Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Harley Sportster

It was May 1988 when I suddenly realised I could afford to buy a Harley Davidson. I had wanted one for years, in fact ever since I saw one in one of those funny American magazines. I really wanted an Evolution Sportster but could not afford it... even buying an old Ironhead Sportster meant selling my YPVS, spending all my meagre savings and borrowing a little money from the bank.

I had been ringing up after adverts in MCN for a few weeks, trying to knock them down to £2500 (all I had) without much success. After many attempts I found a machine for £2600. It was 250 miles away in North Wales, a gorgeous, black 1981 1000cc Sportster, standard except that virtually everything that could be was chromed. I told myself to stop licking the tank and get serious! After a test ride I was smitten. I mentioned the likelihood of getting pulled due to the straight through pipes and that it needed a bit of tidying he accepted my offer of £2300! l was stunned, I owned a Harley.

I haven’t grinned so much in ages. It sounded wonderful, pulled like a train and was so laid back that I found myself laughing out loud (not that anyone could hear me over the exhaust). All was well with the world. A few miles down the road the engine stopped working. Suddenly, clouds covered the sun, I felt all my good spirits drain away. The coil was suspected of causing its demise. The RAC were called and I waited and waited until they turned up, decided they couldn't fix the bike and l had to wait all over again until a proper recovery vehicle arrived.

The coil was ordered, arrived and fitted. My feelings of wellbeing returned. For the next few months all was well, except starting. No kickstart and an old battery meant it either went first jab at the button or a hunt for the battery charger followed. New battery fitted but still more starting problems. Finally tracked down to a dodgy connector on the starter relay, but even after this was replaced, starting entailed putting a knitting needle across the terminals on the starter motor. Eventually, the starter relay was junked and the wiring altered.

Riding the Harley was extremely pleasant, the handling was OK as long as it wasn't asked to go round corners too quickly. The suspension was on the soft side and the conventional tubular frame was not up to much, but the bike had a low centre of gravity thanks to the V-twin layout of the engine so once into the flow of the ride it could be hustled along quite adequately. It is a heavy beast, but those in the know can manhandle it with brute force to a degree that would annoy the odd plastic reptile owner. The braking was not up to much, despite a set of discs out front and back, use of engine braking and down changing through the gearbox were necessary accessories to emergency stops.

Acceleration and roll-ons through the gears was rather wonderful, the torque was amazing. It even wheelied once - just the once, as the sensation I had as the front end hit terra firma convinced me not to do it again. The gearbox was slightly on the agricultural side but the excess of torque meant little use of it was required. lt could be dumped in top gear for most of the day, speed merely dialled in by use of throttle. The various chassis and braking deficiencies combined with the sit up and beg riding position meant that cruising speed was limited to around 80mph, when, anyway, vibration tended to rattle the chassis.
Top speed was around 110mph, but doing it once was enough to put you off repeating the exercise for the rest of your life.

Harleys reward laid back riding rather than trying to burn off everything in sight. Petrol consumption was always around 50mpg, giving a tank range of just over 80 miles, at which point either my neck or backside started yelling whoa, thanks to high bars and hard seat. I never got to assess chain or tyre wear for a very good reason - a valve collet fell out while I was on my way to Dorset (my first long run with the bike). The noise of a valve dropping into the cylinder can only be described in one word - expensive. I stood next to the Harley thinking why me? The RAC did it again, after explaining the demise of the Harley they sent a transit van to have a look at the bike and then made me wait for a recovery vehicle to turn up.

The engine removal, strip down and rebuild took just under a year and about £450 which included getting a proper mechanic to put it back together. It needed a rebore, piston rings, valves, guides and work on the heads. Luckily, the valve stems had jammed between the crank and cases, so it didn't go on to wreck the bottom end, mainly due to the fact that I pulled the clutch in so quickly (I knew a brief spell of racing a two stroke would do me some good). I did learn a couple of things from all this - one, how reasonable compared to Jap prices the spares were and, two, how easy it was to get hold of them.

All the work was finished very late on the eve of the 1989 Kent Custom Show and at 9.30 the following morning I was outside the pub where we were to meet. I had obtained tax and MOT en route. The Sporty ran faultlessly that weekend and attracted a fair share of attention. All in all, a good weekend was had by one and all.

I started, half heartedly, to sell it that weekend, as not knowing why it had dropped the valve always had me listening for the slightest hint of trouble and my left hand ready for action at the clutch lever. Adverts were put in fairly obscure places, like noticeboards in bike shops, because although common sense was positively screaming at me to get rid of it, I still couldn't help liking it.

In 1990 I decided I couldn’t face a summer of praying before pressing the starter and that something drastic would have to be done. I set off to see if I could afford a used Evolution Sportster. l was not too hopeful as I set off towards Riders in Bridgewater, as despite the fact that I was continually told that I owned the Sportster to have, and that pre-evolution Harleys were sought after, I still hadn't got a reply to any of my adverts.

At the shop I saw a Hugger, under a year old, 8000 miles on the clock and in really good condition. They offered £2600 in part ex on my Sportster. How could I refuse? We agreed to exchange bikes and cash the following Friday, as I would be on my way to the Finlake rally that night. I had been in the Harley Davidson Riders of Great Britain (HDRGB - not to be confused with Hopelessly Drunken Rabble Going Bopping) Club for over a year, but the furthest I had dared venture had been local meetings. I was never really convinced that my old Harley would get me anywhere exotic, like Devon or Yorkshire.

Friday arrived, and l loaded the tent and panniers on to the bike, pressed the starter button and a wild clicking noise came from down below. Eventually, it started with the aid of a battery charger and knitting needle. All was fine until I switched off the engine when I went into a garage to fuel up. Would it start? Do policemen like the sound of straight through pipes? After pushing 515lb of bike plus luggage up a small mountain in wonderfully hot weather, I was a tad annoyed when I arrived at my mechanic's garage.

The starter motor was on the way out, but I only had to get it to Bridgewater so a complete courier firm were enlisted to push bike and myself up the road. It bump started first time. I arrived at Riders only to find the salesman had not mentioned to the workshop I was due to collect the Hugger. I spent a worrying two hours practising excuses in case they tried to start my bike and was relieved when I was allowed to load my luggage on the newer machine.

Peter Beer

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