by Kevin Kocur

There’s a saying that goes “You can never go home again.” I ponder this saying as I’m learning of my new assignment: I’m going to be riding a bare-bones Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster. And, after having recently sold my 1980 “Ironhead” Sportster, would it be just like “going home”? Would all of the things I liked about the old Sporty still be found in the new Sporty? I really hoped so.

I show up in Breiland’s driveway, ready to take over the keys. There she sits in all of her black and chrome splendor. Great. I’m not a big chrome guy, as it’s one more thing to keep clean. And yes, I’m from the “washing cuts into my riding time” camp.
I get the usual “here’s this…and that…the key operates this here…” After the instructions on what’s where, and a little BS’ing, I am off.

My initial impression is that the motor is wonderful, but the seat could use improvement. Nonetheless, it’s riding time so I decide to take a little venture down to a local watering hole that’s known as a huge Harley gathering spot. The few hanging out in front of the place were obviously not impressed by the guy in the faded Roadcrafter jacket and white Shoei full face. Even the American flag graphics on my lid do nothing for them. I decide to keep going, all the while wondering if I can find a CE Approved do-rag…

Back on the road, I’m already enjoying myself. I’ve started to discover that the 883 is indeed everything I like about Sportsters—narrow, nimble, and a good, useable power to weight ratio. I easily squirt through traffic and when it comes time to stop, front and rear discs are more than up to the task. And what’s this? FIFTH gear?! It’s only when I stop and put my feet down that I begin to cry foul: the foot pegs are right in the way of where my feet need to touch the pavement. Eventually I settle on a drill of sliding my feet off the backs of the pegs, and while this solution got my boots on the ground, moving the bike while seated was still a pain. I banged my shins more times than I could remember. I don’t remember this ever being an issue on Old Sporty. OK, Strike One for New Sporty.

But New Sporty comes swingin’ back and gets a Grand Slam for greatly reducing the amount of vibration found in the handlebars, seat and pegs. I remember riding Old Sporty to work (a mere 13 miles) and getting off of it with a lot of tingling in my hands and butt. That was the only bike I’ve owned that could make that claim.

The good folks in Milwaukee solved that issue a few years ago by rubber mounting the engine in the frame. Now only the engine shakes instead of the entire bike. You will no longer feel like a can of Valspar on the hardware store’s paint mixer. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some vibration, but I was able to commute and still have feeling in my digits when I arrived at work. Even the mirrors are clear enough to provide an unobstructed view….of your forearms and elbows. Luckily, you can probably find the perfect set of mirrors in the Harley-Davidson Accessories catalog. While you’re at it, look for a seat. Trust me on this one.

I used to enjoy taking Old Sporty out on some of the twisty roads of the Western suburbs. New Sporty doubles the enjoyment of those same roads. I knew every single curve that the Ironhead would scrape…something…on. I didn’t have that problem on the 883. Well, not nearly as bad anyway. And I appreciate the fatter 150/80/16 rear tire.

The fuel range is a lot better on New Sporty as well. And now we have fuel injection! Gone are the days of chokes, sticky petcocks and my finicky Keihin carb. Now we just turn the key, let the system check itself, and hit the starter. Voila! The 53.86 cubic inch, 45 degree V-Twin responds immediately and settles into the familiar, lopey idle loved by millions.

New Sporty hits a Double for its greatly improved headlight. The old sealed beam unit can’t hold a candle to this multi-reflector halogen wonder, which still retains its traditional “eyebrow” style of mounting.

And that’s not all that’s better. The quality level of Harley’s chrome has vastly improved since the old AMF days. You wouldn’t even believe that they were ever produced by the same company.

There’s neat little touches everywhere. The oil filler/dipstick now pops up at the touch of a finger. Slick. The instrumentation is simple—speedo only—and you’ll find the usual assortment of idiot lights. The odometer also functions as dual trip meters, clock, and also displays your remaining fuel range.The handlebar controls are pretty straightforward, with the exception of the turn signal controls (if you’ve owned nearly any BMW built in the last 20 years, you’ll be at home with them).

