by Catten Ely

I’ll admit right up front that I know I am not the intended market for Harley-Davidson’s “Forty-Eight” (Sportster XL1200X). But I was curious. My first bike is the only cruiser I’ve ever ridden. And the whole H-D attitude … what better way to understand it than to climb on one?

So I made room in the garage for the bike. I was immediately astonished at how small and non-sinister it looked. The 26-inch seat is lower than what I’m accustomed to. It’s quite narrow, too, which led me to underestimate the power under that seat. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Photo by Catten Ely
“The bike performs best in the urban jungle. With ample torque, and a throaty stock exhaust growl, it’s easy to feel like a rebel out on a cruise”.

I walked around it, appreciating the minimalistic approach Harley-Davidson has taken in designing this model. The front fender is just long enough to keep the single, 55-watt quartz halogen headlight safe from spinning debris. The analog speedometer is uncomplicated. A hidden button lets the rider scroll through the digital odometer, clock, and tripometer. The low-mounted mirrors and flat handlebars keep what H-D calls the “bulldog” profile low. I didn’t like the mirrors, which gave me a fantastic view of my hips. The LED brake and turn signals are contained in the same unobtrusive bullet-style housings.

The air-cooled, black powder-coated V-twin has a bit of bling on the polished rocker covers, and of course the two staggered tailpipes are long and chromy. You have to have something to polish besides the gas cap, right?

The paint on this bike was Vivid Black – it’s also available in red, blue, or a hideously disco metal-flake gold. And new for 2013, you can get that giant metal flake in Barbie pink — with a sparkly silver seat. I was grateful that this one was just plain black.

It was easy to admire the sleek, gorgeous finish. Except, look. There’s a fingerprint. And another one. And another one…

The spoked front wheel sports a 130mm Harley-Davidson-branded front tire. I kind of liked it. Other things about the bike seemed, well, petite. This tire is definitely not dainty; the rear tire is 150mm.

This bike is called the Forty-Eight because that was the year H-D introduced the itty-bitty peanut tank. The 2.1-gallon gas tank on this bike is exiguous. Even if gets the claimed 48 mpg, the low-fuel warning starts in at just over half a tank. How could you even think about doing a long ride on this thing?

The solo seat was equally tiny. I pushed down to feel the suspension and was not pleased with the distinct lack of springiness.  According to the H-D literature, suspension travel is 3.62 inches in the front and 1.63 inches in the rear. Yes, you read that right.

To keep the rear fender line clean, the license plate is mounted on the left side. It pokes out awkwardly like a dramatic afterthought. Hmmm. This must be part of the mystique of the design.

Some of the features seemed well thought out and others had me puzzled. Ultimately, I have the impression that this was merely a canvas upon which customizing begins. The only options available for this bike are the paint colors and the Harley-Davidson Smart Security System. However, there are myriad accessories out there, including several different seats, windshields and luggage combinations. Be prepared to pay premium for some of those shiny H-D-branded doodads, though.

Enough talk. Let’s take it for a spin.

A press of the start button produced a deep growl from the Evolution engine and the entire machine rumbled to life. But it sounded wrong. The steady chugging I expected was interrupted intermittently. I’ve heard a rumor that when Harley-Davidson converted to fuel injection, they programmed their bikes to miss once in a while so that they sounded “right.” The literature describes H-D’s Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI) and performance tuning. Maybe that’s what I was hearing. In any case, this brand-new bike had less than 300 miles on it and it sounded broken.

I found the forward controls and quickly discovered that there was exactly one riding position due to my height, the location of the footpegs and the arrangement of the seat. I also found that I am not built for this bike and there was no way to accommodate for the spine-jarring ride over a bumpy road or railroad tracks. I was starting to understand why H-D marketing uses the words “slammed” and “unruly” for this bike. My bones protested the entire time I was in the saddle.

On the upside, it took sweeping corners fairly well. Shifting the 5-speed was smooth and easy. There’s a ton of power in that 1200 and it responded well with minimal throttle input. In fact, several times I felt like I was going to slide backward off the seat. This kept me from goosing it, but what fun is that?

