that feint sweet aroma of burning leaves all along the rural roads of Woodstock, Bull Valley, and Harvard. The only way to ruin a day as magnificent as this was to ride a Harley-Davidson Sportster “Forty-Eight”.
The Sportster “Forty-Eight” is one of Harley’s newest additions to the “Dark Custom” family, a group of factory customs that add some bling pieces, and give the engine the black-out treatment for additional attitude. You also get chopped fenders, side mounted license plate frame, low profile handlebars with the mirrors mounted below the bars, bullet holes on the fork brace and tank mount, a slammed rear suspension, and a “Peanut Tank”.
The “Forty-Eight” moniker refers to the year that the 2.1 gallon “Peanut Tank” was first used on a Harley. Forty-Eight should refer to the maximum amount of minutes a rider can spend on the bike before desperately wanting to get off the thing. And at least another forty-eight minutes before you’d want to drag you body back on it again.
Like all big bore Sportsters, the “Forty-Eight” uses Harley’s 1200 cc, fuel injected, air-cooled Evolution engine. Harley claims 79 ft. lbs. of torque @ 4000 rpm. But without a tachometer, you’ll just have to wait until you feel the power fall off. The engine has a nice torquey feel, and with its tall gearing, accelerates the porky 567 lb. motorcycle away from stops lights with ease. The penalty for that power, however comes in the form of vibration. Lots of vibration. Despite being rubber mounted, Sportsters are still paint shakers. Maybe Harley didn’t put a tachometer on the “Forty-Eight” because once you get past the mid rev range, your numb fingertips and toes will tell you it’s time to shift gears. One nice thing about the engine, however, is the sounds it makes coming out of the dual chrome slash cut mufflers.
The 5-speed transmission shifts with a palpable clunky mechanical feel and noise. Clutch pull is heavier than necessary and has an abrupt take up. Silky or smooth are not words that can be attributable to anything about this bike. While Harley has improved the transmissions operation on their Sportsters, they still have a long way to go before it compares to their Japanese or European competition.
The brakes were a mixed bag. Up front there is a single disc with twin piston calipers, and while the feel was inconsistent, the brakes did their job fairly well; some of that being attributed to the chubby MT90B 16 72H front tire, mated to a spoke wheel with blacked out rims. The rear brake, however, was not as easy to use. The single piston set up was easy to lock up, and hard to modulate.
The seat sits a low 26” off the pavement, which is obviously great for short legged riders like me. But in order to get that low seat height, Harley had to chop the dual shocks, leaving less than 2” of travel. And those two inches don’t offer much dampening over bumps, potholes, pavement cracks, or even just expansion joints. If you rolled over a dime with the rear wheel, you can probably tell if it heads or tails.
The riding position is fairly upright. Despite the compact nature of the bike, it can still be a bit of a stretch to reach the handlebars. The mirrors are mounted below the bars, like the Fat Boy Low I recently tested, and like the Fat Boy, they worked well, offering the rider a decent view of what is going on behind you. Unlike the Fat Boy Low which also had chopped the rear suspension travel, the Sportster’s ride is almost as punishing as riding a hard tail. The Fat Boy’s ride was merely stiff, yet very tolerable for long rides. And the “Forty-Eight” puts the foot pegs in a forward position, so you can’t even stand up a bit to let your legs absorb some of the shock when traveling over large bumps or railroad crossings. And the rider’s right leg will be in constant contact with the air cleaner cover, which is another irritant.
A few years back, when Harley revamped the Sportster line to rubber mount the engine, they set the bar low and still missed. With this “Forty-Eight”, they took a bad bike and made it worse by giving the bike almost no suspension travel, in the name of cool styling, which the “Forty Eight” has. It also has excellent fit and finish, like all Harley-Davidsons. But cool looks and fit and finish aren’t the primary traits most motorcycles strive for. Most motorcycles are made for the purpose of having fun riding them. And the Sportster line is supposed to be the sporty bikes as compared to the rest of Harley’s cruiser bikes. But with the suspension chopped and the seat so low, it means that there’s not a lot of lean angle to use when trying to get some sporty riding out of the bike. The pegs have pavement feelers, and those will be scraped down to the nubs in no time, and long before the bike should run out of clearance.
You’d think that they would have at least made the seat on the “Forty-Eight” comfortably plush in the hope of taking some of the burden off the suspension. But I think they just laminated some leather over a cinder block and bolted it on to the frame. Trust me, this seat will upset your junk more than any TSA airport screener will. Fortunately, it’s only a solo seat so there is no opportunity to cripple a passenger.
You may have read reviews of this bike that extol the virtues of the “Forty-Eight”. I’ve read them, too, and they are mostly found in magazines that blindly, genuflect over all things Harley, and rely on Harley and aftermarket Harley accessories for their ad dollars. Other magazines worry about offending their readers who may own Harley’s, so they play up the Harley heritage and sound much like the Harley advertising literature, and bury two sentences about the harsh ride, and seat, and cornering clearance, and make it sound like that’s part of the charm. Trust me, it ain’t charming.
Riding a motorcycle should be a pleasant activity . . . one to be enjoyed, not endured. I look at a gas stop as an annoyance to my riding gratification, not as welcomed relief to my suffering. Any other manufacturer would be ashamed to put their name on this bike.
All motorcycles have positives and negatives, with the positives far outweighing the negatives. The uncomfortable ergonomics on most sport bikes is far outweighed by the blistering power, performance, brakes, and handling. The lack of crisp handling and the heavy bulky weight of large cruisers are outweighed by the comfort they offer on the open road. Dual Sport adventure bikes are too tall for many riders, but they offer the benefits of both on-road prowess and off-road capability. The “Forty-Eight” only offers hot looks, attitude, and build quality, but have way too many negatives in the riding portion of the equation. If my hair was on fire, and I was being chased by a gang of outlaw bikers with buckets of gasoline, I’d rather jump on a bicycle to make my escape than the “Forty-Eight”.
I know I’ll get a lot of mail about this article, but before you run to your computer to fire off a heated missive and question my IQ, patriotism, or parentage, please keep this in mind. I have favorably reviewed dozens of Harley models. I would gladly welcome in my garage, current and past Road Kings, a Deuce, a Street Glide, a Fat Boy, V-Rod, and my favorite all-time Harley, the discontinued Heritage Springer complete with fringed saddlebags, seat and floorboards.. And it is perhaps because I enjoy so many Harley bikes that it irritates me even more that the Sportster line is so lame by comparison.
The “Forty-Eight” lists for $10,499 in black and $10,789 in colors. There are at least a dozen other cruisers on the market that are far superior for that kind of money. Check out Triumph models if you’re looking for heritage. But if you must have a Harley, and you only have ten grand to spend, you’d be better served by looking at a 2 or 3 year old pre-ridden Dyna, or Softail, and enjoy the sport of motorcycling, along with all the heritage and mystique of Harley-Davidson.