A Harley newbie spends a day with Harley-Davidson’s ‘urban brawler’ Forty Eight
1400 – I am, as of this day at this time, still arguably a Harley-Davidson virgin. I’ve tested the entry-level Harley model, the Street 750 last year, but to some hog purists that may not count as a true Son of Milwaukee. Some don’t count the excellent V-Rod as one either, but then again, not that many purists speak with their wallets, as the Porsche Cayenne shows.
The Harley-Davidson 48 is named for the year 1948 – apparently that’s when the signature ‘peanut’ tank first appeared on a Harley.
Like Triumph, Mini or Royal Enfield, H-D is a brand that banks heavily on history. Some might say ‘retro brand’ with disdain, but considering the sudden fad for ‘old new’ things, especially in young and fashionable circles (the dreaded ‘h’ word) it’s nothing to be sniffed at. See Ducati Scrambler, Singer Porsche etcetera.
1415 – The 48 is part of the smallest, least Hoggy H-D line, the Sportster family and is part of H-D’s 2016 model updates. As it is, it’d make an excellent first big-bore Harley, since Sportsters are generally lighter and easier to handle than bigger bikes like Softails and the like, at least, that’s the theory.
There’s no mistaking the 48 for a not-Harley, or what’s condescendingly known as a ‘Metric cruiser’ in true American parlance. The crimson metallic paint on the tank is thick and rich, the bike’s low-slung, long lines and and contrasting chrome/black hardware lend it lots of visual oomph.
While the 48 (which is what we’ll call it here instead of spelling it out every time) is part of Harley’s Dark Custom range, there’s actually quite a smattering of chrome such as the cylinder heads, fork uppers and the exhaust guards with the near ‘laser cut’ slots. The frame, fenders and wheels are still gloss black.
In traditional Harley fashion choosing colours is a huge part of it – this bike is clad in ‘Velocity Red Sunglo’ but the nicest finishes are the cost option ‘Hard Candy’ ones in metallic flake.
1430 – Harley doesn’t segment-ise its bikes as clearly as other manufacturers – a lot of guessing what fits where is really thinking from the point of view of the buyer. For instance, one sister model, the Seventy Two, has the same engine but less blackout bits and is a more traditional-looking cruiser with more chrome, spoked wheels and higher-rise handlebars. Meanwhile, Harley markets the 48 as a ‘low-slung urban brawler’.
Low-slung is entirely correct as the 48 is has a saddle that barely reaches up to the average pair of knees at 693mm. It’s something that is quite reassuring, in contrast to the current craze for adventure bikes so high riders need oxygen to scale them. And given the kerb weight (244kg dry), it feels much more easy to handle than its mass suggests.
1500 – As for urban brawler, the 48 looks convincingly like a mean machine – the black-out bits, the signature peanut tank, the swept handlebars (H-D calls them drag style) add up to a Harley with a pared-back, modern style – we aren’t a fan of full dress chromed-out cruisers ourselves.
A pleasant surprise though: Having done the usual urban crawl, the 48 is very promising. It’s much easier to handle than its looks and weight would otherwise suggest. Having all the mass near to the ground means you don’t need much effort to turn, despite the fat front tyre and long, stretched-out cruiser wheelbase. The wheels are new aluminium design, and shed up to four kilos of weight, which contributes to the light-on-its-feet feeling the 48 has.
1600 – I’m starting to understand, and enjoy, what this V-twin cruiser business is all about. The Revolution engine is undeniably modern: It has fuel injection and rubber engine mounts, but it sputters and roars like a living animal. In fact it’s rather quiet, almost crying out for a louder exhaust.
But riding it, the engine is something you can always feel – that’s part of the whole ‘plugged-into the machine’ feeling that’s on offer. Other bikes can do it too, but you have to be going rather fast to achieve that feeling of human-machine union.
It’s obviously tuned for low-end grunt – nearly 70bhp from a 1,200cc engine isn’t fantastic, but the v-twin is still air-cooled only – and it’s an engine that wants to surge forward whenever the opportunity, riding the big slug of torque with the patented Harley soundtrack following you.