At 70 mph on a chilly fall day, I felt the full effects of riding without a windshield. Yet it was easy to achieve that speed – maybe too easy. I was cruising along and found that I still had another gear to spare.

The turning radius was wider than I expected for this narrow bike. It was also surprisingly heavy, weighing in at over 570 lbs. When I attempted a tight U-turn, I was wrestling it more than riding it. The end result was an awkward four-point turn.

Riding this particular bike has not shed much light for me on the appeal of this very popular, 110-year-old brand. It seems to be mostly about aesthetics and hanging out looking rebellious – which are fine, but I log a lot of miles and so a microscopic tank and intolerable riding position aren’t very practical. I don’t particularly care about looking cool. I care about moving. With my skeleton intact.

It’s possible that carving up twisty roads would be fun on the Forty-Eight, but this motorcycle seems to lend itself more to very short commutes and just being conspicuous. The range limitation and lack of ergonomics (at least for me) still have me baffled.


by Dave Samborski

No manufacturer today helps you recreate an image better than Harley-Davidson. Call it old-fashioned, one-foot-in-the-past, or just plain classic, Harley‘s “inspiration” from the past helps create a product line that features a mix and match of some of the company’s best design cues.

The “Forty-Eight” appears to be no exception.

“The bike performs best in the urban jungle”.

Built on the long-standing 1200cc Sportster line, this model is a real ground hugger. From the under-mounted mirrors on the low drag bars, low seat and rear suspension, to the chopped rear fender and side mounted breakaway license plate, this bike hints at an independent custom creation.  I like the compact look, without the gaudy accouterments of many cruisers. An edgy street prowler look right from the factory.

The Forty-Eight is based in black, with four fuel tank colors to choose from. H-D does outstanding work on paint and finishes, and this one is no exception. From the handlebar bracket imprinted with “Milwaukee, USA”, the triple clamps, the rigid-mounted turn signals, tank and fenders to the belt guard, many parts are flawless in finish. From a guy who spent some dirty time in a body shop, real respect should be given to the folks from the Dairy State. This Harley exudes vanity.

The first of two items that stand out is the tiny tapered “peanut” fuel tank. The year 1948 was the first that iconic fuel tank was used on a Harley-Davidson, the TS125.

Photo by Catten Ely
The bike is called the Forty-Eight because that was the year H-D introduced the iconic “peanut tank”.

Over the years, the peanut tank was used on many bikes, and that simple 2.1 gal. vessel was very often the choice for customs of all flavors. One tank color option on the Forty-Eight is Coloma Gold Flake, part of Harley’s “Hard Candy Custom” color line. Liberace may have had matching attire but it is, arguably, a gorgeous finish.

This Sportster begins with an air-cooled 73ci V-twin (what else?) Evolution engine that debuted in 1984. Modern fuel injection results in dependable starting and cleaner spark plugs. Nothing very inspiring motor-wise, but plenty of torque when asked, and well delivered to the rear wheel.  A few blurps at a cold idle every now and then made my ears alert, but nothing more materialized.

The few chrome parts balance out the blacked out powertrain. The traditional side-mounted air cleaner interrupts right knee comfort. Rubber mounts in the steel frame do help damp some vibrations, but the shake reverberating throughout lets you know you are on a wild ride. At traffic lights, a steady shake never lets you forget that V-twin beneath you.

Controls are standard Harley-Davidson, with good quality switch gear and rubber handgrips. Self-cancelling turn signals help us road-focused riders from looking the novice rider part. The naked one-gauge speedometer incorporates a digital clock, odometer, and dual trip-meters, scrolled with a button underneath. Brake and clutch levers are stout with easy pulls. The under-mounted mirrors take some getting used to, but exude that street custom look without the custom work. Plenty of vibration gives a shakey rear view, but I could easily see my jacket pockets were still zipped and put my mind at ease knowing the contents were accounted for.