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the ride—and I’m not being complimentary here. In the 883’s defense, it is supposed to be the bargain basement Harley, so H-D has to keep costs down. I would certainly look into swapping in the 883R’s shocks, or the reservoir shocks from the 1200R. And there’s always the aftermarket.

That being said, the 883’s $6595 MSRP is the cheapest ticket into the Harley Davidson ballpark. Just remember that you’re getting what’s essentially a blank canvas for just under 7 grand, but between the official (and very lengthy) Harley accessories book, and the scores of aftermarket companies making stuff for it, very few 883 Sportsters will be left alone. Me? I’d change the seat, mirrors and position of the footpegs. Any other changes would occur as things started to bug me (or I got bored with them). And I’d like a tach. Or maybe I’d be tempted to pony up the extra $1200 and get the 883R. Groowwwl!

They say you can’t go home again. I have an 883 Sportster with a full tank of gas, and a few hours of sunlight left on a gorgeous April night. Home is the last place I want to go.

by Gus Breiland

2007 brings us to the 50th anniversary of the venerable Harley Davidson 883 Sportster. With every passing year the Sportster has continued to be the entry-level motorcycle for flying not only the US colors, but also the iconic Orange and Black of the Harley Davidson badge.

The most affordable Harley Davidson in the line up, this plain Jane is the bare necessity of riding. With the MSPR of $6595, not only do you get a motorcycle, you get a sought after name brand. It is as minimalist as you can, yet modern and updated. You get 883 cc’s of Milwaukee motor. A 5-speed transmission, one set of pegs, a single seat, a speedo and a key. Bare minimum. But what do you really need?

The Sportster has been updated over the years with the latest redesign coming in 2004 with the addition of a rubber mounted motor and arguably just as important, fuel injection. The loss of a petcock is of less concern, as the ease of a motor that comes to life whether it is 40 degrees outside, or 80.

Fuel injection makes the magic button all that more magical. With the twist of a key and the press of said magical button, the 883 sprang to life with no fuss or effort. It idled like it should, a V-twin with stock pipes that lopes nicely sitting in the driveway. The rubber mounts separate the vibrations of the motor from the bike. When you swing your leg over the seat and take the controls, you get about 10% of the vibration, instead of all the vibration of yesteryear’s Sportsters.

3.3 gallons of fuel is what this simple machine gives you. Advertised fuel consumption is 59 mpg on the freeway, and 45 mpg in town. During my time with the Sportster, I averaged about 46 mpg. Being that this was a new motor and that I am of ample stature and mass accounted for some of the less than advertised efficiency. Oh, and the 45 mile per hour head wind gusts didn’t help matters, either. The loss of the petcock does separate you from engaging your reserve. The rotating of a lever has been replaced with the automatic illumination of a light, but I did not find this to be an issue.

The 3.3 gallons would have taken me about 150 miles with the range I was getting, but I was never in a position to have to test my luck. The farthest I dared to ride was 129 miles. The low fuel light came on around 93-97, miles leaving you with a little over a gallon left. My 129 miles left me filling the tank with 2.9 gallons. The benefit of the small tank is I didn’t have to test my discomfort. I could not ride endlessly to find out just how much I could take. By the time my body was wanting to get off, it was time to get off.

I am, however, a believer of 4.5-5 gallon tanks on motorcycles. You can get a 4.5 gallon tank on various models of the Sportster, or buy a tank as an aftermarket item, but it is my belief that the 3.3 gallon, semi-peanut tank should go the way of the carburetor on the Sportster, much less any motorcycle. A 3.3 gallon tank means having to go to the gas station that many more times in the life of this bike, and we all know how aggravating that can be.

The sole gauge is just that, a gauge. Speed and speed alone. Idiot lights adorn the face of the speedo that is underlined with an additional stripe of icons that include turn signals, neutral, high beams and an oil pressure light. The turn signals are self-canceling with a timer to keep you from riding all through town with your turn signal on. Handy, once you force yourself to remember that you don’t have to control the turn signals anymore. I found myself fighting the system and accidentally turning the already canceled turn signal back on from force of habit.

