Old-school cool (Harley Davidson 48)

Harley have dusted off their peanut shaped fuel tank from the late forties and as a fitting tribute to the iconic styling, they have mounted it on their last generation Sportster. But only after giving the bike a totally new, old-school make over.

The 48 is quite possibly the coolest Harley-Davidson currently available. Most Harley-Davidson owners flick through the fat accessories catalogue before they order their new ‘Hog’. There’s nothing quite as shameful to a H-D owner as turning up at a bike meeting riding exactly the same Harley as somebody else. It’s just not done. But quite honestly, apart from the obligatory louder pipes, the Americans have done such a super job on this low rider, there’s very little tweaking to be done. It’s so sharp, it looks like it’s already been extensively personalised by a custom shop way before they handed you the keys.

It’s remarkable how compact the bike is and with its low seat height, it’s very accessible to shorter riders and folk who don’t like a perched-high-on-a-bar-stool ride. The small tank, (a point of discussion that’s fuelled the critics and had Harley-Davidson die hard fans defending the Yanks’ honour), the fat front tyre, the low slung handlebars and the ‘chopped’ rear end contribute to a genuine custom look. Less is most definitely more in this case, and in contradiction to so many American cruisers, the 48 shines through its minimalism, not through lashings of unnecessary mirrored chrome. The dashboard is also fuss free, with a simple speedo, albeit with a built in digital display for total mileage, clock and trip distance.

Fancier details are in the mirrors that look like they’re hovering under the handlebars. They take some getting used to, but they offer a practical view on the ‘objects that are closer than they appear’. Even though it’s uncluttered and quite un-Harley-ish in that respect, the 48 still attracts a great deal of attention. And it’s a head turner in more ways than one. This understated bike has a fair amount of poke which is a pleasant surprise when the lights turn green. Harley-Davidson traditionally refuse to announce power figures and they always reply to the question ‘How much?’ the same way that Rolls Royce does; ‘Enough’. The 48 goes one step further than that. Burry your head in the peanut tank and keep the throttle pinned flat out in fifth and you’ll see close to 120 mph on the dial. That’s as fast as an XR 1200 and it’s fast full stop for a bike like this.

Cruising at 90 mph isn’t physically impossible but the ergonomics don’t really invite you to maintain speeds over the legal limit. This bike is more about being cool than being fast. And there’s certainly no shame in that. The seating position isn’t exactly a natural fit though. It’s Japanese-coffee-table low, with a long reach for your feet and hands to the ‘pegs and ‘bars. Granted, it’s not the most comfortable riding position and it does force your back to take the brunt of the road’s imperfections. But it looks cool. And that’s what it’s all about. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps it’s Harley-Davidson’s ingenious planning, but with only eight litres of fuel on board, you’ll have to schedule in refuelling stops way before your body starts complaining. So any discomfort is contained in the short bursts between pit stops.

Along with the ergonomics, the steering also feels strange at first. Tipping in is surprisingly easy, but once down, the Harley seems to want to stay there where most bikes automatically try to return to an upright position as soon as you release the pressure on the inside handlebar. A traditional Sportster doesn’t normally behave this way in corners and it could be instigated by the fat front tyre. But once you get used to it, the Forty Eight is definitely not a bad cornering bike. It’s also not a very fast cornering bike either, since ground clearance is so obviously and restrictively limited. Although the pegs scrape easily enough, the bike does feel quite stable, especially compared some other less forgiving cruisers and choppers.

Nevertheless, it’s wise not to get too carried away on bumpy roads. When the road surface is about as smooth as a drag queen’s chin, complete with a five o’clock shadow and a bought of too-many-late-night-pimples, then the 48 can get a bit wobbly as the suspension stroke is short and the damping rather hard. If you do overcook things, the brakes offer steady reassurance and adequate stopping power. They may not have much finesse about them but they do the job just fine. And if you really need to stop in a hurry, the rear brake is a handy back up to the single front disc which has a tough enough job in getting the 250 kilograms of American Metal to a stand still.

The Forty Eight is a cracking bike for the twisty roads as long as you consider its limitations, but in town the low slung seat and splayed riding position makes life hard work. Walking pace manoeuvres require concentration and patience as your arms and legs are stretched out in front of you. There are plenty of other bikes better equipped for town riding and undoubtedly with more practical attributes than the Harley- Davidson Forty Eight, but it’s not so easy to find one that generates as much attention. Showing off is what the Forty Eight does best, the pleasant rideability just comes as a welcome bonus.

Model: Harley-Davidson 48, from £7,990
Engine: 1202cc air-cooled
Transmission: 5-speed
Dry Weight: 251kg
Seat Height: 710mm
Fuel capacity: 7.95 litres

By Pieter Ryckaert

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