The gap between the tank and seat has a missing visual “connection,” and I often found myself sliding off the seat taking off from a stop. Add the thin seat cushion with a couple of inches of rear suspension and the result is a hard pounding on the back. Good thing the fuel tank is small because a rest is welcome at a gas stop. The low fuel light illuminates around 65 miles; running on fumes under 100.

Behind the bars, handling is easy; clutch pull and engagement is smooth, the transmission clicks nicely through all five speeds, and neutral is easy to locate.

Power delivery via the belt final drive is tight, and left nothing to desire. Downshifting fast with engine braking will make the rear end hop, especially around a corner. Pucker up. The forward footpeg feelers stick out overtly, and drag very early in a lean. I drug one within seconds after getting on the first time, and many after that. Pucker up again.

Single hydraulic front and rear discs bring you to a stop. The smooth front brake lever on a well-designed hydraulic reservoir (read: no flimsy plastics here) deliver front disc grab. Dual front discs would greatly increase stopping power, and I noticed a slight “ticking” in the front brake, but I’m nit-picking here. The rear brake was effective via the rather large brake lever. By and large, braking both front and back was smooth and adequate to slow it down. No ABS option on this model.

With the big meaty front 130/90-16 tire mounted on a spoked steel wheel up front, the front steering is surprisingly easy. The forks soak up any jarring bumps, and return swiftly. Input is light and easy, return is a bit slower. Lock-to-lock steering is a few degrees short of useful, making rocking back and forth necessary for a turn around in the driveway. The traditional rear, outward-mounted shocks with step adjustment offer little spring and send the bounces right up the torso.

The bike performs best in the urban jungle. With ample torque, and a throaty stock exhaust growl, it’s easy to feel like a rebel out on a cruise. Weight is kept low, and I never had to exert effort to keep it upright. Out on the highways and interstate, some effort and strain is needed to hang on; riding at highway speed with a 20 mph headwind can wear out the heartiest of rider. I found the front end to be as well as a cruiser can be, with good steering geometry and suspension damping. The stiff, bouncy rear-end leaves more to fancy.

Ultimately, the Forty-Eight is a great foundation for customizing, if one desires. If not, street-cred is immediately garnered behind these bars. No one updates an old design as well as Harley-Davidson, or is as good as stoking the “mystique” of owning and riding one. The Forty-Eight is an easy way to enter that mass of membership. Allen and the folks at Viking Land in Sauk Rapids can help you out with that.




  1. Fashion over function. Harleys are “blingy” but some are much more fuctional than others. 11K just to cruise around town? No thanks, that peanut tank is a joke in terms of function. But it will fit somebody’s needs and desires, so bravo Harley for providing a choice.

  2. The valves-per-cylinder isn’t a misprint, is it? There’s an animated Evo shown at that seems to only have two valves per cylinder. An article at eHow ( says all Evo engines have two valves per cylinder. Motorcyclist Magazine’s specs for the “Harley Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight” engine ( claims two valves per cylinder (four valves total). The only closely related bike I could find was the Buell 1125R, but Eric Buell uses a modern engine design from Rotax, an engine design very different from Harley’s ancient ones.

  3. Word to Harley : Oil-in-frame. Mount a reserve tank of at least a gallon capacity styled as vintage H.-D. oil tank. A tank like the horseshoe tanks Harleys had in 1948. Set up whatever additional hydraulics are needed to make this work with the E.F.I. Please. 2.1 Gals isa deal-breaker for me on this thing. An option for a second front disc would be nice–even if it isn’t really needed. Another option as well: a hidden bracket under the rear fender for a secure but removable “passenger pad” as non-Harlistas call the things. A removable luggage rack that fits the same bracket. Looking like the ones on H.D. 45’s or Indians of the era.

    Word to Yamaha: You could do the same things on that new 48 clone of yours. Although I believe your gas tank is a real-world sized tank. You could also do it first.

  4. Harley 48 is not functional but it definetly retains the style it was built for !!!!

  5. […] May 2013 — bike review — 2013 harley-davidson forty By catten ely i’ll admit right up front that i know i am not the intended market for harley-davidson’s “forty-eight” (sportster. […]

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