I am 6’1” and a bit over an eighth of a ton at this point in my life, so the 883 had me thinking that I am a full scale male on a 7/8ths scale bike. The 27.3 inch seat height is short for a man of my size. I found myself pondering the 883 motor in my 1979 XS750 frame, and wondering if the dealer would notice an inline 3-cylinder if there happened to be an unfortunate Reese’s Peanut butter cup incident. “Hey, you got Triple in my frame!” “You got V-twin in mine!” The motor deserves to be shoved into a standard frame and compete with the ergonomics of bikes like the Suzuki SV 650/1000, Honda 599/919 or the Yamaha FZ6/FZ1. I would have enjoyed this motorcycle more had it been more of a standard vs. a cruiser.

The controls are smooth and comfortable. The mirror stalks should be 1-2 inches longer. This would give a better field of view, and give greater clearance for your fingers when using the clutch and brake. It is not that you can’t use the controls; I just found it annoying that the top of my fingers hit the bottom of the mirrors while pulling in the clutch and brake.

Looking at the map, I had planned a course that would take me over the winding roads of North West Wisconsin, ultimately leading me to Cornucopia, Superior, then back home. A full day’s riding would give me a good feel for the Sporty, and we could spend many an hour getting to know one another.

Reality struck when heading due east on 94 found me in the same old song and dance statement of “I don’t get cruisers”. I am sitting on my tailbone, my feet slightly ahead of my butt, reaching forward for the grips; which in turn causes me to feel like a giant windsock. Above 75mph I was holding on and feeling fatigued. The addition of the excessive head wind made it uncomfortable. Cornucopia will have to wait. I was now heading for Spooner.

I greatly appreciated the simplicity of the fuel injected 883 motor and 5 speed tranny in town and on winding country back roads. Without the need to maintain 75mph, the struggle to ride turned to an appreciation for the bike. The Sportster is a motorcycle, plain and simple. It doesn’t claim to be anything but a motorcycle to ride. Sit down, roll on the throttle and ride. That is it.

It is unfortunate that the Sportster has a reputation of being a “chick bike”, or a starter bike. The Sportster provides plenty of torque and speed for daily commuting and round the town shenanigans. Over the horizon, Americans will need to rediscover smaller displacement bikes as fuel becomes more expensive. We have a thirst for not only fuel, but displacement and when that thirst leads us down the slippery slope of inefficiency, we become less useful within the transportation model.

With a dry weight of 563 somewhat top heavy pounds, the bike is not the easiest vehicle to get out of the garage, much less get back in. It is enough to bite you if you let your guard down.

With a catalog of accessories that rivals no other, the 883 Sportster can be customized to meet the needs of anyone who fits the Sportster comfortably. Saddles, saddlebags, engine tuning, chrome, larger tanks…Harley Davidson knows how to give you the ability to make this bike your own.

As a standard with any motorcycle, the seat was uncomfortable. This is not a Harley specific issue. In almost all cases, stock seats have been my biggest complaint against any motorcycle manufacturer. Choosing aesthetics over comfort, most seats are just eye candy. Considering I wasn’t a perfect fit for the 883, I cannot tell you it was all HD’s fault…but I am pointing my finger at them.

All in all, I think America’s infatuation with larger than liter bikes is unnecessary and sad. We believe that 883 cc’s is small. It is something that needs to be only ridden for a year, and then quickly tossed to the side for 1200+cc’s. The 883 is plenty of bike for almost any rider. It has been a workhorse in the Harley Davidson fleet that has initiated many riders into the sport that is motorcycle riding. It will continue to do so as HD continues to make improvements.

One of the best parts of the 883 Sportster experience was the staff at Donahue Baxter / Brainerd. This is a new store for them, and I found them to be genuinely interested in riding, not just the bar and shield, but motorcycles in general. Editor Pearman and I 2-uped it from Minneapolis to pick up the Sportster on my Land of the Rising Sun machine. When we dismounted, we were greeted with a “Howdy!” and enthusiastic bike talk. Returning the bike was the same. They are a good group of folks who are selling one brand, but promoting riding as a whole. Take the trip up to Brainerd this summer and visit them.

Editor’s First Reaction® – Nice chaps Gus.

Selected Competition:
Honda Shadow 750, Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom, Suzuki Boulevard S50, Triumph America.

M.M.M.

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