1630 – I think I begin to understand what the crux of the Harley experience is. The 48’s forward-canted seating position makes you part of the bike’s image – imagine Superman bringing his legs up halfway to touch his toes and you’re not far off – and it also means the bike bludgeons the air in submission, in comparison to say, sports bikes that slice through it. There’s a sort of density to the experience too, the 48 is solid and beefy, like all Harleys, the control levers are thick, the clutch is heavy, the brake pedal huge, the sound and visuals are large.
There’s a downside to it though, as the bars are still just within reach and the seat isn’t adjustable, so ironically you get the sort of back ache similar to that of a sports bike after longer jaunts. Of course, you can rectify that by rotating the bars in the clamps, and Harley’s business model is of course, rooted in customisation.
1800 – A day of riding done and there’s more to find out about the Harley experience: Friends who can’t tell the difference between a scooter and a sportbike think the 48 looks ‘nice’ (high praise I guess…). Upping the ‘external judgements of cool’ factor is another piece of new tech: Keyless go. To start the bike you hop on, unlock the steering, then key the run switch and hit the ignition. To stop, just do the opposite and walk away. No digging into pockets with gloves and having everything fall out.
Day 2 – 0900 – The V-twin engine is obviously the centrepiece of the bike’s experience. While it’s not nearly as loud or obnoxious as older Hogs, or ones with tenuous legality in the LTA’s eyes, it still feels and sounds authentic from the get go. Avoiding the sort of ‘air-cooled vs water-cooled’ or ‘old vs new’ engine arguments similar to ones that boil around boxer twins or Porsche flat-sixes, although the modern 1,202cc Evolution engine is a far cry from the raw rort of older, carburetted Harleys, there’s good reasons and even more upsides to modernity.
As a big, loping V-twin with a big spread of torque you can leave it in gear and let it rocket you forward to the redline (about 6,000rpm), and while that’s not much in terms of total revs compared to ‘normal’ bikes, and there are only five gears in the manual box, the Harley doesn’t feel like it needs more. The diesel-like low end means it’s surprisingly fast too, but the fuelling is spot on, even at low speed and small throttle openings.
1000 – The nimbleness of the 48 is still surprising, given the popular image of cruisers as primarily straight-line blasters. Harley updated the suspension for 2016 (cartridge forks, adjustable preload rear) so the 48 rides and handles well. With the raked out front and long wheelbase it’s probably the longest bike I’ve ridden to date but hardly feels it. It is very low though, and the wide footpegs scrape the ground early on.
1100 – From afar, the 48 looks properly right – ask a kid to draw a motorcycle and you’ll get a Harley – but the build quality is such that there’s stuff to appreciate when you spend more time with the machine. As mentioned, the Harley experience is all about big solidness, and we noticed that even the indicators are made of solid metal.
1300 – It’s a charming piece of machinery, but it does have two faults of note: The tank range from the signature peanut tank is exactly that (I did about 100km then the fuel light came on) and the cornering clearance means you have to be careful of over-enthusiasm if the ground is uneven.
We should bear in mind the H-D subtext now is no longer about large men with beards and tattoos, but in drawing new blood (younger and/or women riders) into the fold. The 48 is a great starting point: It’s convincing in terms of presentation and power but also easy and reassuring to handle.
Would I buy one? It would make an excellent second bike, if I already had one to fulfill commuting/high-speed touring duties, and if the footpegs were higher and the tank range better, again both things that the Harley line-up/customisation programme can easily remedy.
Harley-Davidson Forty Eight
Engine type 1,202cc, 4V, V-twin
Bore X Stroke 88.9 x 96.8mm
Gearbox type 5-speed manual
Max power 70bhp at 5,680rpm (est.)
Max torque 96Nm at 3,500rpm
0 to 100km/h Not quoted
Top speed Not quoted
Weight 244kg dry
Seat Height 693mm
*On the road with road tax, COE, insurance included.